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The Vern Traversie Case: Rapid City, Then and Now

A column by Joseph Valandra about Vern Traversie and Rapid City, South Dakota.

I read with great interest the opinion piece written by Lise Balk King entitled, "Vern Traversie and the Worst Place to Be an Indian." I was born and raised in Rapid City, South Dakota, attending the public schools and experiencing much of what Lise writes of from her point of view. As I have grown older and had the good fortune to live and work around the world, I often think of my youth and how the adventure that my life is would have been unthinkable if I had stopped and done so 40 years ago.

There is and was a large supportive Native community in Rapid City. I was also lucky to have a large family on the Rosebud. The center of my upbringing in Rapid was the Sioux San and the St. Isaac Jogues Catholic Church—the San because that is where I went to the doctor and dentist. The Church because that is where my family worshiped, where I was required to attend religious training, and also because that is where we received our commodities from the federal government. The commodities allowed us to have food on the table; I still remember watery powdered milk mixed with 2 percent milk as something as near to cream as I could imagine.

But I digress. The attitudes prevalent toward natives during my youth clearly persist. It is with great pain and anger that we all see the manifestation of this racial and cultural prejudice on the body of Vern Traversie. We are all diminished by these hateful acts of ignorance.

I am writing not to just add to the anger and indignity in response to what happened to Vern Traversie, but to express, what has been up until now, a private hope, vision if you will, about life in Rapid City. The following was written many years ago and I share it now hoping it may make some small difference.

Rapid City - Growing Up

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©Joe Valandra

I see the following:

A white man is walking down the street in Rapid City, South Dakota. Off to the side (dark side) is an Indian man. The thoughts running through the white man’s mind as he notices the Indian are—dirty drunken Indian, worthless, Sioux addition trash, etc. There is no need to slow down or even think of the thing on street as human.

The thoughts of the Indian man are filled with envy, hate and wonder. Envy because it would be so nice to have enough. Hate because of things lost, history, land and self worth. Wonder, because he cannot conceive how white men seem to be so filled with confidence and yet not have connection to the earth or even each other.

But as fate often does, it intervenes, and the eyes of the two meet for barely an instant, in that instant a flash occurs and whole lives are changed. Words are exchanged and at that moment each must confront their thoughts.

Joseph Valandra, Sicangu Lakota, is principal owner and president of VAdvisors, LLC, chairman and CEO of Tehan Woglake, Inc., and former chief of staff of the National Indian Gaming Commission