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Vern Traversie and the Worst Place to Be an Indian

A column by Lise Balk King about Vern Traversie and racism toward American Indians.

In western South Dakota, it’s all about perception. If you are Indian, or appear to be Indian, you are routinely judged by the color of your skin regarding the content of your character. If you are white, there is also a set of assumptions made by those standing on the other side. Not everyone sits firmly on one side or the other, but that doesn’t always matter much, because there is a clear line drawn between the Us and the Them.

The rub comes from the fact that which side of the line you stand on determines much about how you live and how you are treated—at the bank, grocery store, post office, your child's school, civic institutions, and yes, even the hospital. There are exceptions, but overwhelmingly it is the non-Indians who hold the power, and not everyone plays nice.

For those who live on the other side of the color line, every day can bring small indignities, strained interactions or frustrating stonewalls to disrupt the normal life flow from wake-up to sundown. It is an accepted but loathed part of living in the areas off of the Indian reservations in western South Dakota. But no place is this tension more keenly felt than in Rapid City.

In 1999, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held a hearing in Rapid City after “a series of high-profile cases involving the unsolved deaths of several American Indians…brought tensions to the surface.” I was one of the many people who felt relief that someone was listening and assumed help would come as a result. Many of us waited for hours to testify. It was the elders in the room who reminded everyone that the Commission had been there 20 years earlier, and not much had changed. Now we fast-forward to 2012—13 years hence—and despite our hopes in 1999, it seems we have made little progress.

Enter Vern Traversie. He is a blind and physically disabled 69-year old elder from the Cheyenne River reservation who claims to be the victim of a hate crime. Scars on his abdomen, a result of heart surgery at Rapid City Regional Hospital in September, 2011, appear to depict the letters KKK, referring to the Ku Klux Klan. That is, according to his supporters, a few hundred of which marched in protest in Rapid City on Monday.

Not everyone agrees. A Sioux Falls-based reporter for the Associated Press likened the purported KKK markings to “spotting the Madonna in a water stain.” This story has been featured in a number of national news outlets, including The Washington Post, and has set the tone for the media coverage, furthering the sense of frustration felt by some. Oglala Lakota Cheryl Cedar Face lamented, “The way the media covers Native issues makes it all seem like a big joke. Very rarely do I read something that conveys why people are upset or acknowledges that racism does exist.”

What the media and other outsiders may not see is that Traversie's cry for help and pitiful condition wasn’t itself the cause, it was the catalyst. His plight embodied the day-to-day strain of facing racism and the reaction of doubt that is so readily cast on “Indians complaining again." On Traversie’s YouTube video, which has gone viral in Native circles, Cedar Face said, “I don’t usually pass these things around, but it was the honest anguish…it made me cry. This was truly the last straw for me.”

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The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has documented testimony of many alleged victims of injustice and racism in South Dakota over the years, and they have published reports that provide statistical analysis of measurable data, such as the unrelenting disparate sentencing in the criminal justice system.

The statistics they extrapolate are an important piece of the story, but are like mineral crystals on the banks of South Dakota’s White River—they are evidence of a persistent flow that is much bigger and harder to contain in a simplified government report.

When I first arrived in South Dakota in June of 1990, I was a bright-eyed young outsider. I found my adventure and a host of new friends, but I also unexpectedly found much tension and distrust. My first week there, we went from the rez to a truck stop up on I-90 to pick up drinks and snacks. The girls cued me in to a white lady who had started to follow us around.

I hadn’t noticed, but became aware of eyes on us as we moved. One of the girls answered my questioning look, explaining, “She thinks we’re going to rip off…steal something.” I was taken by surprise. The girls laughed, and said, “Welcome to South Dakota.” After moving to Winner in 1992, and then living in Rosebud, Pine Ridge and Rapid City, I have many such stories to tell, recounting incidences large and small. And so does everyone else I know.

After years of experiencing racism, the details almost don’t matter any more. What does matter is the precarious state of race relations in Western South Dakota, and the danger of dismissing the countless collective memories stacked like tinder, because as the Vern Traversie protest showed, for some they need only a spark.

Lise Balk King is a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She was previously co-publisher and executive editor of The Native Voice newspaper.


Was Lakota Man Victim of Hate Crime in South Dakota Hospital? The Troubling Story of Vern Traversie