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Yakama Nation Statement Against the ‘KKK’ Hate Crime Upon a Lakota Elder

An open letter to Indian Country Media Network from Harry Smiskin, chairman Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, in regards to the alleged hate crime that has occurred to Lakota Elder and enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux, Vern Traversie.

An Open Letter to Indian Country Media Network

At some point between August 26 and September 8 of 2011, while in the medical care of the Rapid City Regional Hospital following open heart surgery, Vern Traversie, a blind Lakota Elder and enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, allegedly had the letters “KKK” carved into his abdomen.

I write today on behalf of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation to take a formal stand, for the sake of Mr. Traversie and all Native Americans and Indigenous Peoples, decrying the apparent federal hate crime, civil rights violations, and medical discrimination committed against our Lakota Brother.

If these allegations are true, Mr. Traversie’s human rights have been violated, in a way that is unimaginable to us as Indian people. We with the Yakama Nation are appalled.

As a former tribal and Bureau of Indian Affairs police officer, I am particularly disturbed by what has not taken place in the aftermath of the assault upon Mr. Traversie. Upon the Yakama Nation’s inquiry of his tribal leaders and other relatives, I understand that there has been a complete failure of any federal, state or local law enforcement agency to take any initiative on the matter – despite that the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Police have determined conclusively that a hate crime has been committed against Mr. Traversie. In particular, the United States seems to ignore the trust responsibility it owes Mr. Traversie as a Sioux Indian. Like the assault itself, this federal and state inaction is grossly unjust.

To be clear, the federal Civil Rights Act makes it illegal for a person to be discriminated against based upon his race. In particular, private individuals and corporations who deprive a person the equal protection and equal privileges provided by law, based upon racial or other class-based motives, violate the Civil Rights Act. Likewise, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, recently signed by President Barack Obama, says that: “Indigenous peoples have the right to the full enjoyment, as a collective or as individuals, of all human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Rapid City Hospital and its medical and convalescent “care providers” seem to have violated Mr. Traversie’s civil rights as an American and his fundamental freedoms as a human being. If everything is as it seems, there could be no clearer case of discriminatory treatment, depravation of the equal protection of law, and violation of human rights than here: “KKK” was somehow etched across Mr. Traversie’s abdomen – literally etched in his own blood – because he is a Sioux Indian. Our Lakota Brother was viciously violated because he cannot see. This simply would not have happened to an Anglo American elder or an affluent patient, or to any non-Indian person with sight.

Based on Mr. Traversie’s account and the corroboration of photographs, it appears that Rapid City Regional Hospital allowed a hate crime and a racially motivated attack to take place, at the hands of its “health care professionals.” It does not take a medical professional to observe that three separate incisions across his abdomen that read “KKK” were not the result of open-heart surgery or post-operative care.

If so, we can only conclude that the hospital and its providers have violated federal civil rights laws; they have violated Mr. Traversie’s most basic rights and freedoms – to receive medical care and be safe from harm; they have done so in an unimaginably repulsive way; and they must all be held accountable to the fullest extent allowed by law.

Again, I have been told that federal, state and local law enforcement agencies have been formally notified of the attack, but have failed to investigate the crime, obtain a search warrant, or apprehend any suspects. This inaction, too, stands as a clear violation of Mr. Traversie’s federal civil rights and his basic human rights. Were Mr. Traversie an Anglo American, we can be sure that federal and state law enforcement would not have handled the referral from the Cheyenne River Police with such disregard.

We urge the United States Department of Justice and the South Dakota U.S. Attorney’s Office to immediately cause an investigation of this hate crime. Anything less would be a violation of the trust responsibility that the United States owes to Mr. Traversie.

We also urge the South Dakota Governor and Attorney General, the Pennington County Sheriff and the Rapid City Police Chief, to help bring justice to this situation. Anything less would make state and local government legally and morally culpable.

We urge Indian country to stand with us in strong, outspoken support of Mr. Traversie. Anything less would leave all Native Americans susceptible to the same sort of violent racism that has been committed upon our Lakota Brother.

I am told that Mr. Traversie is deeply religious; a Christian man who has been in deep prayer since he was told of his assault last September. We will join him in prayer – in our traditional Yakama spiritual ways – asking that justice be served on his behalf.



Harry Smiskin


Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation