Understanding Racial Tension in Rapid City


A 41-year-old man was charged with

disorderly conduct for his behavior during a Rapid City Rush hockey

game in January, during which Lakota children from the American Horse

School on the Pine Ridge Reservation were alleged to have been doused

with beer and heckled.

Trace O’Connell was charged last month

in Seventh Circuit magistrate court in Rapid City. If convicted, he

faces up to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine. Many Lakota people in

the area called the incident a hate crime, child abuse or assault and

sought charges of a greater magnitude.

The perceived lack of justice in this

case comes on the back of a long history of racial tension between

Rapid City’s Native American and white communities, including the

December 20, 2014 killing of Lakota resident Allen Locke by a white

police officer. The officer was not charged in case.


The deadly shooting, coming just one

day after Locke attended a protest against police brutality, ignited

suspicions of a racial motive. Captain Dan Rud of the RCPD sought to

lay those suspicions to rest. "This officer is white, the

suspect is Native American,” he said, “but it’s not a race deal.

This is based on criminal behavior and it had nothing to do with

race. Had the race of the Police Officer be Native American and the

suspect white the results would have been the same." 

Rud’s comments were disregarded by

Lakota residents of Rapid City, however, for whom everything about

daily life in the divided city is racial.

The American Horse School Board is now

pursuing federal hate crime charges against those adults who

allegedly abused the 57 Lakota students in Rapid City. At a community

meeting in Allen, S.D. last month, American Horse School Board and

Oglala Sioux Tribal officials were present to address the issue.

Parent Angie Sam, mother of 13

year-old Robyn, one of the children who attended the now-infamous

hockey game, says her daughter learned a hard lesson that night.

“These kids were targets of a hate crime because of their skin

color, because they were from the rez and they were told to go back

to the rez. Why do we have to explain that they’re hated just because

of their skin color?” 

Rapid City Mayor Sam Kooiker said of

the matter, "This incident is gut wrenching for me and its gut

wrenching particularly because it involves young children and so

there’s a scarring that takes place and apologizing simply isn’t


For Minnesota Natives, who have

established over the past four decades strong social and political

networks among themselves and with other communities, the depths of

racial tension in Rapid City can be difficult to fathom. The

Circle has compiled the following list to help make sense of the

news coming out of western South Dakota.

  • Rapid City is Home to the Poorest

    Urban Indians in the United States

Fifty-one percent of American Indians

in Rapid City live below the federal poverty line, which, in 2014 was

$23,850 for a family of four. By comparison, this is three times of

the poverty rate for Natives living in Anchorage, Alaska. Minneapolis

is the second poorest urban Indian population, with 48 percent of

Native residents living in poverty. While roughly 12-percent of the

population, Native residents own just 3-percent of businesses in

Rapid City.

  • Rapid City was founded on the

    exploitation of the Black Hills

Rapid City is situated on the western

slope of the Black Hills, not far from where Americans first found

gold in 1874. Although Lakota control of the Black Hills was affirmed

by the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, white prospectors overran Lakota

territory searching for riches. Two of these prospectors, John

Brennan and Samuel Scott, with a small group of men, claimed the site

of the present Rapid City in February 1876, which was named for the

spring-fed creek that flows through it. They promoted their

new city as the "Gateway to the Black Hills."

Later that year the

U.S. Congress decided to open up the Black Hills to development and

break up the Great Sioux Nation. In 1877, it passed an act to make

7.7 million acres of the Black Hills available for sale to

homesteaders and private interests.

The Lakota people

remaining in the Black Hills were supposed hostiles who were hunted,

killed, and removed to reservations. Untold billions of dollars of

gold have been mined from the Black Hills. The Lakota have yet to see

a penny in compensation for extraction of precious metals from their


  • It is Hazardous to be born Native in

    Rapid City

According to Black Hills Knowledge

Network, an online resource on information about Butte, Custer, Fall

River, Lawrence, Meade, Pennington, and Shannon Counties, Native

children born in Rapid City today are 71 percent more likely than

their non-Native counterparts to die before their first birthday.

For every 1000 Indian babies born in

the city, 13 die within their first twelve months of life.

  • South Dakota Natives Have Long

    Complained of Racial Profiling in Rapid City

“I think one of the things Native

people in Minnesota don’t really understand about Rapid City is how

deeply divided it is racially. Most of the people there are either

white or Indian, which exacerbates a cowboys and Indians mentality.

Driving into Rapid City is like going into Detroit Lakes but ten

times worse. Indian people sense a certain separation, a certain kind

of anti-Indian vibe that you might see more subtly in Detroit Lakes,

but in Rapid it would be blatant, intense. I feel anxiety whenever I

enter Rapid City. Indian people prepare to go there. For example,

When I’m driving in from the Reservation I clean up my car a little

bit, and if there’s someone sleeping in the car, whether it’s my

wife or kids, I say ‘you better wake up, we’re coming into

Rapid.’ As an Indian driver you’re going to be automatically

profiled—the cops assume somebody’s passed out drunk in the car.

So you kind of find yourself taking certain precautions that you

don’t think about here in Minnesota. If I’m going into Detroit

Lakes I don’t wake anybody up, I don’t clean my car up.”

—Bill Means, Oglala Lakota, AIM

organizer and resident of Minneapolis and Rosebud, SD.

  • Native American Voter Suppression is

    Preventing Indian Representation in Rapid City

More than a dozen witnesses provided

testimony at a May 2014 Rapid City hearing of the National Commission

on Voting, from which developed a clear theme: Suppression and

intimidation of Native American voters remains a serious problem.

Jean Schrodel, a professor at Claremont Graduate University in

California, and an expert witness at the hearing told the Rapid City

Journal, “There has been more voting rights litigation involving

Native Americans in the state of South Dakota than any other state by

a considerable length.”

Evidence of Native American voter

suppression can be seen by looking at past elections, Schrodel said.

Only 12 Native Americans have ever been elected to the state

Legislature. Out of the 105 seats in the Legislature, only three are

currently held by Native Americans.

The way to measure if a race is

accurately represented politically is to take the percentage of

representatives from a minority group and divide it by the percentage

of the overall population of the minority group in the area. Ideally

that number should be one or close to it, Schrodel said. South

Dakota’s number today is 0.32 and has never been higher than 0.57.

  • Anti-Indian Violence is Nothing New

    to Rapid City

The shooting of Allen Locke and the

abuse of Lakota children at a hockey game are only the latest ugly

chapters in a long string of European on Lakota incidences dating

back to the mid-1870s. Indian activists point to the following cases

from the past 16 years as evidence the historic violence continues


In 1998 and 1999 alone, the dead

bodies of eight homeless men were found in Rapid Creek, Six of whom

were Native. Many suspected foul play, but the Rapid City Police

Department ruled the deaths accidental drowning after heavy drinking.

In all, some 25 individuals, a majority of them American Indian, have

lost their lives under suspicious circumstances along Rapid Creek

over the past two decades.

In 2009, a carload of 5 white youth

drove around Rapid City’s North Side neighborhood shooting Native

people on the street with a BB gun, throwing bags of urine on them,

and pelting them with rocks and eggs. Two of the white women involved

in the incident pleaded guilty to felony, racially motivated hate

crimes. Both women were put on a 5-year probation.

On May 2, 2010, Christopher J. Capps

(Lakota), 22, was shot dead by Pennington County Deputy David Olson

in Blackhawk, a small community outside of Rapid City. Capps had

allegedly committed assault and was gunned down for allegedly pulling

a knife on Olson. Capps was shot five times, including once in the

back. The shooting was, according S.D. Attorney General Marty

Jackley, "justified." Capps’ parents filed a lawsuit in

2012 against Olson and the county, claiming their son was unarmed

during the incident.

On August 2, 2011, Daniel Tiger

(Lakota), 22, was approached by Rapid City Police Officer Tim Doyle

for a “routine stop.” Tiger, and four other Native individuals,

according to S.D. Office of the Attorney General’s report “appeared

to be under the influence of alcohol.” Officers Nick Armstrong and

Ryan McCandless soon arrived on the scene. Police claimed Tiger

revealed a .357 caliber revolver and opened fire on the officers

killing Armstrong and McCandless and wounding Doyle. Tiger was

fatally wounded in an exchange of gunfire. The Office of the Attorney

General ruled the attack as “unprovoked” and that Tiger’s death

was suicide by cop. The slain officers were memorialized by the city

as heroes, while it was revealed in the media that Tiger had a

lengthy and violent criminal record.

In an official investigation by South

Dakota State’s Attorney, a witness’ interview alleges Tiger

disclosed the following: “He wanted to die because he had no job,

no home, and nothing to live for.”

  • Rapid City Schools are Failing

    Native Students

Nearly 11 percent of Native American

students in the Rapid City Area Schools district dropped out of

school in 2012 (the last year such statistics were published),

compared to 2.4 percent of their non-Indian peers.

Roger Campbell, director of the South

Dakota Office of Indian Education told the Rapid City Journal that

the biggest challenge for Native students is poverty and racism.

"A child without basic needs such

as food and housing faces greater challenges in general than a more

economically privileged student. How do they get to school? How do

they concentrate if they are hungry? Do they have a home to go to at

night? Social pressures also come into play. If a student faces

racism or feels disconnected at school and unsupported by their

community…will they see the relevance of school?"

  • Native People Serve Far More Jail

    Time than non-Indians in Rapid City

In Rapid City, Native inmates make up

more than 42 percent of the inmate population of the Pennington

County Jail and serve 37 percent of all the time served by the total

inmate population. This overrepresentation stands in contrast to the

fact that Natives make up just 12 percent of the city’s total


Moreover, South Dakota’s prison

incarceration rates are significantly higher than the neighboring

states such as Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota and

Wyoming. With an overall decrease in crime down nine percent over the

last two decades, South Dakota’s imprisonment rate is ten times

higher than the national average, growing over 500 percent from 1977

to 2012. Of the 3,600 inmates, Native inmates in the state number

close 1,110, over thirty percent of the total population, while only

constituting about nine percent of the state’s population.

  • 1972 Rapid Creek

    Flood a Cooperative Exception

“Growing up in and around Rapid

City, and being with AIM throughout the years, I know that Natives

and non-Natives in Rapid City live in two totally different worlds.

It is surprising when South Dakota Natives first come to Minnesota.

Here in the Twin Cities, the community that has a tradition of people

of all races working together, whether it’s in the neighborhoods or

whether in politics. This kind of cooperation is almost unheard of in

Rapid City,” says Bill Means.

Means does recall one fleeting


On June 9–10, 1972,

extremely heavy rains over the eastern Black Hills of South Dakota

produced record floods on Rapid Creek and other streams in the area.

Nearly 15 inches of rain fell in about 6 hours. According to the Red

Cross, the resulting floods left 238 people dead and 3,057 people

injured. In addition to the human tragedy, total damage was estimated

to include 1,335 homes and 5,000 automobiles destroyed. The 1972

flooding has an estimated recurrence interval of 500 years, which

means that a flood of this magnitude will occur on average once every

500 years.

“Today, the only time Indians and

non-Indians seem to communicate is during a crisis. I remember back

in the day when there was the giant flood, and AIM and the local

residents came together to rescue people, to repair all the damage,

and clean up the city. Immediately after that moment of opportunity,

however, the communities separated again,” Means says.