Understanding Racial Tension in Rapid City
Wednesday, March 11 2015
Written by Jon Lurie,
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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. understanding_racial_tension-cover-website-500px.jpg

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 enough." 

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 lands.

  • 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 unabated:

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 population.

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 exception.

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.

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