On Friday, March 27, a jury in the U.S. District Court of South Dakota ruled against Vern R. Traversie, a legally blind Lakota elder from South Dakota’s Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation. Traversie, 72, brought suit against Rapid City Regional Hospital over civil rights violations, battery and emotional distress that he said took place while he was a patient at the hospital in 2011.
Traversie underwent double-bypass heart surgery in Rapid City on August 26, 2011 and was discharged on September 8. While in the hospital, he said he suffered abuse at the hands of a male nurse who, when he asked for additional medication, assaulted him and shouted racial slurs. He also said he believes someone carved deep wounds into his abdomen that appear to be the letters “KKK.”
On July 16, 2012, a team of tribal attorneys filed a lawsuit on Traversie’s behalf against Rapid City Regional Hospital, Regional Health Inc., Regional Health Physicians Inc., and John and Jane Does Nos. 1-100 in the United States District Court, District of South Dakota, Western Division. The complaint stated that the “Plaintiff suffered severe physical and emotional trauma as a result of acts and omissions that took place while he was under the care and supervision of the Rapid City Regional Hospital.”
In the lawsuit, Traversie asked for punitive and compensatory damages. And in a September 2014 ruling, U.S. District Court Chief Judge Jeffrey L. Viken cleared the way for the Cheyenne River Lakota elder’s case to go to trial.
That trial started Monday, March 23, and jury deliberations began Thursday afternoon. According to the Rapid City Journal, the 11-member jury reached a unanimous verdict before 2 p.m. on Friday.
In the wake of the decision, Traversie thanked the jurors and the U.S. District Court of South Dakota for giving him the opportunity to tell his story.
“For me, this is a victory in itself,” he said. “I shared my story about what happened to me while I was a patient at Rapid City Regional Hospital for one reason: to make sure that no other American Indian is treated in an uncaring way. I believe, because I stood up for justice, powerful institutions in Rapid City have learned that American Indians have a voice, and we are not afraid to call for justice.”
Traversie said his case is part of a much larger fight for the rights of Native people in South Dakota.
“It’s one part of the long-standing struggle for the dignity and respect that American Indian men, women and children in South Dakota deserve, just like anybody else,” he explained in a statement. “We are asking for nothing more than what most people take for granted: human rights.”
In a 2014 interview, Traversie told ICTMN that his story is about truth, justice and reconciliation. He also said that his saving grace through this three-and-a-half-year ordeal has been prayer and the support of both Native and non-Native people from around the country. On Friday, he echoed that sentiment.
“Today I thank everyone who supported me in this fight for justice,” he said, “and I thank my God that I am alive to do what I can for my people.”
Traversie is represented by Galanda Broadman, a Pacific Northwest-based law firm that specializes in litigation, business matters and regulatory disputes that affect Indian country, and Chase Iron Eyes of Bismarck, North Dakota.