At the entrance to “the heart of all that is” to the Oceti Sakowin—He Sapa (or the Black Hills), Rapid City’s Native population lives in poverty at rates higher than many reservations. According to a 2013 American Community Survey, over 50 percent of the city’s Natives, mostly Lakota, live below the poverty line. This poverty rate is higher than any other urban demographic.
More than poverty, however, afflicts Native residents. Life in Rapid City, South Dakota is violent, and often deadly.
–In 1998 and 1999, 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 of Benjamin Long Wolf, Georg Hatte, Alan Hough, Randelle Two Crow, Loren Two Bulls, Dirk Bartling, Arthur Chamberlain, and Timothy Bull Bear as drowning after drinking heavily.
–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, Jenna Gitzke and Miranda Sheldon, 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 just 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 and no weapon was found on his body, except a piece of driftwood. 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’s civil rights were violated. They allege he was unarmed during the incident and shot once in the back.
–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, “appeared to be under the influence of alcohol,” according to S.D. Office of the Attorney General’s report. Officers Nick Armstrong and Ryan McCandless soon arrived on the scene. After failing to obtain his identity, 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.
These incidents highlight a recent history of border town violence in Rapid City. Many public hearings have been held to deal with problems between police and the Native community as well as rampant poverty and what many attribute to racism, earning the city the title “Racist City.”
“I’m tired of it. We’re tired of it,” James Swan, from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe said, as he spoke about Rapid City’s history of disproportionate violence and negative representations of Native people in local media.
Swan founded United Urban Warrior Society in 2010 to combat racism, police violence, homelessness, and poverty in Rapid City. The organization now boasts 31 chapters in cities across the nation.
Swan also sees the issues facing Natives in Rapid City as systemic and rooted in the city’s violent history of colonization.
Historian Philip S. Hall’s book To Have this Land, for example, cites the prominent role local newspapers such as the Rapid City Journal played in calling for violent solutions to newly-founded state of South Dakota’s “Indian Problem” in 1890. Ultimately, these calls were answered when the Seventh Calvary, formerly General Armstrong Custer’s regiment, massacred about 300 Lakota, mostly unarmed women and children, at Wounded Knee Creek.
“We have a long ways to go,” Mayor Sam Kooiker admitted when he spoke about city’s race relations. In his 9-year tenure as a city councilman and 3 years as mayor, Kooiker has captured much of the Native votes in Rapid City.
“I have discovered that politicians have been pandering to our Native friends for 200 years,” Kooiker said. “And I don’t do that. What I do is I listen.”
Since 2011, the Mayor answered 40-years of request by prominent Native neighborhoods, Sioux Addition and Lakota Homes, by establishing a voting center for the community; rewrote the Human Relations Commission ordinance that allows investigations into cases of racial discrimination in the community; and sponsored a city resolution that encourages the federal government to give remaining lands from Sioux San, a former Indian tuberculosis sanatorium, back to tribes.
Kooiker, born with cerebral palsy, also said his disability has given him a different perspective on discrimination.
“Ask people directly affected by our policies what they think,” Kooiker said.
Favian Kennedy, Executive Directory of the Health Education & Promotion Council at Lakota Homes, acknowledged that Kooiker and other city officials have been advocates for Native issues in the city. Kennedy’s organization runs summer youth programs focused on Lakota culture and STEM education as well as providing social services. The overall environment, however, between racial groups in Rapid City worries him. “I can’t see any evidence that there’s been any progress,” he said. “After 9/11, after the Tea Party Movement, and after Obama got into office, it’s only anything but worse.”
Many feel the city still has a long ways to go to address housing shortages, poverty, and rampant criminalization for Native residents.
Natives make up approximately 12 percent of the city’s total population of 68,000, but are overrepresented in the criminal justice system. According to a 2013 Pennington County Sheriff’s office report, Natives made up almost 48 percent of the total county jail population.
The Native people that live on the street also face other challenges, such as police and community harassment.
Robin Martin (Standing Rock) said he was frequently harassed by police while walking the city, drunk or sober. He said one officer asked him once, “Why can’t you Indians stay sober?”
“These cops will stop you for no reason,” Martin said.
Many of the Natives who live on the street sleep in the city parks along Rapid Creek. Martin said he doesn’t understand why police harass Natives drinking when the city allows white people to drink at the golf course which is at the same location as the parks.
Martin also said white teenagers hang out at a tennis court parking lot along Rapid Creek and harass Native homeless people. Once the teenagers shot Martin and a group of friends with paintballs.
He said many don’t report these incidents because they know the police don’t take them seriously. Many feel they are unfairly profiled by police and the community.
“This city is so crooked, man,” Martin said. He wore a bandana to cover up a scar on his head that he said got when a police officer beat him over the head with a flashlight when he was stopped in the park to haul him off to detox. “I wasn’t even doing nothing,” he said. “The other cop kicked me in the face and that’s why I got this black eye.”
“We ain’t thugs,” Richard Hairy Chin (Standing Rock) said. “I’m just a simple man.”
Wita Black Bear (Oglala) said she has been homeless for awhile and found it hard to find a place to stay without getting harassed. “A lot of these white people don’t like us,” she said. “I’m just trying to get home.”
“Tell ‘the man’ he’s full of shit for what he’s doing to us down here,” Charlie Brown (Oglala) said. “Because ‘the man’ is just a profiler, and down here we’re just surviving—trying to.”
While the issues of border town violence and discrimination against Native people in Rapid City is still a pressing issue for the city, Mayor Kooiker said his office will continue to address it. “We have a moral responsibility to stand up for what’s right.”