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Tim Giago: The mayor who saved Rapid City from itself in 1973

Filed Under: Opinion
More on: oglala sioux, rapid city, south dakota, tim giago

The man who saved Rapid City
By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji)
Notes from Indian Country

The Rapid City flood of 1972 was a disaster. It claimed 238 lives, many of them Native Americans, and severely damaged the tourism season that summer.

The mayor of Rapid City in those days was a gentleman named Don Barnett. Don had moved to Rapid City in 1947, just a couple of years after my family moved to the city from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Recalling those early days Barnett said, “Each fall dozens of Native Americans would bring their families to Rapid City. They traveled up the old Highway 40 through Scenic from Pine Ridge and camped on the land owned by the Lamm family on the south side of Rapid Creek just in front of the Black Hills Packing Plant on Omaha Street.” Of course we weren’t called Native Americans in those days; we were called Indians.

Most of them camped on Osh Kosh Street. The Indians and whites in referred to it as “Osh Kosh Camp.” It was later called Sioux Addition.

My boyhood friend, Charles “Chuck” Trimble moved to Sioux Addition from the Pine Ridge Reservation in the late 1940s with his mom. She got a job at the now defunct Virginia Café on Main Street where she worked with my mother bussing tables and washing dishes for 75 cents an hour.

“Chuck” was inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame this year. He joined me in the Hall; I was inducted in 1994. So here we have two, dirty little Indian boys (at least that’s what the doorman at the Alex Johnson Hotel called us when he tried to kick us as we experimented with the Hotel’s revolving door) who rose above their poverty and small beginnings to make it into the South Dakota Hall of Fame. I’m sure Don Barnett knew us back then, because we all used to swim in Rapid Creek together at a place they call Riff Raff. Little did we know that the white citizens called it Riff Raff because so many Indian kids swam there.

Rapid City was lucky that during and after the flood of 1972 they had Don Barnett as their mayor. When he found out that some motels in the city were refusing to let Indians that had been flooded out of their homes from staying in their motels he was furious and he brought that discrimination to a hasty halt.

After the flood members of the American Indian Movement moved in and around Rapid City and made waves about the bigoted treatment of Indians in the city. Barnett said this of those days, “The challenge in Rapid City in 1973 was the first time in American history when civil disobedience was used to address social issues and racial injustice in a western city with a ‘Frontier Mentality.’”

He said,” I received dozens of letters and phone calls from angry white citizens who demanded that the police ‘crack a few skulls’ and drive AIM out of town and out of South Dakota.” Barnett met with members of AIM, his city council, and community and church leaders, with Pennington County Sheriff, Mel Larson, and Rapid City Chief of Police Ron Messor and strongly advised them not to be provoked into doing anything stupid against the Indian protestors. He urged Father William O’Connell, Rev. Larry Dahstrom, Pastor Ralph Smith, Rev, Kent Mallard, and Rev. Preston Brown, to “get on the phone and call your church members and help your city government bring sanity and decency to these discussions.”

There is an ignorant assumption in the mass media that racial discord with the possible fires of racial violence only happens in the big cities. In 1972 and 1973 Rapid City was a tinder box. Any tiny spark could have set the city on fire, but one man, a man who grew up in the Indian community and made friends with Indian boys who walked to the old Lincoln School on 9th and St. Joe Streets with him in the 1940s, kept the lid on the potential violence and made every effort to correct the incidents of racial injustice that had plagued the Indian people for so many years.

Don Barnett listened carefully to the lyrics of a song from a Broadway show called South Pacific entitled, “You’ve got to be carefully taught.” It became his Bible so to speak.

His favorite verse goes:
“You’ve got to be taught,
Before it’s too late, before you are
Six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people
Your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!”

Don lived through the days when a group calling themselves the Rapid City Improvement Association, purchased 10 acres of land way out in the boonies north of the city and removed all of the Indians living in Sioux Addition from their homes and forced them to relocate to this piece of land without electricity or running water. He said, “They wanted the Indians out of sight and out of mind.” He added, “This was the first time in my lifetime I witnessed forced segregation.” He then set about trying to bring the things the Indian people needed to survive in their new community.

On this tay the citizens of Rapid City have a lot to be thankful for, but they should forever be thankful to a man who saved Rapid City from itself in 1973. As I said in a speech at South Dakota State University on October 4, “I doff my hat to Mayor Don Barnett.”

Tim Giago is publisher of the Native Sun News. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1991. He can be reached at:

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