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Native Sun News: Mayor of Rapid City addresses race relations

The following story was written and reported by Richie Richards, Native Sun News Staff Writer. All content © Native Sun News.

Sam Kooiker has served two, two-year terms as mayor of Rapid City, the second-largest city in South Dakota. Photo from campaign website

Rapid City Mayor seeks re-election
By Richie Richards
Native Sun News Staff Writer

RAPID CITY –– As election season approaches in Rapid City, candidates have been hitting the pavement with petitions to meet the March 31 deadline to get on the ballot. Native American votes play a key role in the June 2 elections.

On March 5, Mayor Sam Kooiker announced his intentions to seek re-election.

The Mayor lists his main goals for the next two years as; focusing on infrastructure, resolving American with Disabilities Act and other code compliance issues, streamlining city ordinances to diminish government inefficiencies, and working to improve race relations in Rapid City.

Building roads, dealing with outdated code issues for existing buildings and reducing the amount of red tape for a forward-thinking, functional city government are all much needed.

But when dealing with race relations the city’s Native American population wants answers and actions from within the City of Rapid City; including the Office of the Mayor.

Native Sun News sat down with Kooiker to discuss race relations, his management of recent racial incidents and the future of the city regarding Native American citizens.

When asked about his biggest challenge, regarding the Native American community, in the past four years as mayor, Kooiker says, “Making strides in race relations and having things happen which set things back.”

The mayor is referencing the Jan. 24 incident in which 57 students from the American Horse School were, according to witness statements, verbally and physically taunted by Trace O’Connell of Phillip, SD. This was a special field trip for students excelling in their school work but were told to “Go back to the rez.”

This sparked many marches, rallies, forums, protests, and community conversations regarding the incident and perceived lack of concerted action by city and law enforcement leaders.

After several weeks of investigations and interviews, Trace O’Connell was charged with Disorderly Conduct. This was an opportunity for Rapid City to stand for fairness and equality; but there was a collective sigh in the Native American community who felt justice was not served.

Although Kooiker is sympathetic to the student victims, he stands in full support of the judicial process and investigation results. He says, “Not only were the 57 students victimized, but our city was a victim as well.”

The insinuation being it was a non-resident of Rapid City being charged.

He feels the threat of the Lakota Nation Invitational leaving for another South Dakota location and subsequent boycotts of Rapid City by tribes would be counter-productive and would not move things forward in a positive manner regarding race relations.

Kooiker discussed the Human Relations Commission (HRC) and the two acting Native American members, Mel Siyo and Tim Standing Soldier, and their much needed role as representatives of a minority group.

The HRC was commissioned to investigate incidences of discrimination within the city limits; but does not have jurisdiction in cases against city, state, and federal institutions. This would include the Rapid City Police Department and the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center.

Though recently granted subpoena power in late 2014, the HRC is limited in power and can only make recommendations for amicable solutions for both parties. This is a bone of contention and source of frustration for many.

The other example of efforts to involve minorities in city positions was the failed appointment of Elias Diaz; which Kooiker claims was conspired by members of city council. Diaz would have been the first Native American, or minority, in the position of police chief in Rapid City.

“The way Diaz was treated was a shameful act in our city’s history. It shows my efforts to appoint qualified Native Americans to key positions in the city and the fact he was not accepted was upsetting.”

The mayor concedes, despite the fight to get Diaz appointed, “I believe our current Chief Karl Jegeris is doing an excellent job. And I stand behind him and the RCPD fully.”

The mayor is aware of the lack of participation from Native American citizens of Rapid City but confirms his role as mayor is to listen. Many are reluctant to reach out to a city with historical accountability issues. The Native problem appears to change hands with each new election.

“I believe Native Americans have an acuity and innate perception to know right away if they’re being pandered and deceived. That’s why it’s important to listen. You, the community, should be dictating the conversation and the goals. This should be a joint effort to improve our city,” says Kooiker.

When asked what the Native American citizens of Rapid City can expect from him in the future as mayor, he says, “An ongoing commitment to include, listen and achieve results based on the results of listening. We had successes because we put involvement and inclusion first and out of those came results.”

Of the successes the mayor is most proud of in his time in city government, with regards to the Native American population in Rapid City, is his open door policy towards concerned citizens as well as the polling station in Lakota Homes.

According to Kooiker, he has fought hard for ordinances to be passed to facilitate the needs of Native American citizens and to get them more involved. One of the first actions he took in 2011 was to move Ward 4 back to the original precinct location.

When weighing in on possible candidates, Native Americans in Rapid City want a solid leader not afraid to make unfavorable stands against the wishes of their largely non-Native constituency and other city leaders. They don’t simply want to pick from two candidates- the lesser of two evils.

Kooiker asked Native Sun News to host a debate in coming months as the election nears.

(Contact Richie Richards at

Copyright permission Native Sun News

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