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Native Sun News: Racial tensions are still high in Rapid City

Correction: Due to an error by Indianz.Com, the photos of Steve Allender and Sam Kooiker were misidentified. The captions are now correct.

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

Rosalie Little Thunder

Steve Allender

Sam Kooiker

RAPID CITY, SOUTH DAKOTA –– One shattering moment has led the Rapid City community to redefine the relationship between the Native American sub-community and the Rapid City Police Department.

The entire Rapid City community as a whole has been divided into so many factions concerning race relations that it is often difficult to decipher which direction things are going. It is equally difficult to determine if there have been improvements or failures regarding how Native Americans and non-Native Americans deal with each other.

In the case of Christopher Capps, who in May of 2010 was shot numerous times by Pennington County Sheriff’s Deputy David Olson, questions as to the procedures followed by law enforcement officers of all agencies rose to the fore. Capps, 22, who was planning a move to college in Vermillion, was unarmed at the time of his shooting death.

Capps, who allegedly was reaching into his pocket for his cell phone at the time of the shooting, was pronounced dead at Rapid City Regional Hospital after the incident. Pennington County Sheriff Don Holloway said that Olson had been placed on administrative leave following the incident – a standard practice when a law enforcement officer is involved in a shooting.

“The cop murdered my son,” said Jerry Capps, the young man’s father. “(Christopher) was one of the best people you’d ever meet in your life. The world will be a worse place without that kid.”

Jerry Capps said it was a continuing story in Rapid City, referring to the attempted cover-up of the facts involving shootings of Native Americans.

“I told the cop, ‘You shot my son because he was brown,’” Jerry said. “There was no reason for this ... no reason at all.”

There has been recent public outcry over the shooting death of an African American teenager in Florida. This incident has led many Native Americans in the Rapid City community to question where was the outcry for Capps.

Race relations have been a longstanding issue in Rapid City. Mayors have grappled with various programs and initiatives to deal with the problem. Rapid City’s current mayor, Sam Kooiker, says he’s been listening to members of the Native community and sees three things that can be done initially in genuinely addressing the issue.

“And the first is, I am absolutely committed to bringing a polling place to Lakota Homes and the Sioux Addition,” said Kooiker. “Secondly, I am committed to addressing the redistricting issues that occurred north of the civic center in the census 10 years ago – this is the year to fix that and we have that window of opportunity to fix it."

"Thirdly, I am committed to making sure that we have fair hiring practices so that everyone, including our Native citizens, have an opportunity for positions at City Hall, whether it be paid positions or board positions and committees,” he said.

Of these three proposed “fixes,” Kooiker has made good on the polling place, which will be used in the upcoming elections in an effort to create a more impactful district in North Rapid, where the majority of the city’s Native American citizens reside. The state of South Dakota’s recent redistricting in Rapid City created concern for Native American voters. On the hiring practices and board and committee positions, it is a matter of waiting for the next employment reports to determine the successes on that front.

Currently the city of Rapid City has a Human Relations Committee through the mayor’s office. According to information contained on the office of the mayor’s website, “Rapid City is committed to improving the quality of life for all of its residents by encouraging fair treatment and promoting mutual understanding and respect. In order to further this goal, the Rapid City Human Relations Commission was established by Municipal Ordinance No. 5377 and is authorized by the ordinance and state law to investigate any discriminatory acts or practices within city limits. The commission is composed of seven members appointed by the Mayor.”

The Human Relations Commission’s current seven members are Wayne Gilbert, chairman; Melbert “Mel” Prairie Chicken, vice chairman; Lin Jennewein, secretary; Jeremiah “Jay” Davis, member; Tim Standing Soldier, member; Susan “Sue” Timmons, member; and Michael Goodroad, member.

The recent death of a Lakota man, Robert Ghost Bear, who was found dead along East North Street on the north side, has called attention to how the media focuses on the city’s Native American population. KOTA-TV, an ABC-affiliated station based in Rapid City, reported on not only the death of Ghost Bear, but on a portion of his criminal history, including a recent charge of threatening a law enforcement officer. Pennington County State’s Attorney Glenn Brenner said his office was familiar with Ghost Bear.

Native Sun News editorial staff has questioned why the Rapid City Journal publishes the federal criminal cases in South Dakota, knowing that the majority of crimes committed on Indian reservations are charged in federal court due to jurisdiction. This translates to the Journal’s entire court docket report being filled with Native Americans, identified either by their obviously-Native last names as well as their obviously-reservation communities. No other racial group in South Dakota is identified by either the Journal or any other newspaper in the state in such a manner.

Law enforcement in Rapid City has come under scrutiny by the Native American population following the shooting deaths of two Rapid City police officers and the injury of another last August. The shooter, Daniel Tiger, who was Oglala Lakota, has for some Native Americans in the region become a symbol of the possible reaction to what is seen as a war against Natives by the RCPD. Many say that race relations between members of the RCPD and Native Americans has worsened since the shooting.

Police Chief Steve Allender is adamant that that community understands that there is no war against any of the citizens of Rapid City, and especially against Native Americans.

“There are so many sides to the story,” explains Allender. “We have the Native people, who want to see the land given back, and the people who are more assimilated into the non-Native culture; and the people who are very traditional.”

“All of these groups are asking for different things, and it is very difficult to determine what we are supposed to do – what changes to make to make things better here in Rapid City,” he said.

Recently, a federal judge dismissed a claim by a former Rapid City police officer who said he suffered discrimination and harassment. Rosebud Sioux Tribe member Glen Yellow Robe was a 22 1/2-year veteran of the police department when he was fired in May 2007 Yellow Robe sued the RCPD two years later, claiming age discrimination and claiming he had endured years of racial discrimination and harassment. He was 52 when he filed the lawsuit.

The decision by U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Viken noted that Yellow Robe heard officers make fun of or criticize Native Americans during daily briefings, but the judge determined that Yellow Robe participated in similar racially oriented banter. Allender, who at one time worked with Yellow Robe and was named as a defendant in the lawsuit, said he was pleased with the ruling.

“I know in my heart the legal system works, but I have been disappointed as an individual as well as a city official by this whole experience,” Allender said. “It has been a burden on me and the other defendants as well as an undue financial burden on the taxpayers.”

Dennis Edwards, Ph.D, recognized as a champion of civil rights in the Rapid City area, along with his wife, Shirley, defines race by saying, “Sometimes, race/color can be a double-edge sword to deal with. Race/color discrimination involves treating someone differently or unfavorably because he or she is of a certain race or because of personal characteristics associated with race such as hair texture, skin color or certain facial features.”

Edwards said, “Race/color discrimination can also involve treating someone unfavorably because the person is married to or associated with a person of a certain race or color, or because of a person’s connection with a race-based organization or group, or an organization or group that is generally associated with people of a certain color. Discrimination can occur when the victim and the person who inflicted the discrimination are of the same race or color. Race/color discrimination in providing services and benefits to persons of race or color is unlawful and can be considered harassment depending on the situation or circumstances.”

In December of 1999, a community forum was held in Rapid City at Rushmore Plaza Holiday Inn. Viewpoints from a wide variety of sources were solicited.

Accepting invitations to speak before a committee organized for the event were federal law enforcement officials, including the South Dakota U.S. attorney, FBI agents, a Justice Department representative, state’s attorneys and a Bureau of Indian Affairs superintendent. Local law enforcement was also in attendance, including Rapid City’s chief of police, the county sheriff, tribal law enforcement officers from Pine Ridge and Standing Rock, as well as community members.

In the South Dakota Advisory Committee’s Report for the Commission on Civil Rights, Rosalie Little Thunder, who has lived in the Rapid City area for over 20 years, stated, “Racism is a problem in the community, but an even bigger issue is the denial of its existence. We have heard different people saying there is no discrimination, there is no racism. I’ve seen that to extremes here (in Rapid City), and when we deny it, we don’t recognize it. We don’t recognize it, we don’t deal with it.”

“Racism is not merely prejudice, but the power to exercise that racism. And for that reason, reverse racism is impossible,” she said.

“Law enforcement, most of all, holds the power. The judicial system holds a lot of power over Native people. Before racism can subside, those in power must confront their attitudes toward Native Americans. Alleging racism exists throughout South Dakota’s judicial system – by judges and juries, even by defense attorneys.”

Little Thunder recommended to the committee that a study be done on sentencing patterns.

During the same Rapid City community forum, in a four-hour public session, seven panels of speakers presented perspectives from federal, state and tribal law enforcement, as well as from members of the Native American community.

Elaine Holy Eagle, an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, has lived in Rapid City for more than 40 years. In those years, some people have drowned accidentally in Rapid Creek, but the number of recent deaths is unprecedented, she said.

“I can’t understand how six men drowned in Rapid Creek, and in December 1998 four men drowned in four days,” she said.

Holy Eagle questioned why people are not outraged over their deaths. “Is it because people are conditioned to believe it’s okay if an Indian person is killed?”

“Police officers, in particular, need some type of sensitivity training because of the control they exert over others,” said Little Thunder. “A few years ago, the RCPD offered cultural sensitivity training to its officers; it did not go well, erupting in friction.”

During a community meeting in North Rapid hosted by Allender last fall, he said that the RCPD is not intentionally racist. Allender cited racism as an individualized trait that is exhibited not only by some officers on the force, but by some people in general.

“The police work for the people,” he said. “I am always looking for the next great idea on how to facilitate improvement of race relations.”

“Racism is a beast,” said Little Thunder at the meeting. “We have to acknowledge it. We have to understand it. We have to grapple with it.”

(Contact Karin Eagle at

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