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Native Sun News: Rapid City hospital put in unhealthy spotlight

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

Dennis Banks, American Indian Movement co-founder, prepares to lead a protest march on Rapid City Regional Hospital May 21. The march was held in support of Cheyenne River elder Vernon Traversie, who alleges surgery performed at the hospital last August left him with racist scarring.

RAPID CITY, SOUTH DAKOTA –– The tensions were high; voices raised and banners were flying. Young and old, men and women, Native and non-native turned out to protest what is being called a hate crime perpetrated on a blind, elderly Lakota man by the Rapid City Regional Hospital.

“Rapid City ... we understand you have been carving up our people. This is going to end today,” American Indian Movement founder Dennis Banks said.

Vern Traversie, 69, of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, went through open heart surgery at the RCRH approximately eight months ago. During his recovery he was informed by a nurse, who chose to remain unnamed, at RCRH that he should have someone take photos of the scars left by the surgery. A family member photographed Traversie’s torso which allegedly shows two well defined letter Ks as well as another letter K that is less defined.

An investigation by the Pennington County Sheriff’s Department closed the case citing lack of evidence of wrong doing.

Traversie has sought legal assistance in pursuing criminal charges against the hospital, alleging that someone working for the staff was responsible for his scarring. Traversie’s scars are described as burn marks. RCRH’s only public comment is that they cannot comment due to patient confidentiality.

Traversie waited seven months after the discovery of his scars before announcing his plight publicly. Several social media sites, such as Facebook, carried the story worldwide, generating attention from several tribes across the nation. The Yakima tribe in Washington State was the only tribe to pass a tribal resolution vowing their support for Traversie’s protest against the hospital and the sheriff’s department. In addition to their resolution, the Yakima tribe sent a contingency of attorneys vowing to provide the legal support Traversie will require in his quest for answers.

On Monday, the protest began with a rally at the Memorial Park band shell outside of the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center. Several speakers were invited to speak to the crowd that grew to over three hundred walkers and supporters. The American Indian Movement with chapters from several states and tribes were heavily in attendance.

Recalling more militant days of the American Indian Movement, several of the members draped themselves in upside down American flags or covered their faces in military attack fashion. Men and women alike were called into a ceremonial circle that, led by Dennis Banks, a founding member of AIM, painted the faces of the protestors with ceremonial paint, signifying their readiness to go into battle.

“This is just horrible what was done to Traversie, “said Banks, one of the leaders of the protest. “This treatment touches to the core of who I am, especially with an elder.”

Banks announced that a multi-million dollar health care facility, not an Indian Health Care unit, was a feasible plan, and in fact already in the works.

Traversie himself called in from his home on CRST lands and expressed his gratitude for the support that turned out, and offered his encouragement to the marchers.

After the ceremony, the protestors gathered behind a pickup truck that carried a drum group made up of singers of several tribal nations. The protest then took to the streets of Rapid City, marching up Fifth Street, led by a RCPD escort. The downtown traffic was held up for nearly twenty minutes as the protestors proceeded south towards the RCRH, making three stops to accommodate the elderly and less physically fit walkers.

Once the protest march arrived at the hospital grounds, where leaders had been assured that an area had been designated for the protestors, it was discovered that the area was merely the grassy area between the hospital parking lot and the city sidewalk. Protestors were ordered to get in the grassy area and stay there, or that no talks would be allowed between the protestors and the hospital administration as previously arranged.

Native Sun News photographer was told, forcefully by a RCRH security guard to leave the hospital property with camera. When asked if NSN would be allowed to photograph the event, the photographer was informed that it would be possible to photograph only from off the hospitals property.

NSN witnessed other reporters from the Rapid City Journal and the local television stations recording the event undisturbed by the security officer.

The sheriff’s department and the police department were in full readiness for the protestors. A wall of law enforcement stood between the protestors and the hospital, with law enforcement officers stopping Native Americans from approaching the hospital, directing them to a heavily guarded entrance on the west side of the building for those in need of the restrooms. Those doors were guarded by four security guards employed by RCRH, and several protestors complained about being followed to the restrooms and then back out of the building.

Banks, OST Vice Chairman Tom Poor Bear, Cody Hall, the Yakima attorneys and several elders were led into the hospital to meet with hospital administrators, including Chief Executive Officer Tim Sughrue. The contingency was sent off by the protestors with a warrior song sung by the inter-tribal drum group.

Once the sit down meeting was underway, the group of protestors outside kept each other motivated by allowing speakers to address the crowd. With law enforcement officers in close proximity, several of the speakers addressed their comments directly to the officers, questioning what is often termed as racial profiling and racist treatment on behalf of the local law. Several speakers spoke out about their personal mistreatment that they allege the local law officers perpetrated on them.

Contrary to what was reported in the Rapid City Journal by RCJ reporter Holly Meyer, the protestors did not call for the burning down of the hospital. The actual statement made was made by Olowan Martinez of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. Her actual statement was “What if this happened to a black man? What would the black community do? Would they burn it down?”

Robin LeBeau, a council representative from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, who has supported Traversie and often speaks on his behalf, was one of the contingency who were meeting within the hospital. She emerged to inform the gathering that she was already disappointed with the lack of progress she witnessed in the meeting.

“We went in there to get answers, but they are telling us everything we already know.” Stated LeBeau. “I told them I wanted to ask my questions and then leave, because I wanted to be out here with you, the people who are here standing strong for Vern (Traversie) and what he is suffering.”

Several of the protestors expressed a high level of anger, raising their voices while speaking about the treatment of Native people over the years in Rapid City. A boycott was suggested by more than a few protestors, citing that IHS contracts with RCRH for several millions of dollars, when they send patients to RCRH from Sioux San or area reservations.

At approximately 4 p.m., the protest leaders announced that for the sake of the elders and the young children in attendance, the protest would move to the Mother Butler Center for a meal to be served by members of the community. The contingency in the meeting with RCRH administrators left the building within minutes of the protest breaking up.

At the dinner, it was announced that the meeting was met with disappointment. The group that met in the hospital confirmed what LeBeau had said; no answers to any of the questions; no progress.

Banks reaffirmed the commitment to see that justice is obtained on behalf of not only Vern Traversie but all Natives who utilize health care services in the Rapid City area.

In a statement released by the Rapid City Regional Hospital following the meeting the RCRH stated in part, “We at RCRH are confident of the care we provide without bias or consideration of race, religion, national origin or payer classification.”

Former newspaper publisher Tim Giago said that he thought the protests were far overboard.

“There is no doctor that would carve something as insidious as a KKK sign on any patient, Indian or not. I was very grateful for the kind and professional service I received at Rapid City Regional Hospital when I was a patient there and went in for open heart surgery. I also had scars on my stomach where the tubes were inserted and the scars could have been read to be anything by someone looking for a problem. Thousands of Native American patients from every Indian reservation in the region are treated at this hospital and every kindness is shown to those entering as patients and to their loved ones waiting for their outcome. Protestors like Dennis Banks would appreciate the service provided by the Regional Hospital if he lived in this community and needed treatment,” Giago said.

(Contact Karin Eagle at

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