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Native Sun News: Rapid City police choose cultural advisor

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

Vaughn Vargas

Vaughn Vargas appointed Cultural Advisory Coordinator
By Richie Richards
Native Sun News Staff Writer

RAPID CITY –– The commitment of the Rapid City Police Department to work towards a positive future in race relations in a city historically known for being racially divided was evident last week when Police Chief Karl Jegeris announced the creation of a new position within the department.

On June 10, Jegeris appointed Vaughn Vargas, a Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal member, as the Cultural Advisory Coordinator. This position has been a reactionary supplement for the ongoing race relations discussions happening in Rapid City.

In the news release announcing Vargas’ appointment, Chief Jegeris says: “Vargas has established himself as a strong student at the South Dakota School of Mines and as a community leader. In 2014 Vargas won the prestigious national Udall scholarship. As a full-time college student, he also leads a variety of student initiatives at the university.”

As an industrial engineering and engineering management student of SDSM, Vargas is in his final 3 semesters before graduating and will continue as a full-time student while fulfilling his commitment to the newly formed RCPD position working up to 10 hours per week as the cultural advisor.

SDSM President Heather Wilson says of Vargas’ appointment: “I commend the chief of police for bringing a cultural advisor into the department. Vaughn Vargas is an Udall Scholar and an exceptional young leader at the School of Mines. I’ve gotten to know him personally over the past two years and he has always been very open about poor choices he made when he was younger and how he got his life on a better path, in part by coming to Mines. He listens with care and speaks with compassion and understanding. We are proud of the leader he is becoming and the role model that he is. I’m confident Rapid City will benefit from his service.”

The news release from Jegeris goes on: “Vargas has proven his dedication to community outreach in a number of ways. Though he has moved on from a past life of alcohol and drug abuse that resulted in incarceration, six years later he still uses those experiences to encourage community youth to make positive life choices.”

It was a tragic event in Vargas’ life, with the death of his child, which led him down a path of self-destructive behavior and suicidal tendencies. During this time of mourning for his loss through addiction, Vargas was convicted and incarcerated for four DUI’s. But he credits an RCPD officer for saving his life during an attempted suicide.

According to Vargas, in the years since this life-saving event, he has gone on to successfully attend Oglala Lakota College and transfer to become a successful engineering student at South Dakota School of Mines.

Native Sun News interviewed Vargas on the direction of this much-needed position within the department. The RCPD has been the subject of criticism for many generations of incidents that many Native American citizens feel are injustices against their family members.

Among the first goals Vargas has set for his position has been to form a Cultural Advisory Committee with local concerned tribal members. Says Vargas: “I would like to leave it up to the community to pick the board. I would like to see people coming forward and volunteering to help with this effort.”

He will also be listening to suggestions coming forward to bring these local leaders to the table for discussions on race relations relative to their relationship with the police department.

In the first 6-12 months of his advisory role, Vargas hopes to form the Cultural Advisory Committee with an undetermined number of members. In the first year, he would like to define four core topics to address in the community and present to Jegeris.

Jegeris realizes this position of Cultural Advisor will be met with criticism and skepticism, but thinks there needs to be an effort made by the department to garner discussion and communication.

“We are partnering for a strategy and a deeper rooted effort to change race relations," he said. "We (RCPD) are a very important piece of the puzzle in these efforts. Vaughn will be researching the best practices nationwide in what works in other areas around the country.”

As a student and recovering addict, Vargas has sat on various boards and has been attending many meetings in Rapid City related to the race relations issues. He is a recipient of the Udall Scholarship. This prestigious award is one of five national scholarships established by the U.S. Congress and honors students committed to careers in environment, tribal public policy or healthcare.

When asked why the Native American community should trust him in his new position, he says, “I’m neutral. I don’t have an immediate opinion. I want to look at the data and analyze the statistics before forming an opinion on an issue.”

Chief Jegeris would like the Cultural Advisory Committee to, “represent all races and cultures, with an emphasis on representing the Native American members of our community.”

The success of activism correlates with the dialogue established with policy makers, but often times can be an impediment to progress once unrealistic demands aren’t met.

When asked how Vargas feels about local activists and their role in the RCPD-sponsored Committee, he said “I want to understand how they feel. I want to look at the data presented from everyone involved and find a solution. We need to focus on solutions. This is a unique opportunity for Rapid City and I hope to gain support from the activists by listening to them. I want to make sure they are heard.”

Vargas will host a series of meetings with the public saying, “I think it’s important to let the community members speak for themselves.” During these meetings, he hopes they will have an opportunity to vent and talk about personal events they’ve experienced with the police department.

Jegeris was asked why he appointed Vargas as the Cultural Advisory Coordinator of all the qualified and experienced people living in Rapid City. He responded: “We have a shared vision. We have a high level of confidence in Vaughn and his abilities to establish communication.”

Through Vargas’ position, Jegeris hopes to appeal to the next generation and ensure the future race relations in Rapid City make a turn for the better.

“Give us an opportunity to make change," Jegeris said. "We are working to decrease the number of arrests in Rapid City and not increase the arrest rates.”

Although the timing is suspect, the appointment of Vargas comes at a critical time in Rapid City. The trial of Trace O’Connell begins on July 22 and this is sure to be an apex period of six months of emotions felt by the parents and students of the American Horse School for the Jan. 24 incident at the Civic Center.

“It’s been 25 years since the Year of Reconciliation and if the cities in South Dakota would have got behind Gov. Mickelson and I way back then, just think of how far we would have come, but I am so proud to see Jegeris take this giant step because this is exactly what the city needs to move forward,” former Native Sun News publisher Tim Giago said.

“Governor Mickelson would have been as proud as I am today,” he added.

Many people around the country are keeping watch of the events unfolding in Rapid City. Communities are rooting for a positive outcome of this trial beyond simply a conviction of the accused. Vaughn Vargas appears committed and cognizant of the challenges to come and seeks community support in the future.

(Contact Richie Richards at

Copyright permission Native Sun News

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