Rapid City, South Dakota. Photo: Robin
Notes from Indian Country
Deaths of Indian homeless in Rapid City still unresolved
Were the string of deaths accidental or murder?
By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji – Stands Up For Them)
It started in May of 1998. Bodies began to show up in or near Rapid City Creek.
Of the eight bodies discovered in 1998 and 1999 six were Native Americans, all were homeless men.
All in all in the years 1998 to December of 2000, there were 11 unexplained deaths in Rapid City, most of them involving Indians or homeless men.
There was Ben Long Wolf, age 36, George Hatton, age 56, Allen Hough, age 42, Royce Yellow Hawk, age 26, Randell Two Crow, age 48, Lauren Two Bulls, age 33, Dirk Bartling, age 44, Arthur Chamberlain, age 45, Timothy Bull Bear Sr., age 47, Lonnie Isham, age 43, and Wilbur G. Johnson, age 41.
Four of the Native American victims were found face down in Rapid Creek.
Native Americans have pondered this strange set of circumstances since 1998. In 2009, ten years after the string of circumstantial deaths, Laurette Pourier, a Native American educator who is now deceased, said many Native Americans believe the deaths weren’t properly investigated.
In an article appearing in the Rapid City Journal in June of 2009, Pennington County Sheriff Don Holloway said every lead was investigated. But because so many deaths happened in a short time and then stopped; Holloway doesn’t believe they were all accidental.
Stacy Low Dog, a Lakota lady who helped organize patrols of volunteers along the creek to improve safety said she believes the deaths were caused by foul play. She said most rumors in the Indian community at the time puts the blame on young white people who harassed the homeless along the creek. She said one of her cousins told her he escaped after some white men grabbed him and held his head under water.
A few years ago when I inquired about the progress in solving these unexplained deaths Captain James Johus of the Criminal Investigations Division responded with, “The Rapid City Police Department and the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office worked several investigations that were additionally reviewed by the staff at Mid-States Organized Crime Information Center and the FBI. After these thorough reviews there was nothing identified to indicate these were criminal events. Therefore they are not categorized as being ‘unsolved’ deaths.” What are they then?
The families of Lauren Two Bulls and Timothy Bull Bear, Sr., still mourn the deaths of their family members.
Since the white man first trespassed on these lands known as He’ Sapa (Black Hills) there has been an open season on the lives of the Lakota people. Entire Lakota families were shot to death by the gold miners, trappers and settlers that invaded their lands. All of these killings, which would be labeled outright murders today, were left unpunished because after all, they were only killing Indians.
Did some of this frontier mentality leak into the minds of present day law enforcement officers? Were the murders not thoroughly investigated simply because the victims were Indians?
In the early 1970s Dodge Benally, John Earl Harvey, and David Ignacio, three Navajo men, were brutally beaten to death and tortured near Farmington, N. M. The three teenage white boys who killed them were sent to a reform school instead of being treated as adults and sent to prison where they belonged. Did white teenagers drown Indian men for fun and games in Rapid City?
In the State of South Dakota with a 12 percent Indian population it is amazing that 35 percent of the men and women serving time in city, county and state prisons and jails are Native American. In the Pennington Jail (Rapid City is in Pennington County) probably 80 percent of those incarcerated are Native Americans. How many Native American police officers are serving on the Rapid City Police Department or on the Pennington County Sheriff’s Department? The South Dakota Highway Patrol just hired and trained eight new officers. None of them were Native American. If Indians make up 12 percent of the State population they should have at least 12 on the highway patrol. Twenty percent of Rapid City’s population is Native American. That means if there are 100 Rapid City police officers at least 20 should be Native American.
Back in 1998 and 1999 something happened to cause the deaths of so many homeless and Native American men. Was it all a colossal set of circumstances? Most Native Americans living in and around Rapid City think not. They believe that somewhere there is a murderer or murderers walking around laughing about all of the Indians they killed. After the mysterious deaths of Indians and homeless men stopped in Rapid City the same thing began happening to Indian and homeless men in and around Denver. If there were indeed murderers running loose did they relocate to Denver?
We would like to see the Rapid City Police Department publish an updated report on these deaths and let the Indian community know that the loss of their loved ones is not forgotten or have they closed the books on the purported murders? There were just too many mysterious deaths for it to be purely coincidental. If white teenagers carried out these heinous deeds they are all grownup now and probably have families of their own and I don’t think this is pure speculation.
In any event there are a lot of Indian families still waiting for answers and they are still praying for closure.
Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Reservation and is the founder of the Native American Journalists Association. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1991. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org