The Sioux San Hospital is an Indian Health Service facility in Rapid City, South Dakota. Photo: Colorado National Guard Medical Detachment
Health | Opinion

Elizabeth Cook-Lynn: The Indian Health Service exists for Indian people

Welcome to the demolition of Sioux San

By Elizabeth Cook-Lynn
Native Sun News Today Columnist

I’ve been wanting to write about the failure of the IHS (Indian Health Service) to defend its Bureaucratic Self ever since Pick-Sloan decided to flood thousands of acres of treaty land along the Missouri and swept away the huge white IHS hospital at Fort Thompson where I was born. That happened so long ago no one remembers. After 30 years of no services, we have a clinic there now at the Fort.  No hospital.

I got the chance to see how things are going in Indian Heath Monday, February 26, when I attended a meeting at Sioux San with about 30 people in attendance. It was called a “mitigation” meeting and the plan, which has been on the drawing board for many months, is to tear down the old and build a new multi-million dollar hospital at the site.

Nineteen buildings on the 43 acre campus will be demolished according to the Mitigation Plan: Lakota Lodge, Maintenance, Quarters, Offices, Health Education, 4 garages, a storage building, a social services building, the Dental Clinic and the Water Tank.  That is for starters.  A barn and a root cellar will be retained and rehabilitated and the hospital, itself, a historical land-marker for the past century, will be “mothballed.”

This is a season of grief and the end of history for the many Soo San clients for whom this hospital and clinic has been since the early thirties “the only port in the storm” filled with a history that will be forever silenced. There is no question that health service, a treaty right and obligation to the Great Sioux Nation, is a disgrace to an underserved population here in our area, and there is no question that many good people including the city mayor and council have worried about the future of this facility for a long time.


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Three of the major tribal governments in western South Dakota, Pine Ridge, (Oglala), Eagle Butte (Miniconjou), and Rosebud (Sicangu) have appointed tribal representatives to serve on the Sioux San Advisory Hospital Board and have been in consultation with other officials on this huge undertaking.

Tribal representation  played an  important part in this project meeting last week if for no other reason than to put forward an official request that before demolition gets started in full force,  a reassessment be called for to take up a course different from the one proposed by the “mitigation” plan. 

Tribal members who would like to see the site preserved as a significant historical monument to the early history of the region, and the old facility put to new uses in much needed health services to Indian people.  Jean Kessler, president of the Pennington County Historical Preservation Committee spoke in favor of the wishes of the tribes.

Willie Bear Shield, Rosebud Sioux Tribe (Sicangu), and Darla Black (Oglala) speaking as the vice president of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, said that there was little interest in tearing down existing buildings on the hospital campus but there was agreement for moving the services to a new site on the east side of town, on land offered as a donation by Hani Shafai, a local developer.  

There was little discussion of history nor was there much information given concerning the adverse effect of the proposed move and the demolishing of contributing properties on the clientele even though there are examples close by that suggest such an undertaking poses severe adjustments for the clientele of the facility. 

The Fitzsimmons Hospital in Denver, for example, where many urban Indian patients have been served for generations, underwent at least ten years of disruption when they decided to modernize. Children’s health needs were neglected during the early phases of development, and the tearing down of the veteran’s old folks home saw hundreds of vets in the streets, homeless and unattended; the elderly were without services for a decade, the detox facility and mental health and counseling services offered at the hospital were unavailable, to say nothing about the absence of barracks and parade grounds and parking facilities. 

This March 27, 2018 community meeting in Rapid City concerning such a change was an important meeting and should probably have been attended by more people in the city and surrounding areas. But it was advertised in the local white owned newspaper and not in the paper most Indians read, Native Sun News Today.

Sometimes a community doesn’t realize what the loss of a major infrastructure like the Sioux San campus and Indian care center means to a vulnerable population. The needs are enormous!  People who have chronic illnesses or who are unemployed, without health insurance, children who need dental care and educational opportunities, working families who need decent child care will all be affected by the decisions that are being considered.

It is nothing new to Indians to realize that the “trust” responsibility of the federal government’s treaty obligations to the Great Sioux Nation is being pushed off to the private sector and many know that what has happened during the years of neglect and ongoing land theft by churches, schools, businesses and opportunists is an outrageous violation of history.

This facility, the Sioux San, has been a special place and, while the IHS is a white man’s creation, IT IS US, says councilman Bear Shield.  It is here because of us, he reminds us, the indigenous population in the west.

The tribes have said to go ahead with the project, but have also said that it must be done with care.  It is important to take the time to protect the history and the clientele in the process.

Another meeting has been called for by tribal spokesperson, Willie Bear Shield who has been asked to make the arrangements.  The time and place will be announced.

Contact Elizabeth Cook-Lynn at

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