Vern Traversie and the Worst Place to Be an Indian

Lise Balk King

In western South Dakota, it’s all about perception. If you are Indian, or appear to be Indian, you are routinely judged by the color of your skin regarding the content of your character. If you are white, there is also a set of assumptions made by those standing on the other side. Not everyone sits firmly on one side or the other, but that doesn’t always matter much, because there is a clear line drawn between the Us and the Them.

The rub comes from the fact that which side of the line you stand on determines much about how you live and how you are treated—at the bank, grocery store, post office, your child's school, civic institutions, and yes, even the hospital. There are exceptions, but overwhelmingly it is the non-Indians who hold the power, and not everyone plays nice.

For those who live on the other side of the color line, every day can bring small indignities, strained interactions or frustrating stonewalls to disrupt the normal life flow from wake-up to sundown. It is an accepted but loathed part of living in the areas off of the Indian reservations in western South Dakota. But no place is this tension more keenly felt than in Rapid City.

In 1999, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held a hearing in Rapid City after “a series of high-profile cases involving the unsolved deaths of several American Indians…brought tensions to the surface.” I was one of the many people who felt relief that someone was listening and assumed help would come as a result. Many of us waited for hours to testify. It was the elders in the room who reminded everyone that the Commission had been there 20 years earlier, and not much had changed. Now we fast-forward to 2012—13 years hence—and despite our hopes in 1999, it seems we have made little progress.

Enter Vern Traversie. He is a blind and physically disabled 69-year old elder from the Cheyenne River reservation who claims to be the victim of a hate crime. Scars on his abdomen, a result of heart surgery at Rapid City Regional Hospital in September, 2011, appear to depict the letters KKK, referring to the Ku Klux Klan. That is, according to his supporters, a few hundred of which marched in protest in Rapid City on Monday.

Not everyone agrees. A Sioux Falls-based reporter for the Associated Press likened the purported KKK markings to “spotting the Madonna in a water stain.” This story has been featured in a number of national news outlets, including The Washington Post, and has set the tone for the media coverage, furthering the sense of frustration felt by some. Oglala Lakota Cheryl Cedar Face lamented, “The way the media covers Native issues makes it all seem like a big joke. Very rarely do I read something that conveys why people are upset or acknowledges that racism does exist.”

What the media and other outsiders may not see is that Traversie's cry for help and pitiful condition wasn’t itself the cause, it was the catalyst. His plight embodied the day-to-day strain of facing racism and the reaction of doubt that is so readily cast on “Indians complaining again." On Traversie’s YouTube video, which has gone viral in Native circles, Cedar Face said, “I don’t usually pass these things around, but it was the honest anguish…it made me cry. This was truly the last straw for me.”

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has documented testimony of many alleged victims of injustice and racism in South Dakota over the years, and they have published reports that provide statistical analysis of measurable data, such as the unrelenting disparate sentencing in the criminal justice system.

The statistics they extrapolate are an important piece of the story, but are like mineral crystals on the banks of South Dakota’s White River—they are evidence of a persistent flow that is much bigger and harder to contain in a simplified government report.

When I first arrived in South Dakota in June of 1990, I was a bright-eyed young outsider. I found my adventure and a host of new friends, but I also unexpectedly found much tension and distrust. My first week there, we went from the rez to a truck stop up on I-90 to pick up drinks and snacks. The girls cued me in to a white lady who had started to follow us around.

I hadn’t noticed, but became aware of eyes on us as we moved. One of the girls answered my questioning look, explaining, “She thinks we’re going to rip off…steal something.” I was taken by surprise. The girls laughed, and said, “Welcome to South Dakota.” After moving to Winner in 1992, and then living in Rosebud, Pine Ridge and Rapid City, I have many such stories to tell, recounting incidences large and small. And so does everyone else I know.

After years of experiencing racism, the details almost don’t matter any more. What does matter is the precarious state of race relations in Western South Dakota, and the danger of dismissing the countless collective memories stacked like tinder, because as the Vern Traversie protest showed, for some they need only a spark.

Lise Balk King is a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She was previously co-publisher and executive editor of The Native Voice newspaper.


Was Lakota Man Victim of Hate Crime in South Dakota Hospital? The Troubling Story of Vern Traversie

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quinzy's picture
Racism is everywhere below the surface but openly shows its ugly face when encouraged by the mainstream local media and by secondary media like the local radio talk shows. That gives us a good measure of the quantum of racism in various regions. Yes, South Dakota is brutal and I can testify to that having lived there myself. But probably the worst place to be Indian is - and has long been - undoubtedly Alberta in Canada. Canadians also have no good definition of who is Canadian, so what works for them in everyday life is defining themselves by excluding who does not "look Canadian." Ironically, that country prides itself on tolerance and believes Canadians are not racist, when in fact they are one of the most racist people on the planet. That aside, if you want to find the root cause of racism, look to the parents and the media. The media is the one who fans the flames of racism because that is how they divide and conquer. The Washington Post piece was clearly very biased against Vern Traversie. They don't mention important facts of the case, like Vern saying on the video, “I had a male nurse come over and tell me to shut my f***g mouth, because I asked for pain medication after my surgery," or that he didn’t even know what was done to him until a RCRH employee came into his room and advised him to have pictures taken of his chest and abdomen as soon as he got home, that she could not testify for him, but that her conscience got the better of her and she didn’t agree with what they did to him.
notnek's picture
The problem is wide spread all over South Dakota not just the west. From taking back reservation lands in eastern SD and selling it for .10 cents an acre to profiting from taking Indian children and placing them in non native foster homes, amounts to the same thing as what the Mission Schools were trying to accomplish. It seems there is no end to the sadness and efforts to eradicate either our existence or the deep seated resentment and belief that Natives get something for nothing. Appears that is a common theme among the far right. Thank you Lise Balk King for this timely story.
joewade's picture
people need to realize Vern being blind has only relayed what he was told, what he was led to believe because? of the mental visual he was given and he then relayed. Now people are exploiting the whole question of abuse to a "racist hate crime" , It really is sad at how many people are trying to capitalize on this elder while they generate higher degree's of social tension between native & non-native peoples by bringing the KKK race card into the mix along with the word “carved"
joewade's picture
note at? 4:45 in Verns youtube video he mentions the nurse said the wounds were redish and apeared to be bleeding, if the wounds occured during operation or intensive care, those wounds would have been well healed over before the nurse took photos, note also the photo's a week or so after the 1st set of photos do not show signs of scars associated with deep cutting as he was told, i.e most all skin surface tears are non existant.
redhaircrow's picture
Just a couple of years ago, a friend of mine who is Lakota from Rosebud rez stopped to get gas but the white people there said wouldn't serve her. With her own kids and a couple of her sister's in the car, there was no point in arguing and it wouldn't make them change their mind. Eventually they ran out of gas on the way back home and had a long, unnecessary walk in South Dakota. When you tell that to some people, they disbelieve it, but this is reality still.