Vern Traversie

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

Heather Steinberger

In a somewhat grainy, homemade YouTube video, Lakota elder Vernon Traversie sits in his Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation home and quietly tells his story. It’s a deeply troubling one, alleging that he left the care of a South Dakota regional hospital last summer with more than just the routine scars of open-heart surgery.

Traversie, 69, underwent double-bypass surgery at Rapid City Regional Hospital on August 26, 2011. He remained at the hospital until September 8. The day before his discharge, he said, a nurse approached him and asked him to confirm his name and birth date. When she verified who he was, she began to talk.

“‘My conscience won’t let me be,’ she said to me,” Traversie remembered. “She said, ‘It’s bothered me for days. Something was done to you, and I believe it was wrong. I can’t sleep; I keep thinking about what they did to you.’”

Then, Traversie said, she asked him to make her a promise: to find someone with a camera as soon as he got home, and have that person take photos of his stomach and back.

“She said to do it right away, and then she said she wouldn’t identify herself or testify for me,” he said. “She told me she couldn’t endanger herself or her family.”

And Traversie had no way to identify her, or even to see what she was talking about. He is legally blind.

The hospital van brought Traversie back to his Eagle Butte home late on September 8. He said he was so tired and sick, his girlfriend put him to bed. The next morning, his home-healthcare worker from Timber Lake-based West Winds Home Health Care arrived to check on him.

Vern Traversie Wounds

“I told her what the lady said to me,” Traversie said. “She had a camera, and when she went to take pictures of my abdomen, she said, “Oh my God. I don’t know what they did to you.”

Photos of Traversie’s body show scars from the 2011 surgery and prior procedures. They also show deep, scattered wounds — including what look like three Ks across his abdomen.

“You can see the surgery sutures, and they’re clean,” Traversie said. “But those three letters, two good-sized Ks and one smaller one off to the side, had to be made with some sharp knife or heated instrument. It’s like they branded me.”

Traversie’s healthcare worker immediately took her photos to Indian Health Services in Eagle Butte, which requested that Traversie come in immediately. He said his doctor was shocked.

“She said, ‘Why is there KKK on your abdomen? That’s not what surgeons do,’” he recalled. “My pastor was with me, and he said it was a racial hate crime.”

Tribal police met with Traversie and asked him for a statement, regarding where he’d been and who he thought did this to him. He replied that he’d been in the hospital for two weeks.

“I told them I had a confrontation with a male nurse while I was in intensive care,” Traversie said. “I was in so much pain, I begged him for pain medication. He told me to shut my F-ing mouth or he’d shut it for me. I didn’t provoke him. I didn’t disrespect him.

“I did talk to his supervisor,” he continued. “She said she’d take care of it and even take disciplinary action if necessary.”

Unsure if the damage was inflicted during surgery or while he was in intensive care, Traversie decided to get an attorney and file a civil suit against Rapid City Regional Hospital. He also contacted the FBI.

“I talked to an agent in the Pierre office, and he said they’d come out tomorrow to investigate,” he said. “They never came. I called three times, total, and they never came.”

He said he’s unaware of the hospital conducting its own internal investigation, although his Rapid City-based attorney reportedly did have a conversation with hospital administrative staff. He was told, Traversie said, that the hospital attributed the extra wounds to surgical tape or to infections related to his diabetes as reported by Last Real Indians on April 25.

“I have someone coming in every day to care for me,” Traversie said emphatically. “I’ve never had an infection. And I can’t remember ever having tape on me while I was in the hospital. IHS said it was tape too, but what tape could make scars like that? The skin won’t heal. Those marks went through all three layers of my skin, deep into my flesh. I was in pain for a long time after that.”

Vern Traversie after healing

Traversie waited for seven months, hoping to see his case go to court. During that time, he said his attorney instructed him not to speak to anyone about his injuries and the alleged hate crime.

“He said if I talked to anyone, it would hurt my chances of winning a lawsuit,” he said. “So I waited, but I called every two to three weeks to get a progress report. I finally realized he wasn’t doing anything. I told him I wanted to terminate the contract, and he agreed.

“So I’m without an attorney now, and I’m on a limited income with my Social Security payments,” he said. “I have to get my case into a courtroom before the statute of limitations runs out, but I have no resources.”

Traversie has gotten permission to address the full tribal council about his situation, and he said Chairman Kevin Keckler and Council Rep. Robin LeBeau were working to help him find and retain a new attorney.

And he finally has gone public. In just two days, his YouTube video has been seen by 17,222 people, and a “Justice for Vern Traversie” Facebook page had 2,348 members at the time of publishing.

“I had a lot of different emotions” he said, reflecting on the decision to tell his story. “I was angry, of course, that someone could do that in a hospital, where they’re supposed to heal people. But I also felt sorrow.”

Breaking down, he added through tears, “I trusted them to take care of me. They didn’t have to do that to me. I was defenseless. I don’t want to carry around those letters for the rest of my life, but I have to. They’re not only in my body, they’re in my spirit. They’re in my soul.”

At press time, IHS in Eagle Butte could not be reached for comment. While Rapid City Regional Hospital would not comment directly on Traversie’s case or on the specific allegations, it did issue a statement.

“Rapid City Regional Hospital is committed to providing all patients, regardless of race or culture, with compassionate and exceptional care,” said Tim Sughrue, CEO of Rapid City Regional Hospital, COO of Regional Health and CEO of Regional Health Network. “We are unable to comment on a patient’s treatment without consent. In the absence of permission, it is not possible to respond to specific questions. When patients submit complaints, we investigate them thoroughly and fully cooperate with outside regulatory organizations in their investigations. We hope all patients continue to seek the care they need at Rapid City Regional Hospital.”

Traversie has a different perspective.

“They made no effort to investigate,” he insisted, “ and I got no support, not even emotional support. Native Americans are not treated with respect. They think they don’t have to take any blame, and they don’t apologize to us.

“We need to get the evil out, or we have to stop sending our people there,” he said, voice trembling. “In the name of God and Jesus Christ, I’m telling the truth. This happened to me.”

Below is Vern Traversie’s YouTube video:

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staceyremick-simkins's picture
Submitted by staceyremick-simkins on
I believe you. If I could, I would be there to support you. I say that because of an incident I witnessed over 25 years ago. Please don't give up the fight...what has happened to you deserves a mighty, and decisive response such as the one I was lucky enough to see. The racism was against a black friend of mine in the southeastern part of the U.S. He went in for disk surgery. I told him that I would stop by to see him and check up on him. The following day after his surgery, I was driving by the hospital on my way home and felt a very urgent -- critical/dire sense within me that I should not go home first but should turn around and just go find him. When I got there, I asked for him by name. The nurses sent me to the white man's room (also the same name). When I said I was looking for the other man by the same name they balked a bit and hesitantly took me there. He was in excruciating pain, thirsty and had been hitting the button for assistance for most of that time. I was blind with anger and went out to the nurses' station and made a scene until they answered his call. I got back in the room and sat with him for well into 45 minutes before a doctor and nurse appeared. I had to fight with them further to get him water and to get him pain medication. I was terrified to leave him alone because I really feared for his life. They looked at me and spoke to me with such hostility (I am white) that I was taken completely by surprise. Unfortunately, I had to leave to go to work but to this day I regret that I didn't stay. I called the next morning only to discover that he was gone..nowhere to be found...they said checked out. After much searching, I still don't know what really happened to him. The good news is that another dear friend who knew people in the state capitol, contacted law enforcement and the agency responsible for regulating hospitals. There had been reports that state officials could not substantiate. I was the witness they needed to take action. Since then, a new and wonderful hospital that is known for its national practice of diversity, compassion and outstanding care has replaced it and has been successfully serving that area now for 22 years or so.

glorianewton's picture
Submitted by glorianewton on
I am so mad that I am trying my best to not use foul language.This is an outrage and disgrace.Only some wicked, barbaric, cold hearted, demonic demon would commit such an evil act.I pray to the Heavenly Father that he comes down on swift wings and REPAY!!!Nothing but an person that is PURE EVIL would do something so EVIL,BARBARIC,WICKED to another human!!Sick,Sick,Sick,Sick!Somebody knows something.He needs to find out who all had contact with him.No good DEMONS!!!!!

zakapu's picture
Submitted by zakapu on
Good article. But the video is not grainy. Perhaps there has been many iterations of the video..but the original was digital and crystal clear. This stuff happens all the time, but usually they convince people to settle out of court. You should mention that in your article.

ppmickey's picture
Submitted by ppmickey on
Someone get this man an attorney who cares about him. This is a terrible crime committed by people you should be able to trust when you're in a hospital. What he went through is inexcusable and could have potentially killed him. I don't think there's a statute of limitations against attempted murder. He could easily have died from a staph infection from the KKK carving deep into his skin. I hope that nurse who told him to shut the f***-up when he asked for pain medication has been fired and had his license taken away. He has no business being in medical care of any kind. SOMEONE HELP HIM PLEASE!!!!!

ppmickey's picture
Submitted by ppmickey on
Thank God there are people like you Stacey.

ppmickey's picture
Submitted by ppmickey on
I hope that the Rapid City Regional Hospital is avoided by everyone, regardless of race, creed, color, etc., until they have been properly sued, paid-up for what was done to Mr. Traversie, including refunding him and his insurance company for his stay and operation at the hospital. That hospital needs a major overhaul of personnel to clean up their act. I hope they are severely financially impacted by a lack of people coming to them for care. Who's to say who they will victimize next? It could be your family member. Stay away from that hospital until they either have to close or completely change their ways. When we are traveling, if we need help we will certainly avoid that hospital for any kind of care. Others should stay away from it also. Surely there is another hospital in the area that people could go to other than this one.

sambo2u21952's picture
Submitted by sambo2u21952 on
Are you serious!!!! Have you ever seen a postoperative diabetic patients skin or anyone with tape burns/allergy to tape? Perhaps he scratched himself so badly he created the ugly mess on his belly. "I never had tape that I know of after my surgery". OMG, after open heart surgery?! "Everyone avoid RCRH"?! Sioux San is just up the road, knock yourself out! This is the biggest bunch of baloney I have ever heard. If you look hard enough, you can also see Orion and his arrow on his torso and also the capital letter G on the left side. It must mean goofy, or goober or gaff or gotcha or something!!!! You play the 'race card' and then wonder why you can't get any sympathy. Wonder if a white man has ever had something 'branded' on him while he was in surgery because he pissed a nurse off? I doubt it, esp. with a surgical team of 10+ professionals all standing right there! This is ridiculous and anyone that buys into this or sends money his way for this cause is getting ripped off! You Mr. Traversie are an embarrassment to your people and are only causing more harm than good. You want racism to stop? STOP talking about it and causing problems just to get your 5 minutes of fame. Your lawyer dropped you for a reason, that should tell you all something!

gailcampbell's picture
Submitted by gailcampbell on
I'm deeply saddened. And reminded of another elder's story. She lived at Warm Springs, OR. She has passed. She told me this is what happened to her: She'd been married, had 4 sons who are alive today, and been divorced. She had had appendicitis and her appendix had been removed at Mt. View Hospital, Madras, OR, under the auspices of the Indian Health Service. She re-married. She and her new husband wanted to have children but couldn't seem to conceive. When she had an x-ray taken of her abdomen, it was discovered that she had no reproductive organs left. They'd been secretly taken out of her when her appendix was removed. She had been unknowingly sterilized, without consent, or even reason. It was a horrible and cruel violence against her, her race, and her humanity. This tragedy happened to Mrs. Sylvia Wallulatum, a descendant of the Chief Joseph family. She told me this herself when she was still alive. She additionally said she knew of others it had also happened to. This and what has happened to Vern Traversie are crimes against humanity. Someone please help him. Gail R. Campbell Eugene, OR

gailcampbell's picture
Submitted by gailcampbell on
To sambo2u21952: The failure of investigation into this matter should tell you that something's not right. Deep cuts don't happen from tape. Not through three layers of skin. A review of the operation is clearly in order. But has it been made?? Your response is preposterous.

rebeccalee's picture
Submitted by rebeccalee on
I am a surgeon. That is not a tape burn, no way, no how. It looks like it was done with electrocautery. I went on a mission trip to Pine Ridge about 9 years ago. I am of African American, European, Cherokee and Mohawk heritage. I was shocked at the palpable racism against Native People. I have heard of some sick surgeons putting their initials next to the scar. This seems to be of the same sickness with racism the motive instead of hubris. My heart aches for you my brother. Please realize when you go to be with Jesus/Yeshua you will have a brand new resurrected body just like His when He returns. Until then your soul and spirit will be with Him. Your body will be in the grave, unless He comes back before you die. If He does your body will change in a twinkling of the eye, instantly, and you will be with Him forever. No more tears, pain and sorrow. I feel sorry for whever did this because unless he repents payback will be horrible. Abba Father God bless you my brother, heal your skin and your heart, mind and spirit. I love you, so does Yeshua/Jesus. I know His heart breaks for you too.

Int. Reader's picture
Int. Reader
Submitted by Int. Reader on
I was reading about low crime rates in South Dakota compared to U.S. average then I read that hate crime is very high in South Dakota higher than U.S. average (double), I thought it might be a mistake, nope, just white people who respect each other and hate others. it is really a shame that there are such crimes in a state where people consider themselves followers of Jesus, I think all this Jesus love by republicans are just B.S., republicans start wars in the name of Christianity and wants everyone to carry a gun giving falsified statistics about crimes in USA, when a man died in UK the prime minister stopped his visit to France, you can't do this in USA, people die bye the minute. wake up !