After unleashing a verbal assault on the Indian Health Service last week, Mike Rounds pledged in a Journal podcast interview to keep the pressure on.
“This is something that I’m not going to let go of,” he said. “If you want to talk about quality of life in South Dakota, this is where we can truly make a difference for real people who have no place else to go.”
Rounds, a Republican U.S. senator and former governor, is the guest for the latest episode of the Journal’s political podcast, Mount Podmore. The 20-minute episode is available on the newspaper’s website, on iTunes and on various podcast apps, along with previous episodes featuring the speaker of the South Dakota House of Representatives, Mark Mickelson, and U.S. Sen John Thune, R-S.D.
The Rounds interview was recorded a couple of hours after he testified Wednesday to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee in Washington about his bill to require a wide-ranging audit of the Indian Health Service. The IHS is a $5 billion federal agency that serves 2.2 million Native Americans from 567 tribes across the country, pursuant to longstanding treaties, laws and court decisions.
During the committee hearing, Rounds peppered his testimony with blunt language. He said Native Americans are experiencing “unimaginable horrors” at IHS facilities and are “suffering and even dying due to inadequate and disgraceful care.”
In the podcast interview, Rounds explained his IHS audit legislation and expressed a desire to get more Native Americans involved in the delivery of their own health care. He said some tribes should consider pursuing contracts with the federal government that allow the tribes to take over the management of hospitals and clinics from the IHS, with the aid of federal funding.
Rounds also talked about his motivation for pursuing IHS reforms. For many years, he said, he has heard disturbing stories about the IHS from friends and acquaintances. Those include a story of a podiatrist receiving IHS payments to amputate the toes of patients but being denied payments to treat underlying diabetic problems, and stories of physicians delaying referrals of Native American patients until more money becomes available in IHS accounts.
Rounds said he wonders how he would react if those things happened to his children, parents or other relatives.
“You put yourself in that position, and you realize this has been going on for decades and nobody’s done anything about it,” Rounds said in the podcast interview. “If you’re governor, you’re more limited in your ability to influence the federal approach to things. But as a United States senator, if we can’t get something done, then who can?”
Greg Riley, 71, ambles over his brown, barren front yard gingerly. Already hunched slightly forward from time and lower back problems, he bends further, ducking beneath a low-hanging branch from the spruce tree on his yard’s southern side. There, he points toward a patch of dirt along his home’s foundation atop a hill in west Rapid City.
Wildflowers, he says, were beginning to bloom along the concrete wall earlier this summer. The sun hides behind a gray sky as the wind rips furiously. He turns, saunters to the east-facing front yard and points to a garden bed devoid of perceptible life.
Same story there.
He continues around his yard this way for a few minutes, pointing to various plots on the north and west sides of his land where native wildflowers and grasses used to sprout toward the sky, the only remnants now a smattering of dead, dry grasses matted down like a stray cat’s fur.
On July 18, Riley returned from running errands downtown to find his yard mowed and flowers gone. Days earlier, he had notified the police that his yard had likely been poisoned. Since 2007, he’s tried to share the beauty of native wildflowers with his neighbors. Now, on a blustery late October day, Riley simply wants to share his story.
In what he describes as a monthslong struggle with the city, he describes his largest issues as the city's abatement of people's property without having the property owner present, a “communication breakdown,” the expensive and wasteful practice of watering lawns, and the feeling of disrespect and antipathy he says he repeatedly experienced at the hands of city staffers.
In the weeds
Riley has been cultivating a xeriscape — landscapes requiring little to no irrigation — in his yard since 2007. He hasn't irrigated his lawn since that time. Though he’s had on and off spats with his homeowner’s association, it wasn’t until 2016 that somebody complained to the city about his yard. He spoke with the city’s code enforcement office, explaining that his limited financial resources and partial disability prevented him from hiring a contractor or operating machinery. Riley suffers from chemotherapy-induced neuropathy, causing oscillations of pain and numbness in his hands and feet. If the city received no further complaints, the officer said, the city would look the other way. According to Riley, weeks later, the flowers bloomed. The complaints stopped. The issue, he hoped, was resolved.
On June 7, 2017, it became clear it was not. That day, Riley received a letter from the city notifying him that his yard was in violation of a city code prohibiting grass and weeds from reaching a height of 8 or more inches. Riley called the city the next day and left a message. Three weeks later, code enforcement manager Matt Owczarek called him back. A meeting was set for July 6 between Riley, Owczarek and city building inspector Brad Solon. At the meeting Riley explained his situation, offered assistance in amending the code to allow for xeriscaping in low-density residential neighborhoods, and said the city could use his land as a testing ground.
A day later, Riley called the police to report a suspected poisoning of his wildflowers. He then called Owczarek to notify him of the news and the likely pending investigation. He asked Owczarek to delay any abatement of his land while the investigation moved forward. Owczarek, according to a journal Riley kept of the events, said he’d notify Solon.
The next day, July 8, Riley received a letter from Solon rejecting the appeal of his code violation. “The property will be re-checked on or about Friday, July 14, 2017 to verify compliance,” it reads. That same day, an officer with the police department told Riley he needed to gather preliminary surveillance and material evidence in order to bring about an investigation, but the department would increase night patrols of the area to assist with added surveillance.
Two days later, on July 10, Riley went to city hall to update Solon on the pending investigation. There, according to Riley’s journal, he learned Owczarek had not passed on the message to Solon. Solon said he would speak with Owczarek and the police officer with whom Riley was corresponding to figure out a plan.
Eight days later, on July 18, he returned home to find his yard mowed nearly to the ground. He hadn’t heard anything from Solon, Owczarek or the police officer since July 10. He immediately went downtown and found that the meeting never occurred.
Owczarek called Riley the next day and said he’d ordered the mowing. In a Journal interview, Owczarek said he told Solon and assistant city attorney Kinsley Groote on July 17 of the upcoming abatement.
Eventually, Riley met with Groote, who directed him that if he wanted to file a claim for the property damage incurred, he would need to contact the city’s risk management office. Ultimately, the claim was rejected. Another attempt to set up a meeting between Solon, Groote and Riley failed after Groote and Solon refused to meet with Riley. According to risk management division manager Trevor Schmelz, Groote and Solon felt all avenues at remediation had been exhausted and there was nothing left to discuss.
Riley persisted, though, and eventually convinced city’Public Works Director Dale Tech to waive the $42 administrative fee attached to the abatement bill. Now, the bill was $140. To avoid a late fee, Riley paid it. But on Sept. 13, he went before the city’s Legal and Finance Committee to appeal the bill.
As Riley explained the history of the matter to committee members, committee chair Amanda Scott cut him off.
“Mr. Riley, let’s speed this up a little bit,” Scott said. “This is asking for a refund of the $140.” Scott said she appreciated Riley trying to work with the city to change the current ordinance, but that it had little to do with the appeal of the abatement fee.
“You’re just basically asking for a refund because you felt your yard should have been natural-scape?” she asked.
“No, I’m asking for a refund because I felt that the mowing was premature and unnecessary,” Riley replied.
The appeal was unanimously denied moments later and the denial was approved at the following city council meeting Sept. 18.
Flowers, and trust, lost
The city may consider the matter resolved. Riley, though, does not. Aside from the $140 fee, Riley compiled a list of the flora he’d planted in his yard with an estimate by an area nursery of the price for each. Overall, the cost comes to about $336, plus the $140 abatement fee.
To Riley, $140 to mow a yard that, according to the timestamps atop the before and after photos of the service, took about 10 minutes, seems like a rip-off to not only himself, but the city and taxpayers, too.
“I don’t really know what goes into their cost there,” Owczarek said when asked about the fee, explaining that the city is billed for the services rendered by their contractor — in this case, Cricket Lawn Services — on a case-by-case basis, but that manpower, equipment use and time were likely the three main factors in determining cost.
But money is just part of the puzzle.
“When you get into a situation where you’ve been wronged, you can do one of two things,” Riley said in an interview. “Either turn your back and forget it, or face it head on. And my belief is you have to face these things head on. If you’ve truly been wronged you need to face them head on or it’s going to be worse for the next guy, because a precedent starts to get set. Until you stand up and say something about it they’re going to walk all over you again, and they’re going to walk on somebody else because it was easy.”
The cause of the issue, Riley contends, is less malice than simple communication breakdowns.
“We were working toward a resolving end to this and then communication fell apart,” he said. “Everything I’ve experienced relates to communication dysfunction”
“There really wasn’t any communication breakdown that I’m aware of,” he said. According to city code, Owczarek’s office sent out the necessary notifications of impending abatement. Further, on Oct. 2, the Rapid City Council approved alterations to the city code Riley’s property was in violation of when they included a definition of a “natural area” as “uncultivated or unseeded land still in a state of nature.”
“Any growth on land,” it continues, “once it has been cleared or plowed, is not a natural area even though it has not been planted or cultivated by anyone.” Responding to a Journal inquiry, Groote said the new language and exceptions “would not exempt Mr. Riley’s property if he continued to have it the same condition as he did when his property had the abatement performed on it this summer.”
All that matters little to Riley, though.
“Losing trust in people; that hit me the hardest,” he said of the event’s impact. “I was told one thing and something entirely different was done in several steps along the way.”
Riley expects to take the matter to small claims court as he continues attempts at retribution for his flowers and abatement fee. But when spring arrives next year, any further attempts at xeriscaping appear unlikely.
“There’s a point where you just are butting your head against a wall,” he said. “I tried, you know? I made my case. There’s a point where you have to say it’s not worth fighting and do the best you can within code.”
PIERRE | A 15-foot Black Hills spruce stands watch behind a house on the Pierre side of the Missouri River, across from La Framboise Island.
Gordon Van Ash wound 40 feet of colored lights around the tree, adding to the 100 feet he'd woven through its branches a few days before.
More lights are needed now than when the city of Pierre placed it there, in early December 2011. Back then the spruce measured maybe 9 feet. As the 86-year-old Van Ash put it, "The darn thing grew!"
The current tree is a replacement for one that stood there before. It was sacrificed to the temporary levee built in summer 2011 along Island View Drive, to hold back the water from the flood that year.
So, for Gordon Van Ash and his wife, Lois Van Ash, the new tree serves as a reminder of the 2011 flood. The way they endured the floodwaters is now documented in a 10-page booklet with the title "Bummer Summer Survivors," which Lois Van Ash wrote for family members.
It's a story of a family filling sandbags, city workers constructing the levee, National Guardsmen patrolling the top of the 12-foot wall, border patrol agents recruited from the Mexican border checking ID cards to prevent looting, and the couple packing up essentials in case they had to leave quickly.
In "Bummer Summer," Lois Van Ash chronicled the loss of the first tree: "Was sad to see our favorite tree cut down, then left on the corner in all its beauty." While many trees were lost, she wrote about the one that "was so pretty the last time I saw it laying on its side on the corner."
The current tree is a reminder of more than the flood. The final page of the "Bummer Summer Survivors" tells the story of the original tree, and why the city of Pierre placed it there, sometime in the 1980s.
The first tree to be placed there, also a Black Hill spruce, was a memorial to Lois and Gordon Van Ash's daughter, Jeanine Van Ash, who was working as a city employee when she died in 1980 at age 19. According to the Capital Journal's front-page coverage, she was found in the "wet well" of the sewage treatment plant. It was her first day of work for the city.
The tree was replaced in a way that made Lois Van Ash wonder if it were magic, a miracle, or Santa Claus — because an unlikely confluence of events allowed the city to surprise the Van Ash family with a new tree. It was in early December, during the only time they left town that year, there was no snow to impede planting, and the city had just received a suitable tree.
Like the original, the replacement tree is framed by the kitchen window that looks out to the river, back past the garage, a pickup truck and a boat. The truck is still painted with the "Gordy's Plumbing" logo, though it's been altered to read "Gordy's Done Plumbing." He's been retired for six years.
Asked what he does with his spare time in retirement, Gordon Van Ash at first simply pointed at the boat. It's apparent from the words Lois Van Ash wrote that he likes to fish: "(After the flood) when the fishing ban was lifted, Dad and his two sons pulled 51 fish in the boat in two hours. Can only keep four walleye apiece, so it was a fast catch and release."
After pointing, Gordon Van Ash clarified, "Fishing and horsing around."
The description "horsing around" probably covers a lot of ground, and water, not all of it necessarily mischief. It might include disassembling the solar-electricity generator powering the tree lights, to diagnose an apparent short circuit — as he did while seated at the kitchen table.
The seats at the table offer a clear view of the tree through the window. Gordon and Lois Van Ash enjoy looking through that window, not just at the tree. "It's kinda fun to sit in front of the window and watch whatever interesting things go by," Gordon Van Ash said.
He picked up a small digital camera, remarking, "I've taken a lot of pictures at this window." Scrolling through three years' worth of images, he finds one that was taken last fall, of a deer crossing through the backyard near the river bank. "You don't know you're living downtown!" he exclaimed.
Gordon Van Ash described how he'll throw a piece of bread out in the back for a squirrel to eat. He was late one morning, and the squirrel came up to the window as if to investigate why the bread was tardy.
Even though their lives inside the house seem oriented toward the river, the address is Missouri Street, which is on the opposite side of the house. In a play on the name, the title page of "Bummer Summer Survivors" notes that it was "written in the house on Misery Street." And in conversation, Gordon calls the place where they live "East Misery Street."
But sitting with the pair at their kitchen table, it's apparent they enjoy their life on the river.
Their granddaughter, Jeanine Maskovich — who was named for her aunt — confirmed the pair loves their life there and loves to talk about it.
The spirit that flows through "Bummer Summer Survivors" is not one of miserableness, but of gratitude. Lois summed up the replacement of the tree this way: "Knowing how many cared to make this Van Ash family happy, I feel my cup runneth over."
On the morning Kevin Hines intended to die, he felt better than he had in a long time.
He made plans to see his dad at dinner. Then he left for school, where he dropped all of his classes, took a city bus to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, then climbed the rail and jumped.
“In that millisecond of a free fall, I felt instant regret. I had made the single worst mistake of my life,” recalled Hines.
“I remember being in the water and thinking I would drown, and no one would ever know that I didn’t want to die.”
But 19-year-old Kevin Hines didn’t die that day in 2000 — making him one of only 36 people (less than 1 percent) to survive a suicide attempt off the Golden Gate Bridge.
And 17 years later, the man who continues to struggle with bipolar disorder and chronic suicidal thoughts travels the world sharing his story and his message: Suicide is not the answer, it doesn’t end the pain.
On Tuesday, Hines will speak on the Chadron State College campus, a presentation hosted by the college’s Project Strive/TRiO, the Student Senate and the Diversity Committee. The free program begins at 7 p.m. in Memorial Hall.
“It lives on forever in those left behind. People who have suicidal thoughts need to understand their actions cause a wake of destruction that will live on forever,” Hines said in a 2015 interview.
And the pain, tricking them into thinking death is the only way to find relief, does get better.
In 2013 Hines published his memoir — a bestseller — “Cracked Not Broken, Surviving and Thriving After a Suicide Attempt.”
He is currently producing a documentary, “Suicide: The Ripple Effect.”
The following is from excerpts of a 2015 interview I did with Hines while working for the Rapid City Journal’s sister paper, The Lincoln Journal Star:
Hines was 17½ when he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder — a brain disease/mental illness that drives its victims to extreme emotional highs (mania) and lows (depression).
The disease was out of control. Voices in his head kept telling him he was worthless; he had to die.
“I never wanted to kill myself. I only believed I had to die,” Hines said in that 2015 telephone interview. “Those are two very different things.”
The day Hines expected to die, he remembers wishing someone would stop him, save him.
His father had tried that morning. The day before, Hines had suffered an extreme manic episode.
“He asked me to go to work with him. He asked me to go to the movies. He had the parental instinct that something was wrong,” Hines said.
“I pushed his hand away. I told him, ‘I have a math test today.’ … I showed complete calm, which was a drastic change from the night before.”
At that moment, Hines wasn’t ready for help.
But not long after, he would have accepted any human gesture of concern as a sign that the voices in his head were wrong.
It didn't come.
As he met with his counselor and dropped all of his classes, she never asked him why.
“Then I went to the bridge,” Hines said. “I cried all the way there. I was hoping, wishing and praying that one person would look at me and say, “Are you OK?’ “Can I help you?’ On the way to the bridge I wanted to stay alive, and the voices were saying: ‘You must die, jump now.’ And I did.”
He suffered massive injuries. He credited groundbreaking back surgery for saving his ability to walk.
Grateful to be alive, Hines said he treasures every day.
But added that living with mental illness is a continual struggle.
“I have chronic suicidal thoughts,” Hines said. “I have been in seven psychiatric hospitals in 11 years,” he said. In 2011, he received electro-convulsive therapy 26 times.
It works. So does medication, talk therapy and sticking with a strict daily routine — 23 minutes of exercises twice a day.
“It guarantees 24 hours of a better mood,” he said.
Once an insomniac, Hines has learned how to sleep well. He reads anything and everything on bipolar disorder and treatments. When on the road, he stays in hotels only with workout rooms and takes pains always to eat healthfully.
Hines said he never intended to talk about his suicide attempt, but a visit from a hospital chaplain inspired him.
He remembers the Franciscan priest visiting him in rehab.
“Hey, kid, what are you in for?” the chaplain asked.
“I jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge.”
“He thought I was kidding,” Hines said.
“And I’m the pope,” the priest quipped back.
“Then my father said, no, that really happened. He (priest) came over to the left side of my bed and prayed with me and my dad. As he left he said, ‘Kid, when you get better you have to talk about this.’”
“All I could think was: 'About what? To whom?’”
One year later the answers were given to him by his church priest, who asked Hines to share his story with a group of middle-schoolers.
“But my father said, ‘He’ll do it. We need closure,’” Hines said.
Two weeks later, the night before his Good Friday presentation, Hines wrote his speech. It was 17 pages and 45 minutes long.
That Friday he stood before 120 preteens all sitting cross-legged on the rectory floor.
“I'm thinking, who is this helping? I’m crying and shaking. It’s so raw. I’m a mess. This didn’t help anyone. It served no purpose.
“Two weeks later I got 120 letters from 120 kids, some who said they had been actively thinking about suicide. I told my dad we’ve got to do this.”
Today he gives more than 90 talks a year, sharing with kids, adults, the mentally ill, addicts and the families who love them. Regardless of the size of the crowd, he talks as if it's a one-on-one conversation. He is frank, brutally honest and affable.
This, he said, is what he is supposed to do.
And he knows now what he didn’t know that day he stepped off the Golden Gate Bridge:
“There is light at the end of that proverbial tunnel,” Hines said. “I know it is there. And I know it is waiting for me, if I just bide my time.”