When Sandra French saw that a white Nazi-style swastika had been spray-painted on a road near her home on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, she decided to do something about it.
"When I saw it I was like man, that’s wrong," the 48-year-old teacher and Rockyford resident said. "This is my community, and I wasn’t going to let that stand there."
French decided to respond to the hateful symbol by turning it into a beautiful one.
"The image of the medicine wheel just popped into my head," she said.
The medicine wheel is a symbol used by many Native American tribes, including the Lakota, to represent the cycles of life, spirituality and knowledge.
"It means a lot of things to different people," French said. "To me, it means strength, it means balance. The medicine wheel means balance: your spirituality, your emotions, your physical health, your mental health."
After seeing the swastika on Nov. 21, French bought black, white, yellow and red spray cans in Rapid City. Two days later, she put on gloves and got to work, spraying the colorful circular symbol over the swastika.
While she was painting during dusk, she saw a police car driving towards her.
"Oh great, they’re going to think I’m the one tagging this up," French recalled thinking."I'm good. I'm just fixing stupid," she told the smiling police officer.
News of the swastika and its transformation into a medicine wheel went viral after Daniel Bear Runner, another Rockyford resident, shared before and after photographs on his Facebook page early Monday morning.
"Seen something change from bad to good yesterday when I drove by this," he wrote on his post, which has been shared more than 1,500 times as of Thursday morning.
The images then reached Twitter when Ruth Hopkins, a Lakota and Dakota writer, shared them with her 71,000 followers.
Bear Runner, a 51-year-old Navy veteran, said he went to see the swastika graffiti last week after his friend told him about it.
"Sure enough there was the swastika sign," he said. "Lately with all of the hate messages and all the hate things in the world, it comes to represent something very negative in the world," he said.
While different versions of the swastika symbol exist in many cultures, including the Lakota culture and across South Asia, both Bear Runner and French said the symbol they saw is clearly the version used by the Nazi regime.
Bear Runner said he has no idea who would have created the swastika, but it would have been easy to do in the middle of the night without getting caught.
On Thanksgiving, Bear Runner returned to the site and saw that the swastika had been turned into a colorful medicine wheel.
He jokingly called the road "art highway," comparing it to Art Alley in downtown Rapid city, and said people have reacted enthusiastically to the new image.
"The message went out that we changed something from negative to positive," he said, calling the medicine wheel a symbol of peace and unity.
“The one thing that I hope people would get from this is that people could just be kinder to each other," French said. "Because there's been so many more stories of closet racists emerging and just being downright mean, ignorant. And none of my Native friends deserve to be treated like that."
“I really wish more light-skinned people, non-Native people would speak up" against racism, said French, who is a non-Native of Scottish ancestry and has Lakota children.
French said she's witnessed Native friends being followed and profiled as shoplifters in stores. Just recently, her ex-husband told her that he overheard a salesperson telling a co-worker that "we don't want his kind here."
“We all need to take a stand against ignorance," she said. "Just like people teach racism, we can teach to not be racist."
The aromatic humidifier purrs on the desk, while the Hermosa School secretary, Connie Graziano, puts her arm around the back of kindergartner Charlee Johns who talks to a nurse in Sioux Falls over the computer.
"Do you have lavender?" asks Charlee, referring to the flavor of the apparatus about to inspect her nasal cavity.
"Lavender," exclaims Graziano. "Essential oils. That's a girl after my own heart."
The teamwork here — secretary, student, a mobile tablet computer and a nurse in Sioux Falls — is the new school nurse at Hermosa, an elementary and middle school for 220 students in the Custer school district.
Previously, they shared the full-time nurse at Custer once-a-week for three hours. Now, thanks to a grant from Avera e-care, this rural school 30 minutes from the nearest hospital, has a nurse named "Jo Jo," which the students voted for.
And the name originator was Charlee, who has come to the principal's office on this Thursday morning to see about an ailment.
"The first day it diagnosed a skin condition," said Principal Lori Enright. "In the old days, we might've had to send the child home or just tell them to put some ointment on it."
As of Nov. 1, Hermosa is the 24th school in South Dakota and North Dakota to use Avera's eCARE school nurse program. With small budgets, many schools either have cut nurses or never had a nurse. Jo Jo costs about $9 per child and works basically like a real nurse — sometimes to even scary levels.
"I've had to tell a child in North Dakota that I would not be giving her a shot," said Sheila Freed, who directs Avera's eCARE telemedicine for schools program. "I wasn't even in the same state."
The nurses — Freed oversees a team of three — are housed in a quasi-phone and health care center in Sioux Falls. They respond to students who need medication for sore throats and tummy aches that only seem to arise during mathematics.
And this relieves some diagnosing pressure from school staff playing nurse.
"It helps us keep a lot of kids present in school," Enright said.
The machine itself — in addition to a digital screen with internet connection — comes with a photoscope, a blood-pressure reader and heart-rate monitor. An individual on campus is trained to be a handler, helping hold up the equipment to an ear or throat.
At Hermosa, that's Graziano.
"It's just like Facetime," she said.
On Thursday morning, Charlee stood before the kiosk with an untied shoe lace and informed "Nurse Melissa" — whose smiling face filled the screen — that she was experiencing what she termed a sore nose.
"Not on the outside but the inside," the kindergartner with a rainbow colored flower headband told "Nurse Melissa," who nodded her head.
"Well let's get that fixed," the nurse said, confidently.
Following a quick round of questions about runny noses and after some initial checks — and a little fumbling with either a spotty internet connection or unresponsive device — the check-up aided by Graziano went ahead swimmingly. No extra mucus. No inflammation. Maybe just a little lingering soreness from a fever.
"She's a little lethargic," Enright said. "We'll probably send her home for the day."
Avera's nurse can accomplish a lot through the screen. In fact, Freed said, the magnification via the photoscope of nasal or ear cavities is an improvement upon an in-person check-up.
"There are definitely limitations," Freed said. "The very best model is to have a nurse in your school all day. We can't push on the stomach to do a palpitation exam, for example."
But Avera developed their telemedicine program to solve a seemingly impossible situation: hospitals and schools too far or too small for direct medical attention. Now, through a screen, they have that.
Approximately 20 children a day may make it into the principal's office with health complaints, but some vetting by Graziano means only two or three calls are placed daily to the nurse in Sioux Falls — even in the peak of flu season.
"It's always flu season in a school," Enright said.
But now, regardless of the season, there will be someone at the school in Hermosa to help out.
Soon Charlee's grandfather arrived in construction reflective yellow in the lobby of the school.
"She'll be OK," Enright told him. "Probably just needs a little rest. "
And the kindergartner said goodbye to Nurse Melissa and was off to grab her book bag before heading home for the afternoon.
Local emergency management officials are hoping that the first reported flu death in South Dakota — which occurred last week in Pennington County — will encourage residents to take advantage of a free vaccination clinic in Rapid City.
"Now that Pennington County has had the first flue-related death, officially, flu shots have kind of come to the forefront," of everybody's mind, Alexa White, deputy director of Rapid City-Pennington County Emergency Management department, said Thursday.
The free clinic, co-sponsored by the South Dakota Department of Health, is at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center on Saturday, Jan. 12, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., or until more than 900 doses run out.
It's the second flu clinic hosted by the local agency and the Department of Health this year, White said. In November, they offered the vaccine to children and college students, but only 211 people showed up.
"We had not a super-great turnout," White said.
The state, White said, later approved a request to host a second clinic in Rapid City so they could use the remainder of their shots.
"Because we have over 900 doses left, we thought that if we had another (clinic), that if we opened it up to everyone," that would produce a better turnout, White said.
She said she expects more people to come this time after hearing about the recent flu death in Pennington County
Emergency management occasionally teams up with Department of Health to run clinics so it can practice its response to a dangerous epidemic, White said. In an epidemic, emergency management must quickly arrange and staff a clinic so the entire county can be treated in 48 hours.
"We would love to have a very busy clinic to test our plan," White said.
She said before the November clinic, the last time emergency management paired up with the Department of Health was during the H1N1 (swine flu) breakout in 2010.
The department, White said, has run its own free flu clinics in previous years, sometimes going directly to schools.
To participate in the Jan. 12 clinic, people must sign a consent form at the clinic. Minors attending without a parent or guardian must bring a pre-signed form available at pennco.org/pod. For more information, call emergency management at 394-2185.
To volunteer, sign up at pennco.org/podvolunteer.
Rapid City’s most prominent developer is suing the city for its refusal to decommission and relocate a water main he says is beneath his property illegally and has leaked millions of gallons of water since at least 2012, creating unnatural wetlands and delaying development of his land.
Hani Shafai of Dream Design International and his legal counsel, Costello Porter LLP, filed the suit on Nov. 20 in the 7th Judicial Court in Pennington County.
In the complaint, Shafai claims that a city-owned water line sits in an unknown location beneath his property within the Johnson Ranch Subdivision, an approximately 40-acre development southwest of the intersection of East Saint Patrick Street and S.D. Highway 44.
The location is unknown, the complaint says, because neither a permit to occupy the right of way or an easement was ever obtained by the city or Rapid Valley Sanitary District, which originally installed the line in the 1970s before the city took over ownership.
The line's existence was discovered by Shafai in November 2016 when after purchasing the property he noticed water sprouting up from the ground and meandering through the property. On Dec. 1, 2016, city staffers Chip Dietrich and Tim Behling visited the property and determined the water was from a city water line break. The leak, the complaint says, was releasing 500 to 600 gallons of water per minute into the area. When the line was shut off on Dec. 2, the water ceased flowing from the ground.
In a Journal interview from his Kansas City Street office Thursday morning, Shafai said the city has since argued that the leak was much less than 500 to 600 gallons per minute (gpm). Still, he said, reducing that to 300 gpm would still represent about $650,000 of lost water per year since 2012, which is when it's estimated the leak began.
But on Thursday afternoon, City Public Works Director Dale Tech said there was no way to estimate the amount of water that leaked, nor when.
“We don’t know how long it was leaking prior to the discovery of it,” Tech said. “We believe that number [500 to 600 gpm] is way over what was actually lost out of the line.”
Comparing records of water production on the day before the water main was shut off to the next day, Tech said the records indicated “it was a very small leak.”
Shafai disagreed, saying that when he compared water production records from December 2015 to December 2016, he found water production decreased around 7 percent after the line was shut off.
The suit also claims the leak created five acres of unnatural wetlands on Shafai's property. The Army Corps of Engineers has since waived federal laws protecting 4.5 acres of the wetlands, opening them to development.
The other half acre, the complaint says, is valued at $152,242, which Shafai is seeking to recoup from the city. He's also seeking an unspecified amount for the impact the water line’s location has had on “10 out of 14 acres of commercially zoned property,” preventing Shafai from developing the lots further, the complaint says.
Shafai said the delay in development cost his business “quite a bit” in loan interest payments and property taxes. Without the water line, he said the lots already would have been sold.
“Would I have been able to sell this if it didn’t have the water line on it?” he said. “I guarantee you, yes.” He could have sold the lots without mentioning the water line, he said, but didn’t because “it’s not ethical.”
The complaint was signed by Shafai’s attorney, Edward Carpenter of Costello and Porter LLP, on April 10, 2017. When asked about the discrepancy between the signed date and filing date — Nov. 20, 2018 — Shafai and City Attorney Joel Landeen confirmed that negotiations had predated the filing but no agreement was reached.
One compromise proposed by Shafai was for the city to permanently shut off the water main and construct a new main along East Saint Patrick Street that would connect into an existing line along S.D. Highway 44. Shafai would then remove the old line during development of the lots. The cost would be split between the two parties, with the city covering 70 percent of the project and Shafai the rest.
“They said no,” Shafai said, bluntly, of the city’s response.
Landeen confirmed the city did not bite at the offer.
“It does make sense to move the water line, but the water line isn’t at the end of its useful life,” Landeen said. “It is at the back end of its useful life, but it isn’t ready to be rebuilt yet. If we were to do this, we would have to take money away from other projects and divert it to this project. This line does not need to be replaced right now. The leak has been fixed. There are no other leaks that anyone is aware of.”
The water line is a cement-based pipe, called AC pipe, that has an estimated lifespan of about 70 years. It’s believed the pipe is about 50 years old.
“We’re willing to find some money to pay for it,” Landeen said. “We just don’t think it should be the majority of it. The irony is over a couple percentage points, we’re going to spend probably more than that fairly quickly on litigation.”
Shafai noted that in his research, he found no valves or fire hydrants along the water line, which is a violation of city standards.
“We know it’s near the end of its usable life,” he said. “We know that it does not meet current standards. We know its location is unknown. We know it has already broken. We know all of these facts.”
Looking ahead, Landeen said the city would talk with its insurer and would then likely hire legal counsel and draft a response. The Rapid City Council also could step in and direct city staff to attempt to find another solution. For now, though, the city is preparing to defend itself.
“Rather than file a lawsuit, he [Shafai] could have gone to the council and requested that they resolve it,” Landeen said. “We had some more negotiation to do. His response to that was to file a lawsuit.”
Shafai said the year and a half of negotiations showed he didn’t want it to come to this.
“I really did not and I still don’t want to but you know, sometimes you’re left with no options,” he said. “We tried to meet with the city leadership and discuss this and it did not work out."
In June 2017, the city reached a unrelated settlement agreement with Shafai and developer Pat Hall for the failed President's Plaza development. The city agreed to pay the Shafai-Hall-operated company $363,040 for out-of-pocket expenses incurred during the initial planning of the development. Meddling and interference by former Mayor Sam Kooiker were cited as a cause for the project's failure in the lawsuit.