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Pandemic won't stop rally-goers from coming, Sturgis mayor says

Mayor Mark Carstensen said regardless of the coronavirus pandemic motorcyclists will come to the Black Hills in August for the 80th Sturgis rally whether the city hosts it or not.

“Currently as we speak there’s tourism coming to the Black Hills, there’s tourism coming to Sturgis, they’re coming from out of state,” he said Thursday in a Facebook video. “People are coming as we speak, and I truly believe that whatever decision is made June 15 by the Sturgis City Council, there are still people coming to the rally.”

The city council will host a special meeting June 8 to discuss the rally and make an official decision June 15. The rally is scheduled to run from Aug. 7-16.

The city also has sent a poll to residents asking for their thoughts about hosting the rally during a pandemic that so far has claimed at least 50 lives in the state and more than 95,000 nationally. Public Information Officer Christina Steele said in an email to the Journal that results from the poll won’t be available until after May 26.

Carstensen said Friday the city is having discussions with the Department of Health about the rally, which traditionally brings hundreds of thousands of visitors to the Black Hills from across the nation and other countries.

Maggie Seidel, senior advisor and policy director for Gov. Kristi Noem, said in an email Friday to the Journal that “conversations are ongoing” between the governor’s office and Sturgis city officials.

The state health department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Local hotels and campgrounds contacted Friday report reservations and cancellations for this year's rally.

A manager with The Hotel Sturgis said all 22 rooms have been booked for the week of the rally and there is a waiting list. She said there have been no cancellations yet.

According to the Iron Horse Campground website, RV full hookups are sold out for the 2020 rally and self-contained RV or trailers over 12 feet are available.

Mary Hershey-Brandner with Bear Butte Creek camping said she’s had some cancellations and reservations to take their place. She said she has a list of people waiting for the city council's final decision.

“I’m thinking they will be open,” she said. “I’m against it. I’d rather they closed it, the rally, but your big campgrounds aren’t going to allow that. … I’m not living in fear, but it doesn’t make sense to throw that many people together.”

Dawn Kelly, general manager at Baymont Inn & Suites in Sturgis, said business for local hotel owners has already been suffering over the years with more hotels and motels popping up in the Black Hills.

"This is so devastating to these hotels, and now with this COVID ... We appreciate any of the business we're getting," she said.

Kelly said the hotel has been experiencing a number of cancellations for rally week and that other reservations hinge on what the Sturgis City Council does on June 15.

Carstensen said the council has two or three calls planned next week with state staff and elected officials in the area.

“There’s got to be some effort made no matter what after the influx of people come and go to try to make a sensible plan to ensure the spread of the virus is minimized,” he said. “That goes down to even regular activities of public works nightly. It’s a large undertaking.”

Carstensen said if the council does approve the rally’s continuation for August, social distancing guidelines will be in place.

He said even if the council doesn’t approve the rally dates, it will be difficult to keep people out of Sturgis, short of putting up physical barriers, which he doesn’t see happening.

In the Facebook video, Carstensen also discussed the changed structure to the city’s finances. He said the rally pays for itself and the city receives a return on investment that has allowed the reserve fund to grow into the millions, which gives the city some flexibility to work on projects like city parks or the water treatment facility, which is roughly an $18 million project, he said.

He said the city estimated the return on investment for the rally at $1.7 million. 

Carstensen also said Sturgis received $2 million in loan forgiveness from the state.

“We’re certainly in a better position than we could’ve been in when this situation arose, but still it’s a daunting task to face a deficit of that number,” he said.

In a May 14 Facebook post that has since been taken down, the city discussed the financial impact of the rally and what could be done to make up for the loss in revenue, including an increase in property tax.

In the Facebook video from Thursday, Carstensen said the city has lowered the mill levy, a property tax, by 41% from its highest point.

Carstensen said there are still a lot of questions left unanswered regarding the possibility of the rally this year and the council’s June 15 decision date is approaching quickly. However, he said he’s glad there’s still time to collect data, opinions and input.

“We’re working hard on it and we’ll see what happens,” he said. “It’s a difficult situation no matter what happens.”

In the video, Carstensen also addressed June events for the city that are still on and those that are canceled. They are as follows:

Still on:

May 23 — Sturgis Regional Hospital Auxiliary 5K walk/run

June 3, 10, 17, 24 — Music on Main

June 13 — Annual Sturgis Volksmarch

June 14 — Sturgis Regional Rodeo

June 21 — Northern Hills band festival


June 13 weekend — Cavalry Days

June 27 and 28 — Black Hills Ultra Marathon and the Sturgis Camaro Rally

End of June — Sturgis arts festival

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RCAS sees largest graduating class of Native students
RCAS sees largest graduating class of Native students

Rapid City Area Schools is celebrating its largest graduating class of Native American students this year with 118 seniors throughout the district.

Whitnee Pearce, director of diversity, equity and outreach for RCAS, said this year’s graduating class is 15.7% larger than last year’s class. Pearce said the class size alone speaks to the resiliency of the district’s Native American students.

“Historically, our Native American students have had more barriers placed within their educational pursuits than their non-Native peers,” Pearce said. “Being able to have one of the largest graduating classes — particularly during the uncertainties and stress of COVID-19 — speaks to ... their perseverance to overcome any obstacle in life.”

Although these students did not get a chance to walk in a traditional commencement or have their feathering ceremony due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many families found creative ways to celebrate the historical achievement.

Each of the high schools did a social distancing commencement last week, which was pre-recorded for broadcast June 7 on Black Hills Fox. Central will be at noon, Stevens at 1 p.m. and Rapid City High School at 2 p.m.

In-person ceremonies are also set for late July and will be televised on KEVN. Rapid City High School’s is July 24 at 7 p.m.; Central is July 26 at 1:30 p.m.; Stevens is July 26 at 5 p.m.

A social distancing car parade is also planned for May 29 at 6 p.m. to honor the Native American seniors throughout Rapid City.

District staff also set up a time with families this week to visit their seniors’ homes and take photos of them in their caps, gowns and star quilts outside of their houses.

Mya Schad, a senior from Central High School, said she has plans to recreate her own feathering ceremony in the future. 

Schad, 17, said she’s happy she could still wear her gown and beaded cap at the virtual graduation at Central.

“To be able to be part of the biggest class is amazing to me,” she said. “There’s such a diverse amount of students at Central, and it’s good to know we’re part of that.”

Schad was involved with the Cobbler to Cobbler mentor program in school, stayed busy with her summer job at Bear Country, and set up a winter clothing drive and food drive for Pine Ridge last year when the state was hit by flooding. Schad said her best memories of high school are from the theater department.

“It’s like a group of people you don’t expect to fit in with,” she said. “They’re all very welcoming and kind.”

Schad said she plans to attend the University of South Dakota in the fall as a sustainability major with a minor in tribal law.

“I care a lot about the environment. I see a lot of problems with that, especially on the reservation,” Schad said, noting she grew up in Eagle Butte before moving to Rapid City six years ago. “I just want to protect my homeland.”

Jayden Tuttle, 17, who will graduate from Central, said it’s an honor to be part of the largest graduating class of Native students yet.

Tuttle said his family will be busy cooking at home for a graduation celebration with family. He also said he’s thinking of going into the Marines after participating in ROTC for a while, and considering attending Oglala Lakota College.

“My mom is happy for me,” Tuttle said. “Everyone’s celebrating it. I’m excited about it.”

Wraygen Shouldis, 18, graduates from Central this year and said her best memories of high school are from the competitive dance team, sideline cheer and coed performance dance.

Shouldis said she’s planning to attend Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, this fall for business and multimedia studies, and hopes to own her own business one day.

“It’s definitely a good feeling to be part of this group,” Shouldis said of her graduating class. “We’re the generation that’s really valuing our education more than past generations, because we have more resources nowadays. I think it’s pretty special to be part of that.”

Shouldis said she knows her parents are proud of her and that she still has her star quilt and beaded cap to remind her of her success.

The class of 2020 seniors have had to balance home life, navigating new waters of online learning, and keeping the community safe and healthy, Pearce said.

“In the end, being able to come out on top through these struggles speaks volumes to the type of students, leaders and most importantly people each of these seniors are,” she said.

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New bishop says Catholic Church has learned from the past

A Minnesota priest selected to be the new bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Rapid City comes from a diocese that concluded bankruptcy proceedings last year agreeing to pay tens of millions of dollars to victims of child sexual abuse.

Father Peter Muhich, 59, said addressing the abuse of victims was “obviously a very difficult process” for the church and especially for the victims themselves.

“Of all things, when our priests violate the trust of a child it’s just a terrible thing,” Muhich said. “We just emerged from bankruptcy in the Diocese of Duluth having to account for that.”

It was a painful, expensive accounting that affects the financial resources available for other needs in the diocese. But it was appropriate and instructive accounting, too, Muhich said.

“We’ve learned through the bankruptcy that we can live more simply,” he said. “I think it’s absolutely fitting. The church is always most credible as a litmus when it leads a humble and simple life, like the Lord himself.”

Muhich, who expects to be ordained as bishop and begin his duties here by mid- to late summer, noted that Pope Francis has led the way in promoting clerical humility in the Catholic Church. The pope has focused on outreach to the edges of society, making biblically meaningful gestures such as washing the feet of prison inmates, the poor, migrants, the elderly and the disabled.

“He’s going out to the flock and expressing that,” Muhich says. “I like the fact that he’s applying it broadly. I think it’s his way of saying that the church is accessible to everyone.”

The foot-washing ritual comes from the accounts of Jesus washing the feet of the Apostles at the Last Supper. Muhich chose for his episcopal motto — essentially an affirmation of belief and guidance — a reading from John where Jesus tells the Apostles that they should use his foot-washing gesture as an example on how to treat others.

The abuse of children by priests was a horrid deviation from that example, of course. And Muhich said the church must continue its work to support victims and provide a safe environment for all, especially children.

“To the very best of our ability, we have to be vigilant and make sure our churches and schools are the safest environment possible,” he said. “And when something does happen, we have to call law enforcement immediately and let them do their job and not try to investigate those things on our own. That has proven to be a mistake over and over again.”

Most cases of sexual abuse by priests are decades old. And during the last 20 years the church has put in place extensive systems for abuse prevention and reporting. But the need for continued and improved vigilance was affirmed last year here in Rapid City.

Father John Praveen, a priest from India who had served for less than a year in the Diocese of Rapid City, was sentenced to six years in prison for sexually abusing a teenage girl at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Cathedral, the mother parish of the diocese.

And that wasn’t the only distressing news in the diocese. Two months ago, former Rapid City priest Marcin Garbacz was found guilty by a jury in federal court of felony charges connected to the theft of more than $250,000 in church donations.

When asked about Garbacz, Muhich had no direct comment on the case but said “people want to know when they give to the church that their money will go where they thought it was going.

“Unfortunately, sometimes there are dishonest people and we have to confront that,” he said. “My approach would be to deal with it directly and cooperate with law enforcement and be as up front as possible.”

The two high-profile criminal cases in Rapid City complicated multi-million-dollar fundraising for a new chancery for the diocese in a remodeled building downtown and other projects and programs. Muhich understands the challenges there, too, having overseen major building projects at Catholic parishes and schools and working for a time as the diocesan finance officer in Duluth.

“I’m familiar with those things. And I hope my experience will help us address the needs of the Rapid City Diocese,” he said. “I don’t like to spend money unnecessarily.”

Muhich grew up with devout Catholic parents and six brothers and sisters in Eveleth, Minn., a heavily Catholic town in the Iron Range about 60 miles north of Duluth. After graduating from high school in Eveleth, he attended seminary at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., then went on to the American College of the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium.

Muhich was ordained a priest on Sept. 29, 1989, in the Diocese of Duluth.

He has never been to the Black Hills. But after growing up in a forested region dominated by iron-ore mining and processing, Muhich believes he will connect with the mining history and culture of this region. And knowing the economic ups and downs of iron-ore mining might help him understand the ranch community and its financial peaks and valleys, he said.

Muhich also looks forward to ministering to Native Americans in western South Dakota and learning more about the Lakota culture. He has served Native American Catholics in the Diocese of Duluth, which includes five Ojibwa reservations.

“I don’t know much about the Lakota culture,” he said. “I have a lot to learn.”

Muhich is particularly interested in learning more about Lakota spiritual leader Nicholas Black Elk and helping with the effort to have him declared a Catholic saint. Black Elk was noted for blending Lakota spirituality with a deep Catholic faith. He was a Catholic catechist, bringing hundreds of Native people to the faith.

“We need to recognize where and how God raises up holy men and women in all our churches, but especially among Native people, who have a history of suffering,” Muhich said.

Muhich’s predecessor in Rapid City, Bishop Robert Gruss, began the cause for canonization of Black Elk in 2017 with unanimous consent from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Gruss left the diocese last July to become bishop of the Diocese of Saginaw, Mich.

Since then, Father Michel Mulloy has filled the bishop’s role as diocesan administrator, which gave him a deeper understanding of the weight of responsibility facing Muhich. Mulloy is confident that the bishop-elect is ready.

“I find him to be solid, balanced and already deeply concerned for our diocese,” Mulloy said. “He will be a great blessing for us.”

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Pennington County has 27 new COVID-19 cases, state reports

The most active zone of new coronavirus cases in South Dakota has moved west. For the second consecutive day, Pennington County had more positive tests reported than any other county in the state.

Pennington County cases of coronavirus jumped 27 to a total of 127 Friday. The state lists 101 active cases in the county.

There were 372 tests performed in Pennington County Thursday. A total of 2,231 tests have been completed in the county with 700 of them coming in the past two days. 

The state reported 106 new positive tests Friday, however, 122 recovered leading to another drop in active cases in the state. There are currently 1,039 active cases in South Dakota.

The number of patients hospitalized dropped from 91 to 82 even though nine more patients were admitted. There were 16 people discharged and two people in Minnehaha County died Thursday, raising the state's death toll to 50.

Pennington County is starting to see the first signs of true exponential growth in the number of cases. Doubling rates are now consistently in five-day intervals. The May 22 report showed 127 cases and May 18 was only at 58. Similarly, the May 21 report was at 100 cases with 52 cases on May 17. 

On May 8, the county had only 18 cases and five active cases. Two weeks later, the number of cases is up to 127 — seven times as many — and active cases number more than 100.

Custer County reported 13 negative tests Friday and Fall River County reported 19 negative tests. Lawrence County reported 46 negative tests and Meade County reported 68 negative tests.

Other positive tests in Friday's report from the state health department included 19 from Beadle County, 16 from Minnehaha, and 14 from Brown. Lincoln County had seven new cases. Codington County reported five new cases and Jerauld and Union counties each had four new positive tests. Buffalo and Roberts counties each had two positive tests and Charles Mix, Oglala-Lakota, Bon Homme, Sanborn, Tripp and Union counties each had one new case.

As state parks and tourist attractions like Mount Rushmore reopen to the public, State Epidemiologist Dr. Josh Clayton said that any tourist who tested positive would be reported as a resident in their home state. However, South Dakota Department of Health workers would assist in contact tracing and notifications from the time they visited the state.