Hundreds of Native Americans demanded justice on Monday from Rapid City Regional Hospital for a Lakota man who said the initials KKK were carved into his chest during surgery.
Vern Traversie, a legally blind member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, alleges that he was scarred with the abbreviation associated with the Ku Klux Klan during open-heart surgery at Regional Hospital in August 2011. An online video in which Traversie talks about the scars recently went viral among the Native American community.
In protest of Traversie’s alleged treatment, about 300 Native American demonstrators, led by American Indian Movement activist Dennis Banks, marched with police escort down Fifth Street on Monday from a rally in Memorial Park to another in the parking lot of the hospital.
“We can’t let this day go by without getting some answers from this hospital,” said Banks to the crowd assembled at the edge of the hospital’s parking lot. “It can’t be that way.”
Regional Hospital’s chief executive officer, Tim Sughrue, said the hospital would “welcome the opportunity” to comment on Traversie’s case but cannot without his written permission, due to a federal patient confidentiality law.
Not in attendance, Traversie, 69, issued a statement about the show of support by the Native community and called for a criminal investigation.
“I am scarred for life, but I seek justice. I don’t want any other Native American to be treated like I was by the medical professionals who I trusted to take care of me when I was vulnerable,” said Traversie, in the written statement. “I am thankful that so many Native Americans and other people from all over the world have reached out to me to say that they support me. I am humbled by their compassion.”
The Rapid City Police Department did investigate Traversie’s allegations, but at the request of the demonstrators, referred the case to the FBI, Rapid City Police Chief Steve Allender said.
Although Banks called for answers and justice from the hospital, he also told the demonstrators to put the hospital out of business. Banks said to the crowd in Memorial Park that a feasibility study for a $100 million state-of-the-art Native hospital was in the works.
“This is going to end today,” said Banks, speaking on racism in Rapid City to the crowd in the park. “If we have to close up Rapid City Regional Hospital, we will close it up.”
Tom Poor Bear, vice president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, also told the crowd that he is drafting a resolution calling for an investigation of all treatment of tribal members at Regional Hospital in the last 20 years.
Sughrue and other hospital officials met with rally leaders while demonstrators carried on the protest outside under the guidance of about 50 local law enforcement officers.
Event organizer Cody Hall said Traversie asked that group to keep the demonstration peaceful.
Allender said the group’s size and the disorganization at the start of the event raised concerns of safety along with some of the demonstrators’ aggressive behaviors.
“There seemed to be a great amount of hostility in the group, and there were purposeful acts of intimidation throughout, as well as threats of violence,” said Allender, on Monday night. “I was concerned there would be a physical confrontation, especially in amongst children and other innocent bystanders.” No arrests were made during the demonstration.
Members of the Rapid City Police Department, Pennington County Sheriff’s Office, South Dakota Highway Patrol and hospital security kept the demonstration at the edge of the parking lot. The demonstrators also nominated their own group members to act as security, who attempted to keep the protestors on message and in one area.
Before Banks went in for the meeting, he addressed the demonstrators telling them that if he was unhappy with the meeting, occupying the hospital and other manners of protest were not out of the question.
“All of the options are on the table,” Banks said to the crowd. “If I’m dissatisfied, I’ll walk out of the meeting.”
The scene outside the hospital was tense as the strip of pavement shrank and grew between the protestors and the line of law enforcement officers. Under the AIM flags, speakers rallied the crowd, as groups’ grievances broadened into general complaints of racism. Demonstrators shouted accusations of racism at law enforcement. The group sang traditional Lakota songs to the music of a drum group and some of the demonstrators yelled for the hospital to be boycotted and burnt down.
“In hindsight, this event did not qualify as peaceful in my view; non-violent yes, but not peaceful,” Allender said. “Our employees are used to being yelled at, insulted, disrespected by protest groups such as this. Nevertheless it is part of our job to provide the group protection during their protest.”
The demonstration dispersed just before 4 p.m. without incident, but the hour-and-a-half meeting between hospital officials and rally leaders continued inside the hospital.
Sughrue said the meeting gave both sides the opportunity to share their perspectives. Although unable to speak with the leaders on Traversie’s case, Sughrue said that racism goes against everything the hospital stands for.
“We made a very serious attempt to stress to the leaders that we do not under any circumstance tolerate any form of discrimination, racial or otherwise,” Sughrue said.
But two of the rally leaders – Banks and Hall – agreed it provided an opportunity to talk, but were dissatisfied with the hospital’s close-lipped responses.
“We never got any answers,” said Banks, during dinner for the protestors at the Mother Butler Center. “We’re going to keep pressing forward.”
Hall said the hospital’s responses seemed scripted, and the whole meeting felt like “a slap in the face” to what they were trying to do.
“We’re not going to stop. We’ll keep moving forward,” said Hall, during the dinner at the Mother Butler Center.
Contact Holly Meyer at 394-8421 or firstname.lastname@example.org.