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A dark lesson about the historic displacement of Native Americans in Rapid City shined a hopeful light on the future during a special community presentation at the Journey Museum on Thursday night.

Partnering with Mayor Steve Allender, the Mniluzahan Okolakiciyapi Ambassadors — a group of Native and non-Native community leaders — has been researching how Native communities in Rapid City were formed, dismantled and reformed again, particularity on the land surrounding the Sioux San Hospital.

More than 170 people filled the seats at the Journey Museum to hear the group's findings, presented by researchers Kibbe Conti and attorney Heather Dawn Thompson. 

"We are hopeful that by having this common set of knowledge about our shared history it will facilitate better understanding within our community, and hopefully better relationships," Thompson said.

The story unearthed by Conti and Thompson explains how the post-World War II expansion of Rapid City led to the destruction of established Native American communities as a matter of policy and choice by those in charge at the time.

According to Thompson, the culmination of this all too recent history has been lingering confusion about the rightful ownership of roughly 1,200 acres of land stretching from Mountain View Road to Canyon Lake Park on the west side of the city.

"My advice to anyone watching this and feeling threatened by it would be to just settle down and listen," Allender said before the meeting. "When we come home tonight, I don’t think we’re going to have a whole lot of answers, I think we're going to have as many questions. This should not be seen as the final product or the conclusion of anything. Really, it has to be viewed as the beginning of something."

Thompson assured those property and homeowners within the affected area that despite its checkered and complicated past, their rights to the land were not being called into question.

"None of us in this room had anything to do with this," Thompson prefaced. The events of her research, she said, happened "in a different time, in a different era, with different people."

Boarding school era

In Thompson's telling, the story begins in 1898, when the Bureau of Indian Affairs established the Rapid City Indian Boarding School, a huddle of buildings on 1,200 acres of property that would eventually become the present day Sioux San Hospital.

The mission, as in many such schools of that era, was to strip young Native American minds of their language, culture, and history, to “kill the Indian and save the man.”

The U.S government took hundreds of Native children from reservations across the Dakotas, Wyoming and Montana and sent them to the boarding school in Rapid City.  

“It was a very harsh experience that went on for 100 years,” Conti said.

Many Native families followed their children to the Rapid City boarding school in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and formed communities nearby.

So began a Native migration to the area that eventually prompted members of federal and local government to decide to uproot existing Native communities and relocate them to modern-day housing subdivisions like the Sioux Addition on the north side of town.

Packed in the poor living conditions of the school, dozens of students died from disease until the place was shutdown more than 30 years after its founding.

“The whole reason we started this research was to honor those children who died," Thompson said, noting that there is an unmarked cemetery on the former boarding school property that she is working with the city to memorialize and protect.

Sioux Sanatorium 

The boarding school became the Sioux Sanatorium in 1938, a place to treat Native victims of the tuberculosis epidemic that ravaged the Lakota population in those days.

More Native families came to the area to be near their loved ones in the facility and even more came after World War II, forced out of their homes in Pine Ridge when the federal government began using part of the reservation as a bombing range.

The city's Native population gathered in "camps" near Rapid Creek and on the land near the former boarding school, Thompson said. It was around this time that local groups in Rapid City began lobbying to use portions of the 1,200 acres of former boarding school land for their own purposes.

In 1948, Congress allowed three uses for the land. Either it could be set aside for — in their words — “needy Indians,” sold to churches, or given for free to the city, the school district and the National Guard.

Though much of it was the site of existing Native communities at the time, the land was quickly divided up into parcels: roughly 207 acres for the city, 152 for the Rapid City school district, 693 for the South Dakota National Guard, and 183 for nine local churches.

And how much for the Native community? According to Thompson, none.

Native leaders fought for years to obtain some of the boarding school lands for a variety of purposes: Housing, a cultural center, powwow and ceremonial grounds, a new health facility. All of the requests, Thompson said, were denied.

Instead of allowing them to form their own neighborhoods on the boarding school land, the government pushed the Native community further into the fringes of north Rapid City, where the Sioux Addition now sits.

"There was no water or sewer, so the community members had to go all the way back to the river to haul water," Thompson said. "This caused a lot of feelings in the community.”

Looking ahead

Thompson and Conti said it is their hope to bring the Native and non-Native communities together in an understanding of their shared history and how the people of Rapid City continue to live together within the consequences of past decisions.

"What becomes of this presentation," Thompson said, "is up to you as community members.”

At least two dozen people had to be turned away on Tuesday night, as The Journey Museum was packed to capacity. To accommodate these and other individuals who are interested in learning about the history of Sioux San, Conti and Thompson will give another presentation on May 18.

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Education/County Reporter

Education/county reporter for the Rapid City Journal.