In 1928, in the old railroad town of Kadoka, my Dad and his sister, Emmaline, boarded a train in the late September dusk. My dad was 6, Aunt Emmaline, several years older. Sometime after midnight, a tall man in a large black car picked them up at the downtown Rapid City station. They rode in silence until, mounting a hill, the tall stranger deposited them before a large brick building.
It was the Rapid City Indian School. Brother and sister were separated: she to the girls’ dorm, he to the boys’. There he lay, awake in the open bay, till night lifted. Fear seized his throat. He could not speak for several days.
Stark and implacable times. I returned to them a few weeks back, ferried by three remarkable Rapid City women: Karen Mortimer, Heather Dawn Thompson and Kibbe Conti, founding members of the Mniluzahan Okolakiciyapi Ambassadors. Anderson and Conti have tirelessly researched the history of the Indian School and the west Rapid City lands apportioned to it. Redolent of my father, the truth seems barely speakable.
The old school buildings currently house the Indian Health Service’s Sioux San Hospital. Nearly 1,400 acres went with the school. West Rapid, my present home, is as serene and beautiful a place as can be found in the Black Hills. Early on, to be near their children Native parents and family members camped nearby along the Mniluzahan — now called Rapid Creek.
Pretty as a postcard, this could not, and would not, last.
In a packed conference room in the Ramkota Inn, a second presentation on the sordid facts of the case was presented. The encore made necessary when the first presentation at The Journey Museum in early May was so heavily attended well over a 100 people were turned away. At the museum, Rapid City Mayor Steve Allender and Police Chief Karl Jegeris were in front-row attendance. The topic hit a nerve.
For those with a passing knowledge of U.S. history, vis-à-vis Indigenous contacts with European refugees from 1492 to the present, the tale of west Rapid City is that in microcosm. To wit: Indians can have whatever is theirs so long as the grass grows, river flows, and wind blows — or until the white man decides he wants it. Whichever comes first.
I say this without animus. You get used to things.
Point by meticulous point, Ms. Thompson and Ms. Conti retailed the details in chronological order. Thompson, a lawyer, made an irrefutable closing argument — save for a subtle but salient tone: she spoke only in notes of healing. The facts were the facts: however “legally” decided and divided, the land was stolen. But her review was presented — not as an indictment — but as the beginning of a civil conversation.
To my mind, it worked. In one or two places, trauma and grief did surface. Given the subject, this was unavoidable. West Rapid’s history and wounds are relatively fresh. There are those still alive who lived it. And it is a great gift and mercy that these three women, Mortimer, Thompson and Conti, now come to cleanse the wound, and suture it.
A side note: Yes, for better or worse, I’ll be regularly back on the Journal’s Thursday editorial page. Many thanks to Editors Bart Pfankuch and Patrick Butler for making it possible.