When my father returned to the Pine Ridge Reservation after serving in the Navy during World War II, he couldn’t find a job. Like many Lakota families of that era, he and my mother moved to Rapid City in search of employment. We lived in a tent along the banks of Rapid Creek, in what has come to be remembered as the “Osh Kosh Camp.” I knew this place as “Indian camp.” You know it as “Founder’s Park.”
These were lean years. The camp was a collection of tents and boxcars. We had no plumbing. Often, we went without food and warmth. But the camp was home. We felt safe there. My father, a construction worker, left every morning clutching a metal lunchbox filled with a meal my mother had prepared. He returned each evening with rust sprinkled on his shoulders after a long day “tying steel” while balanced high on ladders. Eventually, he and my mother saved enough for us to move from our tent into a two-room structure along the creek.
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My first trip into the heart of Rapid City was not a positive experience. There I read the words “No Indians Allowed” for the first time. They were printed in bold letters on a sign outside a downtown business. I was devastated. Back home, my father tried to stop the tears. “It’s because they don’t know us yet,” he consoled. In those days, Native people were mostly relegated to the creek and the outskirts of town. The only white people who came to Indian camp were clergymen and their families.
I graduated from Rapid City High School in 1959 then enrolled at the St. John’s McNamara School of Nursing. When my husband and I tried to rent a house near campus—just across “The Gap” from the Indian camp of my youth—the landlords refused. “We don’t rent to Indians,” they said. So, after graduation, my husband and I moved away and raised our family in Arizona. As happy as we were, I missed my people and my homeland.
When my husband passed away, I moved back to Rapid City. I now work for the SDSU College of Nursing and sit on the Council of Elders for Rapid City Community Conversations. I am an advisor to the Rapid City Indian Lands Project, a volunteer group that has been researching the Native history of Rapid City.
Much of the West Side was once part of the campus of the Rapid City Indian Boarding School. The land centered around “Sioux San” and stretched from what is now Mountain View Road to Canyon Lake Park. In the late 1940s, Congress passed a law making that land available to the City, the school board, the National Guard, churches, and “needy Indians.”
Native people did not receive a single square inch. Instead, local leaders conspired to acquire it all. At the urging of non-Native residents of the West Side, the City ignored repeated requests by Native people for land for housing and related opportunities over many decades.
In the 1950s, to keep Native residents far from tourists’ eyes, local leaders collaborated to dismantle the Indian camp and force the Native families north of I-90 to the “Sioux Addition,” which, today, is adjacent to Lakota Homes. My parents were fortunate enough to afford a house on the south side of Rapid City. Most Lakota families were not.
In the coming weeks, the Rapid City Indian Lands Project members will meet with the Mayor and the City Council to discuss finding solutions to the process of addressing some of the deep inequities rooted in Rapid City’s history.
In its own “Rapid City Comprehensive Plan,” the City states that “we will strive to be a community that is recognized as being welcoming and inclusive to people of all ages, ethnic groups, family type[s], and economic standing.” The City cannot meet its goal while also allowing the challenging aspects of our past to go unrecognized and unremedied. We must confront them head on, together, in a spirit of humility.
I ask every resident of Rapid City to learn this history. From it, we can build a stronger community where young Lakota girls, like I once was, can grow up without feeling unwelcome and at the margins, but encouraged to succeed on equal footing with their peers. Towards that end, I urge all of my fellow Rapid City citizens to support the Mayor, the City Council and the Rapid City Indian Lands Project in their efforts to craft something positive today to point us toward a brighter future.
Beverly Stabber Warne has been a registered nurse for over 50 years. She is now an Instructor/Mentor/Coordinator for the Native American Nursing Education Center at the SDSU College of Nursing in Rapid City. She volunteers with several nonprofit and community-focused initiatives that promote constructive dialogue around issues of racial and cultural difference. The views and opinions reflected in this piece are her own.