Nearly 700 protestors from Native communities across the United States, and members of the American Indian Movement met in Rapid City, South Dakota the morning of May 21 to march in support of Vernon Traversie, a Cheyenne River tribal member.
Traversie, a blind, 68 year old, who underwent double bypass heart surgery at Rapid City Regional Hospital (RCRH) on August 26, 2011, was left with a bizarre pattern of wounds on his abdomen, well below and on the lower left and right sides of his surgical wound.
Those who have personally seen the wounds describe them as horrific – claiming they resemble deep burns in the shape of three ‘K’s.’ According to Cheyenne River tribal member Cody Hall, a friend of Traversie’s, the wounds resemble brandings.
“This looks like a hate crime,” Hall, who organized the rally, said in a phone interview with Indian Country Today Media Network. Hall said the point of the rally was to raise awareness of the many incidences of underlying racism against Native people that have occurred in Rapid City over the years. The group also wants to support Traversie in his struggle to deal with this recent incidence.
Traversie, who did not attend the rally due to health and safety concerns, was the subject of a YouTube video interview in which he asserts that a nurse who did not want to be identified, initially drew his attention to the marks. Later, he says a home health care worker photographed the wounds. The pictures and video were then posted to Facebook on the “Justice for Vern Traversie” page and went viral as they were passed throughout Indian country.
“We have organized to send a message for once and for all that we are not going to stand for anymore hate crimes or racial violence in this region. It doesn’t matter where you are from; once you get to Rapid, when an Indian steps out of their car, they are labeled as a target,” Hall said.
The protest, which organizers are calling the Justice for Vern Traversie March, began with a call to Indian country. Native marchers and supporters poured in from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, California, Oklahoma, Montana, and Colorado. The group met at Memorial Park and wound its way to RCRH, where speeches were made and the marchers demanded a meeting with hospital authorities.
Seven members of the Indian delegation, including Hall, AIM leaders, Dennis Banks and Clyde Bellecourt, Madonna Gilbert, Tom Cheyenne, Dorothy Ninham, and Vice-President of the Oglala Lakota Sioux Tribe, Tom Poor Bear, met with a group of hospital officials led by Tim Sughrue, hospital CEO. Two Native American patient advocates, employees of RCRH, were also in attendance.
According to Hall, the march was very peaceful – exactly as it was planned. He was less enthusiastic about the meeting with hospital officials.
“It was really just a slap in the face,” he said. They already had a protocol set up when we sat down. The CEO pretty much insinuated that Vern is lying. Every time we asked a pointed question, they called on the Privacy Act and refused to answer. They claimed they have never had any discrimination problems, but you could tell it was a touchy matter. They just kept saying they couldn’t comment.”
Banks and Hall met with Traversie a couple of days before the rally, and Banks said he believed “something terrible happened to him.” The hospital “evaded every issue we brought up,” he added in a phone interview with ICTMN.
Rapid City has had a long history of violent encounters between police and Indians, but Hall commended the police today. “At first there was some tension because they weren’t expecting such a lot of people and I think they were a bit panicked, but for the most part, they handled the situation very professionally. We didn’t come to start trouble – just to get answers, and I think they respected that.”
Autumn Two Bulls travelled to Rapid from Pine Ridge with her family to join the march. She believes it was a good experience. “After 500 years, this needless violence is still happening here. We want to walk freely in our own land. It was intensely powerful to hear our warriors crying out and to see young and old alike marching together. It is beautiful to see them speaking out against the violence in our country.”
Two Bulls told ICTMN she was touched by the humility and respect demonstrated by one police officer who stepped into the crowd. “He told us that he supported us in our efforts to stop the hate crimes,” she said. “He told us, I understand because we are all human beings.”
RCRH released a statement made by CEO Sughrue shortly after the rally denying that any malpractice took place. “We are deeply committed to providing excellent care to everyone, regardless of race. No one at RCRH would stand idly by and allow abuse to occur in this hospital.”
The statement concluded that, “In the absence of a written release, we are severely restricted from commenting on the care of any patient. We would welcome the opportunity to discuss the specifics of any case if allowed to do so by the patient or their representative.”
Nevertheless, Banks said he thought the march was a great success. “This gathering brought with it a new spirit. There were lots of AIM people here today,” he said. “Young people in action are on the move, working for a better future. They are going to need the help and advice of their elders.”