Two and a half years ago, something happened to Vern Traversie. And in the weeks and months to come, the Lakota elder from South Dakota’s Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation is hoping that a court trial will determine, once and for all, what took place at Rapid City Regional Hospital in late summer 2011.
Traversie underwent double-bypass surgery at the hospital on August 26, 2011 and was discharged on September 8. On the advice of an anonymous hospital employee, he had his home health-care worker from Timber Lake-based West Winds Home Health Care look at his abdomen and take photos.
The photos show scars from the 2011 surgery and prior procedures, and they show what seem to be deep, scattered wounds. Some of them appear to make three Ks. Traversie said his doctor at Indian Health Services in Eagle Butte was shocked, as was his pastor, who called it a hate crime.
“Nobody wants to call it that, and when the FBI interviewed me, they said it wasn’t, but that’s what happened,” Traversie said from his home in Eagle Butte. “It was a racial hate crime.”
He said he asked his nurses at the time why his abdomen hurt so much. He also recalled that large numbers of people kept coming into his hospital room, asking to look.
“There must have been 20, 30 different people,” he remembered. “I didn’t understand what was going on, why they were all so curious. Was it a unique surgery? I could feel the stitches in my chest, but I had so much pain in my abdomen.”
Traversie said he requested a transfer to the rehab hospital, partially because he needed to practice walking, but also because he was afraid of a male nurse in the hospital’s ICU.
“He threatened me, he intimidated me, he grabbed and threw my arm up and down, and he used the F-word,” Traversie said. “I was sure he was going to start beating me. And I don’t think he was ever chastised or disciplined.”
Traversie retained the services of a team of tribal attorneys, and on July 16, 2012, they filed a lawsuit on his behalf against Rapid City Regional Hospital in the United States District Court, District of South Dakota, Western Division. The complaint states that the “Plaintiff suffered severe physical and emotional trauma as a result of acts and omissions that took place while he was under the care and supervision of the Rapid City Regional Hospital.”
Depositions were taken from Traversie, his girlfriend, his pastor, Rapid City Regional Hospital staff, and expert witnesses. And then the case languished.
“My first attorney didn’t accomplish anything, so I terminated our relationship,” Traversie said. “These new lawyers, they really impressed me.”
Traversie is now represented by Galanda Broadman, a Pacific Northwest-based law firm that specializes in litigation, business matters and regulatory disputes that affect Indian country, and Chase Iron Eyes of Bismarck, North Dakota. Yet Traversie is still waiting for his day in court.
According to court records, the defendants moved for summary judgment on January 10 of this year. That judgment may be issued on the case’s merits or on specific issues. The defendants in Traversie v. Regional Hospital filed their motion claiming a lack of evidence and stating that “no reasonable jury” could believe Traversie’s claims.
Traversie’s legal team filed a response on January 31, stating that “[t]he jury is responsible for weighing the evidence and making credibility determinations, not the court.” The defendants filed their reply brief on February 13, in which they reiterated that Traversie “has failed to produce sufficient evidence to present a triable claim.”
Now the federal judge will have the final word regarding whether Traversie’s case will proceed to trial.
According to Traversie’s attorneys, it’s fairly typical for a case like this to proceed at this pace. For Traversie’s part, he is in constant communication with his attorneys and awaits ruling from the court.
“I never had any experience with any kind of lawsuit,” Traversie said. “It really is an extensive waiting period, since there’s this motion to throw the case out of court due to lack of evidence. We’re waiting for the judge, and if he doesn’t throw it out, we’ll be setting a date for trial.”
Traversie said the last two and a half years have been harrowing, but they’ve also given him time to think.
“To me, this is really about civil rights,” he explained. “A lot of people have contacted me and said that their rights were violated at Rapid City Regional Hospital, too. There seems to be a different justice involved, one for white people and one for Indians. Indian people have to really fight to stand up for themselves.
“I don’t want this to happen to our elders, our children,” he continued, his voice thick with emotion. “I want to tell people, send a relative to protect them while they’re at the hospital. I wonder if (hospital staff) took advantage of me because I’m elderly, and blind, without a lot of people to check up on me.”
The experience has taken its toll. Traversie said he’s in constant fear of KKK retribution, and he’s afraid of doctors; he doesn’t even like going to the local IHS hospital in Eagle Butte.
“It’s hard for me to go out and do things,” Traversie said. “I’m going to be 72 on June 12, I live in extreme poverty, and my health is always a concern, but this also has dishonored my soul. I was tortured in mind, body and spirit. It’s been horrible to endure.”
His saving grace, he said, has been prayer. That, and the support of Native and non-Native people from around North America.
“I believe in God, and I pray for peace and forgiveness,” he said. “That has kept me calm. I wish I could broker a peace between my people and the KKK in Rapid City. I didn’t do anything to them. Let’s just respect each other, and leave each other alone. I’m hoping that white people in South Dakota will help put a stop to this, and I want to stand up for my people too. But we all need to do it in the right way, with peaceful demonstrations.”
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Regardless of whether the case goes to trial or not, Traversie wants to let the public know that his story is about truth, justice, and above all, reconciliation.
“We need to come together and take a common stance against evil,” he said, “because it does exist. But this experience has shown me there are so many good people in this world. It’s overwhelming.”