Vernon Traversie, a legally blind Cheyenne River Sioux tribal elder who lives in Eagle Butte, South Dakota, believes he was the victim of a hate crime while in the hospital for surgery and fears reprisal for his attempts to bring the incident to the attention of authorities.
After having heart surgery at Rapid City Regional Hospital (RCRH) in Rapid City, South Dakota, Traversie had scars on his abdomen described by several eyewitnesses as “carvings” or “brandings” of the letters KKK. After his wounds were documented by photographs and in a video posted on YouTube in April, his case has evoked outrage from Native Americans across the country. In a recent written statement he said, “I feel hopeful that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is beginning an investigation into what happened to me at the Rapid City Regional Hospital last September. I continue to call for a full law enforcement investigation and for protection because I am afraid.”
Traversie’s case has generated a great deal of controversy in the Rapid City area. Many South Dakota Natives, who utilize Indian Health Service (IHS) Aberdeen Area services, support Traversie. These tribal members are sent to RCRH for major surgery, obstetrics or complicated cases that have been referred from IHS. Many claim they have received substandard care at the facility.
But his accusation has also drawn a great deal of criticism, largely from those who claim he is trying to stir up racial tensions between the local tribes and the mainstream community. Some have questioned his integrity, character, and motivation. He has been called a “whiner,” “moron” and “ingrate” by some who say he should be thankful that the surgical team at RCRH saved his life.
Traversie says he feels intimidated by the negative attention and is reluctant to speak publicly on his own behalf. That’s why his pastor, the Reverend Ben Farrar of the First Baptist Church of Eagle Butte, South Dakota has stepped forward to, he says, “set the record straight.” Farrar says the elder’s concern for other RCRH patients who may face similar victimization is what motivated him to speak out about the incident.
Farrar, who has been the pastor at the Eagle Butte church since June of last year, says he has been at Traversie’s side since the beginning of the ordeal, says he knows Traversie to be an honest man. He recalls that Traversie was having a checkup in the office of his cardiologist in Rapid City when he experienced his heart attack. He was immediately transported to RCRH, where he was first stabilized and then underwent double-bypass surgery on August 26, 2011.
Farrar says he visited Traversie in the hospital that day and the next, bringing cards and well-wishes from the congregation. He says Traversie told his companion, Karen Townsend, and Farrar that he had been having increasingly confrontational exchanges with a male attendant, who, at one point, Traversie told them, swore at him after he requested his pain medication.
The next time Farrar visited, he says Traversie told him that “20 people, in pairs and small groups,” had come in and asked to see his surgical scars. “These people did not dress the wounds, or treat or touch him in any way,” Farrar recalls him saying. “They just looked at the wounds and left. He had no idea why they were looking, but he heard a lot of whispering after they looked.”
A few days later Traversie told Farrar that as he was preparing to be discharged, a female nurse came to his bed and told him quietly that her conscience was bothering her. “I can’t stand it any longer,” Traversi says she said. “They did something bad to you. When you get home, have someone take photos of your front and back right away.” According to Traversie, she then told him she did not want to be involved. “This is the last time you’ll ever hear from me,” she told him.
“When he got home, Karen looked at the scars and was alarmed,” says Farrar. “She called the Eagle Butte Police Department and they came out to have a look. After viewing the K-shaped cuts, their first reaction was to question Karen, since her name begins with a K. They soon realized, however, that she could not have made the marks.
“I viewed the scars myself the following day, when Vern went to the Eagle Butte IHS clinic,” Farrar says. “When they opened up his robe, I was floored. There was the obvious surgery scar running down his upper chest; then a scar at an exact right angle, clearly for a drainage tube, was visible. But then all over his torso there were other cuts. At first they seemed haphazard and clumsy, but as I looked closer, I could clearly see the letter K on either side of his abdomen.”
Farrar says he was puzzled by these marks. “But then we saw a smaller K in the middle, and we were shocked,” he recalls. “I am used to the idea of the KKK showing up and doing crazy things through the pages of history,” he says. “You just don’t expect to see it in the here and now.”
The Klan has had a visible presence in South Dakota for decades, and Rapid City was the site of Klan activity as recently as November 2011, when KKK propaganda was found stuffed into merchandise on shelves in several local stores.
The staff at the Eagle Butte IHS clinic doesn’t think the scars are the work of a Klan member. They told Traversie the scars were made by an allergic reaction to surgical tape; a suggestion that does not sit well with Farrar. “Vern has had a number of surgeries before this and has never had an allergic reaction to tape, and to my knowledge, they don’t make surgical tape in the shape of letters.”
Farrar says he was with Traversie when an IHS doctor examined the scars. He says the physician spoke frankly, yet insisted on anonymity. “Off the record,” he says the doctor told them, “This looks exactly like what you think it is. On the record, I can’t imagine a person who has taken an oath to serve, protect, and heal the population could commit such an atrocity.”
Farrar says Traversie then turned to him for help; he says he advised him to have pictures taken immediately, to contact the police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and to hire a lawyer. “I took the pictures myself and acted as Vern’s liaison. I contacted the FBI, as he directed—in fact, I contacted them twice but never got a response.”
Robert Perry, Supervisory Senior FBI Resident Agent in Rapid City, confirmed that the FBI was contacted. “In conjunction with the South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation, we have conducted an investigation into the allegations made in this case,” he says, adding that the findings have been turned over to the U.S. Attorney General’s Office. “We are now awaiting the Attorney General’s decision as to whether the matter needs further investigation or if other actions may be taken,” he says.
Farrar says he also contacted RCRH within a week of Traversie’s discharge and claims they promised an investigation. “They turned the matter over to the Rapid City police, but the police never interviewed Vern, Karen, or me. They just went by whatever information they were given by the hospital.”
At that point, Farrar says he contacted a Rapid City attorney who specializes in personal injury and federal Indian law cases. “At the attorney’s request, I continued to take pictures of the scars as they evolved during the healing process. Some of those photos were sent to a crime lab in Colorado, which said the scars may have been caused by surgical tape. Vern then became frustrated and fired the attorney. He then went to the tribal office and told them his story.”
It was then that a tribal member videotaped Traversie telling his story, and posted the video on YouTube.com, where it went viral.
Traversie claims that when he confronted RCRH administrators, they asked him to waive his Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act rights, an action that might have compromised his ability to pursue the investigation he sought through the Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights. He refused to sign the waiver.
In May 21, after hundreds gathered at RCRH in support of Traversie, hospital administrators released a statement that read, in part, “We are deeply committed to providing excellent care to everyone, regardless of race. No one at RCRH would stand by idly and allow abuse to occur in this hospital.”
In a May 15 letter to Traversie, Velveta Howell, a regional manager of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Civil Rights, stated that the agency would initiate an investigation into Traversie’s claims, and would also refer his complaints of physical abuse to the U.S. Department of Justice and the regional office of the FBI.
A week later, the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association (GPTCA), an affiliation made up of the 16 tribal presidents and chairpersons in the states of North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska, met at Shakopee, Minnesota, where they passed a resolution in support of Traversie and for a request for justice. The GPTCA resolution calls for an investigation into the matter, pointing to increased racial tension in Rapid City in the last few years, and asserting that the medical care provided to American Indians at RCRH has been “notoriously substandard.”
“Vern is afraid,” says Farrar. “He is getting on in years, is almost completely blind, and in a delicate physical condition. No matter what the cause, a very hateful thing was done to him and he has had the point driven home to him that he is not safe at RCRH. Even the calls he gets from his supporters tire him and cause him strain. I’m his pastor and I love this man. I am doing my best to help him.
“A primary concern for Vern is that if a hate crime was committed, the perpetrator is still working somewhere in the hospital system, and if not stopped, may try it again.
“There is also the matter of justice for Vern,” he adds. “His scars are healing, but he deserves peace of mind. The people of Rapid City as well as the Lakota people who use these services [at RCRH] deserve the confidence that comes with knowing that they are safe and secure in the hands of their healthcare providers.”