Notes from Indian Country
By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji)
© Native Sun News
October 20, 2014
It started in May of 1998. Bodies began to show up in or near Rapid City Creek.
Of the eight bodies discovered in 1998 and 1999 six were Native Americans, all were homeless men.
All in all in the years 1998 to December of 2000, there were 11 unexplained deaths in Rapid City, most of them involving Indians or homeless men.
There was Ben Long Wolf, age 36, George Hatton, age 56, Allen Hough, age 42, Royce Yellow Hawk, age 26, Randell Two Crow, age 48, Lauren Two Bulls, age 33, Dirk Bartling, age 44, Arthur Chamberlain, age 45, Timothy Bull Bear Sr., age 47, Lonnie Isham, age 43, and Wilbur G. Johnson, age 41.
Four of the Native American victims were found face down in Rapid Creek.
Native Americans have pondered this strange set of circumstances since 1998. In 2009, ten years after the string of circumstantial deaths, Laurette Pourier, a Native American educator, said many Native Americans believe the deaths weren't properly investigated.
In an article appearing in the Rapid City Journal in June of 2009, Pennington County Sheriff Don Holloway said every lead was investigated. But because so many deaths happened in a short time and then stopped; Holloway doesn't believe they were all accidental.
Stacy Low Dog, a Lakota lady who helped organize patrols of volunteers along the creek to improve safety said she believes the deaths were caused by foul play. She said most rumors in the Indian community at the time puts the blame on young white people who harassed the homeless along the creek. She said one of her cousins told her he escaped after some white men grabbed him and held his head under water.
When I inquired about the progress in solving these unexplained deaths Captain James Johus of the Criminal Investigations Division responded with, "The Rapid City Police Department and the Pennington County Sheriff's Office worked several investigations that were additionally reviewed by the staff at Mid-States Organized Crime Information Center and the FBI. After these thorough reviews there was nothing identified to indicate these were criminal events. Therefore they are not categorized as being 'unsolved' deaths."
The families of Lauren Two Bulls and Timothy Bull Bear, Sr., still mourn the deaths of their family members. And as I have heard over these many years the families of all of the men found dead in or around Rapid Creek not only still mourn those deaths, but still wonder why their deaths have not been resolved. Could all of these deaths have been accidental?
Since the white man first trespassed on these lands known as He' Sapa (Black Hills) there has been an open season on the lives of the Lakota people. Entire Lakota families were shot to death by the gold miners, trappers and settlers that invaded their lands. All of these killings, which would be labeled outright murders today, were left unpunished because after all, they were only killing Indians.
Did some of this frontier mentality leak into the minds of present day law enforcement officers? Were the murders not thoroughly investigated simply because the victims were Indians? We hear this time and again in the communities of African Americans. There are probably thousands of Black men and American Indian men and women locked behind bars because of their race rather than their alleged crimes. Nearly every month we read about an African American man or woman released from prison after many years because DNA has proven them to be innocent.
In the State of South Dakota with a 12 percent Indian population it is amazing that 35 percent of the men and women serving time in city, county and state prisons and jails are Native American. In the Pennington Jail (Rapid City is in Pennington County) probably 80 percent of those incarcerated are Native Americans. How many Native American police officers are serving on the Rapid City Police Department or on the Pennington County Sheriff's Department? The South Dakota Highway Patrol just hired and trained eight new officers. None of them were Native American. It is the same situation that exists in towns like Ferguson, Missouri where a community that is 60 percent Black had only three Black officers on the police department. Twenty percent of Rapid City's population is Native American.
Back in 1998 and 1999 something happened to cause the deaths of so many homeless and Native American men. Was it all a colossal set of circumstances? Most Native Americans living in and around Rapid City think not. They believe that somewhere there is a murderer or murderers walking around laughing about all of the Indians they killed.
(Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the founder of the Native American Journalists Association. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1991. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)