01/18/2011 06:44 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Indian Reservation to City: The Tough Transition

America has always looked at racial injustice as a black-and-white issue, but here is South Dakota, it has been a red-and-white issue.

Back in the days when many Indian reservation families were moving to Rapid City in search of employment, the first problem they ran into was the inability to find housing. The white landlords -- and all of the landlords were white -- did not rent to Indians.

As a result, many of the Native newcomers lived along the banks of Rapid Creek, where Crazy Horse was born. As it grew, the Indian village started to look like a refugee camp. They put up clapboard shacks, dug pits and set up makeshift outhouses. A favorite pastime of local white boys, primarily high school boys and young men from the South Dakota School of Mines, was to drink beer on Friday or Saturday nights and then throw the bottles and cans at the "Indian shacks."

Eventually, a small area in North Rapid around Lemon Avenue was opened to Indians. When my dad got a job at Rapid City Air Force Base (now Ellsworth Air Force Base), we moved from our reservation to a tarpaper shack on Lemon Avenue with no indoor plumbing and a two-seater outhouse. Electricity had not reached that street yet, so we used kerosene lamps. We drove down to the community water pump on 5th Street and filled galvanized iron garbage buckets for our home use.

Another obstacle many Indians experienced was finding a job. When I was a teenager, I applied at a local bakery. As the owner interviewed me, he looked at the application, and then looked at me, and then back at the application. I knew instinctively what he was thinking. Finally, he said, "You look like a healthy young man, but I don't ever hire anyone from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation because if I put them to work, they get their first paycheck and never come back." There were no employment discrimination laws at the time.

Although drawn to Rapid City originally by the promise of employment opportunities, many families struggled to survive. As a result, children (including me) were taken to the Indian mission boarding schools on the reservation during the school year. We returned home only for the summer. For recreation, we swam in the Creek, which was wider then and had several deep holes. Most of us couldn't afford bathing suits, so we cut away the legs of our old jeans and used them for swimming trunks. This became a sort of fad among the white kids a few years later. One spot in particular on the river was a gathering place for the Indian kids from the reservations. We came to call this place "Riff Raff," but we didn't understand the connotation of this term until we grew up, and associated it with how the white community viewed us.

One day my friend "Wobbie" and I walked downtown to the famous Alex Johnson Hotel. The revolving doors the tourists walked in and out of fascinated us, so we thought we would see how they worked. We pushed through door and entered the hotel, only to be confronted by a very angry doorman. He kicked us with his booted foot and screamed, "Get the hell out of here, you dirty little Indians!"

Sixty years later, there are still racial barriers in Rapid City, but we have struggled mightily to bring them down.


Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the editor and publisher of Native Sun News and was Nieman Fellow at Harvard. His weekly column won the H. L. Mencken Award in 1985, and he first Native American ever inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame. He can be reached at