Hotelier’s post banning Native Americans sparks outrage in South Dakota

A recent social media post by a hotel owner in Rapid City, SD announcing that Native Americans would be barred from the business after a shooting in one of the hotel rooms drew swift condemnation from community leaders , a demonstration and a federal lawsuit for civil rights .

Owner Connie Uhre was devastated by an attack at the 132-room Grand Gateway Hotel early March 19, in which the shooter and victim were both Native Americans. She also expressed broader concerns about what she described as an increase in crime in the city.

“We will no longer allow any Native Americans on the property,” Ms. Uhre, 76, wrote on Facebook on March 20. “Or Cheers Sports Bar,” she said, referring to the on-site lounge where karaoke takes place for six days. one week. “Natives killing natives.”

Race relations in Rapid City have long been a powder keg, Sioux Falls-based commentator Tom Lawrence wrote in The South Dakota Standard, and Ms. Uhre last weekend “lit the game.”

Ms Uhre’s comments were widely condemned by local officials, including the mayor, tribal chiefs, law enforcement officials and other community groups.

The message, Native Americans and others said in interviews, was a blatant example of racism that emerged from the myriad subtle and systemic types that Indigenous peoples face every day.

Nick Tilsen, president of the NDN Collective, a Rapid City-based activist group that champions Indigenous causes, said he was shocked when he first saw Ms Uhre’s comments.

“I was like, ‘Is this 1960s Montgomery or Birmingham, Ala.? ‘” he said, referring to sites of virulent racism during the civil rights era. “What is that?”

His next thought: “We need to do something about this. We’re not going to let it slip. Not here. Not in our community. We’re not going to turn the other cheek on this one.

The NDN Collective filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Western Division of the state on Wednesday. The proposed class action alleges that Native Americans, including members of the NDN Collective, attempted two days after the social media posting to rent rooms at the hotel, but were denied. The hotel’s actions are “part of a policy, pattern or practice of intentional racial discrimination against Native Americans,” the lawsuit alleges.

On the same day the lawsuit was filed, hundreds of community members and activists marched from a park to the Federal Courthouse in downtown Rapid City, where the NDN Collective held a rally and conference Press.

Ms Uhre declined to comment on the lawsuit. His son, Nicholas Uhre, said Thursday that the hotel has never had a policy prohibiting Native Americans from renting a room. His mother’s comments, he said, were “stupid” and made “in an emotional state” as she was distraught over the shooting.

Police say a 19-year-old man has been arrested on suspicion of aggravated assault and a felony with a firearm in connection with the March 19 hotel shooting. Late Thursday, a police spokesman said the victim, a young man, was “fighting for his life in hospital”.

“Someone took a stupid post by a 76-year-old lady and they are using it for political purposes,” Mr Uhre said.

“We rent to Native Americans all day,” he said. “We do not discriminate. We never have, we never will.

He called attempts by members of the NDN collective this week to rent rooms a “cascade”. “If someone’s up there causing trouble,” he said, “we’re not going to rent them a room.”

Mr. Tilsen, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe, said the attempts to secure rooms were sincere. “We went there to get rooms like we get all over town all the time,” he said. “And they refused rooms to Native Americans.”

Mayor Steve Allender, a Republican, said statements like Ms. Uhre’s pit communities against each other and hurt not only Native Americans, but also city businesses and the wider community.

“I condemn these statements in the strongest possible terms,” Mr. Allender said in a statement. “They do not represent Rapid City and its people, or America.”

He added, “I call on the Uhre family to publicly speak out and denounce these statements and begin to make amends to the community, specifically the Native American people.”

The comment flap also prompted local police to push back on claims that crime was out of control in Rapid City, a city of about 75,000 whose nearby attractions include Mount Rushmore.

At the time of the coronavirus pandemic, “we’ve seen an increase in certain types of crime,” said Brendyn Medina, spokesperson for the Rapid City Police Department, “but that’s reflective of the country as a whole. It doesn’t so there’s nothing really specific to Rapid City and Pennington County that we’re looking at.

He noted that service calls in and around the hotel were down about 10% in 2021 from the previous year.

Nohemi M. Moore