Lawsuit filed over threat to bar Native Americans from South Dakota hotel

RAPID CITY, SD — Hundreds of protesters gathered outside a federal courthouse in a South Dakota town on Wednesday to cheer the filing of a federal lawsuit against a hotel owner’s pledge to bar Native Americans access to the property.

Protesters held a rally and prayer meeting in a Rapid City park, then took to the streets in response to a social media post from a Grand Gateway Hotel owner who said she would not allow Native Americans on the property. Protesters marched to the sound of drums and carried tribal flags and placards.

A banner that read “We will not tolerate racist policies and practices” served as a backdrop for tribal leaders and others to speak about the civil rights lawsuit that cites “a policy, a pattern or practice of international racial discrimination against Native Americans. The lawsuit seeks class action status.

Brendan Johnson, a former U.S. attorney from South Dakota and attorney for the plaintiffs, said the “rest of the world” needs to know what’s going on in Rapid City. The lawsuit seeks unnamed general and punitive damages.

“We have to be clear. We are not filing this complaint to send a message. We are filing this lawsuit because we want justice,” Johnson said at a press conference.

Connie Uhre, one of the owners of the Grand Gateway Hotel in Rapid City, posted the ban notice on Facebook on Sunday. This followed a hotel shooting early Saturday involving two Native American teenagers, Rapid City police said. Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe President Harold Frazier called the post racist and discriminatory and demanded an apology.

Messages left at the hotel were not immediately returned. Court documents do not mention a lawyer for the defendants.

Red Elk Zephier, the hotel manager, told South Dakota Public Broadcasting that all hotel bar staff and some hotel employees quit because of the proposed ban. Elk Zephier, who is Yankton Sioux and Oneida, also resigned.

“I can’t make it part of my life, this negativity. So I just don’t want to be associated with that,” Zephier said. “I didn’t even think about the money or anything, I can’t have that in my life.”

Rapid City, known to many as the gateway to Mount Rushmore, is home to over 77,000 people. According to the US Census Bureau, at least 11% of its residents identify as American Indian or Alaska Native.

Nohemi M. Moore