Hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside a federal courthouse in a South Dakota city Wednesday to cheer the filing of a federal lawsuit over a hotel owner’s pledge to ban Native Americans from the property.
The protesters held a rally and prayer meeting in a Rapid City park then walked the streets in response to a social media post by a Grand Gateway Hotel owner who said she would not allow Native Americans on the property. Demonstrators marched to sounds of drums and carried tribal flags and signs.
One banner that read, “We will not tolerate racist policies and practices” stood as a backdrop for tribal leaders and others to talk about the civil rights suit that cites “a policy, pattern, or practice of international racial discrimination against Native Americans.” The suit seeks class action status.
Brendan Johnson, a former U.S. attorney for South Dakota and lawyer for the plaintiffs, said the “rest of the world” needs to know what’s going on in Rapid City. The suit seeks unnamed general and punitive damages.
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“We need to be clear. We don’t file this complaint to send a message. We file this complaint 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 Sunday. That followed a shooting at the hotel early Saturday involving two Native American teenagers, Rapid City police said. Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Chairman 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 list an attorney for defendants.
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Red Elk Zephier, the hotel manager, told South Dakota Public Broadcasting that the entire staff at the hotel bar and some hotel workers quit due to the proposed ban. Elk Zephier, who is Yankton Sioux and Oneida, also quit.
“I can’t have that be a part of my life, that negativity. So I just don’t want to be associated with that,” said Zephier. “I didn’t even think about the money or anything involved, I just, I can’t have that in my life.”
Rapid City, known to many as the gateway to Mount Rushmore, is home to more than 77,000 people. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, at least 11% of its residents identify as American Indian or Alaska Native.