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ITMO: An Inconvenient Truth: The History Behind Sioux San Lands And West Rapid City

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As Rapid City continues to struggle with relations between Native and non-Native people, the Mniluzahan Okolakiciyapi Ambassadors present an in-depth look at the history of land transfers in West Rapid City. The Ambassadors believe history matters and relationships matter.

They presented "An Inconvenient Truth: The History Behind Sioux San Lands and West Rapid City" on Thursday, May 4 at 6:30 p.m. at the Journey Museum. Before that meeting, Karen Mortimer, Kibbe Conti, and Heather Dawn Thompson joined In the Moment for a conversation about forced assimilation, the legacy of land transfers, and how knowing our collective history can change the conversation around race today.

Interview Highlights:

An overview of the Rapid City Circle of Friends and its representatives:

Karen Mortimer: Something that we always say is that history and place matter and relationships matter. Our journey is to bridge cultures and to educate ourselves and others, advocate, and model respectful behaviors. It's a group of Native and non-Native leaders who have come together to do this work in our city.

Kibbe Conti: The ambassadors has been an amazing team that helped to bring the synergy for this to come to where it is today where we can share it publicly. My background is I've worked for Indian Health for many years, 20 years, as a dietician. My family has been part of this community. My grandmother went to the Rapid City Indian School. She sent her children to that school. The TB sanitariums where my family members worked. I'm very much intimately connected to the place.

On why having this conversation about the Sioux Sans lands is so important:

Heather Dawn Thompson: We think one of the benefits of this conversation is that it really is a microcosm of some of the larger trends and historical issues within South Dakota, the Black Hills, and Rapid City. A lot of times when we discuss historical issues it's difficult for people to wrap their head around because it feels so very long ago. They feel often disconnected from that conversation. This is a microcosm that affected all of us that continue to live together as a community in Rapid City. This is a very real and very modern history. Our hope and prayer is that by sharing this conversation together, by sharing our research and the stories of the people who came before us, it will help us move towards a more positive relationship within the Rapid City community and the Black Hills community as a whole.

The background of the Rapid City Indian Boarding School:

Kibbe Conti: Back in the time the school was built, the government's policy was acculturation. Part of that was to have the children totally enmeshed into white society including education. They opened this off-reservation boarding school, along with many others across the nation. It drew from three states, kids from Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota. Those kids would arrive. They'd work half a day at the school because it was really a farm. It had a dairy barn, horse barn, fields of crops. The kids worked half a day and they went to school half a day. The entire time the school was open it was like that until 1933. The land was acquired, that large land base, to be self-sustaining. It was never actually part of the city at that point. It was just out in the country. Ultimately, it was not a success and they were closed. All of these off-reservation boarding schools were closed in the '30s during the Depression.

Heather Dawn Thompson: Unfortunately, most of the children were taken from their families without consent. As time evolved, sometimes that could change, particularly in the early years. It was a forced assimilation process. As you imagine, most of the children were quite scared and not particularly looking forward to attending the boarding school so far away from their families. In addition, the children were only allowed to see their family once a year in the summertime. Even then, they were only allowed to go home to see their family if their family was able to afford a round-trip ticket to show that they would, in fact, return in the fall.

In general, the boarding school history is not a particularly positive one for most of the Native American community. You had, in general, an entire generation of Native American children that were raised without parents and, therefore, didn't have those parenting skills that were passed down. In addition, while I don't think this is necessarily as true with the Rapid City Indian Boarding School per se, many of the other boarding schools, unfortunately, in order to recruit teachers to such isolated rural areas, had a large degree of individuals with pedophilia. That was perpetrated on the students and, unfortunately, passed down as well.

In addition, at the Rapid City Indian Boarding School, specifically, we do know that a number of children died both from diseases that they didn't have strong immunity from, as well as an attempt to try to escape from the Rapid City Indian Boarding School. The documents and the records are quite poor from that time period, but we have identified approximately 40 to 50 children that we believe passed away while at the school.

On the research that has gone into creating this record:

Heather Dawn Thompson: Scott Riney came before us with his research. He actually wrote his PhD dissertation on this. He obtained a lot of his records from the South Dakota Historical Archives, which contained rolls and rolls of microfiche of the actual official records by the boarding school that were not destroyed. In addition, he went through, as well as our team, a number of Rapid City Journal microfiche from that time period. We have a lot of current news articles reflecting the deaths, as well as reflecting some of the policy conversations at the time. We have also gone through as many deeds, legal documents, and any governmental documents that we were able to find. It's been a compilation of that, as well as many of the descendants of the families that were at the boarding school, at the entity, when it became the Sioux San Tuberculosis Clinic that have been fighting for years to advocate regarding this land. They have very carefully kept their own personal family records. We've been very blessed to obtain the trust of many of those families to share those records with us.

On how people have been touched by the generational impact of the Rapid City Indian Boarding School:

Kibbe Conti: A lot of the families that first came to Rapid City, including my own, came here probably because the school was here. That would give them closer proximity to their children. The emerging need of community kind of sprung from the school. Initially, where the Sioux Park is, that's where our people would come and camp when their kids were at school. Even the TB area, that was always the area where we would camp. The legacy of the school is it helped our community emerge here and grow here. We're still here. I think the elders also want to remember. This story would not be here really were it not for them. They were constantly the ones reminding us of this history. Whenever you come to town and you're learning about Rapid, you have conversations with them. They were very concerned. Sadly, we've lost a lot of these elders. There's fewer and fewer of them left to share these stories. That's why this history forum is so vital that we pass this information to the next generation.

On the transition of the boarding school into the sanitarium or Sioux San:

Kibbe Conti: During the Depression it closed in '33, but it was occupied by the Civil Conservation Corps for several years. It reopened in 1938 as the current TB. The hospital that we operate today was opened in 1938. That epidemic was really very widespread. About 10% of the Native men were identified as having TB when the Army was testing them to be enlisted. It did operate as a sanitarium until that epidemic was under control in the '60s.

About the migration into the Rapid Creek area:

Heather Dawn Thompson: To make sure that we're clear, to put it in historical context, Rapid Creek has always been a home to the Lakota and to many other tribes in the region as well. It is sort of the gateway to the Black Hills. There are lots of really important historical stories about the births and deaths of very famous people within our community from the 16, 17, 1800s, et cetera, and life along the creek. That's important to put that in context. That's always been a hub for traditional Native American life. Of course, in the 1800s there was a policy by the federal government to remove the Native American tribes from the Black Hills because gold had been discovered there. The tribes, as you know there's a difficult bloody history, were forcibly removed from the Black Hills and contained onto the smaller Native American reservations throughout the Great Plains. That was mid to late 1800s.

In the modern time period, the migration began back to Rapid City. That's what we're really talking about now. How did people return? As Kibbe said, one of the very first waves of migration in the modern era from the Native community was with the boarding school. When the children were taken from their homes, a lot of family members chose to move themselves to Rapid City in order to be closer to their children. Most of them, not having a lot of financial resources and family ties in the area, camped along the river, which was a historical camping location for them.

The second major wave of migration came when it became a tuberculosis clinic. An even larger population base was quarantined at the Sioux San Tuberculosis Clinic. It was a segregated tuberculosis clinic. It was only Native Americans. The non-Native tuberculosis clinic was located in Custer. A lot of family members again moved to be closer to their family that were quarantined sometimes for a decade at the Sioux San for TB.

A third modern wave of migration came during World War II. Some people came to work in the war industry. A very significant percentage of people from the Oglala Sioux reservation, including Kibbe's family and she can speak to this one personally, were forced to leave when the federal government turned a section of the Oglala Sioux reservation into a bombing range during World War II. They were given 30 days to evacuate. With such a short time period, many of them simply went to Rapid City where their other family members were living along the river.

Kibbe Conti: In the Badlands, the government claimed that land to train pilots. It was a war where there was airplanes and bombing. It was turned into an aerial bombing range. 125 families were displaced and given two weeks notice to leave, to get out. There was no relocation. They had to figure out where they were going to go. Some of those families did come to Rapid City. The emerging community sprung up along the Rapid Creek. I know my family lived in an Army tent, my grandparents, until they live in a little shanty and then, ultimately, had a house. Thank goodness they had a strong work ethic and they were both able to find work. It was a hard road, especially since housing was always a challenge. We desperately needed housing. That leads to the issue where, ultimately, when the lands were available why our community never was granted housing on the Sioux San lands.

On what happened in the area after 1948:

Heather Dawn Thompson: It's approximately 1200 acres going from what is now Mountain View Road to Canyon Lake. This was after World War II, of course. The city of Rapid was trying to press westward. In 1947, they actually annexed a significant portion or West Rapid. Of course, they didn't have the land base to start moving the population base significantly westward. A coalition between the National Guard, the Rapid City Chamber of Commerce, the Catholic Church, and the city of Rapid, lobbied Congress for a special law that allowed them to have access to these 1200 acres.

There are three provisions within that law. Three different types of entities that were allowed to be gifted or purchase the land. The first section was for the city, the school district, or the National Guard. Those three entities could receive the land for free for municipal, educational, or National Guard purposes with the caveat that, because it was being granted for free, it has a reversion clause. When that land is no longer being utilized for municipal, educational, or National Guard purposes, it reverts back to the Department of Interior Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The second provision allowed churches to purchase the land for reasonable value. In the end, approximately nine churches purchased plots in that arena. Some of them kept their plots and some of them flipped their plots, probably for profit, to build housing. The third and final area that was allowed to receive some of these lands, the nomenclature at the time was, "needy Indians". Any of those lands could be used for needy Indians or exchanged for other land for needy Indians. That was what was outlined.

On what "needy Indians" meant in a historical context:

Heather Dawn Thompson: In historical context, it was a common verbiage at the time. This is when a lot of the social programs were being put in place at the federal level after the Great Depression. Particularly with farming and social access programs, that was a common verbiage at the time.

Unfortunately, in one of the more difficult aspects of the story that we're retelling, despite decades of requests under that third category, needy Indians, none of the acreage was allocated for needy Indians or traded for Indians.

The most significant request was, when the land initially began being gifted out, the community that was living predominantly along the river, the Native community, made a formal request to have Indian housing on the land near what was the Rapid City Indian Boarding School and Sioux San site because of the obvious historical relationship with that site. Unfortunately, there was significant pushback from the residents of Rapid City that were already living in western Rapid City and threatened to essentially file lawsuits against the City Council if they allowed that to happen. That conversation has significantly affected the demographics of the city today and how it looks and where people live and are located.

What happened was they did sort of an odd land swap. What is now a middle school called West Middle School, that land was given to the city. The city sold it to the school district for $15,000. That money was utilized to purchase land very far outside of the city limits at that time. Very far north about two miles from the river. The Native community was asked to relocate far north of the community. That was a difficult move as there was no sewer or water. The families had to haul water from the river for over a decade until water and sewer was installed. You can see these living patterns in modern Rapid City as well. The majority of the Native population continues to live significantly north of the city in North Rapid where this community was placed in the 1950s.

On what surprised researchers and Rapid City residents most:

Heather Dawn Thompson: I think what surprised me the most was the absolute lack of any communication between the Native and the non-Native community. These decisions predominantly were made, clearly, without any input from the Native community, at least early on. That was one thing that was particularly surprising. A second thing that was very surprising for me was the institutional flexibility that was given to the non-Native community that was not given to the Native community.

There was a high degree of comfort in bending the rules for the non-Native community. There was over-strictness in application of the rules to the Native community.

On what will be covered on the May 4 meeting:

Karen Mortimer: The presentation, I want to say from the beginning, is being sponsored by the Mniluzahan Okolakiciyapi Ambassadors and the mayor of Rapid City, Mayor Steve Allender. Together we are sponsoring this and bringing this to the community. Heather Dawn Thompson and Kibbe Conti will be the presenters. We hope that the community comes. We hope that people who might not even normally come to something like this, but who've lived in Rapid City for a long time or a short time, will come with a spirit of learning and respectful curiosity. We are really all proud to call Rapid City and the Black Hills our home. Some of us grew up here, some of us chose to move here, some of us live here today. Doing something, anything, to make our community better really gives us energy. We welcome all from the community.

On why it is important to bring this forward now:

Kibbe Conti: I guess it all leads to today. We're connected to our past. Where our community is today is a reflection of the things that occurred that we're going to discuss. In a sense, how is it that Rapid City has the largest urban Indian population, the highest impoverished rate, which is 50% and that's documented. It's definitely connected to this past. In our history, there were people who were given the haves and people that were really not given some of the benefits of, like we said, the land or housing. It's like our community really is disadvantaged. It was kind of by design. I hate to say that, but I hope that we can learn from the past and correct our ways so that all people have equal opportunities.

On how knowing and understanding this history has the potential to make a meaningful change in the present:

Kibbe Conti: I just think the history is so vital that we all understand. I think this is the first time that we've really established an accurate timeline and we have the evidence to support that timeline. Thanks to Heather who did a lot of hours of research. She's had other helpers assisting her. I began with the research when I was chairing the history committee. We did a 75th anniversary at Sioux San in 2013. Now that we actually have this accurate timeline and we're willing to share this in a public forum and also publish it in the Rapid City Journal tomorrow in an insert, it's up to the people. It's up to the residents to determine how this is going to shape the way we operate in the future.

I think we live in a different time now. It's totally a different era in the way we embrace all people today. It gives me hope that, hopefully, we can find ways that everybody is going to have better opportunities for the things we all take for granted. Housing and education and all of those services. It's really always been the women, which is ironic. The women have always been the leaders in this community advocating and establishing services for our Native community. I think it's a continuation of what they had begun, the women back in the '50s and the '60s.

Karen Mortimer: I would echo what Kibbe had to say. This is our first attempt. This is a beginning effort to try to share a really important history. We're not sure. We're not sure. We've been very, very, carefully unfolding this story. We do this with a great deal of respect for our whole community. As I said before, I think that this history is important and relevant to finding understanding. As we celebrate who we are as a culturally rich community, we also look at this difficult history and bring this to the community as a whole in a tone of peace so we can work through conflicts that we identify. We have broken relationships, or perhaps lack of relationships, in our community. With greater understanding and by respectfully being curious and seeking understanding and celebrating, I think we can identify what makes us different as people and common. We really do celebrate this because we're different probably than anywhere else in the nation. We have a wonderful opportunity to learn together and to grow together and become stronger together. That's the best I can do answering that question today, Lori.

On what happens next:

Karen Mortimer: Likely, we will hold more public presentations. This isn't the end. I think both the mayor and I feel like we are just beginning. Heather and Kibbe, Karen Eagle, and Scott Riney have done an incredible job of bringing the history forward in word. I look to more forums. We are hoping to get a documentary put together at some point in the future. We're not sure when and where and how, but that's a dream that we have. We want that to live within Rapid City in the city office. We are hoping to develop an academic paper that will help with all the documentation that's appropriate. For now, our website, The Mniluzahan Okolakiciyapi Ambassadors website, MOA, you can find that at We want to continue the conversation. We're excited about being able to share this first presentation. Thank you so much for inviting us on the show today. We hope to have more conversations with you as we move forward.

Listen to the entire conversation here.