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Native Rights Group Sues South Dakota Hotel for Turning Them Away

Google Earth screenshot of Grand Gateway Hotel, Rapid City, S.D., which turned away Native patrons.

A South Dakota-based Native advocacy group has filed a federal civil rights class-action lawsuit against the owner of a hotel in Rapid City for refusing service to Native Americans.

Following a nonfatal shooting at the Grand Gateway Hotel on March 19, Connie Uhre, owner of the hotel's parent company, Restel Corporation, posted on Facebook that she would no longer allow Native Americans into the hotel or its bar.

She added that she would offer "rancher and travelers a very special rate" of $59 a night, and blamed crime in the city on "free-" and "dark money." She refers to a series of MacArthur Foundation grants awarded to help Pennington County — of which Rapid City is the seat — address racial disparities in its judicial system and reduce unnecessary incarcerations.

The lawsuit cites an email attributed to Uhre in which she allegedly wrote, "I really do not want to allow Natives on property … The problem is we do not know the nice ones from the bad natives … so we just have to say no to them."

VOA could not independently verify the source of the email.

VOA obtained a copy of the lawsuit that the Rapid City-based Indigenous rights group NDN Collective (NDNC) filed in South Dakota's U.S. District Court March 23.

The complaint states that several days after Uhre's social media comments, two NDNC staff members entered the hotel and requested a room; a hotel employee refused them, claiming that it was hotel policy not to rent rooms to people with "local" identification.

"And when they heard they were with the NDN Collective, they also told [them] to leave the premises; we weren't allowed there," NDNC president and CEO, Oglala Lakota citizen Nick Tilsen told VOA.

"The premise of the lawsuit is that one, they made threats to deny service to Native American people, and two, that they then denied service," Tilsen said. "We have it on audio and on visuals."

Tilsen says the lawsuit "isn't about money."

"It's about ending racist practices and enforcing the 1964 Civil Rights Act," he said. "If people are going to conduct themselves in a way that's racist, then we're going to hold them accountable and stop them from doing business."

The indigenous rights group NDN Collective erected this billboard in Rapid City, S.D. to protest hotel's discrimination.
The indigenous rights group NDN Collective erected this billboard in Rapid City, S.D. to protest hotel's discrimination.

Rapid City civil rights attorney Pete Heidepriem says the claim is actually based on a civil rights statute passed in 1866 to protect the rights of newly freed slaves in conducting business.

"And as alleged in this complaint, it appears to be a tragic reality that there is intentional discrimination going on," he said. "And if those claims end up being borne out by the evidence in the case, I think that'll send an extremely strong message about what our values are as a community and how we want to treat each other moving forward."

VOA was unable to reach Uhre for a statement, but Rapid City NewCenter1 Television provided the text of a letter she sent their newsroom, addressed to "the Lakota Nation."

"First I want to sincerely send an Apology to all the Natives for my post on Kelo Land. I really feel for the family who's Son was critical wounded from the 6 Gun Shots fired in the Room to be exact," the letter reads. "I grew up playing with Indians … so I know there are wonderful families that are very good people."

In the letter, she criticized one South Dakota reservation as a "rat hole," and accused NDNC's Tilsen of "getting rich off the Tribe or Dark Money."

"I am not blaming the Good Natives It is our Leadership and Criminal Justice that has made our city an unsafe place…and we have plenty of Whites that create problems," she added.

U.S. Civil Rights Commission report archives show that Native Americans have long complained about racism and discrimination in South Dakota.

As VOA previously reported, a 2015 study on race disparities in Rapid City policing showed that Native Americans are arrested more often than any other group in the city and that police are more likely to use force against Native Americans than members of any other race.

Rapid City Mayor Steve Allender, Oglala Lakota Sioux Tribe President Kevin Killer and other city and Pennington County officials this week released a joint statement condemning the statements reputedly made by the Uher family.

"Much work has been done to build a level of trust, to forge relationships and partnerships, and to address major issues involving Rapid City and our Native American community," it read. "However, such racist and hateful statements as expressed by a few individuals only reinforces long-standing feelings of distrust and threatens the relationship of the Rapid City community with its Native American residents and visitors."

The statement called on the Uhre family "to publicly address and denounce their statements and begin making amends to the community, especially the Native American people."