S. Dakota authorities pull a fast one on hockey game attack

RAPID CITY, S.D. – The Rapid City Police Department and the City Attorney’s office announced Feb. 18 that only one suspect had been charged, and just with disorderly conduct, in a Jan. 24 hockey game assault on Native American elementary school children.

This is an appalling travesty of justice.

On Jan. 24, while on what was supposed to be a fun-filled field trip, 57 Lakota American Indian school children, ages 9-13, were verbally and physically assaulted by 15 or more men who shouted racial slurs and doused them with beer during a hockey game in Rapid City.

The Native American children, accompanied by chaperones, teachers, other staff and some parents, were attending their first hockey game at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center in Rapid City, South Dakota. One parent had also brought her four-year-old to the game.

After a 3½-week investigation, officials have come up with one minor charge, against 41-year-old Trace O’Connell of the town of Phillip. The disorderly conduct charge carries a maximum penalty of 30 days jail time and a $500 fine. This is a paltry result in light of the reported circumstances.

The American Indian public is outraged, seeing racism in the lack of more serious charges.

I am an attorney with abundant experience as a tribal public defender and also in mainstream venues. On Feb. 17, I called the Rapid City Police Department to inquire about the case. I was told by Communications Officer Brendyn Medina that over 100 interviews had been conducted, and that detectives had “put in a lot of hours on the case.” The latest press release said over 170 people had been interviewed, involving 550 hours of personnel time. This may sound good, but I suggest it is really a sleight of hand. The prosecutor and the police department seem to be attempting to confuse the case: Were 170 interviews really necessary?

The Rapid City Police already had the complaints of the alleged victims. It appears that the police department was not looking for statements to support the allegations of the victims, but just the opposite. How many more interviews were needed to bring charges of child abuse, hate crimes and assault?

Was the Rapid City Police Department in fact doing the job of the defense of the assailant(s), by trying to shift the weight of the testimonial evidence in their favor? A similar tactic was used in the case of the shooting of the young black man Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., with the result being the exoneration of the accused police officer.

Authorities in this case have moved at a slow pace: The police knew from the outset the identities of the alleged assailants and after weeks of investigation came forth with only one culprit. Where are his partners in this crime?

While being doused with beer by these men, according to reports, the children were also called, among other racist epithets, “prairie n****rs,” accompanied by shouts of “Go back to the rez.” It is abundantly clear that this was a hate crime. In that regard, Oglala Sioux Tribe President John Yellow Bird Steele has already sent a letter to President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder asking for a Justice Department investigation into the incident.

This incident has gone not just national, but international. Officials at the American Horse School in Allen, S.D. (on the Pine Ridge Reservation), attended by the victimized children, report that that there is a wall of cards and letters at the school from all over the world in support of the children.

This kind of incident is not new for South Dakota It has brought up memories of other incidents reported in the Native press: of epithets shouted and eggs hurled at Indian families shopping in reservation border towns, and of “KKK” carved on a Native patient during surgery in Rapid City. American Indians comprise 12-17 percent of Rapid City’s population but make up more than a whopping 54 percent of its prison inmate population. Indian children are still flagrantly being seized by state authorities, at the rate of 740 per year, in violation of the federal Indian Child Welfare Act. Police in Rapid City are believed to have killed unknown numbers of Indian males, and there are still many unsolved murders of Native men in the city.

The outrages here seemingly have no end in sight. But an end could begin with the full prosecution of not just one, but all of the men who physically and verbally assaulted the Lakota schoolchildren on Jan. 24. It would help heal the wounds of these children who have been seared by the malignant cancer of racism.

The fight against racism in South Dakota is today the flashpoint of the struggle against the genocide of American Indian people, a struggle to ensure the survival of our children, our future.

Photo: Hanna Forer, 20, and other protesters listen to Native American leaders speak during an anti-racism demonstration at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center in Rapid City, S.D., Feb. 10, in the wake of the Jan. 24 attacks on Native school children at a hockey game there. Josh Morgan/AP/Rapid City Journal


Albert Bender
Albert Bender

Albert Bender is a Cherokee activist, historian, political columnist, and freelance reporter for Native and Non-Native publications. He is currently writing a legal treatise on Native American sovereignty and working on a book on the war crimes committed by the U.S. against the Maya people in the Guatemalan civil war He is a consulting attorney on Indigenous sovereignty, land restoration, and Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) issues and a former staff attorney with Legal Services of Eastern Oklahoma (LSEO) in Muskogee, Okla.