Native children assaulted by a group of South Dakota hockey fans

On Saturday, Jan. 24, while on what was supposed to be a fun-filled field trip, 57 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.

This was only the latest in what many say are ongoing crimes against Native children in the state. The crimes, they say, are being committed by both public agencies and private individuals. State adoption policies for children have come under criticism, for example, for what many Native Americans and other critics say amounts to legalized kidnapping of Native children from their homes.

In the hockey game incident, the field trip was an incentive award for outstanding academic achievement in an after-school program, the 21st Century Club. The children, all elementary school students, attended American Horse K-8 School at the nearby Pine Ridge Reservation.

The chaperones recounted that in the third quarter of the game, the racial slurs began, and the children were sprayed and doused with beer by white adults in a VIP box above where the children were sitting. The owner of the skybox is Eagle Sales of the Black Hills, a liquor and beer distribution company.

Reportedly, there were 15 or more men involved. The chaperones made the decision to leave the event early for the safety of the students. Following their departure, one of the teachers made a complaint with the security staff who were not at all to be seen during the incident itself.

Parents picking up their children could not mistake the smell of beer on their drenched clothing and said the children were traumatized. Many of them are reportedly now having nightmares and parents say they are agonizing over what should have been a beautiful experience. Some say their children no longer feel safe visiting Rapid City.

The National Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media issued a statement saying,  “The actions of the men in the VIP suite was despicable, humiliating and devastating to these children’s well-being and safety. This racist and criminal behavior should be considered a hate crime.” Such a charge could launch a federal investigation.

Rapid City Mayor Sam Kooiker has strongly denounced the perpetrators and their acts.  Rapid City police chief Karl Jegeris called the acts against the children “racist and criminal.” The Executive Director of the Civic Center said he hadn’t seen such an incident in his 25 years in the business.

On Wednesday, Jan. 28, over 100 Native Americans – parents, tribal officials and American Horse School staff – met with Rapid City officials to demand that charges be filed against the adults responsible. The meeting had been requested by Oglala Sioux tribal officials.

An online comment from a non-Indian attendee at the game praised the students for their exemplary behavior. This individual stated the children were “the best behaved group we have had the pleasure to sit next to in all our years of attending every game since day one.”

Contrast this comment with the disgraceful attempt of the town newspaper, the Rapid City Journal (RCJ), to place blame for the incident on the victimized children. The RCJ published a recent inciting headline, “Did Native students stand for National Anthem?” implying that they provoked the behavior of these hate-filled fans.

Requests for information about what the city plans to do about the incident were made to both the mayor’s office and the police department in Rapid City. The response from both offices was a press release.

“Currently, detectives are actively working to piece together the facts of the incident, and to determine if criminal charges will be filed in the matter,” the press release says, adding “The Rapid City Police Department will release more information if criminal charges are filed in this matter.”

The families of the children and their supporters worry about the evident lack of commitment expressed in the press release and note that the police, by now, know the names of most of the suspects. They also feel strongly that had the situation been reversed, with Native Americans making the slurs and attacks, arrests would have been made on the spot. Fifty seven children wanting to enjoy a hockey game, they note, were the victims of assault, a hate crime, and child abuse.

Photo: Madonna Pappan hugs her four year-old daughter before speaking at a press conference at the Adobe Eco Hotel in Rapid City, S.D. She is one of three mothers represented by the American Civil Liberties Union in a class action suit filed on behalf of the Rosebud Sioux and Oglala Sioux tribes. The tribes are challenging the state’s practices and policies that they say violate the Indian Child Welfare Act.  |  Kristina Barker/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.