Hundreds of people march from Memorial Plaza in Rapid City, S.D., to Rapid City Regional Hospital on Monday in support of a man who says the letters KKK were carved into his stomach during surgery at the hospital.
RAPID CITY, S.D. -- Hundreds of people marched in support of a tribal elder who says the letters “KKK” were carved into his stomach by a surgeon at a South Dakota hospital.
A YouTube video featuring 69-year-old Vern Traversie, a Lakota man who lives on the Cheyenne River Reservation, has gone viral in Native American communities. In it, Traversie recounts his hospital experience. Though he is blind, Traversie says he was told by others that the scars left after his heart surgery make out the hateful letters, and he is outraged.
Another video posted on YouTube purports to show a photo of the the scars, which he says were left on his abdomen.
The problem is, not everyone sees it. Like those spotting the Madonna in a water stain, Traversie's advocates are staunch believers. Those who aren't include police who investigated his allegations and officials at Rapid City Regional Hospital, where the Aug. 26, 2011, surgery took place.
“We are deeply committed to providing excellent care to everyone, regardless of race. No one at RCRH would stand idly by and allow abuse to occur in this hospital,” hospital CEO Tim Sughrue said in a statement Monday.
He said he couldn’t comment on the specifics of the case due to patient privacy laws.
Rapid City police say they conducted an investigation but found no evidence of a crime. Craig Saunders, a cardiologist at Barnabas Hospital in Newark, N.J., said incision marks can take many different shapes, depending on where the doctor needs to get into the body. Saunders, who did not operate on Traversie, said surgical tape also can leave scarring and lesions depend on the make-up of the person's body.
The lack of clear letters hasn't deterred Traversie, his supporters or those who see the scars as more evidence of continued mistreatment of Native American people.
"Rapid City ... we understand you have been carving up our people. This is going to end today," American Indian Movement founder Dennis Banks said to a roaring crowd Monday before leading the supporters on a more than two-mile-long march from a Rapid City plaza to the hospital.
While Traversie's story spurred the protest, many in attendance referred to broken treaties, unsolved murders and incarceration rates among Native Americans as their reasons for showing up.
"We're classified as second-class citizens," said Hap Marshall, 69, a resident of the Cheyenne River reservation. "But when they want our votes, we're their brother."
The protest was relatively peaceful. Officers from the Rapid City Police Department blocked off traffic as the supporters, many dressed in red shirts and waving American Indian Movement flags, marched to the beat of a drummer riding in a truck leading the way. Passing cars occasionally honked.
A group of about 15 people — including Banks and Oglala Sioux Vice President Tom Poor Bear — met with officials at the hospital, while police prevented other supporters from entering the building.
The march was largely organized by Cody Hall, who lives on the Cheyenne River Reservation, and Chase Iron Eyes, who lives on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, which straddles the North Dakota-South Dakota border, in an effort to bring attention to what they say is continued mistreatment of Native American people.
"We have organized to send a message for once and for all that we are not going to stand for anymore hate crimes or racial violence in this region. It doesn’t matter where you are from; once you get to Rapid, when an Indian steps out of their car, they are labeled as a target,” Hall told Indian Country Today Media Network.
Many in the Native American community believe there are different standards of justice for them and for other races, said Stew Magnuson, who writes a column for a Native American newspaper and wrote a book about issues on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation.
Prior to the 1970s and the American Indian Movement, Native Americans felt powerless without representation on juries. AIM changed that by marching into towns and demanding justice, which no one had ever seen before, Magnuson said, adding: "So, I think some of these feelings live on, rightly or wrongly."
Traversie didn’t attend Monday’s rally.
In a YouTube video interview last month, he says a home health care worker photographed the marks on his front torso when she visited him at home a day after his discharge.
“She said, ‘Oh my God, I don’t know what they did to you,’” Traversie said.
The pictures and video were later posted on a “Justice for Vern Traversie” page on Facebook.
Msnbc.com's James Eng contributed to this report from The Associated Press.
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