SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — The U.S. Department of Justice sued the owners of a Rapid City, South Dakota hotel on Wednesday, alleging that they violated the civil rights of Native Americans by trying to ban them from the property.
The Justice Department alleges that on at least two occasions in March, Connie Uhre and her son Nicholas Uhre committed racial discrimination by turning away Native Americans who sought to book a room at the Grand Gateway Hotel.
Connie Uhre had also told other Rapid City hotel owners and managers that she did not want Native American customers there or in the hotel’s bar, the Cheers Sports Lounge and Casino. A post on her Facebook account said she cannot “allow a Native American to enter our business including Cheers.”
Uhre’s comments and actions, which followed a fatal shooting involving two teenagers at the hotel, sparked large protests in Rapid City and condemnation from the city’s mayor, Steve Allender.
Rapid City, known to many as the gateway to Mount Rushmore, is home to more than 77,000 people. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, at least 11% of its residents identify as American Indian or Alaska Native. The city has long seen racial tensions.
Nicholas Uhre said he and his mother had been under pressure from the Justice Department to enter a consent decree settling the matter, but there were “sticking points” in the negotiation. “I guess they are going to do what they are going to do,” he said.
The Justice Department sued under a section of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that permits a judge to order changes to policies and practices at hotels and other venues, but does not allow the department to obtain monetary damages for customers who are victims of discrimination.
“Restricting access to a hotel based on a person’s race is prohibited by federal law,” U.S. Attorney for South Dakota Alison J. Ramsdell said in a statement.
The hotel owners have also been embroiled in separate lawsuits from the NDN Collective seeking monetary damages for the hotel’s policy, a counter-suit against the Indigenous activist organization, and another lawsuit from Connie’s son Judson Uhre, who said she harmed the family business when she “made a racially charged rant which was posted on a website with wide coverage and this led to financial loss of clients for the hotel as well as the damage to the hotel’s reputation.”
Nick Tilsen, the president of NDN Collective, credited the protests for prompting the federal civil rights suit, and said Rapid City’s problems with racism persist beyond the hotel.
“Let this be a warning to the city of Rapid City,” Tilsen said. “If they want to go after Indigenous people’s rights, we’re going to force institutions like the Department of Justice to hold people accountable.”