The owner of a South Dakota hotel said she was banning Native people. Tribal leaders quickly issued the hotel a trespassing notice, citing an 1868 treaty.

Native American protesters and supporters gather at the Black Hills, now the site of Mount Rushmore, on July 3, 2020 in Keystone, South Dakota.Micah Garen/Getty Images

  • A hotel owner in the Black Hills, which is sacred to Native people, said she was banning them.

  • A lawsuit filed days later said the hotel refused to rent rooms to Native people after her comments.

  • Sioux leaders issued the hotel a trespass notice and are pushing Rapid City to pull its business license.

The Black Hills of South Dakota have been inhabited by Indigenous people for thousands of years, but last month the owner of a hotel in Rapid City, located on the eastern edge of the mountain range, said Native people were no longer welcome.

After a Native American man was arrested in connection to a shooting that took place at the Grand Gateway Hotel on March 19, the owner, Connie Uhre, said on Facebook that she’d be banning Natives altogether from the hotel and the adjoining Cheers Sports Bar.

“We will no longer allow any Native American on property,” Uhre wrote in a comment that was shared, and condemned, by the mayor of Rapid City, Steve Allender. Uhre also wrote that ranchers and travelers, presumably non-Native ones, would receive a special rate of $59 a night.

In an email chain obtained by South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Uhre wrote: “The problem is we do not know the nice ones from the bad Natives.”‘

Related video: South Dakota tribe in lawsuit with federal government over COVID roadblocks

Local tribal leaders moved quickly, and on March 26 they hit the hotel with a trespassing notice, citing a 1868 US treaty with the Sioux.

“It was shocking, but not too much surprising, because we kind of live with this here in South Dakota,” Harold Frazier, chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux and a signer of the notice, told Insider. “But to really see it so blatantly, it was really concerning.”

Uhre and the Grand Gateway Hotel did not respond to Insider’s requests for comment. Nick Uhre, Connie’s son and the manager of the hotel, also did not respond, but told SDPB he did not support his mother’s statements and that “Natives are welcome at the Grand Gateway Hotel, always have been, always will.”

Needles Highway, a National Scenic Byway, is seen along South Dakota Highway 87 in the Black Hills region on July 9, 2018.

A photo of the Black Hills region of South Dakota.Patrick Gorski/NurPhoto/Getty Images

The hotel refused to rent rooms to Natives, a lawsuit says

Uhre’s comment about banning Native people sparked swift and widespread outrage in Rapid City.

NDN Collective, an Indigenous-led organization, filed a lawsuit on March 23 against the Uhres, the hotel, and the Retsel Corporation, which lists Connie Uhre as its president, accusing them of “explicit racial discrimination.”

The lawsuit said Sunny Red Bear, who is listed as a plaintiff, and another Native woman tried to rent a room at the Grand Gateway Hotel on March 21, a day or so after Uhre’s comments, and were refused. An employee told them that the hotel was not renting rooms to people with “local” identifications, according to the lawsuit.

“As a direct result of Connie Uhre’s decision, announced on social media, to exclude Native Americans from her businesses, Ms. Red Bear was discriminated against in violation of federal law,” the lawsuit said.

NDN Collective sent its own representatives to the hotel to try to rent rooms on March 22 and they too were denied, according to the lawsuit.

Days after the lawsuit was filed, Sioux leaders hit the hotel with the trespass notice.

“You are hereby notified that the Great Sioux Nation has made an investigation, and evidence shows that you are in trespass,” the notice said. Protesters gathered at the hotel the day it was delivered and a large “Eviction Notice” was hung over the hotel sign.

Frazier said that he and other tribal leaders moved quickly because it was important “to get our people protected.” The notice was also signed by Crow Creek Sioux chairman, Peter Lengkeek; Oglala Lakota Sioux president, Kevin Killer; Rosebud Sioux president, Scott Herman; and Standing Rock Sioux chairwoman, Janet Alkire.

An 1868 treaty that was quickly violated by the US

The notice said the hotel was in violation of the Treaty of Fort Laramie, also called the Sioux Treaty of 1868, which established that the land of the Black Hills belonged to the Sioux. When gold was found in the area a few years later, the US broke the treaty by allowing white settlers to move there, an action the Supreme Court deemed illegal in 1980.

The treaty articles cited in the notice state that non-Natives cannot pass through the treaty lands “without the consent of the Indians.” It also states “if bad men among the whites” commit any wrongdoing against a Native person they would be reported to the federal government “to be arrested and punished according to the laws of the United States.”

Leaders of the Great Sioux Nation consider the treaty valid. Frazier said that there was never an agreement by both parties to dissolve the treaty, so “it’s still a legal binding document.” He cited Article 6 of the Constitution, which establishes laws and treaties of the US as the supreme law of the land.

US courts have also repeatedly acknowledged the validity of Indian treaties, according to James Meggesto, an attorney who specializes in Native American law and a member of the Onondaga Nation. He cited the 1980 Supreme Court decision on the Black Hills, the Eastern Indian land claims, and, most recently, the 2020 Supreme Court decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma, which held that much of eastern Oklahoma is Native land.

“A treaty is the supreme law of the land whether it was made five years ago or hundreds of years ago,” Meggesto said of the courts’ reasoning for upholding Indian treaties.

The issue is not a question of whether or not the treaties are valid, but how they can be remedied or enforced. In the case of the hotel being accused of trespassing, it’s unlikely the federal government even has a process in place to enforce the treaty, even if it is valid.

Still, Meggesto said “highlighting the treaty is a good way of demonstrating, ‘let’s not forget this is all Indian land.'”

“We may not have a remedy to eject everybody from the territory guaranteed in those treaties, but there’s still an obligation to make sure that the health and welfare of the people there, including people who are the victims of this blatant racial discrimination, are taken care of,” he said.

It’s unclear what will ultimately happen to the hotel. At the time of writing it was listed as “temporarily closed” on Google and was not accepting any reservations online before May 16. The tribal leaders said they plan to pressure Rapid City to revoke the hotel’s business license and that the tribes are considering a boycott of all of Rapid City.

Frazier said they’ll continue to explore options, but that it’s not the first time Natives have been in this position.

“We’ve been through it before,” he said. “This is just a bump in the road. We just go over that bump and keep moving and stay positive. We can’t let this destroy us.”

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