Questionable behavior by Rapid City businesses toward Indian people is not a new issue for the Black Hills. Complaints about racism are so prevalent in the Rapid City area that the United States Commission on Civil Rights has held hearings here, and the Mayor has created an “Undoing Racism Task Force” to address the White-Indian relations issues.
The good news is that these official government efforts to fix a problem are finally acknowledging that there is a problem. Part of the dynamic of racism that has marginalized people of color in this region of the United States for so long is the simple denial that a problem of epidemic racism – from the personal (such as being “called down” by someone on the street or being followed around in a store) to the institutional (such as racial profiling by police departments and the judicial system) – even exists.
The bad news is that despite well-intentioned efforts by members of government, and both Indian and non-Indian civic leaders, incidents of racism still occur regularly, and go largely un-answered.
Addressing racism in forums and studies can provide solutions, and government leaders do provide positive role models that will encourage change in the long run. This progress makes the long-term view of race relations in South Dakota look positive. However, true social change evolves over decades, not days, and the immediate racism reality of day-to-day life here is still frustrating and bleak from the perspective of the average Indian person.
One of the best signs of racial evolution is that of people taking matters into their own hands to fix problems as they happen. Some people are no longer willing to “be quiet and let it go” out of fear of reprisal, or “forget about it because it won’t do any good to say anything anyway.” No longer content to be victimized by the bad behavior of others, individuals are speaking out – and, in some cases, getting results.
On Thursday, Oct. 6, a well-known drum group, The Bad Nation Singers; were evicted from the Motel 6 in Rapid City for “being too loud,” according to Clark Zephier, the leader of the group. However, the hotel overstepped its bounds, alleges Zephier, and racism “was definitely a factor” He sent a letter explaining the incident to The Native Voice and several other newspapers, including The Rapid City Journal. This letter was received by The Naive Voice on Oct. 15, and as of press time, are the only ones to have responded to Mr. Zephier.
The Bad Nation Singers are from the Bad Nation community on the Crow Creek Reservation. A well-known and respected Northern drum, the members are bound together by family and friendship, and they are “all pipe carriers and sundancers.” The group is centered around the Zephier family, Clifford “Clark” Zephier, a Golden Age Men’s Traditional Dancer, his wife Pauline (they are both in their “late 60’s), their twin sons, Gerald Zephier, and Darrell Zephier (age. 27), and a family friend, Chris Condon.
There are six younger members of the drum, but there there have been others…some of whom have been asked to leave for violating the elder Zephier’s “strict no-drugs-or-alcohol policy.” “We try to respect our drum and we let all of our singers know that. We had to let some singers go because they came to the drum under the influence. They left and never came back,” said Clark Zephier.
The Bad Nation Singers traveled to Rapid City for the Black Hills Pow Wow and had reservations at the Super 8 Motel for Friday and Saturday nights, “but decided to get into town a day earlier in order to make Grand Entry on Friday at 1:00p.m.,” said Zephier.
Most of the hotels in Rapid City are sold out every year for the pow wow, they so when Mr. Zephier saw the tall Motel 6 sign at the LaCrosse Street exit advertising a reasonable rate, he turned in to try for a room. The group checked into two rooms, four people to each room, at around 11 p.m., went out to get something to eat, and returned to the hotel after midnight.
“When we got back to the hotel, my wife and I went into the room, and the boys were all standing out in the parking lot, talking and visiting since they hadn’t all seen each other since the last pow wow.”
Clark and Pauline went to their room and went to sleep.
The singers were all visiting outside when two men approached them and told them to go to their rooms. Gerald Zephier said, “My parents went to their room. We were standing outside by my truck, six of us, talking. Two guys came up and told us we had to get in the rooms. So, we listened to them, but they had some kind of attitude. I turned to head toward the room, and kinda giggled. The guy said, “It better not be too funny, ’cause I’m serious.” I said, “Alright,” my brother said, “Alright.”
“We went into my parents room until my buddy Chris came back since he had rented the room,” said Gerald Zephier. “Chris came back and we had been in his room next door for about a half an hour when we got a knock on the door. The security guard came in and told us we had to leave.”
All of the people in Chris Condon’s room were “evicted” from the motel by a manager and his security person.
Then, as Darrell went to his room next door where his parents were sleeping to get his things, Clark woke up and asked what was going on. According to reports, the manager of the hotel then followed Darrell through the open door and announced to the elder Zephiers who were just waking up, “You are evicted, too. “You have to leave now.”
Pauline Zephier was “very upset,” she said. “They came right into our room while we were laying there in bed sleeping in the middle of the night and told us to leave. I just cried.”
Clark Zephier wanted to know “What was going on?” According to the Zephiers, “The Hotel 6 Manager wouldn’t explain anything. He just said we had to get out.”
Darrell Zephier said, “They didn’t warn us, they didn’t call us, nothing. We wasn’t partying, we wasn’t drinking, we wasn’t raising hell or nothing, we were just hanging out.”
“I would understand if they were raising cain, drinking and partying, but they were just visiting. And we were in the room next door and didn’t hear anything. We went right to sleep,” said Clark Zephier.
“I got mad and said, ‘Okay if you’re going to kick my kids out, I just might as well go, too.’ So, I was getting up and ready to go. Then, the guy says, “Oh, you don’t have to go ’cause you were asleep. One of my boys said, ‘Mom, Dad, you guys better stay because you need your rest.’ We’re in our late 60’s, you know. So we decided to stay because we didn’t know where we was going to go anyway. The rest of them left and they had to get another room. They found one down the street at the Foothills Motel.”
The Manager on duty when the motel was called for comment on Saturday, October 15 was Stephen Sissenstein. He offered, “I can’t talk to the press,” and did not want to provide his last name. When asked who was the owner of the Motel 6, he said that it was “corporate owned,” and said that it is not a locally-owned franchise. When asked for the phone number for corporate headquarters, he declined to give out any information. When he was informed that the information was readily available on the internet and that the people in Customer Service would also be told about his unwillingness to give out contact information, he offered a toll free number that he called the “press line.”
Chris Condon was not given his money back. According to Manager Stephen Sissenstein, refunds are given “at its the discretion of the manager, on a case-by-case basis.” Sissenstein was allegedly the manager on duty on October 6, the night of the incident.
Motel 6 hotels are owned by the Accor Hotel Corporation, an international company with over 4,000 hotels ranging from the budget to the upscale property. According to their Director of Public Relations, Janis Maragakis, Accor Hotels has strict guidelines for “providing consistent customer service across the board, to all of our customers.” She also said that Accor offers “Diversity training” on location to all of its hotel chains. “We’ve got a lot of properties and we have a system in place to deal with these things,” and “We are always very conscious about the experience that the guest had…”We’re really big on solving the problems. We want all of our guests treated right.”
Maragakis had been alerted by Sissenstein that there was a complaint about the treatment of the Zephiers, and she said that “It wasn’t just these people that were disturbing (others) or were asked to leave…apparently there were several incidences at this Motel 6 property that night.” However, when the issue of racism came up, Maragakis said, “It’s very unfortunate when something like this happens. We have a whole diversity campaign that is amazing. When we hear this, it is contrary to what we believe and do on a daily basis at Accor.”
During a visit to the Motel 6, Manager Stephen Sissenstein did offer to The Native Voice that there is a procedure to addressing a customer complaint. “I would tell you to talk to the manager, but if it was more than that, I would tell you to talk to corporate, and give you the 800 number to contact corporate. When asked if toll-free customer service number was given out to the Zephiers on the night of October 6, he answered, “I don’t believe so.”
Maragakis said, “We have a whole department that deals with our customers, that’s why we give out a toll free number for them to call anytime.” When asked about the manner in which this particular “disturbance” was handled, she replied, “This incident has caused a lot of focus to be put on this particular property.”
“At this point, we believe this situation could have been handled better in terms of guest relations. However, we believe decisions about which guests were asked to leave were based solely on complaints about noise level.”
“Providing the levels of service our guests have come to expect is our priority at Motel 6. We are working to resolve this situation in a way that allows us to provide that level of service as well as a productive working environment for our employees.”
When asked about the corporate policy for refunds, she said that “Refunds depend on the situation.”
Clark Zephier, who wanted an apology from the hotel, got it from their national Director of Public Relations. He received a phone call from Maragakis, and “She apologized over and over for what happened,” said Zephier, “and she asked for some time to investigate the way things were handled (that night).”
When asked “How was the pow wow, after all that?” Zephier said, “It’s in our Sacred Hills, and our boys took second place in the singing contest, so it was a good pow wow overall.”