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Los Angeles Times, Published July 17 2012

Lawsuit says doctors cut ‘KKK’ into SD Indian's skin; others don’t see it

LAS VEGAS — It could be akin to those cases in which believers see the face of the Virgin Mary in a taco shell or a suburban tree trunk, but a American-Indian lawyer in South Dakota doesn’t think so: He filed a federal lawsuit this week on behalf of a man who says surgeons carved the initials KKK into his stomach during heart surgery.

The thing is, the victim, a 69-year-old Lakota Indian named Vern Traversie, is blind—but his friends and family tell him that his stomach now advertises an insulting racial slur.

Videos of Traversie, who lives on the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota, talking about his treatment at the hospital went viral in American-Indian communities earlier this year. In the videos, Traversie shows his abdomen and says he was scarred because of his race.

American Indians say the case demonstrates generations-long discrimination in the region. In May, hundreds of people attended a rally on behalf of Traversie, saying his story exemplifies the racism American Indians experience in Rapid City.

Many complained of broken treaties, unsolved murders and incarceration rates among American Indians as their reasons for showing up. They included Dennis Banks, who helped found the American Indian Movement in the late 1960s to protest the U.S. government’s treatment of Indians and demand the government honor its treaties with Indian tribes.

But some people say they can’t make out the letters, including hospital officials and police who investigated Traversie’s allegations. No criminal charges have been filed in the case.

On Monday, Chase Iron Eyes, a lawyer for Traversie, filed suit against the South Dakota hospital where the operation took place, the hospital’s board of directors and others. The lawsuit alleges a civil rights violation based on race and cites the scarring from Traversie’s double-bypass surgery done in August 2011 as evidence. It seeks a jury trial.

Thus far, not many people are commenting on the case. A hospital spokeswoman did not immediately comment on the lawsuit. South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley said Tuesday his office was investigating the claim.

Iron Eyes declined to talk to the Associated Press about the lawsuit Tuesday. The day before, he said he couldn’t talk about it until he first spoke with Traversie. When the AP contacted Traversie on Monday, he said he wasn’t aware of the lawsuit filed on his behalf.

“I think the native people have been fighting racial hatred for many years in South Dakota, but you know, it’s not all the people that are hateful toward Native Americans,” Traversie told the AP. “We have a good segment of our society — white society — in South Dakota that are Christian people and they get along good with the Native Americans. In my instance, I believe I’m dealing with the Ku Klux Klan, and that’s a small minority.”