Melvin Martin: The forgotten victims of 1972 Rapid City flood

reposted from

June 9, 2011, marks the 39th anniversary of the 1972 Rapid City Flood, the worst event in the history of that town, my birthplace, and as I have stated here before, the most racist city in the U.S. for Indians. On the Internet there is next to nothing about how the flood impacted Rapid City’s Indian population and nothing at all on the sole “official site” for the flood, that of the Rapid City Public Library.

According to that site’s “flood facts,” the following information is to be found:

“Deaths: 238, including 5 missing – Injured: 3,057, including 118 hospitalized – Homes destroyed: 770 permanent homes, 565 mobile homes – Homes damaged: 2,035 permanent homes, 785 mobile homes – Businesses destroyed: 36 – Businesses damaged: 236. Vehicles destroyed: 5,000. Financial Loss/Total Damages: $165 million, throughout the Black Hills – In Rapid City: $35.1 million in residential damage and $30.9 million in commercial damage.”

But not a single word about how Indian people were affected. I was there before and after the flood and so I am presenting here an Indian perspective. In the early ’50s I took my very first steps as a toddler just yards away from Rapid Creek as my mother’s aunt and her husband were one of the few Indian families who owned their own homes then; theirs on Canal Street in Rapid City.

As a child, Rapid Creek was to me a fully wondrous place of thick vegetation, assorted trees, rocks and where the sound of the running waters filled the air night and day, with the exception of the winter months when the creek iced over and less water moved downstream. There were far more wild animals lurking about then, deer, badgers, beaver, muskrat, skunks and on occasion, the unmistakable scent of a bear in the hilly area across the creek. At night, during the spring and summer, fireflies, bats and huge owls frequented our yard.

In what is now a portion of the so-called “flood plain” by the creek, there was a vast ghetto of the poorest of Rapid City’s poor, mainly Indian people who lived in ramshackle dwellings of every description, from dilapidated old Victorian-types of houses that had been transported there from who-knows-where, to shacks and huts made from all manner of cast-off materials. There were no sidewalks to speak of and the street lights were at a minimum.

In 1971, in the days before I left home for the military, I befriended an elderly, full-blooded Lakota couple who lived in a pitifully rundown, one-room, wooden cabin there. They preferred to speak Lakota to each other and spoke to me in broken English, although very softly, their words sprinkled with gentle reassuring laughter. The man was in his late ’70s and was partially paralyzed on his right side and his wife, who was a few years younger than he, was crippled, needing crutches to get around.

At their request I helped them move objects that would have been impossible for them to lift. They fed me suppers of fry bread, soup and black coffee. I thought of them as the grandparents that I never knew and they regarded me as an actual grandchild of theirs. I will always think of them as totally kind, loving and so quietly humble.

I did not return to Rapid City until 1974 having spent nearly three years out of the country. The flood had occurred by then and out of curiosity I took a walk over to where my elder friends lived. To my surprise, the entire block where their little house was had been washed away, the very trees uprooted and there was a tragic stillness in the air. In fact, the entire ghetto area had been reduced to what resembled a bombed-out urban locale, there was virtually nothing left standing except for some huge cottonwoods.

I found out later that most of the Indian people who lived in that sector of town had been evacuated via word-of-mouth mainly by relatives and friends before the massive onslaught of a billion gallons of water. I prayed that the older couple had made it out or perhaps had moved before the flood. I tried to find out about my friends, but no one around knew anything.

I did find out from many Indian people who survived the flood that Indians were treated very badly by the various charity organizations that help out in natural disasters. There were many problems involving emergency housing and food distribution whereby Indians were viciously discriminated against by these agencies.

I also discovered that Coney Island had been destroyed by the floodwater. Coney Island was an old school sort of Southern-style roadhouse that was situated on a small island close to where The Journey Museum is now located. In addition to the watered-down liquor that this establishment served, there was a “house of ill repute” on the second floor of the structure. This operation was set up and run by former personnel from the nearby air force base and Indian women were often employed there.

Before I left home in 1971, I met a twenty-something Indian woman from Montana who told me that she was being wined and dined by a man who wanted her to work at Coney Island as a prostitute. The brothel, the man assured the young lady, was essentially a safe haven for any woman desiring to make a lot of money quickly. There was even a slogan of sorts for Coney Island directed at potential recruits, “Just go there!”

I was told later from various and highly reliable sources that Coney Island, during its heyday in the late ’60s was heavily patronized by area businessmen, politicians, cowboys, drunks and even an occasional clergy member. And local law enforcement simply ignored what took place there. Rapid City has always had a history of prostitution activities that goes way back and even now per this article.

The numbers of Indian people who can distinctly recall the Rapid City Flood of 1972 are dwindling with each passing year. Who among them is left to tell their story? Hopefully, I have told just a part of it here.

Melvin Martin is an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe of South Dakota. He can be reached for comment at



2 thoughts on “Melvin Martin: The forgotten victims of 1972 Rapid City flood

  1. ……next to nothing about how the flood impacted Rapid City’s Indian population and nothing at all on the sole “official site” for the flood, that of the Rapid City Public Library….Meanwhile down in dog patch…….General George A. Custer was freeing up the land of many nations in pursuit of futuristic asphalted roadways for over weighted graybeards to ride their Harley Road Kings down the streets of Rapid City, with their plump spandex touted spouses carrying the ever so present 8 x 12 red white and blue Made in Taiwan American flag just behind their upper shoulder proclaiming their freedom as as a U.S. citizenMelvin , i have been away from R.C. for 35yrs. and i guess some things in this world are never going to change… ..your stab at self recognizability starts with many dead and wounded not stating whom or from what race, or tribe of peoples…but that is my point…just many numbered….where is your empathy son; other than an educated lifetime of scornful self mourning. As a young boy i was in R.C. the night of the flood and for eight years after. I remember riding with my father down Jackson Blvd. every morning at 7 a.m. and while driving past Oshiem-Catron Funeral home, watching the mortuary attendant hosing down the white sheeted bodies that covered their front lawn awaiting identification , and for some autopsy. I believe Oshiem and Behrens were the only two funeral parlors in town to take care of 238 decomposing dead bodies lying in the baking June heat….and many were transported to Sturgis and BelleFouche.and i knew two of them personally lying under those sheets….one was a sweet,sweet eight year old girl.. Obviously Melvin, you did not take the opportunity to walk the remains of Cleghorn Canyon, Canyon Lake or any of the designated flood plain that lay just below….you know the white mans death houses? If you would have been around, everyone had been left to their own reconnaissances and personal decision making… 11 o`clock in the pitch blackness,and for days on end…..especially if you did not have a battery powered radio to listen to the news in order to evacuate to higher ground in the raging panic that nature was making to both man and beast being way past twilight.My best friend growing up was Lakota , his father and older brother both jumped into their Buy Indian only company van and went down to Cochrane Oldsmobile as far as they could possibly travel , throwing ropes out to people being wisked away in the raging torrent screaming for their lives, sadly they were never able to help, it was just to fast to save anyone.A third of the city being wiped out in six hours, especially those living below Canyon Lake dam and through Baken Park taking all of it at once.However vicious discrimination you may feel of playing by personal choice, a victim , it does not co-incide with one another, viciousness and victim?, i think people where they could set up shelters in the best and driest locales, Camp Rapid being the main driest and highest focal point and at that point in time i don`t think the Irish Mick`s or the Italian Wasp`s cared to much who the other one was as long as their families were fed , inoculated for Typhoid and provided for as i`m sure the Native Americans also did for themselves down in the far east side of R.C.? As thinly spread as helpers and officials were, all the flood plain housing or rather what was left, was marked with an “X” for condemned and an “S” for searched and that includes what was remaining in the east side, then the machines came and buried everything, scraping the land clean in all flood plains. That consumed the remaining three months of the 1972 summer and into the following years to come.Once black owned , prostitution down in the east side ghetto at Dora DuFran’s Coney Island ? I have difficulty imagining only a white man hanging out or patronizing only, such an establishment of young Indian girls and /or women ? I feel and wish Billy Jack to be an advisory counsel on this delicate matter ?I had moved to R.C. in mid-summer of 1969 at eleven years old. I remember after being in town for a month , my mother had dropped myself and my nine year old brother off downtown on an early Saturday morning to buy a pair of blue jeans for school. After walking out of RCC clothing, an old grandfatherly gaunt red man followed us across the street and started yelling “Hey! i want to tell you something, so i stopped for him. I looked up at him , his eyes starring out into space , sockets bright red and twice their normal circumference, his eye portions looked as if they were ready to tumble out and when he tried to utter he showed three rotted teeth missing in both the upper and lower front jaw bones, and a brilliant sweet smell i had never known, but his feeble frame was ready to topple, the store front wall catching his balance seemingly often. All i could figure was that he was war wounded or had the muscle palsy as i had never encountered any person before who was actually drunk being only eleven years old. After repeated asking of what i did not possess in meager eleven year old boy pocket change, i was then from a seemingly friendly fellow towards a young boy, abruptly cursed by every un-Christian English vocabulary word known to mankind..After exiting a local retailer shop to which we hid away in out of shear frightened terror, we witnessed back across the street on the corner of RCC, our old sweet smelling red man friend down on his hands and knees , sobbing and crying before two R.C. police beat officers being made to pick up all the broken glass of a whiskey flask that he had thrown down onto the sidewalk before them when he had been asked to dump it out into the street gutter….Welcome to Rapid City, i stated under my breath, the door mat is truthfully out…i relish the memory smell of Old Home Bakery Co. early in the summer morning and…I still hope for that old grandfatherly red man…..i hope he is in heaven and out of his pain ……and this cruel world…….Who among us is left to tell their story? Hopefully, I have told just a part of it here.

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