reposted from Indianz.comJune 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 firstname.lastname@example.org