Last year, 69-year-old Vern Traversie checked into a South Dakota hospital for double-bypass heart surgery. When he emerged, people quickly pointed out to him that doctors had allegedly left him with a scar that spelled out KKK. Traversie, a blind Native American man, is now claiming that hospital doctors discriminated against him by intentionally carving a KKK surgery scar into his abdomen. He has decided to sue the hospital for unspecified damages and claims that he was mistreated at the hospital on account of his race even before the surgical scar.
The incident has sparked quite the outcry for the racial animosity that Native Americans in the area say they face from whites. The Klan has had a visible presence in South Dakota for decades, and Rapid City was the site of Klan activity as recently as November 2011, when KKK propaganda was found stuffed into merchandise on shelves in several local stores.
It’s not clear why the lawsuit was brought in federal court. One guess may be that the hospital receives federal funds and as a result agreed to abide by non-discriminatory practices. Certainly, carving the name of the organization responsible for some of the most egregious hate crimes into the stomach of a Native American man would be a discriminatory practice.
Eye-witnesses have described the scars on Traversie’s abdomen as “carvings” or “brandings” of the letters KKK. After his wounds were documented by photographs and in a video posted on YouTube in April, his case has evoked outrage from Native Americans across the country. The staff at the Eagle Butte IHS clinic doesn’t think the scars are the work of a Klan member. Rather, they told Traversie the scars were made by an allergic reaction to surgical tape. Robert Perry, Supervisory Senior FBI Resident Agent in Rapid City, confirmed that the FBI was contacted. “In conjunction with the South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation, we have conducted an investigation into the allegations made in this case,” he says, adding that the findings have been turned over to the U.S. Attorney General’s Office. “We are now awaiting the Attorney General’s decision as to whether the matter needs further investigation or if other actions may be taken,” he says.