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Workers quit, lawsuit pending after hotel owner calls for ban on Native Americans

A Facebook post and email from the owner of the Grand Gateway Hotel call for a ban on Native American guests. The manager said the hotel would not ban anyone, but the community is still protesting.
Josh Haiar
A Facebook post and email from the owner of the Grand Gateway Hotel calls for a ban on Native American guests. The manager said the hotel would not ban anyone, but the community is still protesting.

The entire staff at a hotel bar has quit, groups are planning a protest and lawsuit, and community leaders are speaking out after a Rapid City hotel owner called for a ban on Native American guests.

The hotel manager said the hotel does not support the owner's statements and will not implement a ban.

But Red Elk Zephier said that's not swaying him and others who quit their jobs at the Grand Gateway Hotel and Cheers Sports Bar.

"I can't have that be a part of my life, that negativity. So I just don't want to be associated with that," said Zephier, who is Yankton Sioux and Oneida. "I didn't even think about the money or anything involved, I just, I can't have that in my life."

Zephier said the entire bar staff and some hotel workers quit due to the proposed ban.

He said the former workers are a mix of Native American and non-Native people, and that some of his regulars told him they won't return to the bar.

SDPB News confirmed Zephier's previous employment status from a letter the hotel sent him.

Zephier and his coworkers are not the only ones taking action.

Rapid City, Pennington County and tribal officials met Tuesday about the incident.

The Rapid City government, Oglala Sioux Tribe, local law enforcement, and business organizations then sent an open letter condemning the proposed ban and asking the hotel owners to publicly apologize and make amends.

"I will never step foot in there again," said Paul "DJ Pauly G" Geissler. He spoke to SDPB News after posting a Facebook video saying he would no longer DJ at Cheers.

Cheers customers used to be able to order food from the nearby Perkins restaurant, which is owned and operated by Northcott Hospitality.

"In light of recent events, Perkins has since pulled their menus from Cheers Sports Bar as their business practices and beliefs do not match those of Perkins," the company said.

NDN Collective, the American Indian Movement, and Cheyenne River Grassroots Collective are holding a protest on Wednesday. The march will end at the federal courthouse where the organizations say they will file a lawsuit against the hotel owners.

The Oglala Sioux Tribe is asking any Native Americans to contact the tribe if they've been discriminated against at the hotel.

Banning Native Americans or any other racial group from a hotel would violate the public accommodation section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, said Joel Landeen, attorney for the City of Rapid City.

The law makes it illegal to ban — whether through laws, written policies, or de facto policies — a racial group from hotels, movie theaters, restaurants and other facilities.

Hotel reaction

Connie Uhre is the president of the Retsel Corporation, which shares an address with the Grand Gateway Hotel, according to documents filed with the South Dakota Secretary of State.

Cheers Sports Bar is within the Grand Gateway, which is a sister establishment of the Foothills Inn.

Connie Uhre called for the ban on Native American customers after a recent life-threatening shooting at the hotel.

Quincy Bear Robe, 19, is facing criminal charges and is in jail on a $1 million bond after allegedly shooting at Myron Pourier Jr. Pourier is in his late teens, according to a police spokesman.

Nick Uhre is listed as one of the directors of the corporation and has identified himself as Connie's son and the hotel manager.

"Natives are welcome at the Grand Gateway Hotel, always have been, always will," Nick wrote in an email to SDPB.

The Cheers Bar also addressed the issue on its Facebook page, saying they are saddened by the shooting and hope the teen recovers.

"We apologize if certain members of our community experienced a knee jerk-reaction that said things that doesn't reflect the values of Cheers, the hotel or our customers. We will articulate ourselves more professionally," the post says.

The post calls for unity while also blaming the MacArthur Foundation for "destroying" Rapid City.

The MacArthur Foundation is a nonprofit that has provided millions in funding for criminal justice reform programs, including in Pennington County.

Facebook post

"We will no longer allow any Native Americans on property or in Cheers sports bar. Natives killing Natives," Connie wrote on Facebook after the shooting.

Connie's comment gained attention after Rapid City Mayor Steve Allender posted his criticism and a screenshot of her post on Twitter.

"Steve Allender has incited violence and he's put a target on my back, my family's back, my staff's back, my guests back," Nick wrote in his email to SDPB.

Nick said the mayor's comments are an impeachable offense and that Gov. Kristi Noem should remove him from office.

He said the hotel is not taking any new bookings for the moment because he and the business are receiving threats.

"I hope every single business you guys own burns to the ground. You will forever have to watch your back," one man wrote in a message Nick shared with SDPB.

Nick said he's reported the threats to the police which he says don't care and don't take crime seriously.

Brendyn Medina, the spokesman for the Rapid City Police Department, said the department has not received any reports about threats.

Email chain

An email calling for a ban on Native Americans is also circulating on social media.

"I really do not want to allow Natives on property," the email reads in part. "The problem is we do not know the nice ones from the bad Natives ... so we just have to say no to them!!"

The email addresses in the email chain have been redacted by SDPB.
The email addresses in the email chain have been redacted by SDPB.

SDPB obtained an email chain that confirms Connie Uhre sent the email. However, one of the online versions appears to have been manipulated to make it look like Nick sent it.

Nick initiated the email chain, which he sent to area hospitality management. He alerted the recipients about the shooting, encouraged them to stop paying taxes, and criticized the MacArthur Foundation.

Connie responded to the chain with her call to ban Native American guests. Nick later responded with a graphic photo of the shooting scene but did not address his mother's comment.

Several hospitality executives responded to the chain, all with criticism.

"These views are abhorrent and have no place in our community let alone our industry," a hotel manager wrote.

"Take me off of this disgusting email chain. And do not put me on another one in the future, Nick," another responded.

"Your racist rant is unwelcome and this is not your audience for it," an executive said. "I understand the original frustration with the MacArthur grant but this is not the right way to go about it."

Other managers asked Nick to send clients the hotel doesn't want to their establishment.

Nick and his mother have criticized Pennington County and Rapid City law enforcement, especially their reform programs funded by MacArthur Foundation's Safety and Justice Program. They have blamed the programs for violence and crime in Rapid City.

Many jurisdictions across the U.S. have seen increases in certain crimes during the pandemic era. But these jurisdictions include areas with both Republican and Democratic leadership, and with and without reform efforts. Experts say multiple factors are behind the rise in certain crimes.

Nick has been vocal about crime, homelessness, and race on his Facebook page. He's used the phrase "Native-on-Native crime," criticized and posted photos of homeless people, and told KOTA-TV that there should be laws that ban Native Americans from consuming alcohol and sugar.

Guests have also made previous posts on social media accusing the hotel of racist treatment.

Zephier, the former bartender, said he's never met Connie Uhre. He said he's heard second-hand stories about racism at the hotel but has not experienced or witnessed it from Nick or anyone else.

But Zephier said Nick's response to Connie's comments don't make him change his mind about quitting.

"What was said is already said and I believe that they kind of just might have shot themselves in a foot," he said.

Can the government act?

Landeen, the Rapid City attorney, said Tuesday morning that the city had not received any complaints about the Uhre family's comments but will investigate any it receives.

He said the city has referred and helped people submit complaints to the federal government which handles federal civil rights violations. The city also offers voluntary mediation through the city's Human Rights Commission.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in South Dakota said it had no comment when asked whether it received any complaints or opened an investigation.

The Division of Human Rights at the South Dakota Department of Labor echoed Landeen's comment.

The DLR has not received any complaints related to this incident but would investigate any it receives, spokeswoman Dawn Dovre said Tuesday afternoon.

The division has several ways to remedy a complaint if it finds the accusation is valid, according to its website.

The complaint can be addressed through voluntary settlements, the state Human Rights Commission, or state court. The attorney general or a state's attorney can also initiate action.

Arielle Zionts, rural health care correspondent, is based in South Dakota. She primarily covers South Dakota and its neighboring states and tribal nations. Arielle previously worked at South Dakota Public Broadcasting, where she reported on business and economic development.