Indianz.Com > News > ‘We just have to say no to them!!’: Business sued over racial discrimination against Native patrons
Indians Allowed
An Indigenous woman raises her fist in the “Indians Allowed” march from Roosevelt Park to the Grand Gateway Hotel in Rapid City, South Dakota, on March 26, 2022. Photo by Willi White for NDN Collective
‘We just have to say no to them!!’
Business in South Dakota sued over racial discrimination against Native patrons
Wednesday, October 19, 2022

This is a developing story. The post will be updated as more information becomes available.

A business in South Dakota that barred Native patrons from renting hotel rooms is being sued by the United States government.

In a complaint filed in federal court on Wednesday, the Department of Justice accused the Grand Gateway Hotel and its owners of engaging in “racially discriminatory policies and practices” against Native people. The lawsuit stems from a widely publicized controversy earlier in 2022.

“Defendants Connie Uhre and Nicholas Uhre are responsible for devising, implementing, and instructing employees and agents to carry out the racially discriminatory policies and practices,” the seven-page complaint alleges of the owners of the hotel and an adjoining business known as Cheers Sports Lounge and Casino.

Complaint: U.S. v. Retsel Corporation

Connie Uhre, one of the business operators, implemented the policy against Native people in March. She said she didn’t want them patronizing the hotel or the lounge, characterizing them as engaging in criminal behavior.

“I really do not want to allow Natives on property,” Uhre said in an e-mail quoted in the complaint.

“The problem is we do not know the nice ones from the bad natives…so we just have to say no to them!!” she continued.

Uhre followed up with a public post on social media, confirming the discriminatory practice. She blamed her decision on “Natives killing Natives.”

“We will no long allow any Native Americans on property,” Uhre, who is one of the directors of the Retsel Corporation, the owner and operator of the hotel and lounge, wrote on March 20.

On the following day, a Native resident of Rapid City attempted to rent hotel rooms at the Grand Gateway. According to the complaint, Sunny Red Bear, who is Lakota from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, was denied entry after an employee said “locals” weren’t allowed on the property.

The employee further attributed the policy to Nicholas Uhre, another owner and operator of the business. Like his mother, Nick is named as a defendant in the lawsuit.

A day later, on March 22, representatives of NDN Collective, where Red Bear is employed as Director of Racial Equity, attempted to rent rooms at the hotel and were again denied. This time, Nick showed up and asked if the five Native people were associated with the local organization.

“When they responded that they were, Mr. Uhre demanded that they leave the hotel and then followed them out,” the complaint — which was submitted by U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, the leader of the Department of Justice (DOJ) — continues.

The actions of Connie and Nicholas Uhre and their business, formally known as the Retsel Corporation, violate Title II of the Civil Rights Act, the lawsuit charges. The section of the federal statute, first passed in 1964, prohibits racial discrimination at hotels, restaurants, and other places of public accommodation.

“Policies that prohibit Native Americans from accessing public places are patently offensive, racially discriminatory and have no place in our society today,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, who heads up DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, said at a news conference on Wednesday afternoon.

“These defendants have resorted to conduct akin to the kind of policies that were instituted during the Jim Crow era,” Clarke said of Connie and Nicholas Uhre.

“By putting in place a policy that renders Native Americans to second-class citizens, defendants have clearly run afoul of our public accommodations law,” Clarke continued. “Policies flatly prohibiting Native Americans from establishments trample on civil rights laws and defy our nation’s promise of equal treatment under law.”

Alison J. Ramsdell, the U.S. Attorney for South Dakota, noted that the Grand Gateway’s policy against Native people carries a large impact in her state, where nine tribal nations are based. American Indians and Alaska Native make up 9 percent of the population in South Dakota, and 10 percent in Rapid City.

“Rapid City is a gateway to the Black Hills,” Ramsdell said, citing the historic and sacred homelands promised to the tribes of the Sioux Nation by treaty.

“It is a destination of choice for many significant tribal gatherings, including the Lakota Nation Invitational and the Black Hills Powwow,” Ramsdell added.

The Black Hills Powwow took place earlier in October, following a two-year absence due to COVID-19. The event drew thousands of dancers, performer and patrons to the city.

Likewise, huge crowds of Native people will be returning to Rapid City for the Lakota Nation Invitational in December. Families and schools from numerous tribal nations bring their children and youth to participate in a basketball tournament, art show and educational competitions.

“In short, Native Americans are a vital part of our community here in Rapid City,” said Ramsdell. “Our hotels and restaurants should be welcoming places to Native American patrons.”

Tribal leaders from the Sioux Nation had sought a federal investigation into the Grand Gateway’s treatment of their people. Chairwoman Janet Alkire of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe pointed to alleged violations of public accommodations law in a letter to Attorney General Garland back in March.

Also in March, NDN Collective filed a civil rights class action lawsuit against Grand Gateway for its “racist and discriminatory treatment of Native people.” Sunny Red Bear, who was barred from the hotel, described her experience at the business as a “heartbreaking and painful” reminder of what it can be like to live in Rapid City.

“This isn’t an Indian problem, this is a white supremacy problem and it shows up in businesses like the Grand Gateway Hotel, and in city council, too,” said Red Bear. “Those who abuse their power are the decision makers who keep real education out of our schools, much-needed resources from our communities, Native children from their families, and our people in prison.”

'Indians Allowed'
Nearly 1,000 people turned out for the “Indians Allowed” rally and march in Rapid City, South Dakota, on March 26, 2022. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Red Bear is the lead named plaintiff in the federal lawsuit, which seeks to represent “All Native Americans” who visit, or attempt to visit, the Grand Gateway Hotel and the Cheers Sports Lounge and Casino. An attorney involved in the litigation welcomed the intervention from the administration of President Joe Biden.

“We are grateful that the Department of Justice has joined our efforts to hold the Grand Gateway Hotel responsible for their actions,” Brendan Johnson, who served as U.S. Attorney for South Dakota during the Barack Obama presidency, wrote in a post on social media.

“Because this matter is in litigation, we will not have further comment at this time,” said Johnson.

Connie and Nicholas Uhre have denied the allegations of discrimination in their responses to the NDN Collective lawsuit. They are accusing the organization and its representatives of interfering with the business at Grand Gateway and Cheers, of defamation, of trespass and of being a “nuisance.”

“As a result of NDN Collective’s wrongful conduct, Retsel Corporation and Nick Uhre have suffered damages in an amount to be determined at trial,” a counterclaim submitted on August 18 reads.

'Indians Allowed'
A crowd is seen outside the Grand Gateway Hotel in Rapid City, South Dakota, on March 26, 2022. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Both the NDN Collective lawsuit and the Uhre counterclaim seek monetary compensation from the opposing parties. The U.S. complaint does not — so the federal action will not lead to any sort of financial award.

“Title II of the Civil Rights Act does not authorize the Justice Department to obtain monetary damages for customers who are victims of discrimination,” Clarke said when asked by Indianz.Com about the nature of the U.S. complaint.

“That said, this is a law that we have used for decades to ensure that public accommodations are complying with the law and making their establishments open to all people, regardless of race,” Clarke added.

In March, NDN Collective led two major rallies to call attention to the discrimination and racism experienced by Native people in Rapid City. The event on March 26 drew a crowd of about 1,000 to the streets.

“Us coming together as a people to make a stand, it’s a good thing because we’re showing our next generation that we’re not going to take it anymore, that we’re not going to allow our people to treated this way in our own land, in our own community,” Nick Tilsen, CEO of NDN Collective, said at the time. “It’s not just about this hotel. It’s about every single thing our people go through every single day.”

'Indians Allowed'
Nick Tilsen of NDN Collective addresses the “Indians Allowed” rally and march in Rapid City, South Dakota, on March 26, 2022. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

News Release: Department of Justice
Justice Department Files Lawsuit Challenging Policy Barring Native Americans From Accessing South Dakota Hotel and Sports Lounge

WASHINGTON – The Justice Department filed a lawsuit today (October 19, 2022) against the owners and operators of the Grand Gateway Hotel, and the Cheers Sports Lounge and Casino, a sports bar that operates within the hotel, located in Rapid City, South Dakota. The lawsuit alleges that the defendants discriminated against Native American customers in violation of Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion or national origin in places of public accommodation, such as hotels and other places of entertainment. The suit is brought against the corporate owner, Retsel Corporation, and two of the company’s directors, Connie Uhre and her son, Nicholas Uhre.

“Policies prohibiting Native Americans from accessing public establishments are both racially discriminatory and unlawful,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “The Justice Department will continue to vigorously protect the rights of all people to go about their daily lives free from discrimination at hotels, restaurants, and other public accommodations around the country.”

“Restricting access to a hotel based on a person’s race is prohibited by federal law,” said U.S. Attorney Alison J. Ramsdell for the District of South Dakota. “At the U.S. Attorney’s Office, we are called to ensure that individuals are treated equally at public accommodations in South Dakota. We are committed to protecting that fundamental right for Native Americans.”

The lawsuit, filed today in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Dakota, alleges that, since at least March 20, the Retsel Corporation, Connie Uhre and Nicholas Uhre discriminated against Native American customers through policies and practices that denied Native Americans the full and equal enjoyment of access to the services, accommodations and privileges at the Grand Gateway Hotel and the Cheers Sports Lounge and Casino.

Specifically, the complaint alleges that on March 20, Connie Uhre told other Rapid City hotel owners and managers that she did “not want to allow Natives on property. . . . The problem is we do not know the nice ones from the bad natives…so we just have to say no to them!” That same day, the complaint alleges, Ms. Uhre posted a statement in a comment thread from her Facebook account announcing that “we will no longer allow any Native American [sic]” in the Grand Gateway or in the Cheers Sports Lounge and Casino. The complaint further alleges that on at least two occasions on March 21 and March 22, respectively, the defendants turned away Native Americans who sought to book a room in the Grand Gateway.

Under Title II, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division can obtain injunctive relief that changes policies and practices to remedy the discriminatory conduct. Title II does not authorize the division to obtain monetary damages for customers who are victims of discrimination.

More information about the Civil Rights Division and the laws it enforces is available at Individuals may report discrimination in places of public accommodation that violates Title II by calling the Justice Department at 1-833-591-0291, or submitting a report online.

The complaint contains allegations of unlawful conduct, and the allegations must be proven in federal court.

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