Cornelius on Race Relations: There’s Hope for Rapid City

Who says Rapid City is racist? Rapid City resident Roger Cornelius (L) puts up with white folks like Deb Geelsdottir (R) and me just fine. At Rickstock, in the hills north of Rapid, 2014.08.16. Photo by CAH.

Friend of the blog Roger Cornelius lives and works in Rapid City. He knows a thing or two about Indians working hard and succeeding in the face of white colonialism: his Oneida father worked as an engineer for the BIA, while his Lakota mother taught home economics. Cornelius is not happy that Rapid City has elected Steve Allender, whom Cornelius calls “openly racist,” but he does not believe that the attitudes of the mayor-elect or others in Rapid City pose insurmountable barriers to better race relations in our second-largest city.

Cornelius says racism can persist only because “People refuse to learn. People refuse to educate themselves.” People accept simple stereotypes, negative and inaccurate categorizations borrowed from others, instead of looking at a more complicated reality. Cornelius says a growing challenge to racial stereotypes is the increasing diversity of individuals’ racial backgrounds.

Cornelius’s personal history provides an example. He says that in the 1960s and 1970s, he was a typical AIM warrior, hating all whites and all of white culture. Yet he could not square that hate with the knowledge that one of his grandfathers was a white rancher from Interior. When he traveled to Iowa to meet the white side of his grandfather’s family, he was humbled. Those relatives had known about the Indian side of their forebear’s family, but they had never met. The white Iowans were proud to claim kinship with Cornelius. He had spent years saying he hated white people, but he could not say that to or of white people with whom he shared an ancestor. He could not indict all whites without indicting himself. The stereotypes that fueled his hate became unsustainable.

Interestingly, Cornelius says he doesn’t personally experience much racism in Rapid City. He says he deals with his neighbors and city officials courteously, making it hard for them to find an excuse to dismiss him with negative stereotypes. Cornelius says he knows too many genuinely decent white people to brand all of Rapid City as racist. But he knows full well from talking with others and from verbal combat with bigoted commenters in the local press that Rapid City has its racist elements.

Cornelius speculates that some of that racism may stem from Rapid City’s status as a regional hub. Rapid City is the most racially diverse major city in South Dakota. That’s like saying they’re the tallest guy in Munchkinland; Rapid City is still 80.4% white, compared to 85.9% for the state, 86.8% for Sioux Falls, and 91.8% for Aberdeen. Still, almost 20% minority population feels unusually and possibly uncomfortably colorful for folks from Sturgis, Spearfish, and Belle Fourche, which all have less than 7% minority populations. Bring those folks and their even whiter rangeland neighbors to Rapid City for shopping or a hockey game, and they respond poorly to having to deal with real people who don’t look like them rather than the stereotypes that go less challenged in their more homogenous hometowns.

Yet even on that count, Cornelius has hope that Rapid City can fight stereotypes and racism. He cites the example of a Native gal he knows who was cashiering at a big retailer in town. A white customer from north of the Black Hills came through her aisle with a big purchase. When she finished ringing up the purchase, the Native cashier asked the white female customer if she wanted some help hauling the purchase out to her car. The customer turned to her white companion and commented with vulgarity on the number of Indians in the store.

Perhaps to Rapid City’s credit, the cashier told Roger that was the first time she’d ever experienced such direct racism. Doing her job, offering extra service, and being confronted with a crude comment about the number of Indians around caught the Native cashier completely off guard.

Not caught off guard was a coworker in earshot who immediately notified a manager. The manager came out to the cashier’s counter before the customer left and asked for her receipt. The manager voided the purchase, tore up the receipt, and said to the customer, “Don’t ever come back to this store.”

Anecdotes don’t save the republic, but that story gives Cornelius hope that the folks who call Rapid “Racist City” don’t have the full story. The same with demographics: we can’t wait around for more mixed marriages and multiracial children realizing the inadequacy of stereotypes to erase racism from a mostly white town built on colonialist treaty violations. But we can build on those trends and anecdotes to bring more Rapid Citians and South Dakotans together in positive interracial relations.

32 Responses to Cornelius on Race Relations: There’s Hope for Rapid City

  1. Great post Cory and great timing.
    I’ve never met Roger but through are discussions her and I Facebook I consider him a friend and I’m looking forward to the day we meet.

    Timing? Well a poorly posted statement on a different post earlier that makes someone look pretty silly-in my opinion.

  2. Mr. C is a swell fellow indeed and we are all richer to have him blog here.

  3. Char Cornelius

    Cool! We live in Aberdeen and I am so used to saying that we have no relation in SD. My husband is Native and He is enrolled in the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin. We might have relations in SD. That would be cool!

  4. Paul Seamans

    That was a really great story about the retail store manager tearing up the receipt. There have been meetings in Rapid City recently with both Indian and white in attendance that have been discussing the racism problem. I think the problem needs to be resolved through NGO’s and individuals rather than expecting the local or state government to accomplish anything.

  5. Roger Cornelius

    Owen thank you and perhaps we will meet someday at a Democratic gathering, I look forward to it.
    Thanks also to grudz’s, perhaps the mysterious grudz’s will one day reveal himself and we will shake hands.

    Into todays Rapid City Journal print edition Allender did a Q&A interview on his vision for the city. He too is advocating the kind of discussion Mr. Seaman’s is referring to. Mayor-elect Allender did make any interesting comment on race relations, saying he plans to schedule, when he can, more meetings with the Native American community. I do question why he would want these discussions off the record.
    Rapid City has group called Cross-Cultural Community Conversations being held a regular basis, attendance has been good and is growing.
    Additionally there is a Facebook group that calls itself Allies Against Racism in Rapid City where people can discuss racism.
    Allender has the network for discussions on racism available to him right now, I wish he would use them.

  6. Cory’s photo caption says:
    >“Rapid City resident Roger Cornelius (L) puts up with white folks like Deb Geelsdottir (R) and me just fine.”

    At first glance I took the “L” and “R” as Libertarian and Republican: “What?!” :-)

  7. Lanny V Stricherz

    White does not necessarily make Sioux Falls less racially diverse than Rapid City. A recent count at a Sioux Falls employer found 130 some nationalities employed there. There is more than one kind of racism and ways of discriminating.

    The South Dakota Peace and Justice center has some beautiful bumper stickers that say I STAND AGAINST RACISM

    They are available at

  8. Roger Cornelius


    I’ve heard it said that cats are Libertarian.
    They expect someone to feed them, change their litter box, play when they want to and then proclaim their independence.

  9. Lanny, fair point about diversity! Once upon a time in Sioux Falls, diversity meant having Germans and Swedes.

    —What kind of music do you usually have here?
    —Oh, we got both kinds. We got country and western!

    There are many South Dakotans with differences that keep them “outside.” We should be attentive to difference in its many forms.

    And Kurt! You’ve got to not view everything in political boxes! ; – )

  10. Deb Geelsdottir

    I’m very glad I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Cornelius. Roger is kind and warm. He is a wise man who carries himself with a quiet humor and dignity that I respect.

    I believe there is hope for racism’s diminishment. Racist actions, especially violent ones, draw all the attention. However, as some have mentioned in reference to RC, forces arranged against racism are extensive and pervasive. They are everywhere.

  11. Nice. Good deal Roger on your observations, I am hoping you have your finger on the pulse for this one as it really is a life or death struggle it seems.

  12. Ms. Geelsdottir, I always had you figured as being a bit of a hard cider woman, and probably a dancer, too, once the hour gets late.

  13. Lanny V Stricherz

    According to Peter Matthiessen, in his book, “In The Spirit Of Crazy Horse”, the family of Mary Cornelius were/are supporters of AIM and of Leonard Peltier, who was the son of her second cousin Leo Peltier. Mary worked very hard to persuade her people to turn down the 52 million dollars offered by the Federal government for the land, when oil was discovered in North Dakota. As soon as I read that, I wondered if she was related to Roger.

  14. Deb Geelsdottir

    My niece and her husband throw a wonderful Memorial Day party. They make a great sangria and steadfastly refuse to share their recipe. On my own, I drink beer, but hard cider is okay if not too sweet. I’m a hard liquor lightweight. I think it tastes awful.

  15. Roger Cornelius


    Mary Cornelius was married to one of my Dad’s brothers.

    Char Cornelius,
    I’m also an enrolled member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin and your husband and I cold possibly be related.

    You might be surprised by the number of Oneida’s that live in South Dakota and are married into other tribes. Haskell Indian Institute in Lawrence provided for much tribal diversity and tribal transplants.

  16. Roger, if you come to visit Char, we’ll have a spare room for you! Maybe you and Char can get together to compare family trees at the Dakota Free Press blog picnic later this summer (details coming… soon!).

    Haskell—curious, Roger: what induces all those Oneidas to come to South Dakota? Do an equal number of Lakota attendees at Haskell (and elsewhere) decide to emigrate to Wisconsin? If Haskell is doing something that draws residents, we should let Pat Costello at GOED know!

  17. Lanny, I’m thinking we’re going to find out we’re all related by the end of this story. Mitakuye oyasin, say the Lakota.

  18. Char Cornelius

    Roger, Ron’s parents are graduates of Haskell. Two degrees of Separation.

  19. Roger Cornelius

    Interestingly my parents went to Haskell at separate times, they met when Dad came out to see my grandmother who was the baker at the government boarding school in Pine Ridge. He always said he liked South Dakota for the four distinct seasons we had. Wisconsin went from winter to summer in a snap.
    I’m not certain about whether are equal number on tribal members that have transplanted themselves.
    The common denominator with Haskell Institute graduates is that so many of them ended up working for Bureau of Indian Affairs, like my Dad.
    Lanny, if you look up the name Al Trimble in In the Spirit of Crazy Horse you will find that he defeated Dick Wilson for tribal president in the mid-seventies and effectively ended some of the violence at the time.
    My apologies for making this a family tree project.

  20. No apologies necessary, Roger! You were kind enough to provide the interview; the personal historical context makes your commentary richer.

  21. Looking good, Mr Cornelius!

  22. Bob Newland

    “The manager came out to the cashier’s counter before the customer left and asked for her receipt. The manager voided the purchase, tore up the receipt, and said to the customer, ‘Don’t ever come back to this store.'”

    That scenario does not ring true to my ears.

  23. Bob, I report the story as Roger told it to me. It’s not admissible in court, since it’s two-steps hearsay. But Roger hasn’t led me astray yet.

  24. happy camper

    I promise to say this only one more time ever: We can’t prejudge. It’s the basis for all the Isms. And sorry I realize this is not quite the purpose of this post, but when Cory refers to the hockey incident, it is only alleged. He doesn’t know what happened there. Since it is about Native Americans relations, we do know they have a high rate of alcohol abuse, but we can’t assume that when we meet someone. My Ponca roommate drank only two beers per outing. He was an RN and his dad a Methodist minister in Oklahoma. His mother was white but even so some mothers in the neighborhood didn’t want their kids to play with them for preconceived notions (which weren’t true). Doubt is our friend when it comes to changing racism or drawing false conclusions. Maybe it’s likely Trace O’Connell committed a racist act, but we don’t know that for certain. If you don’t use qualifiers, and not just for the sake of political correctness, but really accept the doubt, then labels just stay permanent. Those kids weren’t dirty or smell bad.

  25. Mr. C never looks bad, I like to say. Hell, everybody says it. I’m just sayin…

  26. “The stereotypes that fueled his hate became unsustainable.”

    Read Mayor-elect Allender’s recent interview in the Rapid City Journal. His world view has changed over the past 25 years, much like Mr. Cornelius’. For Cornelius to think he is the only one whose views change is hypocritical, much like his recent Tweet about Mayor-elect Allender.

  27. Thanks, King, for mentioning that Sunday interview. Roger read that interview, too. I share Roger’s question about why Allender would propose “off the record” conversations with his Native American constituents. Correcting the public (not all of the public, but certain portions) perception that he’s racist would take public conversation, wouldn’t it?

    “…although I’ve earned what I’ve earned from the 1990s, this is not the person I am today, and I will take responsibility to try to correct that perception.” That sentence from Allender in the June 7 RCJ acknowledges that he has changed. He admits that he “earned” the bad rep with his own actions in the 1990s.

    But does Cornelius’s criticism and suspicion of Allender make Cornelius a hypocrite? I don’t think Roger has said that he thinks he is the only person capable of change. Roger may well believe that Allender is capable of change yet contend without logical contradiction that he has not seen sufficient evidence of such change from Allender.

    Perhaps Mayor-Elect Allender will invite Roger Cornelius to one of those conversations to provide such evidence of change?

  28. Deb Geelsdottir

    Roger and others, there is an interesting story in today’s Strib about an Indian couple fighting to let their baby be adopted by a white family.


  29. Roger Cornelius

    The King,

    I’m quite capable of seeing change, if you keep yourself aware you see it all the time. Changes like most other things come in the form of the good, the bad, and the ugly.

    I’ve never stated or implied that I was the only one capable of change, that is naïve. My story tells how my world view changed from my experiences, Allender has yet to tell the public how he has changed, he simply states that he is not the same man he was 25 years ago.

    I’ll continue to be suspect of Allender until he reveals to us what made him change and how he has atoned for his racist past.

    Aside from his not sharing what caused his change on racism, explained why he deleted Facebook or Twitter posts, and why he wants only “off the record” conversations with the Native American community, I will question his intent.

  30. bearcreekbat

    I know I am late to the game, but thanks to you Cory for this great interview, thanks to you Roger for your excellent contributions to this community, and thanks to you Roger and you deb for the wonderful photo! This was one of my favorite blog posts of all time!

  31. Roger Cornelius

    Bear, thanks for your generous comments.

    The only time when you are late to the game is when the game is over, race relations in Rapid City is and will be an ongoing game, if you will.

  32. Thanks, Bear! Any thanks to me hinge on thanks to Roger for having such good stories and intelligent observations to share. I can’t do what I do without good material.