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Wednesday, July 18, 2012 - Page updated at 09:00 p.m.

Doctors carved 'KKK' into Lakota man's skin, lawsuit claims

By John M. Glionna
Los Angeles Times

LAS VEGAS — It could be akin to those cases in which believers see the face of the Virgin Mary in a taco shell or a suburban tree trunk, but an American Indian lawyer in South Dakota doesn't think so: He filed a federal lawsuit this week on behalf of a man who says surgeons carved the initials KKK into his stomach during heart surgery.

The thing is, the victim, a 69-year-old Lakota Indian named Vern Traversie, is blind — but his friends and family tell him that his stomach now advertises an insulting racial slur.

Videos of Traversie, who lives on the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota, went viral in American Indian communities earlier this year. In the videos, Traversie shows his abdomen and says he was scarred because of his race.

American Indians say the case demonstrates generations-long discrimination in the region. In May, hundreds of people attended a rally on behalf of Traversie, saying his story exemplifies the racism American Indians experience in Rapid City.

Many complained of broken treaties, unsolved murders and high incarceration rates among American Indians as their reasons for showing up. They included Dennis Banks, who helped found the American Indian Movement in the late 1960s to protest the U.S. government's treatment of Indians and to demand the government honor its treaties with Indian tribes.

But some people — including hospital officials and police who investigated Traversie's allegations — say they can't make out the letters. No criminal charges have been filed in the case.

On Monday, Chase Iron Eyes, a lawyer for Traversie, filed suit against the South Dakota hospital where the operation took place, as well as against the hospital's board of directors and others. The lawsuit alleges a civil-rights violation based on race and cites the scarring from Traversie's double-bypass surgery done in August 2011 as evidence. It seeks a jury trial.

Thus far, not many people are commenting on the case. A hospital spokeswoman did not immediately comment on the lawsuit. South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley said Tuesday his office was investigating.

When the AP contacted Traversie on Monday, he said he wasn't aware of the lawsuit filed on his behalf.

"I think the Native people have been fighting racial hatred for many years in South Dakota, but you know, it's not all the people that are hateful toward Native Americans," Traversie told the AP. "We have a good segment of our society — white society — in South Dakota that are Christian people and they get along good with the Native Americans. In my instance, I believe I'm dealing with the Ku Klux Klan, and that's a small minority."

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