By Nicole Chavez and Tiffany Anthony, CNN
A hotel in South Dakota is accused of refusing to rent a room to at least two Indigenous women after its owner reportedly threatened to ban all Native Americans from the property.
The NDN Collective, an Indigenous rights group in South Dakota, and Sunny Red Bear, the group’s director of racial equity, filed a class action lawsuit Wednesday claiming they were racially discriminated against when they were denied reservations at the Grand Gateway Hotel in Rapid City this week.
The alleged incident was “part of a policy, pattern, or practice of intentional racial discrimination against Native Americans,” according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit was filed in the US District Court for the District of South Dakota Western Division against the hotel, a sports bar within the property and its parent company the Retsel Corporation. Connie and Nicholas Uhre, who are also named in the lawsuit, are directors of the Retsel Corporation, according to company documents filed with the South Dakota Secretary of State.
When Sunny Red Bear and another Native American woman arrived at the hotel on Monday, a front desk employee claimed the hotel was not renting rooms to people with “local” identifications, the lawsuit says. The following day, the suit states, a hotel employee refused to reserve five rooms to representatives of the NDN Collective, saying the hotel wasn’t able to rent the available rooms to the group because of unspecified “issues.”
CNN has contacted the hotel, the sports bar, their parent company and the Uhres for comment.
Brendan Johnson, an attorney representing Red Bear and the group, said his clients wanted to confirm whether the hotel was “actually excluding Native Americans,” following reports that Connie Uhre had written in a Facebook comment that the hotel would no longer allow Native American people on the property, according to the lawsuit.
“To be clear, we didn’t file this complaint to send a message — we filed a complaint because we want justice,” Johnson said in a news conference announcing the lawsuit.
According to a Facebook screenshot that has circulated online since Sunday and was reported by the Rapid City Journal, Connie Uhre states the decision to deny access was taken after a shooting took place at the hotel last weekend and considering previous “vandalism” incidents.
The Rapid City Police Department said a 19-year-old Native American man was arrested in connection with a shooting reported inside a room at the hotel early Saturday morning that left one person injured.
CNN has not independently confirmed the comments posted by Uhre. Steve Allender, the Mayor of Rapid City, told CNN he saw Uhre’s comments on her personal Facebook page under an article related to homelessness after several people alerted him. He took a screenshot and tweeted it, saying neither the shooting nor Uhre’s comments reflected the community’s values.
Prior to the lawsuit, the comments allegedly made by Uhre were widely criticized in Rapid City by local officials, activists and tribal leaders.
The “racist and hateful” comments “expressed by a few individuals only reinforces long-standing feelings of distrust and threatens the relationship of the Rapid City community with its Native American residents and visitors,” Allender said Tuesday in a joint statement with several county and city officials.
Kevin Killer, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, said tribal members have stayed at the hotel for the past 40 years and demanded an immediate apology, in a statement posted to Facebook.
“It’s important we remind people of our history and place to this region. Moving beyond this type of thinking will help our communities to collectively heal and set a better path for future generations to work together,” Killer said in the statement.
Earlier this week, Red Bear spoke in front of dozens of people who gathered in Rapid City to call out Uhre’s comments, saying she and the NDN Collective won’t allow the civil rights of Native Americans to be violated.
“We as an Indigenous and native people in Rapid City sometimes we are not recognizing our power in our community, the power that we bring, the business that we bring to this community. We have the power to shift and make change if we stand together collectively,” Red Bear said.
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CNN’s Justin Gamble contributed to this report.