Editorial: WRE covers Traversie case
by Tasiyagnunpa Livermont, WRE Editor
As a reporter and now editor of a weekly newspaper, this idea of being responsible to one’s community is very real to me, both as a tribal member making her home on a different reservation and as a community journalist.
So, this spring, when the story of Vern Traversie, a Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal member and elder speaking against alleged abuse from a Rapid City hospital first hit YouTube and Facebook, I started following the developing story.
I started by contacting those who were openly discussing their involvement with the Rapid City action and march held in May that was organized in part by an Eagle Butte man, Cody Hall.
Cody Hall answered my request for information via Facebook, but I had trouble getting other information. The piece I ended up writing letting the WRE community know about the event in Rapid City quoted Hall heavily. As a news piece I normally would not have done that, but I had to get out what event information I could, I felt, as it affected multiple residents of Eagle Butte and CRST members. Robin LeBeau, CRST council member, gave me some information via Facebook as well of who to contact, but declined comment herself. The other organizer, Chase Iron Eyes, also declined comment on May 14, but worked with Hall to get me the pertinent details for my story about the event.
At that time I also was not able to get contact information for Traversie either. By the time I did get contact information of some kind, my only option, short of knocking on this elder’s door, was to go through his pastor and now spokesperson, Rev. Ben Farrar of First Baptist Church in Eagle Butte.
When the suit was filed in state court against the hospital by Chase Iron Eyes on July, I followed up with Farrar, to be certain that Iron Eyes was legitimate legal counsel. Farrar assured me just a couple weeks ago that Iron Eyes was a representative for Traversie’s attorney, Gabe Galandra, who is from out-of-state and who wanted a local person to handle the filing.
Iron Eyes is the organizer of lastrealindians.com and as a supposed native news outlet, I was initially confused at his involvement, both as an event organizer for the May event alongside Hall and then as the attorney filing the suit.
Upon reading other updates on lastrealindians.com and my attempt to interview him, which he declined, it seemed he was distancing himself personally from Traversie coverage, though his website has continued to publish content.
The story stalled at the point. Then at the beginning of August, South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley made a public statement regarding ‘investigations’ having concluded and finding no misconduct regarding Traversie. The press release lacked information regarding which investigations were closed, which might still be open, and what role his office had in the case or finding or how Jackley’s finding might impact the case.
The Rapid City Journal broke a story then from Traversie’s camp stating that Jackley’s statement was misleading, because other investigations were still open. The new spokesperson listed though was not the local person I had talked to.
I then followed up with Farrar again, hoping to visit with Traversie himself regarding how things were going for him, as well as how he felt about Jackley’s statements. I sat down with just his spokesperson Farrar at the First Baptist Church in Eagle Butte on Wednesday, August 8. Farrar told me that Traversie had been directed by his attorneys to not speak to any media.
I inquired then of Traversie’s health and other information. When Jackley’s office did not return my call for information verifying exactly which investigations he had referred to in his statement, the story stalled, so I printed a news brief with what information I did have for the August 16 issue.
Fast forward to August 16, 2012. A lead came into the West River Eagle office that a Rapid City Journal reporter would be in town in a couple hours to interview Traversie himself.
I called the First Baptist Church then, to inquire of Farrar that if Traversie was planning on making a public statement to the media in person, the West River Eagle would appreciate being there. Nobody answered the phone. I then decided to stop at the supposed meeting place to inquire of Traversie’s camp in person, but first I went to the Eagle Stop for some quick lunch.
There I ran into Farrar. I posed my question to him about whether the West River Eagle could be part of any media release that Traversie was about to give, first asking if it was true that Traversie was being interviewed by the Rapid City Journal. He told me that it was true and that he thought it might be okay, though he was not Traversie’s publicist.
So, I waited in my vehicle for Farrar to meet the reporter and we would all caravan to the interview spot. Some time later, Farrar found me out at my vehicle and apologized to me stating that Traversie’s publicist, Kara Briggs, a Seattle-based public relations strategist for Pyramid Communications, had promised the Rapid City Journal an exclusive story, but that I was okay to participate if the RCJ felt it was okay.
I decided to stick around and wait for the RCJ reporter. After a bit more time, Farrar again came out to my car, apologizing, the RCJ reporter had declined to have me there. Farrar then gave me Traversie’s publicist’s number.
I informed Farrar at that point that we would be letting the public know that a RCJ reporter had come to Eagle Butte to interview Traversie. As we all know, it isn’t everyday RCJ comes to Eagle Butte to interview a tribal member.
When I called Briggs, she told me that this was the first she had heard of me wanting to interview Traversie myself for the West River Eagle and told me that she is the only official spokesperson for Traversie, despite Traversie calling Farrar such. She promptly ‘friended’ me on Facebook and then sent me multiple press releases that she had recently released as the publicist handling media coverage of Traversie on behalf of Galandra’s legal office. She told me she would contact Traversie’s attorneys about whether he could meet with me. She would not comment on allegedly having given the Rapid City Journal an exclusive interview. As of publication, Briggs had not yet let me know the attorney’s decisions about interviewing Traversie myself.
This raises a few questions. How do we know that Traversie isn’t being taken advantage of by those who are helping him? How do we know that he is indeed giving these people, all of them or some of them, permission to act on his behalf? In fact, how can we know anything about his well-being? Do we know that his actions are for the benefit of the people if he won’t act talk to his own community newspaper, whether by his own choice and personal preference or at the advice of the people he is counting on to fight this battle? What audience is his legal team after if they won’t inform his community’s local news outlets, without being hunted down? What is more basic than letting one’s own community know what is happening? Are these actions for the people? Or not?
Perhaps it seems none of our business, but when someone makes allegations, including taking things to court, a newspaper’s job is to follow that. It is news. The people have a right to know then, especially when that person has said that what he is doing is for the people. Short of knocking on an elder’s door uninvited and unannounced, this is what I have been able to gather as a reporter thus far. So now you know what I know.