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YouTube videos featuring Vern Traversie, 69, a Lakota man who lives on the Cheyenne River Reservation, went viral in American Indian communities earlier this year. In them, Mr. Traversie talks about being mistreated at the hospital and shows his abdomen. Though he himself is blind, Mr. Traversie says he was told by others that the scars left after his heart surgery form the letters.

A May rally in support of Mr. Traversie drew hundreds of people, many of whom said his story exemplifies the racism American Indians experience in Rapid City. But others say they can’t make out the letters, including police who investigated his allegations and hospital officials. No criminal charges have been filed in the case.

Chase Iron Eyes, a lawyer for Mr. Traversie, filed a lawsuit Monday in U.S. District Court in South Dakota against Rapid City Regional Hospital, its board of directors, physicians and TRS Surg Assist Inc. The lawsuit alleges a civil rights violation based on race and cites the scarring from Mr. Traversie’s double-bypass surgery done in August 2011 as evidence. It seeks a jury trial and damages.

“Defendants injured, carved, burned, and/or cared for Plaintiff’s abdomen in such a manner that scars resembling three letters ‘K’ were permanently placed on Plaintiff’s abdomen for no medically necessary purpose or reason, and in the process injured, carved, burned, and/or cared for other portions of Plaintiff’s body to cause injury, specifically his abdomen and back,” the lawsuit stated.

A hospital spokeswoman did not comment on the lawsuit. Mr. Traversie’s attorney declined to comment.

Mr. Traversie said he hadn’t been aware the lawsuit was filed Monday, although he knew a lawyer was planning to file one at some point on his behalf.

From wire dispatches and staff reports