04/15/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Governor Rounds to proclaim Year of Unity between races in South Dakota

By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji)
© 2010 Native Sun News

February 15, 2010

Anyone attempting to get a bill passed whether it is before a city, county, state or federal legislative body, knows that it takes some serious lobbying to make it happen.

And it doesn't make any difference if the lobbying is done by General Motors or the National Congress of American Indians, it is a challenging and often laborious task to push a bill and gain legislative support for it.

In 1990, I was the publisher of the Lakota Times (later to become Indian Country Today). I heard a young Indian journalist named Harold Iron Shield talk about how he tried to introduce legislation in Minnesota to get a year of reconciliation between Indians and whites. He was not successful, but I thought his efforts were worth pursuing in South Dakota.

Ironically, 1990 was the 100th anniversary of the Wounded Knee Massacre which happened on December 29, 1890. Another young Lakota man named Birgil Kills Straight was enlisting several Lakota horsemen to ride from the Cheyenne River reservation to the Pine Ridge reservation following the exact trail taken by Chief Sitanka (Big Foot) and his followers as they fled to gain the protection of Chief Red Cloud after the murder of Sitting Bull up on the Standing Rock Reservation. As ghost dancers, Sitanka and his band feared they would meet the same fate as Sitting Bull who had allowed the ghost dance to take place near his lodge. The ghost dance, incidentally, was a religious dance that frightened the white man.

I talked to Kills Straight about his ride because I wanted to do his story for my newspaper and I wanted to be sure that we had a photographer along to record it (one of our photographs was used in Time Magazine). But I also saw this effort by Kills Straight as an opportune time to challenge South Dakota's Republican Governor George Mickelson to replace Columbus Day with a state holiday to be called Native American Day and to make the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. a state holiday. In order to accomplish this it would take a bill that would be presented to the state legislators. My other request was to proclaim 1990 as a Year of Reconciliation to honor the 100th anniversary of the 1890 Massacre at Wounded Knee and to honor the riders of Birgil Kills Straight.

I met with Gov. Mickelson and we came up with a plan to lobby the state legislators in order to get the bill passed. We didn't need to lobby for the Year of Reconciliation because the governor could act independently of the legislators by proclamation to make this happen.

Mickelson began by twisting arms and calling in markers from the various legislators and I made sure that every legislator had a copy of my editorial challenging the governor for Native American Day and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and by manning the phone. In the meantime a young man that was half Nakota and half African American named Lynn Hart decided to take up the challenge and lobby for both holidays by reading my editorial to the state legislative body.

A couple of days before Hart addressed the legislators; Gov. Mickelson called to tell me that he was sure we had the votes to get the legislation passed. He felt that Hart's address would help convince any legislator that still had doubts, but he was sure the bill would pass anyhow and he was right. When the governor made the proclamation for a Year of Reconciliation I was there along with several tribal leaders and the governor's tribal-state liaison, Francis Whitebird.
Unfortunately, in the year I should have been there helping Mickelson make reconciliation work, I accepted a fellowship to become a Nieman Fellow at Harvard and at a crucial time in the reconciliation effort, Gov. Mickelson was killed in a tragic plane crash. The Year of Reconciliation never really got off of the ground.

Reconciliation had to be pursued. I organized a committee consisting of several key Rapid City and tribal people, including members of the Chamber of Commerce and the Rapid City Visitors and Convention Center, plus the supervisor of the Mount Rushmore Memorial and a leading member of the Rapid City business community, and we met with Republican Governor Mike Rounds and asked him to make a proclamation honoring the Year of Reconciliation by proclaiming 2010 as the Year of Unity. The governor took up the challenge and on February 19, 2010, in the State Capitol Rotunda in Pierre Gov. Rounds will make that proclamation.

I encourage all South Dakotans, white and Indian, to come to Pierre and support Governor Rounds as he makes this historic proclamation to honor the memory of Gov. Mickelson and to kick off a new effort at peace, reconciliation and unity between the members of all races in South Dakota.

(Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the publisher of Native Sun News. He was the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association, the 1985 recipient of the H. L. Mencken Award, and a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1991. Giago was inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2008. He can be reached at