With 1,200 dancers filling the floor and another 5,000 packing the bleachers of the Rapid City Convention Center at the 24th Annual He Sapa Wacipi Na Oskate on October 9, the beat of the drums echoing to the rafters and the crackling reports of the rifles toted by the military veterans of many Nations celebrated the Year of Unity and Reconciliation.
It was a new generation of Lakota, Dakota and Nakota, spearheaded by Stephen Yellow Hawk and Ira Taken Alive, that brought not only Native Americans from dozens of tribes to Rapid City, but also many more non-Natives than have been attendees in the past, thanks to the civic push of these young leaders.
The hardwood flooring of the Civic Center was pretty hard on the moccasin-clad feet of the dancers, but trying to find the space on the crowded floor for the thousand-plus dancers proved to be one of the major challenges.
In the many years that I've covered and participated in the event that was once known (and to many still is) as the Black Hills Powwow, I don't believe I've ever seen such good humor and laughter as I observed that night. The camaraderie of the spectators, dancers, drummers and singers was something to behold.
A special remembrance ceremony was held for one of the most beloved Lakota women of all time, Nellie Two Bulls, a woman whose powerful voice, along with that of her husband Matthew, used to echo through the bleachers at nearly every powwow held in Rapid City.
Both are now deceased, but judging by the memorial songs, the tributes and the tears, not at all forgotten.
It was quite a sight to see the Mayor of Rapid City, Alan Hanks; the President of the Chamber of Commerce, Linda Rabe; South Dakota's Attorney General, Marty Jackley; and House of Representatives candidate Kristi Noem dancing to the beat of the drums as part of the Grand Entry. I never knew the Mayor was such a gifted Lakota dancer.
I believe that the biggest honor one can receive is to be honored by one's own people. And that is what happened to me on Saturday night. Stephen Yellow Hawk introduced me as one of the people he looked up to since his days in high school, and he said that the Board of Directors was honoring me for my more than 20 years of efforts to bring unity and reconciliation to South Dakota. I was presented with a beautiful star quilt and led the other awardees and the Powwow Board in the dance around the arena. It was an honor I will cherish always.
We are sometimes overwhelmed by news reports of gang violence, drug addiction and criminal acts among our young, and we, the elders, wonder where our Nation is headed, but being a part of this huge and wonderful celebration of life brings a new and optimistic perception about the future of the Indian people.
Young boys and young men dressed in their traditional attire filled the arena. Just before I entered the Civic Center, two busloads of students from the Crow Creek Sioux Reservation pulled up in front of the arena, and healthy and clean youngsters streamed from the bus carrying their backpacks and luggage ready to change into their dancing outfits and become a part of the Unity Celebration.
I will be the first to admit that we still have a ways to go to achieve unity in this state, but in the past 20 years we have come a long way. When I approached Governor George Mickelson in 1989, the only weapon I could use to convince him to proclaim a Year of Reconciliation was that it happened to be the 100th anniversary of the dreadful massacre at Wounded Knee.
Birgil Kills Straight had organized a band of Lakota riders who would follow the path Chief Sitanka (Big Foot) took from Cheyenne River to the Pine Ridge Reservation, where he and his followers were shot down by members of the 7th Cavalry. I asked Gov. Mickelson to honor the memories of those who died on December 29, 1890 by proclaiming 1990 as a Year of Reconciliation. He took up the challenge and made it happen.
Gov. Mickelson died in a tragic plane crash not too long after that, but I will always admire the courage this Republican governor showed by risking his political future by taking a stand for the Indian people of South Dakota. When I asked him if he would twist the arms of the largely Republican legislators to eliminate Columbus Day and replace it with Native American Day, I thought I had asked for much too much, but he also made that happen.
Gov. Mickelson said, "We cannot change what happened in the past, but we can change what will happen in the future." And yes, there are still many wounds to heal, but at least for the first time in the history of whites and Indians in South Dakota, people of all colors are making the effort.
Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the editor and publisher of Native Sun News. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1990. His weekly column won the H. L. Mencken Award in 1985. His book Children Left Behind was awarded the Bronze Medal by Independent Book Publishers. He was the first Native American ever inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2007. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.