October 8 is Native American Day in South Dakota, the only state in the Union that honors Native Americans with a state sanctioned holiday: A holiday that, in fact, replaces Columbus Day.
Many Native Americans went to bat to cause this to happen. The primary motivator was the 100th anniversary of the massacre at Wounded Knee. Many Lakota felt that something special needed to be done to commemorate the nearly 300 Lakota men, women and children that were shot down in cold blood by elements of the 7th Cavalry, Custer's old outfit, on December 29, 1890.
Birgil Kills Straight organized a horse ride that would follow the exact path taken by Sitanka (Big Foot) and his band of Lakota as they fled to the Pine Ridge Reservation seeking protection under the auspices of Chief Red Cloud. The band was stopped at Wounded Knee Creek by the United States military and the rest is history.
As the editor and publisher of the local Pine Ridge Reservation newspaper called The Lakota Times back then, I watched with great interest the efforts of Kills Straight as he set about planning the trail the riders would take. At the end of the ride Kills Straight decided to hold a ceremony at the mass gravesite at Wounded Knee where a Wiping Away the Tears Ceremony would be held and the riders would pray for the souls of those buried there and for peace and justice. Their commitment was a powerful motivator to me. I immediately wrote an editorial pointing out these facts to Governor George Mickelson (R-SD) and requested that he use this solemn occasion to consider naming a day to honor those who died at Wounded Knee and to use the days leading up to the massacre date as a Year of Reconciliation between Native Americans and whites.
Ironically, in 1989, I did an interview with Gov. Mickelson and asked him what the toughest part of his job was as governor of South Dakota. He replied, "I will give you the same answer my father gave me when I asked him the same question when he was governor of South Dakota. My father said that the toughest part of his job was the bad race relations between Indians and whites."
Together, the governor and I, along with strong support from Lakota people like Kills Straight, Pete Swift Bird, Sr., Red Hail, Melvin "Dickie" Brewer and non-Indians like Tom Katus, Senator Tom Daschle, and Jeff and Linda Lea Viken, we lobbied, twisted arms, and cajoled our way through the state legislators until they passed the Native American Day holiday and Gov. Mickelson issued a proclamation making 1990 The Year of Reconciliation.
All has not been sugar and spice since that historic year. Many local businesses are still holding their "Columbus Day" sales and even residents of the Indian reservations fail to realize the significance of the holiday and just use it as a day to take off from school and work.
Racial relations have improved quite dramatically, but then the only way they had to go was up. And yet just last week an ugly sign on a bathroom wall at South Dakota State University illustrated the hate and ignorance that still exists. The sign read, "Prairie Niggers, go back to the rez," and it even listed the room numbers where Native Americans were housed at the university.
Yesterday I drove into a lane where I bank and as I waited for my transaction I noticed a man in the passenger side of the car next to me talking on a cell phone. His window was rolled down, as was mine, so I could hear every word. He was shouting into the phone, "There is this bunch of drunken Indians in my neighborhood, yeah that's right, drunken Indians, so I put padlocks on all of my doors."
Of course the bank teller could hear every word he was saying and since she knew me and she knew I was also listening she looked quite dismayed. I finally said to the man, "If those guys were a bunch of white guys would you call them drunken white guys or just drunks?" He frowned at me as the driver pulled away from the bank. The teller buzzed me and said, "Thanks Tim."
Gradually we have made progress in racial relations in South Dakota. Many folks living in cities back east who have seen bad race relations between whites and blacks or Hispanics do not realize that there is the same situation in states like South Dakota, Idaho, Montana and North Dakota to name a few. It has been just over 100 years since the Indians and whites were at war with each other and the bad feelings have carried over in the minds of some people of both races.
As long as there are good people like the ones I named above we will continue to move forward. I know there is still racial tension in the schools and I think it is up to the superintendents and teachers to address this problem and it is up to the parents as well. But when racial epithets are scribbled on the walls of the rest rooms at a major college, it may be time to take another look at Native American Day, reconciliation, and all of the things many of us have fought so hard and so long to overcome. But as the Black anthem of the 1960s goes, "We shall overcome."
Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is President of Unity South Dakota. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1991. His weekly column won the H. L. Mencken Award in 1985. Giago was the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association and the founder of Indian Country Today. He can be reached at UnitySoDak1@knology.net
© 2012 Unity South Dakota