Wednesday, July 8, was filled with ironies.
I was seated at a table in my newspaper office answering questions fired at me by two television documentary specialists from Germany. They had just returned to Rapid City from the Pine Ridge Reservation where they were doing some interviews about how the local Indians feel about Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial carving, etc.
I say the day was filled with ironies because they were just asking me some of the same questions about Mount Rushmore as I had answered for People magazine on the same subject 18 years ago when at that very moment the news hit our newsroom that several Greenpeace activists had just rappelled over the face of Abraham Lincoln and unfurled a 65 foot by 35 foot banner to the right of his face.
The report said that all activists were safely apprehended, removed from the mountain and placed into custody. The twelve individuals that were "apprehended" (not arrested, mind you), were turned over to federal jurisdiction.
I immediately recalled the year that the United States of America celebrated its 200th birthday. The year was 1976. America, as usual, was burying all of its hidden horrors, putting cosmetics on all of its warts, and preparing to make 1976 a birthday celebration to end all birthday celebrations. The National Park Service rangers would have been polishing the faces of the four presidents on Mount Rushmore if they could have found a safe way to do it. They wanted those faces on the "Shrine of Democracy" to shine.
Down the road apiece an activist named Russell Means, an Oglala Lakota, had a different take on things. He announced in a way that only Russell Means could do that the American Indians intended to "blow out the candles on America's birthday cake." Holy cow, one would think that he had just announced that he and his followers were about to fire rockets at the face of the four presidents enshrined on Mount Rushmore. Means loved to call this monument, "The Shrine of Hypocrisy."
As in days of yore, the Greenpeace activists also brought out the really colorful side of the locals. They suggested everything except a mass hanging for the infringers. My goodness, these tree huggers had desecrated a monument that was only second to a statue of Jesus Christ. "Lock them up and throw away the key," suggested one angry patriot.
Again, my mind drifted back to 1976. Means had made his proclamation and the state law enforcement agencies had gone into a mass panic. The city and county cops, and the state and park cops, went into a wartime mode. They broke out the heavy artillery. They manned the barricades and prepared for the assault of the American Indians.
Many law enforcement agencies were already on semi-alert because Leonard Peltier was on the loose after the shootout at Oglala where two FBI agents were killed. The police had already rehearsed the actions they would take in case of another Indian uprising by stopping every car leaving the Indian reservations and searching them for Peltier. Finally, sick and tired of the harassment, buttons were handed out to many Lakota to wear on their chests or hats that read, "I am not Leonard Peltier."
After the announcement by Means, the law enforcement panic was on again. The police and state troopers totally overlooked the fact that Indians can be tourists too. The hills were alive with police cars stopping every vehicle containing any individual who resembled an Indian. Natives were frisked, trunks were searched, and Indians were subjected to every indignity imaginable. As one large Lakota man was frisked in Keystone, South Dakota, he was heard to say, "Where in the hell is the ACLU?"
It makes one wonder how Greenpeace pulled off their stunt. I suppose it was because they didn't look like Indians. In other words, they could pass because they looked just like any white tourist visiting the Shrine of Hypocrisy.
The boast by Russell Means that the Indians would blow out the candles on America's birthday cake never came to pass, but his very words caused a statewide law enforcement panic that subjected every Indian resident of the state to a form of terror.
It proved once and for all that the "frontier mentality" that was formed in the minds of the early settlers in the 1876 was still alive and well in South Dakota in 1976.
And ironically, it is still alive in 2009.
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 email@example.com