THE BLOG
09/14/2014 03:10 pm ET Updated Nov 14, 2014

Standing Tall for Native American Day

Notes from Indian Country
By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji)

September 15, 2014

An unprecedented event happened in South Dakota 24 years ago, an event that has not been duplicated by any other state: South Dakota adopted October 12 as a state holiday to be called Native American Day.

By selecting October 12, South Dakota eliminated, for all intent and purpose, Columbus Day as a holiday. But the ensuing 24 years have proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that old habits are hard to break.

The Native American Day holiday did not occur by happenstance. It certainly was not anything advocated by the state's largest newspapers, television or radio stations, or by the state's 100 weekly newspapers. It was instead a holiday advocated by the only independent, Indian-owned weekly newspaper in the state, the original Lakota Times (No connection to the current Lakota Country Times).

Republican Governor George Mickelson, now deceased, certainly did not sit in his office in Pierre and visualize such a monumental holiday. The Lakota Times had a rich history of standing up and fighting for the rights of the Native people. There were many things we advocated for in those early days of the 1980s. We fought for a Year of Reconciliation between Indians and whites in order to honor the memory of the nearly 300 innocent Lakota men, women and children murdered at Wounded Knee. We stood behind an African American named Lynn Hart as he fought for the state to include the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. as a state holiday. And we shouted out in our headlines and editorials for the state to eliminate Columbus Day as a state holiday and replace it with Native American Day.

I honor all of those white, South Dakota legislators that stood tall for Native Americans in January of 1990. It certainly was not a popular thing for them to do 24 years ago. The man that stepped forward to accept my challenge and made it happen was Gov. Mickelson. There has not been another governor of his stature or courage since.

Toiling away at the Lakota Times in those days were some courageous Lakota men and women. There was Doris Giago, Avis Little Eagle, Amanda Takes War Bonnet, Ivan Star Comes Out, Charlie Fish, Leon and Leo Takes War Bonnet, Karen Little Thunder, Kat Dubray, Rita White Butterfly, Bunty Anque, Paul Mousseau, Annie Clifford, Julie Yellow Hair, Christy Tibbitts, Dean LaVallie, Thom Little Moon, and non-Indians like Eric Haase, David Melmer, Connie LeMay, Joan Morrison and Sally Farrar. It took all of them to support the precedent setting efforts we were making to bring about drastic changes in South Dakota with the power of the press.

But as I alluded to earlier, change comes hard in this state. The state's white-owned media has done little to promote Native American Day. Out-of-state retail chains like Walmart, Target, K-Mart, J.C.Penney's and Lowe's, and others, with their corporate mentality, still advertise "Columbus Day" sales. And above all, the state government of South Dakota has been woefully negligent in stepping forward to celebrate a day that honors Native Americans.

It seems to me that the people of South Dakota are not fully aware that what they accomplished is unique in American history. Of the 50 States of the Union, only one has set aside a state sanctioned holiday to honor Native Americans and in so doing has diminished a holiday, Columbus Day, that most Native Americans find offensive. Witness the Native protests that take place across America (except in South Dakota) every October 12. In South Dakota we made this happen without firing a shot.

If South Dakota's white-owned media had come up with the idea of Native American Day, or of a Year
of Reconciliation, perhaps they would be more apt to promote and honor these days, but it seems to me that because the Lakota people and a Lakota-owned newspaper did it for them, they are hesitant, fearful and even envious of promoting this special day. They even neglect to report truthfully about how this day began. They instead credit a white governor and white legislature totally ignoring the all-important instigating role played by me and the Native Americans at the Lakota Times.

I would say to the Lakota people that October 12 is our day. I believe that every Indian nation, high school and college in South Dakota should look ahead to October 12 and start to make special plans to commemorate a day that was set aside at the urging of a Lakota newspaper, to heal the wounds that divide the Indian and white people of this state, and honor the 300 innocent Lakota men, women and children who died at Wounded Knee by making it their special day, a day they stand tall for Native Americans all across America.

What we did in 1990 was unique and when we are contacted by people from other tribes asking how we did it we tell them how and encourage them to go for it. But we remind them that they need a strong governor like Mickelson to make it happen. You can give birth to the controversial ideas of change, but it takes the support of strong white leaders to make it happen.

(Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association and the founder and publisher of Indian Country Toda and the Lakota Times. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the Class of 1991. He can be reached at editor@nsweekly.com)