When Columbus Day comes around each year there is consternation in the Native American community across America. Columbus Day parades, particularly the one held in Denver, CO., are disrupted by militant American Indians. On some Indian reservations black armbands are worn to recognize what the indigenous people consider a “day of infamy.”
But who would have “thunk” that in a state Indian activists called “The Mississippi of the North” in the 1970s, would be the only state in the Union that does not celebrate Columbus Day, but instead celebrates “Native American Day.”
How could such a state, condemned by activists for years, have risen above the fray and distinguished itself as a leader in white/Indian relations? The credit must go to the power of the Indian press.
Let me explain. In 1990 a young man named Birgil Kills Straight (that’s right, Birgil with a B) decided to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Massacre at Wounded Knee by leading a contingent of Lakota riders on the trail that Sitanka (Big Foot) and his followers took on their way from the Cheyenne River Reservation to the Pine Ridge Reservation after hearing of the murder of Sitting Bull. The 7th Cavalry, George Armstrong Custer’s old outfit, caught up with them at Wounded Knee Creek and on December 29, 1890, they opened fire on the mostly unarmed Lakota men, women and children, murdering nearly 300 innocent civilians.
Kills Straight, a highly educated Lakota man, felt that this would be an opportune time to commemorate and honor the victims of the massacre. But he took it one step further and decided to hold a Lakota ceremony called, “Wiping away the tears.” After the riders reached the sacred burial grounds of the victims at Wounded Knee the ceremony would be held to reach across the barriers of racial intolerance and in essence, extend a hand of peace and forgiveness to the white race.
I saw this as an opportunity to extend that message in a column I wrote directed at then Governor George Mickelson (R-SD). I challenged him to use this commemoration to not only proclaim 1990 as a Year of Reconciliation between Indians and whites, but to also use it as a time to set aside Columbus Day and to rename that day Native American Day. My editorial also asked the governor to honor Martin Luther King Jr. by making his birthday a state holiday.
Gov. Mickelson accepted my challenge in a letter to my newspaper, The Lakota Times. Lynn Hart, a Lakota/African American, read my editorial on the floor of the South Dakota Legislature. Hart was making an effort to have the state declare the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., a state holiday. Well, we ended up getting all three. The state legislature voted unanimously to make1990 a Year of Reconciliation, to replace Columbus Day with Native American Day, and to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a state holiday.
All of these things were accomplished without a single shot being fired, without a single arrest being made, and without the occupation of a single building. They were accomplished because of the truth of an old adage, “The pen is mightier than the sword.”
But it took a courageous governor and a strong and determined legislative body to stand behind the proclamation of Gov. Mickelson and make 1990 a Year of Reconciliation, and to support the legislation replacing Columbus Day with Native American Day and of making the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., a state holiday.
The Lakota Times was a free and independent weekly newspaper that was born on the Pine Ridge Reservation a few years after the occupation of Wounded Knee. It stood alone in its efforts to bring truth and unbiased reporting of the news to the reservation. In its formative years it withstood firebombs, it withstood having its windows blasted out with shotguns three times, and it withstood assaults upon my family and me. Under the constant threats of death, the weekly newspaper faithfully covered the political, social and educational news on the reservation.
And in the end, my editorial in the Lakota Times helped to create a new state holiday and to set aside the holiday most Native Americans found distasteful. South Dakota is the only state out of 50 that has moved to create a Native American Day to honor its largest minority.
On November 10, 2007 I will be the first Native American ever inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame and I hope it will open the door for the many other hardworking Indian newspaper editors and journalists to follow.
Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the Class of 1991 and founder of The Lakota Times and Indian Country Today newspapers. He founded and was the first president of the Native American Journalists Association. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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