Tim Giago: Thirty years and 1,560 columns later...
A famous columnist once wrote, “It is easy to write a weekly column. All you have to do is sit in front of your typewriter until you sweat blood.”
Of course the typewriter has been replaced by the computer, but the concept of writing a weekly column still holds true; one still gets the feeling of sweating blood when faced with the weekly task of creating something new every week.
I bring this up for a variety of reasons. First off, this year will mark my 30th year of writing a weekly column. In those 30 years I have written somewhere in the neighborhood of 1, 560 columns. Some were good enough to win prestigious awards, some were mediocre, and others just plain awful, but I persisted.
Oftentimes there are sources one can go to in researching facts and figures for a column, but at other times, especially when writing about the distant past, one has to rely entirely upon a good memory. I don’t know if it is just a cliché or a medical fact, but one does lose a certain amount of recall when reaching a certain age.
For instance, I wrote recently about being responsible for choosing the nickname “Crusaders” for my alma mater. It was not something I ever thought about or even vaguely remembered. But one night while having dinner with a former teacher of mine from the Indian mission boarding school I had attended in the 1940s, the priest brought up the subject of mascots since I had been writing about why I detested the use of American Indians as mascots for more than 25 years. The good priest recalled that it was I who had chosen the name “Crusaders” in a contest at the mission school. Since I had repressed many of the memories of the good things that happened at the school, but recalled many of the terrible things that happened, I agreed with the priest that this was probably the case.
Well, several former students saw it in a different light and wrote a letter to the editor of one of the newspapers that carried this particular column and pointed this out. I have to agree with them because I, for the life of me, only remembered this incident because it was brought up by one of my former teachers at the mission school.
When one writes a weekly column for as long as I have, it should go without saying that there will be critics of all stripes. A word might be misspelled or a colon used in the wrong way or a date that is not correct and every one of these errors will be pointed out by those who love to tear apart the writings of others. But it is an obstacle that comes with the territory.
If one writes anything that is open for public scrutiny one can expect feedback, sometimes good and sometimes horrible. I applaud the editor of the Indian newspaper that printed the letter correcting me for my error because I have always taught the reporters and editors that worked for me at The Lakota Times and Indian Country Today not to be afraid of criticism and not to censor letters to the editor that were critical of the newspaper, the reporters or the management.
There were letters that came into my newspapers that called me an SOB and worse. Without hesitation they were published, but there were times we had to clean up the language a bit in order not to offend our readers. This is not true for many of the Indian owned newspapers published today. Those that are owned by an Indian tribe will not allow any letters of criticism of the paper, the tribe or the tribal leaders to be printed. This is censorship plain and simple.
As long as I continue to write my weekly column I know that there will be those I will offend, there will be those that will nitpick each word and paragraph, and there will be those with legitimate complaints of errors I may have committed.
Criticism can hurt and threats oftentimes come with the criticism and since I am only human, there will be times when I will err and the criticism is well deserved. There are also racists out there that tear into anything I write and, I am proud to say, there are those who truly appreciate the things I write about and some have even gone so far as to say some of the things I have written over the years has affected and even changed their very lives.
Over these 30 years of writing I have seen Native Americans that pursued careers in journalism, movie directing, publishing their own newspapers, and becoming professors of journalism because of something I wrote that inspired them.
In the long run, this should be the real test of any columnist. To bring about change simply through the written word has proven to me that the pen is mightier than the sword. So after 30 years and many awards later, I can say thank you to my fans as well as to my critics. Both have made me a better writer.
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. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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