|The following story was written and reported by Jesse Abernathy, Native Sun News Editor. All content © Native Sun News.
For 22 years now, South Dakota has observed Native American Day instead of “Columbus Day” as a legal holiday on the second Monday in October. Many annual Native American Day celebrations throughout the state include wacipis (powwows) with resplendent colors such as the ones pictured on the young Native man above. This year, Native American Day falls on Oct. 8.
PHOTO COURTESY/BAM’S BLOG, THE OKLAHOMA CITY MUSEUM OF ART
A day of honor
Giago had key role in Native holiday proposal
By Jesse Abernathy
Native Sun News Editor
RAPID CITY — Almost 25 years ago, Tim Giago had a dream to alter South Dakota’s – as well as America’s – perspective regarding the Wounded Knee Massacre and the legacy of Christopher Columbus.
In 1988, longtime journalist Giago, who is Oglala Lakota, urged South Dakota’s then-governor, George S. Mickelson, to replace “Columbus Day” with a holiday not only to recognize the state’s large Native American population and the more than 300 mostly defenseless Lakota men, women and children who perished at Wounded Knee Creek, or Cankpe Opi Wakpala, on a bitterly cold morning in late December 1890, but also to dispel the enduring myth that Columbus actually “discovered” what came to be known as America. Giago also suggested a “Year of Reconciliation” in 1990 – 100 years after Wounded Knee – as a worthy, tangible measure to improve historically contentious relations between South Dakota’s Native and white populations.
The Dec. 29, 1890, massacre, long seen as a “battle” between the U.S. Army and “hostile” Natives, was celebrated as a “victory” by the federal government, with at least 20 Medals of Honor – the nation’s highest military honor – going to 7th Cavalry troopers.
Today, the Wounded Knee Massacre site is a National Historic Landmark.
At the time of his request, retired Native Sun News founder Giago was editor and publisher of another newspaper he founded, the original Lakota Times, which was established in 1981 on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Lakota Times was the first independently owned Native American newspaper in the United States. Following relocation of the paper to Rapid City, Giago renamed it Indian Country Today in 1992 to reflect its national coverage of Native news and issues.
He sold Indian Country Today in 1998.
Mickelson, who served as South Dakota’s Republican governor from 1987 until his untimely death in a plane crash on an Iowa farm in April of 1993, midway through his second four-year term in office, shared Giago’s vision. Mickelson proposed legislation during the state’s annual lawmaking session in 1989 calling for “Columbus Day,” then a state-recognized federal holiday, to be redesignated as “American Indian Day.” He also proposed proclaiming 1990 as the “Year of Reconciliation” as well as designating assassinated civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday in January as an official state holiday. The proposal to honor King, which followed federal recognition of King’s birthday as a legal holiday in 1986, also came at the committed behest of Giago.
South Dakota’s Legislature unanimously passed all three of the governor’s legislative proposals, saying it replaced “Columbus Day” for “the remembrance of the great Native American leaders who contributed so much to the history of our state.”
The “American Indian Day” designation was eventually changed to “Native American Day” to more accurately reflect the contemporary status of the state’s indigenous peoples and to move away from Columbus’ misnomer of “Indios,” which is Spanish for “Indians.” Columbus mistakenly applied this term to the brown-skinned people he first encountered in his travels as he initially thought he had landed on the eastern coast of the “Indies,” the medieval name for Asia.
The state’s Native American Day holiday, which was inaugurated at a ceremony at Crazy Horse Memorial in October 1990, is now the oldest official observance of its kind in the country.
Mickelson, who had been seeking a visible platform for improving Native American-white relations in South Dakota, at that first ceremony said, “Tolerance and understanding must come from the individual heart.”
“It’s time to turn to the future together and teach others that we can change attitudes,” he further said in his address.
Hunkpati Dakota, or Crow Creek Sioux, scholar and author Elizabeth Cook-Lynn says this embracing of a day to honor Native Americans in South Dakota as a direct result of Giago’s efforts came at a time when state leaders, particularly Mickelson, were just getting over the political turmoil caused by both the American Indian Movement throughout the 1970s and the U.S. Supreme Court’s monumental Black Hills Land Claim decision in 1980.
In an 8-1 majority, the so-called highest court in the land upheld a lower court’s ruling that the Black Hills, or Paha Sapa, had been illegally taken by the U.S. government following the discovery of gold there in 1874, awarding the Great Sioux Nation $106 million – at the time the largest sum ever awarded to a Native American tribe for illegal land seizure.
The Supreme Court’s 1980 decision also marked the first time since the Black Hills Land Claim was taken to court in the early 1920s that the taking of the Black Hills by the federal government was legally – and very publicly – called a “theft,” according to Cook-Lynn. “Prior to that, it was always called a … taking,” she noted.
The Great Sioux Nation, however, refused to accept the settlement, saying the Paha Sapa are not for sale. With interest, the award amount now tops $1 billion.
Among South Dakota’s politicians, “there was a lot of … agitation, I guess you would say, concerning the Black Hills case,” said Cook-Lynn. The state’s non-Native leaders “wanted tribes to take the money, and the tribes were saying no. So if you look at (Native American Day) from a political point of view, which I do a lot … it seems to me that Governor Mickelson’s efforts on the part of the Sioux isn’t unconnected to the issues that were foremost in the 1980s.”
Also in the 1980s, we were just getting over the protest known as the American Indian Movement, she said.
Cook-Lynn said that Giago and Mickelson worked long and hard to come to some agreement regarding a day of recognition for Natives and a year of reconciliation between Natives and whites. “And that’s a good thing,” she added.
According to 2011 U.S. Census Bureau data, South Dakota is currently home to nearly 80,000 mostly Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people from nine different tribes – Cheyenne River, Crow Creek, Lower Brule, Flandreau, Rosebud, Oglala, Sisseton Wahpeton, Standing Rock and Yankton. Many within the state’s sprawling Native community, however, place the total number of Natives at closer to 100,000.
“The contributions by Natives to the state of South Dakota as well as the human suffering endured at Wounded Knee in 1890 are immeasurable,” said Tim Fallis, another Hunkpati Dakota, or Crow Creek Sioux Tribe member. “South Dakota got it right when Native American Day took the place of Columbus Day because of the dedication to the cause by Tim Giago.”
“Native American Day doesn’t really heal all the wounds, but it is a start, especially in a state like South Dakota,” Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe member David Abernathy said. “We need more leaders in the Native community to teach our young ones why they should be proud to be the First Nations People. Pull your pants up, get a job, move out of your grandma’s basement. Let’s stand up and be proud! I’m proud of my white heritage, why should I be so ashamed of my Native heritage?”
Abernathy’s mother is Native and his father is white.
“Columbus Day,” which is observed on the second Monday in October, has been a federal holiday since 1937. Only three states, including South Dakota, do not recognize the now-standard “Columbus Day” holiday. Alaska and Hawaii, which also have large indigenous populations and were the last two states usurped as such by the U.S. in 1959, are the other two states that have chosen to forgo “Columbus Day.”
And like South Dakota, Hawaii marks the second Monday in October with an alternate observance in recognition of its first peoples: “Discoverers’ Day” commemorates the Polynesian discoverers of Hawaii. Though not a legal holiday in Hawaii, the observance of Discoverers’ Day has brought about opposition from citizens who uphold the belief that Columbus “discovered” America.
Additionally, Nevada doesn’t observe “Columbus Day” as an official holiday, but the governor is authorized from year to year to proclaim the day as desired. And several other states recognize Native American Day as an official holiday but haven’t traded out “Columbus Day,” opting instead to observe Native American Day in late September, just prior to “Columbus Day.”
The federal government has established November as Native American Heritage Month as well, with the day after Thanksgiving designated as Native American Heritage Day.
In Denver, the annual “Columbus Day” Parade put on by the city’s large Italian American citizenry as a matter of pride has acutely factionalized the major supporters of the parade and Native Americans along ethnic lines. Since 1988, Native American groups such as the American Indian Movement have vehemently and loudly protested the parade as a matter of veracity, which in the past has led to violent outbreaks.
More than 500 years since Italian explorer and colonizer Christopher Columbus – Cristoforo Colombo in Italian – made his so-called discovery of the Americas, many indigenous people of what has become the North American continent, as well as many revisionist scholars of intertwined European-American history, continue to adamantly negate the predominant view that the Old World explorer should be credited with finding a “New World.” For thousands of years prior to Columbus’ arrival in October 1492 on an island in what is now the modern-day Bahamas, millions upon millions of indigenous peoples inhabited all of what is now North and South America and everywhere in between, including the island he initially made landfall on.
“Why doesn’t the rest of this country follow South Dakota’s lead in re-establishing Columbus Day as Native American Day?” said Donald Kirschbaum, a non-Native American Omaha, Neb., resident, in a letter to Native Sun News. “We all know a federal holiday in honor of an Italian named Columbus is false and a dishonor. He floated off his course on a ship and landed on the shores of this continent by mistake, and things have gone downhill for the First People of this land ever since. Native Americans discovered Columbus, not the other way around.”
Columbus’ 15th-century voyages to the Western Hemisphere paved the way for a juggernaut of European colonizers who decimated scores of indigenous peoples – and annihilated entire cultures in some instances. It is this tragic, downplayed course of history – which included brutality on Columbus’ part as well – that has specifically led many of America’s first peoples to denounce the honoring of Columbus as the man who introduced an already inhabited “new world” to non-indigenous posterity.
Four hundred years after Columbus’ fateful expeditions, in December 1890, the repercussions of his “discovery” were still being played out at Wounded Knee Creek on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, as the bodies of over 300 Lakota men, women and children were unceremoniously shoved into a mass, shallow grave that had been hastily hollowed out in the frozen ground by U.S. military soldiers.
And the repercussions of that invasive “first contact” with Columbus are still being felt today, as conditions such as poverty, unemployment, alcoholism, suicide, crime and poor health run rampant throughout Indian country.
“Tim Giago successfully started to unravel over five centuries’ worth of lies and propaganda about Christopher Columbus when he asked Governor Mickelson to create a day to honor the existence, accomplishments and contributions of South Dakota’s widespread Native population, both past and present generations,” Fallis said. “(Giago’s request) really was at the very least a step in the right direction toward improving the relationship between the state’s Native and white residents – but I’m afraid we may still have a long way to go in that area before we can truly come to terms with the genocide Columbus contributed to, both directly and indirectly,” he said.
In closing his speech on the state’s very first observance of a Native American holiday 22 years ago at Crazy Horse Memorial, Mickelson said: “But the significance of today, at least in my heart, is that this gives an opportunity to pause for a moment to honor all the great leaders of the Sioux Nation: Sitting Bull, Ben Reifel and other great Sioux chiefs and leaders whose really last ray of hope to return to their former way life was taken away from them at another place in South Dakota a hundred years ago this year – a place called Wounded Knee.”
Native American Day in South Dakota will be celebrated on Oct. 8 this year.
(Contact Jesse Abernathy at firstname.lastname@example.org)