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Tim Giago: Modern Indian heroes compiled in book

I suppose it can be said of all minorities that we have our own heroes. Most Native Americans can find a bone to pick with this Nation’s acclaimed and widely accepted heroes. Even an Abraham Lincoln comes up short in Indian country. After all, he was the president of the United States that signed the order to execute 38 Indian freedom fighters in Mankato, Minnesota in the 1860s. It was the largest mass hanging in the history of America.

I followed a career in journalism because of the example set for me by two of my own heroes. The first was a Fort McDowell Apache man named Carlos Montezuma. His Indian name was Wassaja. He began publishing a small newspaper in Arizona in the early 1900s that took on the bureaucratic establishment that had been the bane of Indian rights. His forthright and fearless criticism of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and of the Department of the Interior made him an instant enemy of the federal government.

He was so admired by my other hero, Rupert Costo, a Cahuilla Indian, that Rupert started the first national Indian newspaper in San Francisco and he named it Wassaja, after Montezuma. I became an advocate of Costo’s after reading his hard-hitting editorials in Wassaja, and finally, after going to work for him where he became my teacher and friend.

I could fill the pages of a book with the many Indian heroes I have come to admire over the years, people like Wilma Mankiller, the first woman leader of the Cherokee Nation, Charlene Teters, the Spokane Indian lady who helped bring down the mascot of the University of Illinois, Chief Illiniwek, after nearly 20 years of trying, Roger Jourdain, now deceased, the former leader of the Red Lake Band of Ojibwe, a man who risked everything in his fight to bring equal rights to the Indian people, Elijah Whirlwind Horse, the Oglala leader who helped bring peace and harmony back to the Pine Ridge Reservation after the turbulent years of the early 1970s, Leo Vocu, former executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, Vine DeLoria, the great Native author and teacher, and Lionel Bordeaux, the Sicangu man who helped build Sinte Gleska University on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota and I could go on and on.

But one of my other heroes, a man I have known for more than 30 years, Dr. Dean Chavers, saved me all of the work and troubles by pointing out the names and histories of nearly 100 of his Indian heroes. His brand new set of books titled, “Modern American Indian Leaders, Their Lives and Their Works, re-acquainted me with so many of the Indian people I have known and loved over the many years I have been a journalist in Indian country.

It took Dr. Chavers two volumes to include the names of so many Indian heroes he has met or read about over his more than 40 years of serving Indian country. His books cover a gamut of Indian leaders from sports figures like Jim Thorpe and Billy Mills, to holders of the Medal of Honor like Corporal Mitchell Red Cloud, Jr., Winnebago and Colonel Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, leader of the famed Black Sheep Squadron at Guadalcanal, a member of the Coeur d’ Alene Tribe of Idaho.

Like Dr. Chavers, I have been around so long in Indian country that reading his two volumes of Indian heroes was like setting down and visiting with so many of my old friends, many now deceased. There were no greater heroes to me than people like the Honorable Reuben Snake, the great Winnebago spiritual leader, or Leslie Marmon Silko, Laguna, the wonderful author of such great books as Ceremony and The Man to Send Rain Clouds, or Simon J. Ortiz, the great poet from the Pueblo of Acoma, and the veteran journalist Richard LaCourse of the Yakama Nation now deceased.

And like Chavers, I was also a devoted admirer of Louise Erdrich, Ojibwe, the author of so many books like Love Medicine, Four Souls, The Beet Queen, and The Antelope Wife and Dr. N. Scott Momaday, Kiowa, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1969 for his book “House Made of Dawn.”

Dr. Dean Chavers is the Director of Catching the Dream, a national scholarship and school improvement program based in Albuquerque, NM. He has been involved in Indian education for 35 years and is past president of Bacone College in Oklahoma. If you want a well-researched book that includes the names and histories of so many modern Indian authors, journalists, tribal leaders, sports figures and political activists, these books do it all.

It was an honor for me to be included in his books of Modern American Indian Leaders. The two-volume set was published by Edwin Mellen Press, Box 450, Lewiston, New York, 14092-0450 and can be accessed at

Tim Giago is an Oglala Lakota born and raised on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the Class of 1991. He was the founder and publisher of Indian Country Today newspaper and the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association. His latest book “Children Left Behind, The Dark Legacy of the Indian Missions,” is now available at: The book just won the Bronze Star from the Independent Publishers Awards. He can be reached at