A dancer at the Black Hills Powwow in Rapid City, South Dakota. This year's event took place October 5-7. Photo: Jeremiah M. Murphy

'We must reconcile': How Native American Day came about in South Dakota

A letter from Gov. George Mickelson to Tim Giago
1990 a good year for reconciliation

Note: The following letter was written to Tim Giago, publisher of the Lakota Times on December 19, 1989, from South Dakota Gov. George S. Mickelson. The following year, at Giago's urging, Mickelson declared a Year of Reconciliation in South Dakota. As part of the reconciliation effort, the state observed its first Native American Day on October 12, 1990, an event that has been celebrated every year since.

Dear Tim;

Just recently, my mother asked me if I was ever troubled about Native American/white relations in South Dakota.

When I confirmed this was one of the most troubling areas facing me as governor, she recalled that my father, who served as governor in the late 1940s, mentioned time and time again that strife between the races was a frustrating, ongoing dilemma in his administration as well. She and I wondered how, in 40 years, so little improvement could be realized.

As little improvement as there has been, I do believe there has been some progress. Some of that can be attributed to the work of Dr. Martin Luther King who made many of us realize we should celebrate our racial differences and draw on those differences for the betterment of all. And, some of that progress can be attributed to the people right here in South Dakota – Indians and non-Indians who for those 40 years and more have striven to understand our differences to educate those of us who have grown up together but who have never made the effort to bridge the cultural gap.

Tim Giago, left, is shown with the late Gov. George Mickelson in this file photo. Giago lobbied the governor to proclaim the Year of Reconciliation in 1990 to honor the 100th anniversary of the Wounded Knee Massacre and to change Columbus Day to Native American Day. Photo courtesy Native Sun News Today

I couldn’t agree with you more, Tim. We must reconcile those differences. As the state of South Dakota celebrates the beginning of its second century, we must also remember that statehood was a very sad time for the Native Americans. Two of the greatest tragedies in Dakota history happened just thirteen months after South Dakota became a state. In December 1890, Sitting Bull was murdered near Mobridge and a group of nervous, inexperienced soldiers opened fire and killed more than 300 Indians at Wounded Knee. Two-thirds of the dead were defenseless women and children.

Because 100 years is a significant milepost, the state’s centennial and the centennial of the Wounded Knee Massacre are good times to look back at how we can better understand how and why things are done today by looking at how and they things were done 100 years ago, 75 years ago, or even 40 years ago when my father was governor.

I believe your suggestion that we, you and I, as well all the citizens, observe 1990 as a year of reconciliation and create a day to celebrate Native Americans is an excellent idea. And, for my part, I will be happy to prepare such a proclamation. But, in anticipation of that, and in order to ensure that the proclamation be more than just the paper on which it is composed, I would ask you and others to help me prepare it. We must determine not only that we will educate each other, but how we will educate each other. We must decide not only to improve communication, but how we will do it. We must have a plan so that when we reach the end of this year of reconciliation, we can also show some kind of measurable improvement.

I do not want my own children to look back over 40 years and see little progress in solving racial discord in South Dakota, Tim. I look forward to hearing your suggestions and those of your readers – Indians and non-Indian – as we count 100 years of history.

George Mickelson,

Governor, South Dakota

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