A View from the 8th Decade

Notes from Indian Country

Fifty-four years ago I was working at the J. C. Penney Store in Livermore, California when Mr. Penney himself came into the store.

He was visiting many of his stores and handing out copies of his book, A View from the Ninth Decade, to the employees who were called "associates" back in those days. Here was a man in his 90s still working every day. Mr. Penney said, "If you love your job you'll never work a day in your life." I've always remembered that day and that comment.

And so on July 12 I will be climbing on the hill of my 8th decade on this Maka Ina (Mother Earth) and like Mr. Penney, I am still working every day and loving it.

I was born the year that Congress passed the Indian Re-Organization Act of 1934, and act that would permit tribes to draw up their own constitutions and by-laws and begin the process of self-governance, a process they already possessed for time immemorial until they were told by the government that they could no longer govern themselves. Not all of the tribes in America chose this path to forming a democratic government that was an imitation of the greater democratic government. And some that did not join like the Navajo Nation under the presidency of Peter MacDonald exceeded the expectations of the IRA. Under MacDonald the Navajo Reservation became the Navajo Nation.

In my view from the 8th decade I saw many changes in Indian Country. The IRA was the "Indian Re-Organization Act" not the "Native American Re-Organization Act;" and so political correctness had not set in as yet. In 1956 while I was in the military service, the Congress came up with the Indian Relocation Act, an Act designed to empty the Indian reservations of people. The Bureau of Indian Affairs cleverly packaged advertising geared to convince the Indian populace living on the reservations that if they would relocate to an urban setting they could train for a job and join the mainstream of society. Many of them trained as welders so the saying was that there were more unemployed welders in Indian Country than any other profession.

Was relocation a success? I think not. Many families were relocated to cities like Dallas, Cleveland and Los Angeles and because the funding that was supposed to drive the Act was never enough, most of the relocatees ended up living in downtrodden apartments in the ghettos. There the young learned about drugs and alcohol and probably because of their shoddy predicament learned to embrace these things as a way to live and forget. Worse yet, when their parents grew homesick and left the cities to return to the reservations, the young alcoholics and addicts brought these bad habits, along with others they had picked up, home to the reservation.

Over the years I have seen tribe after tribe fighting in circuit, appellate, and Supreme Courts to hold on to the little they have left in order to survive. Oftentimes things near and dear to them were wiped away with the swipe of a pen. Remember that the Indian Nations never asked to become a part of the United States, but it was the U.S. that forced them to join. There are many reasons that this is the case, too many to list here, but I would ask any American interested in finding out to go to their public library and get some books on the history of the Native Americans and learn about the indigenous people that once inhabited all of America. I am often convinced that Europeans know more about America's Indians than most Americans.

When I write for an Indian audience I can be almost certain that they know what I am writing about and they can draw from the meaning of the sources I quote or on the message I am trying to present. But the very same words read by a different audience (non-Indian) draws varied and oftentimes hostile reactions. For example, when I write about L. Frank Baum, the man who wrote The Wizard of Oz, but also the South Dakota newspaper editor who called for the extermination of the Lakota People, some readers of the Huffington Post where my columns often appear, asked, "Why don't you just forgive him?" My question to them was, "Would you ask the Jews to forgive Hitler?"

In my 80 years I've had the pleasure of meeting so many good people and because of my writing I have had the opportunity to visit many places and had the extreme pleasure of being selected as a Nieman Fellow where I could attend Harvard and enjoy the company of journalists from across America.

A column I wrote helped to bring about the Year of Unity in 1990 and to convince Gov. George Mickelson (R-SD) and his legislators to remove Columbus Day and replace it with Native American Day, the only state in the Union to have such a state-sanctioned holiday.

On my birthday this year on July 12, we will have an inipi (sweat lodge) ceremony where all of my children will get their Lakota names and make it one of the best birthdays ever for me.

Let it suffice to say that the newspapers I started, The Lakota Times, Indian Country Today, The Lakota Journal and now Native Sun News have all been successful publications that helped give Native Americans a voice, a place for their personal opinions, and a window where they could read the news that is important to them. Newspapers have been my life and whatever form they may take over the next few years, I hope to be here to learn and to continue to provide a forum for the Indian people.

Tim Giago is editor and publisher of Native Sun News and can be reached at editor@nsweekly.