Celebrating Native American Day's 25th Anniversary

Notes from Indian Country

By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji)

When Columbus Day comes around each year there is consternation in the Native American community across America. Columbus Day parades, particularly the one held in Denver, are disrupted by militant American Indians. On some Indian reservations black armbands are worn to recognize what the indigenous people consider a "day of infamy."

But who would have "thunk" that in state Indian activists once called "The Mississippi of the North" we would be the only state in the Union that chose not celebrate Columbus Day.

How could such a state, condemned by activists for years, have risen above the fray and distinguished itself as a leader in white/Indian relations? The credit must go to the power of the Indian press. Here is how it happened.

In 1990 a young man named Birgil Kills Straight (that's right, Birgil with a B) decided to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Massacre at Wounded Knee by leading a contingent of Lakota riders on the trail that Sitanka (Big Foot) and his followers took on their way from the Cheyenne River Reservation to the Pine Ridge Reservation after hearing of the murder of Sitting Bull. The 7th Cavalry, George Armstrong Custer's old outfit, caught up with them at Wounded Knee Creek and on December 29, 1890, they opened fire on the mostly unarmed Lakota men, women and children, murdering nearly 300 innocent Lakota.

Kills Straight, a highly educated Lakota man, felt that this would be an opportune time to commemorate and honor the victims of the massacre. But he took it one step further and decided to hold a Lakota ceremony called, "Wiping away the tears." After the riders reached the sacred burial grounds of the victims at Wounded Knee the ceremony would be held to reach across the barriers of racial intolerance and in essence, extend a hand of peace and forgiveness to the white race.

I saw this as an opportunity to extend that same message in a column I wrote directed for then Governor George Mickelson (R-SD). I challenged him to use this commemoration to not only proclaim 1990 as a Year of Reconciliation between Indians and whites, but to also use it as a time to set aside Columbus Day and to rename that day Native American Day. Gov. Mickelson accepted my challenge in a letter to my newspaper, Indian Country Today. We had asked for a Year of Reconciliation, replacing Columbus Day with Native American Day, and joining the rest of America in honoring Martin Luther King Jr. Well, we ended up getting all three. The state legislature voted unanimously to make1990 a Year of Reconciliation, to replace Columbus Day with Native American Day. They also made Martin Luther King's birthday a state holiday at the urging of a black man named Lynn Hart.

All of these things were accomplished without a single shot being fired, without a single arrest being made, without the occupation of a single building and without protesting and marching in the streets. They were accomplished because of the truth of an old adage, "The pen is mightier than the sword."

But it took a courageous governor and a strong and determined legislative body to stand behind Gov. Mickelson. South Dakota is the only state out of 50 that has moved to create a state holiday to honor Native Americans. It is high time all South Dakotans use this holiday as a foundation to bring peace and unity between the races. For the first time let's truly celebrate Native American Day together. Come join us in the Native American Day Parade on Saturday, October 10 as we parade down the Main Street of Rapid City.

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 and founder of Native Sun News and Indian Country Today newspapers. He founded and was the first president of the Native American Journalists Association. He can be reached at unitysodak1@vastbb.net.