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Tim Giago: Indian Country remains out of sight and out of mind

Filed Under: Opinion
More on: media, south dakota, tim giago

Notes from Indian Country
By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji)
© Unity South Dakota

Native Americans fit nicely into that media box labeled “Out of sight; out of mind:” And if not out of sight, then badly portrayed.

At Thanksgiving white and black school children sporting cardboard headbands and feathers whoop and holler like “wild Indians” around their classroom desks. This past Thanksgiving I saw a cartoon of the first Thanksgiving with Indians dressed in the attire of the Indians of the Northern Plains replete with feathered ceremonial bonnets. That’s the portrait of all Indians; it is the misconception painted into the minds of school children since colonial times: All Indians look and dress alike.

Tourists from back East come out West to see the Indians attired in buckskin and presumably still living in teepees, and this would make for a great tourist attraction except the city fathers of communities like Rapid City do not have the vaguest of ideas that this is what the tourists come out here to see. They still think that Mount Rushmore is the key attraction.

Indians are either the noble savage or the downtrodden, pathetic, alcohol soaked loser. To the weeping liberal, Indians are static relics locked into a time frame that would deny them the progress accorded to all other Americans: If they cannot be immediately identified as Indian they are not; just ask Senator-elect Elizabeth Warren.

There are more federal agencies regulating Indians than any other ethnic group in America. Lands on Indian reservations are held “in trust” by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the main problem with that condition is the Indians are expected to provide all of the trust. The recent Cobell Settlement is a classic example of that because the government’s total mismanagement of Indian lands, mineral rights, grazing rights, natural resources and financial security were so badly accounted for that the Indians lost untold billions of dollars.

The Cobell Settlement was a pittance in remuneration because the accountability of the agencies holding Indian properties, etc., in trust was so jumbled with distortions and cover-ups that the true accounting of the theft of Indian monies was indeterminable. The pittance individual Indians will receive in cash payments prior to Christmas should be a mark of shame on the history of America itself. Where was the national media in uncovering this mess?

What makes the Settlement even more unbelievable is that more than $1 billion was given back to the BIA to clear up the fractionated land conditions existing on nearly all Indian reservations, a problem created by the BIA itself. Yeah, let’s take a billion dollars from the poor individual Indians and give it back to the idiots who caused the problem to correct their incompetency. What a travesty! And who is to blame the poor Indians for accepting the conditions of this travesty because after all, something is better than nothing and that is all the Indians ever expected from the United States of America: Nothing!

The biggest non-story to the national media concerns the Black Hills Claims Settlement. The $105 million for the Black Hills and the $44 million for other lands owned by the Great Sioux Nation have been refused by the Indian tribes of South Dakota since 1981 and during that time the original award, held in trust (there’s that word again) has steadily climbed with interest to about $1 billion, and yet the people declared to be the poorest in America by the 1980 U. S. Census, refuses to accept the money. In any journalist’s book that should be one of the stories of the century and yet, have you even heard about it?

Whenever I am contacted by a news reporter coming out here to do the “great American Indian story” I tell them about the Black Hills Claim Settlement. They totally ignore this story and head straight for Whiteclay, Nebraska to do a story about all of the beer sold to the Indians of the bordering Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

I love Dianne Sawyer, but when she came out here to do her “great” Indian story for ABC Television news she and her camera crew headed straight for Whiteclay. When she interviewed the Pine Ridge chief of police she was told that 80 percent of the arrests his police force makes are alcohol related. Doing her standup Dianne looked directly into the camera and said, “Eighty percent of the people living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation are alcoholics.” That is not what the chief of police said and she knew it. It did, however, put a little bit more of the shock factor into her reporting; truth and the Indians be damned.

In 1960 President John F. Kennedy said, “Of all Americans, the American Indian is the least understood and the most misunderstood,” and today’s media does nothing to alleviate that truth.

While growing up on an Indian reservation I was taught that America was strong because of its diversity and integrity. Like most Indians, I had to learn outside of the classroom that this was a bit of a farce. Native Americans do not have the same heroes as most Americans. We do not honor the Statue of Liberty and we still believe that Mount Rushmore is the Shrine of Hypocrisy and all one has to do is to study the negative impact all of the four faces on the mountain had on Native Americans to know why that is so. Columbus Day is a day of tragedy to Indians and the thundering defeat of George Armstrong Custer and the 7th U. S. Cavalry at the Little Bighorn is a day to rejoice.

Out of sight; out of mind is really America’s loss and tragedy.

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. He was inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2007. He can be reached at

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