It was shoulder to shoulder and hip to hip this weekend at Mount Rushmore Memorial where tourists flocked to the He’ Sapa (Black Hills) to celebrate the 234th birthday of the Declaration of Independence.
A slowing economy? You wouldn’t have thought that over this 4th of July holiday.
I was asked to speak at the Memorial about South Dakota’s Year of Unity, a proclamation signed by Gov. Mike Rounds (R-SD) on Feb. 19, 2010. The proclamation called for a coming together of the races in this state, a state that has seen bitter conflict between the Native population, the citizens of South Dakota, and the United States.
Twenty years after Gov. George Mickelson (R-SD) signed a proclamation declaring 1990 as the Year of Reconciliation; I formed a committee of prominent Rapid Citians and Native Americans to pick up where the Mickelson proclamation left off. I was living in Cambridge, Mass., in that first very important first year of “Reconciliation” and Gov. Mickelson was killed in a plane crash shortly thereafter.
This meant that the main players in the Year of Reconciliation efforts were not there to push it and it quietly went away. This time around the Year of Unity is gaining strength and support from every day citizens, Indian and white. Events to bring the two races together are building as the year progresses and other minorities, especially African-Americans like Dr. Dennis Edwards, are joining the efforts to create racial harmony in a state that has never known it.
A holiday to celebrate this Nation’s independence is not without its share of warts. For example, it took 148 years after Thomas Jefferson and friends signed the Declaration for the United States to grant full citizenship to Native Americans. My father, who was born in 1894 on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, was 30 years old before he was allowed by law to vote. Hundreds of Native Americans served this country with honor in World War I even though they were not U. S. citizens.
Those of us who lived in South Dakota when the United States celebrated its 200th birthday in 1976 vividly recall the anger of Indian activists like Russell Means who vowed to “blow out the candles on America’s birthday cake.” This comment, as would be expected, roused the hackles of politicians and law enforcement officers in South Dakota and nearly all vehicles leaving the reservations, or vehicles with license plate numbers that clearly identified them as Native Americans, were stopped and harassed by the city, county and state police during most of the month of July.
Americans have to remember that a state of war existed between the Indian tribes in South Dakota with the United States until the deadly massacre on December 29, 1890 at the village of Wounded Knee. The animosity was so bitter that L. Frank Baum, an editor at the Aberdeen, S. D. Saturday Review, wrote an editorial calling for the total annihilation of the people known as Sioux just six days after the massacre. Ten years later Baum wrote, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.”
The occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973 by the American Indian Movement and the murder of two FBI agents by Leonard Peltier in 1975 further exasperated the tensions between the races. After Peltier’s confrontation with the FBI and his escape from the scene of the crime the law enforcement officials in South Dakota began a serious manhunt throughout the state stopping cars with Indian occupants randomly and often. A few resourceful Oglala Lakota on the Pine Ridge Reservation began selling buttons that read, “I am not Leonard Peltier.”
Peltier professes his innocence even to this day. A book by Joe Trimbach, the agent that was in charge at Wounded Knee in 1973, called American Indian Mafia, takes an insider’s look at the events surrounding the takeover at Wounded Knee and at the murder of his fellow FBI agents at Oglala. It is worth a read if you want to know the other side of the story.
I thought of all these things as I made my way to the podium at the Mount Rushmore Memorial and I told the crowd of mostly tourists about Wounded Knee and about the war that has gone on between Indians and whites for too many years.
I urged them to think about unity between the races when they returned to their homes because here in South Dakota, with the help of so many Natives and whites, we will endeavor to put racism and confrontation behind us not only in this Year of Unity, but for every year to follow.
America will never be the great country it strives to be until racism is forever buried and that must include the racism that is still prevalent among the Native Americans also.
Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the publisher of Native Sun News. He was a
Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1990. His weekly column won the H. L.
Mencken Award in 1985. His book Children Left Behind was awarded the Bronze
Medal by Independent Book Publishers. Giago was inducted into the South Dakota
Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2007. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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