Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) delivers the State of the Commonwealth on January 9, 2019. Photo: Office of the Governor

Tim Giago: The governor of Virginia is in a heap of trouble over racist photo

Notes from Indian Country
The people of Virginia will decide his fate
By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji – Stands Up For Then)

Ralph Shearer Northam is a Democrat and is the serving Governor of Virginia. He is also in a heap of trouble.

In 1984 Northam posed in the medical school yearbook in blackface standing next to someone wearing a KuKluxKlan hood. No one is sure whether he was the one in blackface or the guy wearing the hood.

If this had been done in the year 1954 perhaps one could have laughed it off as just a sign of the times, just as the white guys usually use as an excuse when they brush off some of the horrible things that happened to American Indians in the past. “Oh, that’s just the way it was back in those days,” they say.

That is why the white teachers and professors of today can shrug off the racist editorials of L. Frank Baum, the author of the Wizard of Oz, when he called for total genocide against the Sioux people. “Oh, that’s just the way it was back in those days,” they say.

Let’s go back to those days in the 1930s when a man named Adolph Hitler wrote a book called Mein Kampf calling for the total annihilation of the Jews. No comparison you say? Think about it. Here you have a white man calling for the annihilation of American Indians and another man calling for the annihilation of the Jews. See any difference?

Ralph Northam wasn’t calling for genocide against anyone, but he was being stupid.

Let me take you back to the 1940s. An all-black basketball team known as The All Americans was coming to the Holy Rosary Indian Mission Boarding School to play against HRM’s team. Keep in mind that the school was located 4 miles from any large community, Pine Ridge Village, and was located on land donated to the Catholic Church by Chief Red Cloud. In fact the building that housed the Little Boy’s Gym, the classrooms and the dormitory was called Red Cloud Hall. It was constructed in the 1920s and has since been torn down and replaced.

The only thing we knew about black people is what we had seen in the movies. We saw a movie with Jack Benny and his sidekick Rochester and noticed that one of our boys, Aloysius Red Elk, bore a striking resemblance to Rochester and so he took on the nickname of Roch from that day forward. In this movie Rochester was frightened by something and he ran so fast he passed up a car on the highway.

When the cars with the basketball team arrived and parked by Red Cloud Hall we all gathered around to get a look at the black guys. Except for the movies we had never seen a black person in person. A young Lakota boy we called P-2 asked one of the players, “When you get scared can you run faster than a car?” The black ball player opened the glove box of the car and pulled out a pistol and said, “When I get scared I just reach for my trusty 38.” Oddly enough P-2 asked a question that we all wanted answered.

We had all seen the movies of minstrel shows featuring white people singing and dancing in black face. We accepted this as the way it was in the outside world. And once in a while we put on school plays where some of the students dressed up in black face and as minstrel men. The fact of the matter is we just didn’t know any better.

But in the year 1984 a man just graduating from medical school should have known better. Northam has apologized profusely for his racist and childish behavior but what else is behind the black face he put on for that picture? The fact is we don’t know and although it has been reported that he has worked diligently since that day against racism we still have to wonder what caused him to take that picture in the first place.

When we were kids living on a remote Indian reservation with little connection to the outside world it is probably understandable and even forgivable that we could act in such ignorance when it came to putting on minstrel shows.

As of Sunday, Northam says he will not resign as governor. The photo and his apologies have been played over and over on national television news shows and have left some of us wondering what Northam should do: What is the right thing and what is the wrong thing?

We as Native Americans are not without guilt in the way we have treated African Americans. I know Lakota that are also half-black and went to school on the Indian reservations and the way they were treated and the names they were called is embarrassing to all of us.

Only the people of Virginia can be the ultimate judges on the political future of Governor Ralph Shearer Northam and in the meantime the rest of us can only sit back and watch.

Contact Tim Giago at

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