Tim Giago. Photo courtesy Native Sun News Today
Notes from Indian Country
South Dakota’s media needs to examine itself
Monday, December 28, 2020

The Kansas City Star’s top editor apologized last week for the newspaper having “disenfranchised, ignored and scorned generations of Black Kansas Citians.”

Mike Fannin, who has worked at The Star since 1997 and served as its top editor since 2008, wrote in a letter to readers titled “the truth in Black and white” that the Star had “robbed an entire community of opportunity, dignity, justice and recognition.”

I think newspapers like the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, Rapid City Journal and all of the other daily and weekly newspapers in South Dakota should evaluate their lack of coverage of minorities, particularly Native Americans, in their news reporting over the years. They would also be guilty of having “robbed an entire community of opportunity, dignity, justice and recognition.”

Many years ago a reporter from the New York Times came to South Dakota and did a story on my then newspaper, The Lakota Times. The premise of the story was that Native Americans started their own newspaper in order to get the news coverage they had heretofore been denied. He was a good reporter, but he missed one segment of the story that was most important. He did not go to any of the big dailies in the state and ask any of their editors why Native Americans had to start their own newspaper.

“Did Native students stand for National Anthem?” read the front page of the January 31, 2015, issue of The Rapid City Journal. The newspaper later said it “erred” with a headline asking if Native students were responsible for being victimized at a hockey game. Photo: Last Real Indians

We have two kinds of racial discrimination in South Dakota: Subtle and Not-So-Subtle. The Not-So-Subtle is out in the open. A white person sees an intoxicated Native on Main Street and says aloud, “Look at that dirty, drunken Indian.” Or a Native will try to rent a house or apartment that is advertised and finds out that it has already been rented.

The subtle discrimination comes when many city residents and editors and publishers new to Rapid City fail to recognize that there is racial discrimination in this city. Case in point: I did a story about Rapid City Mayor Steve Allender when he referred to Native Americans during an interview with a local television station as “Those people.” He has toned it down since Native Sun News Today took him to task for his obvious racist comment, but along with that derogatory comment he also suggested that homeless Natives were creating a burden to the City and they should go back to the reservations. NSNT immediately pointed out that the Black Hills Claim Settlement had never been settled and legally, the local Natives, homeless or not, were still the rightful owners of the land where Rapid City is situated.

The new editor and publisher of the Rapid City Journal immediately took the side of Allender by loudly proclaiming that he doesn’t have a racist bone in his body. The article I wrote never, not once, accused Allender of being a racist. It pointed out that Natives who had served with him when he was on the Rapid City police force often heard racist comments from him and that the town where he was raised, Belle Fourche, had a reputation among Natives as being one of the most racist towns in South Dakota.

When the new editor and publisher of the Journal arrived to assume control of the newspaper they had the perfect opportunity to take a long, hard look at the past practices of their newspaper and immediately initiate some positive changes. They definitely needed a local Native 
American on their editorial board who knew the city, knew the culture of their own people, and knew discrimination first hand. They did not do any of this, but instead sought shelter behind the racial ignorance of their white employees and white editorial board. Just because these individuals may have lived in Rapid City all of their lives does not mean they understood the subtle racism of this city.

If there is ever to be any open minds at the local newspaper they need to follow the advice of Mike Fannin of the Kansas City Star. First they have to recognize that there is racism in this city, own up to it, research it and see what they can do to make up for the years their newspaper did nothing. And that goes for every newspaper and television stations in this state.

The media in South Dakota focused on crime when it came to Natives. When my Lakota Times came along and started to publish stories about Native doctors, lawyers, school superintendents, great teachers, super students and great athletes residing on the Indian reservations and within their communities, there was a small move to become more inclusive, but not nearly enough.

As an editor and publisher of a minority owned newspaper I have said for many years now that the media in this state had to start looking outside of itself. There was, and is, another community that exists right alongside of it. This community is here and was here long before any white settler put a foot on the land.

When this land where the Rapid City Journal now stands was taken illegally from the Lakota people by the U.S. Supreme Court 40 years ago, Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun said in his dissenting opinion, “A more ripe and rank case of dishonest dealings may never be found in our history.”

I advise South Dakota citizens and media to take that quote, study it, and start from there.

Tim Giago (Oglala Lakota) is the founder of the Native American Journalists Association and of Indian Country Today. Contact him at najournalist1@gmail.com.

Note: Content © Tim Giago