Woster: For Lakota journalism icon, 'retirement' still means banging away on the keyboard
Over the course of a news career that covered more than four decades, I’ve had some pretty cantankerous reactions to my journalism.
But I’ve never been firebombed. I’ve never had my windows shot out. And I’ve never had an attempt on my life.
Tim Giago has had all that and more in his journalism career. And the “more” includes transformational work in the coverage of Native American issues, the development of Native American newspapers and journalists, and a long personal news career that earned him a vast collection of awards and honors.
It included prodding then-Gov. George S. Mickelson in 1990 to declare a Year of Reconciliation between Native people and non-Natives and, later, to be a leader in the effort to get the state Legislature to change Columbus Day to Native American Day.
That followed with a similar challenge by Giago to then-Gov. Mike Rounds to declare Year of Unity in South Dakota.
Throw in a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard here and an H.L. Mencken Award for editorial writing there, a South Dakota Hall of Fame induction here and a Native American Journalists Association induction there and you’ve got a pretty admirable set of accolades.
And a news career to look back on with pride.
Now, at 87, Giago has decided to retire, sort of. But he’s still writing his weekly column for Native Sun News Today, the most recent of the publications he has founded. He’s also working on a book, which he says will be “a contemporary look at where things are today in Indian Country, where we’ve been and where we’re going. I’ve got time now to do that. So I’m sitting there banging away at it.”
Giago has been banging away at his writing in meaningful ways since he started the Lakota Times in Pine Ridge Village in 1981. And he was the target of trouble from the start.
“I had just moved into the very first newspaper building next to Sioux Nation Shopping Center,” Giago says. “They called me about 3 in the morning and said somebody had shot out all the windows.”
In December of that year, Giago moved across the street to what he thought would be a more secure building, which included bars on the windows.
“That’s when they firebombed it,” Giago says. “Luckily, the fire had just started and a BIA patrol was coming by. The officer kicked the burning bottles away from the building.”
There was more trouble coming, however. It happened one night as Giago left the newspaper building to get in his pickup and drive home.
“Somebody shot a bullet through my windshield,” he says.
There was a message being sent, Giago believes, and it was to shut up and change his pointed writing. And it left him with a choice.
“You know, I decided that I could keep doing what I was doing or fold up and walk away,” he says. “I decided to hang in there and work with it. I had a lot of people contact me and tell me to hang in there, that I was doing good and touching on issues that nobody was writing about.”
So he hung in there and kept at it. The culprits of the shootings and firebombing were never identified. But Giago presumes it was somebody he had offended, possibly a member of the American Indian Movement.
“I had been critical of the damage they had done in Wounded Knee during the takeover,” he says.
Years later, he ran into one of the AIM founders, Vernon Bellecourt, eating breakfast in a New York City hotel. Bellecourt waved Giago over to join him. They had a good talk and became good friends, Giago says.
“I said we were probably working toward the same thing from different perspectives,” Giago says. “I’m trying to do it as a writer. And I think writing has more impact than violence.”
Giago’s writing inspired and challenged, calling out examples of racism and poor treatment of Native people, and denial of sovereign rights. In the late 1980s, he began a relationship with then-Gov. George Mickelson.
Mickelson had said at the time that his father, George T. Mickelson, who had served as governor years earlier, left office feeling that he had failed to improve race relations in South Dakota. So George S. Mickelson was trying to find some ways to do what his father wished he had.
When Mickelson came to Rapid City in 1989 to cut the ribbon on a new publication facility for Giago, they had a long talk about race issues in the state. Mickelson asked what he could do as governor. Giago ended up challenging the governor to make a significant move on racial reconciliation.
Out of that meeting came editorials by Giago challenging Mickelson to act. The governor declared a year of reconciliation for 1990. The governor also went to the Wounded Knee memorial site on Dec. 29, 1990, to observe the anniversary of the Wounded Knee massacre.
“That was the first time a South Dakota governor had done that, and I don’t think it has been done since,” Giago says. “I would think every governor should do that. It needs to be recognized.”
Giago wasn’t done with his challenges to Mickelson. In another editorial, he urged the governor to support the changing of Columbus Day to Native American Day. Eventually, that passed the Legislature and South Dakota stood alone as the only state to celebrate Native American Day as a state holiday.
“There was no one addressing those issues, talking about Columbus Day as a holiday. The white media didn’t see a problem. And we (Native Americans) saw Columbus coming to America as really being the beginning of the end of Indian Country. A lot of things he did were terrible and never made the history books. We felt that shouldn’t be a holiday. And my newspaper started protesting against it.”
Giago kept shaking things up. And Mickelson kept trying to make improvements in race relations. His reconciliation work was imperfect but good-hearted. And it seemed to begin a process of significant change in race relations. But Mickelson died with seven others when the state plane crashed in Iowa in April of 1993. And the reconciliation effort has never been the same.
“I went off to Harvard on the Nieman in ’90 and Mickelson died in ’93,” Giago says. “And no one ever really picked it up after that.”
Giago sees some promising changes toward Native Americans in schools and some colleges and thinks “that’s where we have to start.” But he also believes that state government can and should do “a hell of a lot better” than it is doing now.
“We need to have the leadership in Pierre start making some decisions to bring us closer together,” Giago says. “And I don’t see that happening now. And it needs to be done.”
And somebody with a respected voice in Indian Country needs to keep calling for that. So while Giago might be “retired,” he’s still banging away on that keyboard.
”There’s so damn much to write about and so little time to write. There’s something happening all the time that needs to be mentioned, and something good in Indian Country that I know nobody will write about if I don’t.”
With obligations like that, Giago is likely to keep pounding that keyboard for years to come.