.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Reflections on Tim Giago, a newsman who would not excuse your ignorance

The interview audio above is from SDPB's daily public affairs show, In the Moment, with Lori Walsh.


It will always be one of my favorite trips to the Pine Ridge Reservation.

One of my most informative, too.

I was at the wheel of the Keloland News SUV. And Tim Giago was in the passenger’s seat, telling stories.

It was a nice day — nice, at least, as winter days go here in South Dakota, with plenty of sunshine working on the edges of snow drifts along the Bureau of Indian Affairs highway as we cruised toward Wounded Knee.

It was nearing the 125th anniversary of the Wounded Knee massacre. And we were going to the massacre site for a TV story I would do on Giago’s unrealized dream: He wanted to build a museum there, along with a Native American arts-and-crafts pavilion and trading post at the site.

Both coming and going, Tim pointed out homes and landmarks and narrow two-track trails leading off across the prairie, and offered a story or observation about almost every one.

He also talked about people alive then or long past, what they did and what they meant to him and to others across the reservation.

I learned a lot, as I always did when I spent time with Tim. I also took time after the trip to ponder how our once-contentious relationship had developed into one of mutual respect and, eventually, friendship.

I’ve been gratified and rewarded by that improved relationship over the last 10 or 15 years. And I was particularly glad that we had mended fences when, on Sunday, a friend sent me a text that read: “Maybe you’ve heard that Tim Giago died?”

I hadn’t heard. And I was deeply saddened by the news. I wasn’t shocked, however. Tim has struggled with a variety of serious health problems over the last couple of years, and especially in the last six months.

An icon in Native American journalism

Eventually, age (88) and complicated ailments overcame the strong, resilient spirit that made Tim Giago a nationally recognized voice for Native American causes and a leader and innovator in Native American journalism.

I wrote quite a bit about Tim and his accomplishments last year when he made the latest of several attempts to retire from the newspaper work that had consumed much of his life during the previous four-plus decades.

When he started writing about Indian Country in a way no one ever had, he opened eyes outside the Native community and opened hearts within it.

He inspired the justifiable pride for Native nations with honorable traditions that are often unrecognized by society as a whole, which too often focuses only on the social and economic troubles faced by Native people. That was too often true of mainstream news media outlets as well, though the news organizations I worked with tried to do better.

Tim didn’t hesitate to call out non-Native news outlets that failed to give proper respect and accurate detail to stories about Indigenous people.

I have a story that I tell from time to time that became one of Tim’s favorites. Many years ago, I called him for some background on a story I was working on about a reservation issue. I went into the call with a bit more confidence than I deserved.

I grew up on a farm that bordered and, in the case of some of our land, was located within the Lower Brule Reservation. I spent a good share of time on that reservation and on the Crow Creek Reservation across the Missouri River.

I knew a lot of Native Americans. We hired some of them to work on our farm. And in my early years of newspaper work, I covered stories on those two reservations and others in the state, too.

A guy who refused to excuse your ignorance

By the time I called Tim, I thought I knew the subject matter pretty well. Even so, at one point in the interview, I said: “Excuse my ignorance on that, but …”

Tim interrupted: “No, I won’t excuse your ignorance. If you’re going to cover us, educate yourself. You’re supposed to be a reporter. Do your job!”

I honestly can’t remember what I said in return. I assume I was a bit snarly, which is often how I responded when I felt a little wounded. Maybe I wrote it off initially as Tim being a jerk. In the days after the exchange, however, I started to consider it differently.

I started to think maybe what he said was true. Maybe I did need to do more backgrounding on Native stories. Maybe my familiarity with some Native people from some tribes didn’t make me the expert I thought I was. Maybe I still had a lot to learn about Native people and their coverage.

No challenge, no threat, no obstacle could keep him away from the keyboard for long. At least, not until his health finally gave out, for good.

It took me years to talk about that story in public and admit that Tim was right. Along the way, he and I had a relationship that was sometimes bristly and occasionally downright cantankerous.

I remember once getting a voicemail from Tim on my work phone. It was about something I’d written on the Year of Reconciliation declared by Gov. George Mickelson in an effort to improve relations between Native and non-Native people. Tim had challenged Gov. George S. Mickelson to take that important step, and also worked hard in support of the changing of Columbus Day in South Dakota to Native American Day.

Tim didn’t like something in my story. His voicemail message went something like this: “Kevin this is Tim Giago. I read your story in this morning’s paper. Why don’t you get your facts straight. You’re supposed to be a reporter!”

His language was actually a little rougher than that. But you get the idea.

I called Tim’s newspaper office, was transferred to his line and got his voicemail. I left a short message that said: “Hey Tim, this is Kevin Woster. I got your message. Why don’t you kiss my derriere!”

My language was actually a little rougher than that. But you get the idea.

How time, age and respect turned into friendship

There were better exchanges, too. And over the years, I think Tim knew that I respected his work, just as I think he was coming to respect mine.

He didn’t like something I wrote back in 2012 and wrote in an editorial for the Native Sun News that it was time for me to retire. I think I told him not too long after that editorial that I was willing to talk about retirement, if he could help the Rapid City Journal come up with a better retirement package.

After that, I began reaching out to Tim more often as a news source, especially during the time after I left the Journal when I was working for KELO TV. KELO turned me loose to do Native coverage and go to the reservations often. It was some of the most challenging and rewarding news work of my career.

And Tim helped a lot. I interviewed him several times in his office here in Rapid City, then turned off the camera and talked about news events over the years.

We were both old enough to remember news stories that were fast drifting off into history. In remembering those shared experiences, we strengthened our relationship.

I brought pizza to his newspaper for him and the staff a time or two, and burritos once. And when I left the Rapid City Journal, Tim reached out to see if I would do some writing for his newspaper part-time. I said I would. But before I did any of that, I got that full-time offer from KELO to be their West River reporter/videographer.

I loved going to the reservations for that job. And no trip was more rewarding than the one I took with Tim to Wounded Knee back in December of 2015.

On the way down, we talked about his younger years growing up both on the Pine Ridge Reservation and up in Rapid City. And he talked about the time he spent at Holy Rosary Mission, then a Catholic boarding school that is now called Red Cloud School and no longer boards students.

How a wrong-headed policy damaged Indigenous children

These days, Red Cloud turns out amazing graduates, many of whom are high academic achievers who go on to do well in college, sometimes with highly sought academic scholarships. The school also works with other programs on the reservation and traditional Lakota speakers to immerse students in their native language.

That’s a far cry from the approach at Holy Rosary, and other boarding schools, years ago. Then the policy of the federal government and churches that implemented it through boarding-school education was to strip Indigenous children of their language and culture.

Some former students told and tell of emotional, physical and even sexual abuse. Some others say they didn’t experience that kind of treatment, but were wounded by the separation from their families and traditions.

And some others, including one I knew who was an active member of the Jesuit parish I attend in North Rapid City, looked back on their Holy Rosary experience with more positive memories.

There was little positive about Giago’s experience. Nor was there in the experiences of thousands of Indigenous children across the United States and Canada for generations of boarding school operation.

Tim Giago wrote about those stories, and his own, many times. He thought it was important to pound that message into a government and non-Native consciousness that had ignored it for years.

I understood why he needed to do that, even as I saw and appreciated the work Jesuit parishes have done and continue to do today on the Pine Ridge Reservation to better serve Native people and better understand and respect their culture, traditions and spirituality.

A first-hand education on the road to Wounded Knee

During our drive to Wounded Knee, after Tim discussed his Holy Rosary years and the damage the boarding schools did, we let silence settle in for a while. Then Tim again noticed one point of interest or another along the road, and commented on it.

The reservation was mapped in his mind, full of detailed recollections. I just drove and listened and learned.

When we pulled up to the remnants of the Wounded Knee Trading Post, the stories really poured out of Tim. First, they were filled with sorrow at what happened there 125 years earlier, and how the sounds of the gunfire and the cries of children carry through history to Lakota people today.

But the place didn’t just evoke sadness in Tim. There were happy memories there, too. He spoke of his earliest years of life, when his father was a clerk and butcher at the Trading Post and the family lived in a small cabin in the nearby village of Wounded Knee.

Tim recalled carefree days playing around the store with his friend JoAnn Gildersleeve, whose parents built the store a decade earlier. He remembered great tribal leaders, including Nicholas Black Elk, doing business at the store along with everyone else.

As Tim told those stories, you could almost hear the voices of the people, the clatter of commerce and giggles of children playing out front of the store.

Tim smiled as he spoke of all that, but frowned when he got to the sad fate of the store years later during the American Indian Movement takeover of Wounded Knee, in 1973. The Trading Post was destroyed, never to be rebuilt.

Not long after the Wounded Knee takeover, Tim and his wife at the time, Doris, started their own newspaper on the reservation. That was a difficult chore, and not just because of logistics and the typical challenges of funding and staff and mailing and advertising.

He was never one to run from a threat

There were also the death threats. And the firebombing of their newspaper office. And the rifle shot through his pickup windshield — while he was in it, in front of the newspaper office.

Giago talked about the incident when I interviewed him last October. Looking back through the years, he said it was a warning shot, leaving him with a choice:

31fd3352e6_Tim Giago.jpg
Tim Giago

“You know, I decided that I could keep doing what I was doing or fold up and walk away,” he said.

Tim Giago was never one to fold up under pressure or threats and walk away. He didn’t then or anytime afterward.

No challenge, no threat, no obstacle could keep him away from the keyboard for long. At least, not until his health finally gave out, for good.

In a strange twist of fate, on Sunday, the day Tim Giago died, Pope Francis arrived in Canada to make a personal apology to Indigenous people there for the Catholic Church’s involvement in the boarding-school system and the abuse of Indigenous children there.

Pope Francis had apologized before, but from the Vatican. This trip to Canada and to the site of one of those schools was meaningful, and a long time coming. It’s something the church should continue, and Pope Francis appears committed to that.

I wish I could discuss it all with Tim.

The day after Tim died, I attended noon mass at St. Isaac Jogues Catholic Church, the Jesuit parish in North Rapid City that serves the Native American community and others.

A question of calling his name

During mass on weekdays, Pastor Ed Witt or other priests celebrating mass at Isaac Jogues give worshippers the opportunity to call out petition prayers, for the sick, for peace, for those devastated by weather, for the poor and marginalized, and for people we know and care about.

I was going to call out Tim’s name. Then I paused and wondered if he would want me to do that, given his experiences with and feelings about the Catholic Church. So I didn’t.

Later Monday afternoon, I mentioned that in a text to a friend who also knew Tim.

“I think he probably would have been OK with you calling his name,” my friend said in a return text. “You could do it tomorrow and then see if you sense any anger in the air.”

He ended the text with a smiling emoji. And his comment reminded me of something former American Indian Movement leader Russell Means — an adversary of Giago’s in their younger years — said a couple of times in the months before his death. Means said he intended to come back as a lightning bolt and strike the White House.

I don’t think Tim would come back as a lightning bolt and strike my house if I called his name during mass. But I wanted to do right by him. So I gave it quite a bit of thought. I considered what my friend said. And at mass the next day, I did call out his name.

Lightning didn’t strike. And I felt good doing it.

I’m pretty sure Tim would be OK with that. If not, I’m pretty sure he’ll figure out a way — even from a place far beyond our conscious thought and understanding — to let me know.

He always has.

Click here to access the archive of Woster's past work for SDPB.
Related Content