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Remembering Giago, Mickelson and a state Legislature willing to do the right thing

Kevin Woster
Marchers in Rapid City on Native American Day in 2021

There are many reasons I miss Tim Giago. One of them arose a while back when I was reading the online edition of the Black Hills Pioneer.

In a column about Gov. Kristi Noem getting lampooned on Saturday Night Live, long-time (meaning he’s almost as old as I am) journalist Tom Lawrence raised a fascinating question as an aside: Could Native American Day have been created today?

“I have my doubts,” Lawrence wrote.

I have my doubts, too. And that’s sad, isn’t it?

Some might say outrageous.

South Dakota was a different state when Native American Day was created back in 1990, with a different governor, a different way of thought, a different way of rhetoric and, I’m truly sorry to say, a different heart.

Well, sort of different, anyway. Admittedly, it took a while to get there, in terms of showing long-overdue respect for Native Americans in our state. The same was true of fully honoring Martin Luther King, Jr.

Let’s look at MLK Day first.

For years prior to 1990, the state Legislature, mostly under Republican control, had resisted joining other states in declaring Martin Luther King Day an official holiday. The 1990 Legislature finally listened to advocates for the holiday, including Lynn Hart, a rodeo rider-bull fighter with a black father and Native American mother enrolled in the Yankton Dakota Tribe.

Hart was a good-humored witness in committees and an effective advocate for change. His impassioned testimony was essential to persuading state lawmakers to create the official holiday in 1990. Hart also spoke on behalf of Native American Day.

Like Martin Luther King Day, Native American Day took some time and had some sidetracks on the way to approval. I covered that process for the Rapid City Journal. I remember things generally but my recollection of details is fragmented. And RCJ stories from that time are hard to find online, at least for me.

So I’ll steal from a story capital reporter Bob Mercer wrote at the time for the Washington Post, which my friend Jeremiah Murphy dug out for me somewhere on the Internet.

Mercer’s story provides information I had forgotten, the most essential being that the state Legislature in the 1970s had changed Columbus Day on the second Monday in October to Pioneers Day. It would remain Pioneers Day until the 1990 state Legislature changed it to Native American Day.

But that 1990 legislative process started half a year before the session began, with Tim Giago and Gov. George Mickelson.

It began over coffee and conversation, and went on to shake up the state

Start with Giago, a fiery Oglala Lakota journalist with an arrow-sharp style in print. In the summer of 1989, he moved his Lakota Times newspaper headquarters from Pine Ridge to Rapid City. Mickelson joined Giago and his staff for a ribbon cutting at the new location with its new printing press. Big day. Big deal.

After the dedication, the two men — one white, one Native — shared coffee and conversation. That began an exchange that led to a column by Giago challenging Mickelson to declare 1990 as a Year of Reconciliation in South Dakota, a challenge Mickelson gladly accepted.

The fragments of memory come together pretty well for me after that, although I needed some help piecing them together from Gretchen Lord Anderson, Mickelson’s press secretary at the time.

It was the right time for reconciliation, Giago and Mickelson agreed, because South Dakota celebrated100 years as a state in 1989. And1990 marked the 100th anniversary of the Wounded Knee Massacre and the killing of Sitting Bull, events that Mickelson called “two of the greatest tragedies in South Dakota history” in a letter to Giago in response to his challenge column.

Also in that letter, Mickelson said: “Sometimes, we can better understand how and why things are done today by looking at how and why things were done 100 years ago, 75 years ago, or even 40 years ago, when my own father was governor.”

As Mickelson noted in the letter, there was a family history at play. Mickelson had spoken with his mother about the frustrations his late father, George T. Mickelson, had felt after his time as governor from 1947 to 1951. George T. couldn’t point to any significant improvements made in the continuing strife between Native and non-Native people in South Dakota.

Could George S. Mickelson make the progress that had eluded his father? He certainly wanted to try.

Mickelson concluded his letter to Giago by writing: “I do not want my own children to look back over 40 years and see little progress in solving racial discord in South Dakota, Tim. I look forward to hearing your suggestions and those of your readers — Indian and non-Indian — as we count 100 years of history.”

So the time was right for the state, through a governor inspired by a Native American journalist and unafraid to truthfully examine our history, to reach out to the Native American community.

A big man with an undersized ego, Mickelson put Giago’s challenge into action, wisely consulting with tribal leaders before officially proclaiming 1990 as a Year of Reconciliation. There was a signing ceremony for that proclamation with tribal leaders and passing of the pipe in the Rotunda of the state Capitol during the 1990 Legislative session.

Reconciliation work “A moment in time” to be cherished

All these years later, Gretchen Lord Anderson remembers clearly and fondly the Mickelson letter she helped craft, the work between Giago and Mickelson and the colorful gathering and the positive emotions of the ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda.

“I am so thankful to have been a part of that,” she says. “I can say it was a moment in time that made my life worthwhile.”

I remember it as worthwhile, too, and one of the most hopeful times I can recall in covering South Dakota government. It succeeded because it had a willing group of legislators, a powerful motivator in Tim Giago and a resourceful-and-humble governor in George Mickelson.

Inspired by that family call, his own good heart and the public prod by Giago, the first-term governor embarked a difficult, imperfect, good-hearted journey toward reconciliation.

There were stops and starts and failures, but also steps forward. Some led to meaningful changes.

After that essential consultation process with tribal leaders, Mickelson led the state not only in that Year of Reconciliation but also in the move in the state Legislature to change the name of Pioneers Day to Native American Day.

About two dozen states still celebrate Columbus Day, while a dozen or so — and some cities individually — celebrate Indigenous People’s Day.

Christopher Columbus was long praised in traditional history books for his “discovery” of the Americas in the late 1400s. But he is a controversial figure to Native Americans because his treatment of indigenous people and his role in colonization. That conflicted view of Columbus was becoming clearer in the 1970s. Yet, when South Dakota lawmakers in 1974 decided to change the name of Columbus Day, they honored pioneers instead of Native Americans.

It seems odd, looking back on it now. Or maybe just clueless.

Either way, Columbus Day was changed to Pioneer Day. And that name stayed until 1990, when legislation changing the holiday to Native American Day passed. Unanimously.

Signed into law by Mickelson, the state statute reads: “Native Americans' Day is dedicated to the remembrance of the great Native American leaders who contributed so much to the history of our state.”

I have to repeat: It passed unanimously. Which was, well, pretty amazing. It also felt like the start of something that would change the nature of race relations in South Dakota. And maybe it would have. Maybe it did, to a degree.

Relationships were being built and changes were being made, but …

After the Year of Reconciliation, Mickelson called for a century of reconciliation. And he was talking about creating a permanent Council of Reconciliation that would endure and deal with race relations on into the future.

Certain people and certain personalities are meant for certain times and certain issues. Mickelson was the right person for that time and that issue. And he took a sense of humility into the process of outreach to tribal leaders. That was a necessary approach, and one that stood out from often-dismissive attitudes from Pierre that Native people had so often faced before.

Relationships were being built and progress was being. Native American Day was celebrated for the first time that October.

Of course, there was more to be done in reconciliation. And Mickelson was committed to doing it. Agencies within the executive branch were tasked with making measurable gains in dealing with indigenous people and tribal governments.

The sovereignty of tribal nations is a complicated business, often involving treaty rights and federal obligations and jurisdiction. But some things reflect simple measures of good will. And Mickelson looked for those.

A policy of the state Highway Department snow plows was an example. It directed drivers to lift the blade when the snowplow left state jurisdiction and crossed into tribal jurisdiction on a highway, leaving a patch of snow and/or ice on the tribal stretch.

Mickelson ended that practice immediately. The plow stayed down and cleared snow on tribal highway stretches, too.

Such actions can change a way of thought. And changes in a way of thought can change hearts and improve relationships.

Mickelson made sure the first Native American Day celebration in 1990 and those that followed in ’91 and ’92 were well publicized and celebrated. But for him, there would be just those three.

Mickelson died with seven other South Dakotans in an airplane crash on April 19, 1993. I never have to look up that date. It’s burned into my memory just as it’s burned in South Dakota history.

Giago said more than once in the years after Mickelson’s death that reconciliation in South Dakota died with him. I wouldn’t say that it died. But it certainly faltered.

Reconciliation was never a priority for Mickelson’s lieutenant governor, Walter Dale Miller, who became governor after the airplane crash. Then Bill Janklow returned as governor for two more terms. Whatever his strengths, Janklow never embraced Mickelson’s vision and efforts on reconciliation.

Other governors have tried in one way or another, but never as Mickelson tried 

Nor did Gov. Mike Rounds in any clear, coordinated way. In January of 2010, the last year of his second term, Rounds remembered Mickelson’s reconciliation efforts in his State of the State address. And a month later, Rounds honored the 20th anniversary of the Year of Reconciliation with a proclamation and ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda. Rounds then declared 2010 to be a Year of Unity in South Dakota to “build on the legacy” begun in 1990.

“It is my hope, through this Year of Unity, to call upon South Dakotans to promote, celebrate and understand the contributions of all races and cultures in South Dakota,” Rounds said.

“We hope that Year of Unity efforts will be pursued on a community by community and person-to-person basis.”

It was well intended, but it certainly didn’t focus specifically in improving relations between Native and non-Native South Dakotans. It was nothing like Mickelson’s Year of Reconciliation or Mickelson’s commitment to ongoing outreach.

Then came Dennis Daugaard didn’t match Mickelson on reconciliation but quietly took steps that Mickelson would have admired. Steps that had meaning.

Daugaard elevated Tribal Relations to a cabinet-level department. And he was more flexible in the state policy on negotiating gaming compacts with tribes, something that mattered a lot to tribal officials and something that both Janklow and Rounds had resisted.

Daugaard also did something I really liked. He set a goal of visiting every reservation in the state during his first year in office. Not just driving through or stopping at a point of interest, but meeting with people, including tribal officials. He reached that goal, and tried to make reservation visits whenever possible in subsequent years.

Also during the Daugaard years, state public-safety and emergency management officials tried to meet with every tribal council to talk about mutual concerns and ways to cooperate. And state troopers joined tribal police on the Crow Creek Reservation to police powwows.

That joint-policing agreement has continued under the administration of Gov. Kristi Noem, which is a good thing.

During her 2018 campaign, Noem pledged to work on improving relations with tribes. And I have to give her credit for appointing David Flute, former chairman of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, to Tribal Relations secretary.

Noem also directed the state Social Services Department to work with the Rosebud Sioux Tribe to develop a cooperative methamphetamine-treatment program on that reservation. More of that work should be done.

But Noem got crossways with tribal officials over their highway checkpoints during the COVID pandemic. And prior to that she rankled tribal leaders with the so-called “riot boosting” legislation that was introduced on her behalf to strengthen potential penalties for people who encouraged violence during protests.

The legislation, which also included potentially helpful bonding requirements for pipeline companies, was passed by the Legislature and signed by Noem in 2019 in anticipation of the Keystone XL Pipeline. But the legislation was challenged in court by the ACLU as a violation of First Amendment rights, and provisions dealing with riot-boosting charges were blocked by a federal judge.

Meanwhile, the Oglala Tribal Council sent Noem a letter saying she was not welcome on the Pine Ridge Reservation because of her support for the proposed law. Six months later the council rescinded the ban.

It has since become a bit of a moot issue. Work on Keystone XL stopped in 2019 after newly elected President Joe Biden revoked a key permit for the pipeline, which would have crossed South Dakota.

Admittedly these are complicated issues and Noem has had to address them in perhaps the most politically divisive time in the last 50 years. Still, her style in handling them has too often seemed more combative than conciliatory.

Sometimes humility is the most important quality a white governor can have in trying to work with tribal officials. George Mickelson proved that.

You could say, “Noem is no George Mickelson.” And she isn’t. But, of course, on this issue who is, or was?

While other governors have taken steps to work with tribes, there has never been a state reconciliation movement anything like Mickelson’s.

Imagining a state of reconciliation with Mickelson still in it

Had George Mickelson lived, he might have continued to be a leader in reconciliation work, possibly with Giago, working with governors that followed him. He would have been invaluable to such work, bringing that family commitment and personal connections with Giago and other Native leaders working toward better race relations.

As it was, Giago continued to write and push relentlessly for justice for Native people for 29 years after Mickelson died. Tim passed on to the spirit world himself last July 24th, at age 88.

So as much as I wish I could, I can’t pose the question raised by Tom Lawrence to Tim Giago. But I’m pretty sure I know how he would have answered it.

He would have shared Lawrence’s doubts, and mine, but probably in a more sharply worded way.

It’s very unlikely that today’s governor and today’s state Legislature would support a bill to change a holiday known as Pioneer Day to Native American Day. And I think there would be zero chance of it being passed unanimously.

Some lawmakers would support the change, of course, if we had a governor willing to propose it and inspired enough to promote it. But I can’t picture Kristi Noem leading or even supporting such an effort. And I can’t imagine that the Legislature of today would go along if she did.

Today’s state Legislature is not devoid of good hearts. But to many serving now, changing the name from Pioneers Day to Native American Day would be seen as cancel-culture stuff. Destroying history stuff. Critical-race theory stuff. And many would use the opportunity for political gamesmanship rather than beneficial statesmanship.

But back when we had a governor in George S. Mickelson who was intent on seeking justice in reconciliation and a Legislature willing to consider possibilities beyond long-established norms tainted by prejudice, the name change was simply the right thing to do.

Imagine that.

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