Yes Virginia: There is a Native American Day


RAPID CITY – It was one of those fall days in 1990 that has South Dakota putting its best foot forward. The temperature hovered in the seventies, the sun was shining and a small breeze rustled through the pine trees. It was a perfect day for Governor George Mickelson to announce and celebrate the very first Native American Day ever held in South Dakota at the Crazy Horse Memorial.

Ruth Ziolkowski, the curator of the Crazy Horse Memorial extended a warm welcome to the Governor and to Native American newspaper publisher Tim Giago on that day. Mickelson and Giago had just put the final touches on making their discussions about a Year of Reconciliation and of creating a Native American Day holiday in South Dakota a reality.

In October of 1989 the Governor had visited Rapid City in order to cut the ribbon for the grand opening of the Indian Country Today newspaper and to celebrate the installation of a new printing press at the newspaper.

In a casual interview Giago asked the Governor what he found to be the toughest part of his job as Governor. Mickelson replied, “I am going to give you the same answer my father gave me when he was Governor 40 years ago, “race relations between Indians and whites,” and I wonder what we can do to change that.”

Giago mentioned to Mickelson that in 1990 the Lakota people would be commemorating the 100th anniversary of the massacre at Wounded Knee. “A group of Lakota riders headed by Birgil Kills Straight are going to follow the exact trail Sitanka (Big Foot) took on his journey in 1890 seeking the protection of Red Cloud after the assassination of Sitting Bull at Standing Rock. They were intercepted at Wounded Knee and on December 29, 1890 the 7th Cavalry opened fire on the Lakota men, women and children slaughtering nearly 300 of them,” Giago told Governor Mickelson.  He thought it might be the catalyst they needed to convince the South Dakota legislators to drop Columbus Day and change it to Native American Day.

Mickelson also thought it would be a good time to initiate a Year of Reconciliation to further open the doors between the races.

The Governor and his staff prepared the proclamations for the State legislators and introduced them in January of 1990. Both proclamations met with the approval of the legislators and so the Year of Reconciliation and Native American Day became realities.

And so on that beautiful Fall day in October of 1990, Gov. Mickelson made the official announcement. The Governor’s plans to hold town hall meetings in communities like Winner, Wagner, Sisseton and Mobridge never got the chance to materialize because Governor Mickelson was killed in a plane crash on April 19, 1993. Giago was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in 1990 and 1991 and so the Governor put some of the Reconciliation plans on hold until he returned.

In many ways Native American Day was never promoted by the mainstream media in South Dakota. And no other South Dakota governor has really stepped up to encourage the celebration of Native American Day.

Enos Poor Bear, former President of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, now deceased, once said, “The South Dakota newspapers had more than 130 years to come up with the idea of a Native American Day to replace Columbus Day, but they had no clue or reason to do it. Since it was a Native American newspaper that came up with the idea, and pushed the South Dakota governor to do it, they have never really got behind it.”

For years after Native American Day was proclaimed and Columbus Day dropped many local businesses still held Columbus Day Sales and many of the local businesses still had signs that read “Closed for Columbus Day” especially banks like Wells Fargo. One Wells Fargo bank had a sign just last week that read “We will be closed on Oct. 11 for the national holiday.” An employee of Native Sun News Today told the teller that it was Native American Day and he should put that on his sign.

Giago said, “Governor Mickelson was determined to improve race relations in South Dakota. He said he did not want to see another South Dakota governor having to answer that same question 40 years from now and so I don’t think it is too late to fulfill the dreams of one of South Dakota’s greatest governors.”

Has Native American Day lived up to the Governor’s expectations?


(Editor’s note: The “Yes Virginia” headline comes from an article in the New York Sun many years ago when an 8 year old girl wrote to the paper and asked if there was really a Santa Claus. The editor replied, “Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”)

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