UNDER A BLUE BOWL OF SOUTH DAKOTA sky, on the eve of the nation's 215th birthday, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln stared down from Mount Rushmore at a singular sight. George Bush, who occupies the high office they once held, spoke of pride and freedom and all but beatified the imposing national memorial as America's "shrine of democracy."
However, Tim Giago, an Oglala Sioux and founding editor of the local Lakota Times, the nation's largest American Indian newspaper, sees something different when he looks at Mount Rushmore. "Not only did they desecrate our sacred land," says Giago, 56, who published a stinging editorial cartoon that labeled Mount Rushmore a shrine of hypocrisy, "they also memorialized four Presidents who committed acts of atrocity against our people."
Giago received one of the coveted invitations to the celebration. So did the state's nine tribal chairmen of the Sioux (of whom the Lakota are one group). None went. "We were invited for window dressing," says Giago. "No Indian was asked to tell the other side. I guess the government doesn't want the world to know what was done to us."
The Sioux claim to the South Dakota land dates back to 1868, when the federal government "forever" formally deeded to the Great Sioux nation millions of acres, including some 7.5 million acres in the Black Hills. In 1877, following the discovery of gold and the public outcry over the Indian defeat of George Custer, Congress broke the treaty and took back the land for white settlement. More than a century later, after many protests, the Sioux brought the dispute before the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in their favor in 1980. An indignant Justice Harry Blackmun said of the seizure of the land, "A more ripe and rank case of dishonesty may never be found in American history." The high court ordered the government to pay the Sioux $17 million, plus interest from 1877, for the confiscated land. The Sioux refused the money, which is now parked in a trust valued at $263 million. "Polls of our readers show that 88 percent don't want the money," says Giago. "They only want a small part of their sacred Black Hills land back."
For Giago, the planned renovation of Mount Rushmore is sure to aggravate the wounds. "They want to spend $40 million to repair Mount Rushmore," he says, "and it's 70 miles from the poorest county in America, where our people are destitute."
Giago is hardly exaggerating. The initial circulation area of his newspaper—5,000 square miles of reservation that is home to 20,000 Sioux—is indeed one of America's poorest. The annual per capita income is about $2,400, and the unemployment rate hovers around 85 percent. Few have access to telephones or even mail delivery. But Giago has made the weekly Lakota Times, published in Rapid City. S.Dak., into a crucial link in the lives of an isolated people. "I think everyone in the tribe reads it," says Oglala Sioux Vice President Wilbur Between Lodges.
Giago knows the terrain well, having grown up on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation in a house with dirt floors and no electricity or plumbing. As was customary in those days, Tim was packed off to a Jesuit-run school. "The teachers told us our ancestors were heathens," he says. "It was a brutal way to be raised."
Giago fled Pine Ridge after high school for the Navy and was wounded in action during the Korean War. Though he earned a business degree from the University of Nevada in 1964, Giago bounced from job to job for the next 15 years. Each summer he went home and ultimately discovered that Pine Ridge "was the only place I ever felt comfortable."
In 1979 he began writing an Indian affairs column at $7.50 each for the Rapid City Journal, which led to his hiring as a full-time reporter. After two years, though, he decided that his people needed a newspaper of their own. With $4,000 borrowed from a boyhood buddy, Giago set up shop in a former beauty salon and printed his first issue on a borrowed press. All 3,000 copies were give-aways. Today the Lakota Times has a weekly readership of 50,000 and subscribers in all 50 states, 14 foreign countries and on 24 Indian reservations. Giago and the paper have won more than 50 state and national journalism awards, and last year he became the first American Indian to be accepted into Harvard's Nieman Fellowship program for journalists.
After nine months at Harvard, Giago, a divorced father of two, is back home in Rapid City, working 12-hour days overseeing his staff of 20. Sometimes events force him to balance his personal beliefs against his duties as an editor. While Giago refused to attend the Rushmore gala, he promptly dispatched reporter Avis Little Eagle. "We're a newspaper," he says. "We wouldn't be doing our job if we didn't cover it."
BILL SHAW in Rapid City
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