A couple of things happened this week that align so closely that they seem more than coincidence.
Renowned South Dakota newspaper publisher Tim Giago, 88, died Sunday. He created an enduring legacy during his more than four decades of work in South Dakota journalism.
Giago, who was a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe, founded The Lakota Times with his first wife, Doris, in 1981. He quickly showed that he wasn’t afraid to challenge those in power and advocate for American Indians, she said, in an AP report.
The Lakota Times was eventually renamed Indian Country Today, and later became ICT. In a July 2021 interview with the paper, Giago recounted that tense period of launching the newspaper and “some of the hard things that came out of work.”
“One night I got in my pickup and somebody put a bullet through my windshield and just missed my head,” Giago told the newspaper. “So, I mean, if that’s what it took to get the freedom of the press going on the reservation, I guess that’s what it took.”
In 1992, he changed the paper’s name to Indian Country Today to reflect its national coverage of Native American news and issues. He sold the paper to the Oneida Nation in 1998.
Two years later he founded The Lakota Journal and in 2009, he founded the Native Sun News, based in Rapid City.
“He always pushed for more, reaching for an even better way to serve Native American people with news. So after Lakota Times it was Indian Country Today. Then Lakota Journal. Then Native Sun News. He never lost his vision about how important it is for a community to have a journalistic recording of itself,” said Mark Trahant, ICT’s editor-at-large.
Besides telling other people’s stories, Giago wrote extensively of his own childhood to reveal the dark ways that society treated many Native American youth decades ago.
In 2021, Giago wrote about how some legislators in South Dakota were about to introduce a resolution to honor the victims of Indian boarding schools.
“I pointed out to them that South Dakota had passed a law that prevented any of these abused students from suing the schools where they were abused,” he wrote. “Here are some reasons for you to think about.
“I recall being loaded into the back of a truck along with as many boys that would fit in that truck, taken to the potato fields at Mission Flats, having a gunny sack attached to my waist, and then dragging that sack until it was so full of potatoes that I could no longer drag it,” Giago states. “I was 10 years old. All of the boys working alongside of me were the same age.”
He added that “Every child at the boarding school was, in essence, an unpaid slave. If there were child labor laws back then we didn’t know about them. We did all of the hard labor the priests and nuns did not want to do.”
Giago’s story of his childhood is a flashback to a very dark time in our state and it relates in many ways to something that has just occurred.
Earlier this week, the Washington Post wrote about Pope Francis’ trip to Canada to visit with Indigenous peoples at Maskwaci, the former Ermineskin Residential School, on Monday, July 25, in Maskwacis, Alberta.
From that visit came a stunning image: Pope Francis briefly wore a full Indigenous headdress, its rows of soft white feathers fastened in place by a colorful, beaded headband after he apologized for the Catholic Church’s role in Canada’s “disastrous” residential school system for Indigenous children – a system likely very similar to the one in South Dakota during Giago’s childhood.
It should be noted that some members of Indigenous tribes said they found the gesture incongruous with the past transgressions at church-run schools that Francis apologized for.
Who can blame them? More than 150,000 Native children in Canada were forced to attend government-funded Christian schools from the 19th century until the 1970s in an effort to isolate them from the influence of their homes and culture.
Giago, as a young boy, was swept up in this same system of isolation and abuse here in the United States.
The aim was to Christianize and “reform” Native American children into mainstream society, which previous governments in both Canada and the United States considered superior.
The Washington Post also reported that “Leading U.S.-based Indigenous news outlet ICT made a deliberate decision to not make the war bonnet a focus of their papal visit coverage.”
“It creates unnecessary noise regarding Indigenous peoples’ choices where the real scrutiny should be placed on the Pope and that entire institution,” said Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, editor of ICT, formerly Indian Country Today, the newspaper Giago founded.
I can’t help but think that Giago played a part in the Pope’s apology this week. He steadfastly told the stories of today’s happenings in Indian Country while also reminding us, in stories and columns that couldn’t be ignored, of the horrors that he and other children suffered at reservation boarding schools.
Giago educated today’s society of those dark days of the past and the need to take some sort of action to right those wrongs.
Some may argue that an apology from the Pope may not be enough. It is a start, though, made possible by the wisdom and courage and writings of Tim Giago.