January 17, 2017

CHAVERS: He cut a path for Indian journalists nationwide

Tim Giago, the greatest newspaper man ever in my opinion, wrote last month about how Indian journalists of bygone years needed a shout-out. He could not mention himself, but I can.

I first met Tim when he was at Pine Ridge Village about 30 years ago. His newspaper was called Lakota Times. After he took it national in 1992, he renamed it Indian Country Today. He had founded it in 1980 and ran it for 18 years, finally selling it and retiring for the first time in 1998.

Two years later he founded the Lakota Journal and ran it for several years, retiring again in 2004. But his retirements are funny. He still keeps putting out his column, syndicated often seen on the Huffingtonpost. He has been doing the column for 35 years, the world’s oldest and best Indian newspaper column.

Pine Ridge was still a mess when I met him there. Tim’s office still had bullet holes in the door and the walls where some low life had tried to shoot him and his staff. He and his staff were brave people. They were firebombed and had their windows shot out three different times. They had constant death threats.

He had one Jewish lady from New York City working for him. I asked him, “What tribe is she.” He laughed and said, “She is Siouxish.” The boy has a sense of humor.

The next time I saw him was in Santa Fe several years later, where we laughed, told jokes, and ate for about two hours.

Tim has had some memorable achievements in his lifetime. In addition to his four books, he has started three Indian newspapers, all of them successful. His current one, Native Sun News is one of the best papers in the U. S., not just in Indian Country.

He went in to the Navy during the Korean War and stayed six years. When he got out, he went to college on the G. I. Bill, starting at San Jose Junior College in California. He finished at the University of Nevada in Reno with a major in business and a minor in journalism.

A quarter of a century later, Tim was awarded the highly prestigious Nieman Fellowship in Journalism at Harvard University. This is probably the highest award a journalist can get.

Tim had started to work as a journalist under the late great Rupert Costo and his wife Dr. Jeanette Henry when he finished college. Rupert started one of the most prestigious Indian scholarly journals, “The Indian Historian,” in the early 1960s. Rupert, a Cahuilla, was spokesman for his tribe for 40 years, despite being a highway engineer, scholar, publisher, and newspaper publisher. Tim learned at the knee of one of the greatest Indian journalists.

About the time we took over Alcatraz Island in 1969, Rupert and Jeanette started the first national Indian newspaper, Wassaja. They ran that newspaper for years. Rupert attacked many of the sacred cows of the white historians, including Fr. Junipero Serra, the Spanish priest who founded the missions of California. Rupert’s book on the sins of the Spanish missions is considered the classic in the field.

Rupert almost singlehandedly kept Serra from being elevated to sainthood. Serra and his acolytes killed tens of thousands of Indians. It was a brutal time in the Golden State. They wiped out over two-thirds of the Native people in the state.

Rupert, who was an old curmudgeon, was also an advisor to the Alcatraz people. He came by the office the first week to find out from me what was going on. He had already been a mentor to the leader of the Alcatraz occupation, the Mohawk Richard Oakes.

Tim’s books, “The Aboriginal Sin,” “Children Left Behind,” and “Notes from Indian Country Volumes I and II, are all still going strong. His first book is about growing up and going to school at the Holy Rosary Indian Mission at Pine Ridge. It has been reported before, and documented, that these Catholic Indian missions were rough on the Indian kids. Tim wrote so that no one would ever forget how so many Indian children were damaged by the Jesuit priests and nuns at the Indian boarding schools.

He has led a number of campaigns over the years. His exposure of the National Relief Charities 20 or more years ago caused that crooked outfit to leave South Dakota. The head of it, David Brown, was just arrested a few months ago when he came back to the U. S. from Thailand. The government alleges that he stole $2 million from the outfit.

He got Gov. George Mickelson of South Dakota to declare 1990 the Year of Reconciliation, on the centennial year of the huge massacre of innocents at Wounded Knee in 1890. He also protested the celebration in South Dakota of Columbus Day. His ringing editorials caused the governor to replace it with Native American Day—the only state that has done so. It is time for the other states to follow suit. It is time to quit celebrating a savage murderer who killed thousands of Indians and enslaved thousands more. We don’t celebrate Hitler, so why should we celebrate Columbus?

Tim has also led the fight to do away with racist Indian mascots. When I got accepted into Stanford University in 1970, we determined the first week that we would have Stanford to drop its racist team name, the “Stanford Indians.” Less than a year later the student government voted to change it, and the campus administration said nothing and let it happen.

Tim founded the Native American Journalists Association in 1984. Thirty years later the NAJA is still going strong, representing the best of Indian journalism. Along the way it has spawned a whole generation of Indian journalists.

His weekly television show, “The First Americans,” on KEVN-TV in Rapid in 1975 was the first such weekly TV show ever done for commercial television. He has appeared on many national and local television shows, including Oprah, Nightline, and NBC News with Tom Brokaw. His writing has also been featured in many national publications, including Newsweek, Time, New York Times and People.

He has lectured at many colleges, including Harvard, MIT, UCLA, Illinois, Boise State, Florida A&M, and South Dakota State University. Tim has been given all kinds of awards for his newspaper work. They include:

• The H. L. Mencken Award from the Baltimore Sun for editorial writing, 1985

• Induction into the South Dakota Hall of Fame, 1994

• Induction into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2007—the first Native American so honored

• Induction into the Native American Journalists Association Hall of Fame, 2013

• Honorary doctoral degrees from Bacone College, Nebraska Indian Community College, and Sinte Gleska University.

The great Tim Giago has been my hero for a long time. I know he will continue to be.


(Dr. Dean Chavers is Director of Catching the Dream, a scholarship organization in Albuquerque. CTD serves Indian college students nationwide. It also makes grants to Indian schools to help them improve. CTD has produced 820 graduates since 1986, with over 85% of them now working in Indian Country. His latest book is “Racism in Indian Country,” published by Peter Lang)

Copyright permission Native Sun News