Last week a new holiday was signed into law by President Joe Biden. It is called Juneteenth.
Juneteenth is a holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. It is also called Emancipation Day or Juneteenth Independence Day. The name “Juneteenth” references the date of the holiday, combining the words “June” and “nineteenth.”
South Carolina Rep. Ralph Norman, a Republican, lashed out at Juneteenth becoming a federal holiday: ‘Are we going to do one for the Native American Indians?’ Why not! South Dakota did it in 1990, making it the first and only state in the Union to celebrate such a holiday.
South Dakota had a weird year in 1990. It was the year Gov. George Mickelson, a Republican, named it the Year of Reconciliation. At the time South Dakota was one of three states that did not recognize the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. as a state holiday. Arizona and New Hampshire were the other two states.
An African American man name Lynn Hart was fighting to get King’s birthday recognized by the state as an official holiday. Gov. Mickelson and the staff of the newspaper Indian Country Today were fighting to get Columbus Day scrubbed from the calendar and replaced with Native American Day.
The group of bold legislators, pushed by Indian Country Today and the Governor passed the legislation making Native American Day an official holiday. At the same time they passed the bill to recognize Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday as a state holiday. Both bills passed at the same time and so South Dakota’s media, in its usual bumbling way, reported that Lynn Hart was responsible for both holidays. Actually, he was not. He was responsible for Martin Luther King Jr’s holiday and that is it. George Mickelson and Indian Country Today were responsible for making Native American Day a reality.
Gov. Mickelson gets all of the credit for Native American Day as well he should, but it was never his idea, he just had the courage to stand up for it and support it. The idea was a Native American idea but he had the authority to get it passed into law.
The idea of a Year of Reconciliation happened after I interviewed him and asked him, “What is the hardest part of being Governor?” He replied, “I am going to give you the same answer my father gave me when I asked him the same question when he was governor. His answer and my answer are trying to solve the racial problems between Indians and whites.”
He suggested that he would like to do something to change that. I reminded him that on December 29, 1990, South Dakota’s Native population would be commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Massacre at Wounded Knee. I thought it would be a good time to make a positive move at reconciliation. And so the ideas of Reconciliation and Native American Day were born after that discussion with the Governor.
South Dakota’s media has never set the record straight. I was listening to South Dakota Public Radio the other day, the Lori Walsh show, and one of South Dakota’s longtime news reporters, Kevin Wooster was her guest. Wooster was asked about reconciliation and he immediately did what all reporters do. He talked about how Gov. Mickelson had called for a Year of Reconciliation without once mentioning the fact that Native Americans and a Native American newspaper were the real originators of the idea. Mickelson was the tool they used to get it done.
As a longtime friend of mine Wooster knows better than that. Native Americans get little or no credit for any positive thing they do in South Dakota. It is always the white guy who gets the credit and it is always the white reporters who report it that way because they can never see the Native American side of it.
I have the letters and the plaque the Governor gave me to back up my side of the story. The Governor and I celebrated the first Year of Reconciliation and Native American day on October 8, 1990 at Crazy Horse Memorial. Ruth Ziolkowski was host for this historic occasion.
African Americans have every right to celebrate Juneteenth as a day of liberation, and Congressman Ralph Norman may have thought it was a big joke to include Native Americans in his denial of the Juneteenth holiday, but just by bringing up the idea, he may have opened a door he wanted to keep shut.
(Contact Tim Giago at firstname.lastname@example.org)