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Days of ’76 includes Native focus



Family members of late Parade Grand Marshal David Bald Eagle continue to take part in the annual tourism and history event.
Photo by Talli Nauman

DEADWOOD — The Days of ’76 Parade and Rodeo here has been growing over the years, and now its sponsors’ interest in the inclusion of Native American culture is, too.

The annual event began in 1924 to feature Deadwood’s history. It tells how gold seekers and their followers founded the northern Black Hills mining town in 1876. Thousands of people rushed in here during the 1875 Deadwood Gulch stampede when prospectors hit pay dirt. These settlers named their camp Deadwood after the dead trees in the gulch. 

The storied past comes to life at the Days of ’76 through a week of events featuring parades, a nationally acclaimed rodeo, and recently, a stage venue focusing attention on the Native Lakota culture. For the July 26-31, 2021, celebration, the city has booked Native talent at centrally located Outlaw Square, a new public venue on the corner of Deadwood and Main streets.

In the future, Deadwood hopes to host a powwow during the week of Days of ’76, giving participants heightened opportunities for immersion in Black Hills history and culture, according to Mayor David R. Ruth Jr. “It’s important to understand, especially for visitors, that Deadwood is very supportive of the Lakota people,” he told the Native Sun News Today. 

Prior to the 2020 completion of Outlaw Square facilities on the former site of Deadwood’s City Hall and the Deadwood Theater, Lakota and other talent performed next to the rodeo grounds at Ferguson Field — the home the Lead-Deadwood Gold-diggers football team –, and a long walk from downtown. 

“Having our Lakota talent featured at Outlaw Square gives visitors a chance to experience Lakota culture who might not make it to the rodeo,” said Deadwood Historic Preservation Officer Kevin Kuchenbecker. “It’s important to the city, our residents and visitors to experience Lakota culture during our biggest event of the year, and I think we will continue to see that grow.”

In recent years, the event committee has ramped up its planning with local talents such as Dallas Chief Eagle, Warren “Guss” Yellowhair, and the family of late David Bald Eagle.

“I like to participate in the Days of ’76 event to give visitors a glimpse into our past as Oceti Sakowin Oyate, better known as the Great Sioux Nation,” said Oglala Sioux tribal member Yellowhair. “We need to show them that we are still alive in the Black Hills area and it is important for people to know the descendants are still here representing” the People of the Seven Council Fires, also known as the Lakota, he said.

Yellowhair takes part in the Days of ’76 parades with his family, always singing the American Indian Movement song as the processions move along Main Street.

For his part, David Bald Eagle dressed in full ceremonial regalia to lead the parades for at least five decades until his passing at the age of 97 in 2016. Chief David, as he liked to be called, was a decorated Mniconjou Lakota warrior and part of an ample cast of local characters who formed the image of an Old West frontier town that sustains the tourism industry of the locale.

Long before gold prospectors, the Black Hills were the homelands of the Lakota people. At the time of the town’s founding, it was in Indian Territory as recognized by the 1851 and 1868 treaties of Fort Laramie. The United States signed the treaties with the Oglala, Mniconjou, and Brulé bands of the Oceti Sakowin, as well as Yankton Dakota and Arapaho, to end the Indian wars. The negotiation established the Great Sioux Reservation including Native jurisdiction over the Black Hills. The U.S. government agreed to punish anybody who violated the terms that reserved the territory to its original population.

However, with the gold rush, war again broke out in 1876, and the U.S. government passed an act that reclaimed the Black Hills in 1877. A 1980 Supreme Court decision in United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians relied upon the treaty language to determine that tribal lands had been taken illegally by the U.S. government, and the tribe deserved compensation plus interest.

Today, with the accumulated interest, the monetary award comes to nearly $2 billion. The Lakota have refused the payment, demanding instead the return of the territory, and, in the process, becoming an international standard bearer for a call to return stolen land to Indigenous people.

The commemoration of the gold rush at the former mining camp is hardly cause for celebration among the Lakota who lost control of the Black Hills as a result of the treaty violation mining engendered. Still Bald Eagle and his extended family weren’t about to miss out on the festivities of the Wild West.

Their participation in the annual rodeo and celebration dates back to the beginnings. “I remember the days when this was a racetrack,” he said as he blessed the grand opening of the Deadwood Days of 76 Museum in May 2013 with a prayer in Lakota.

“We used to have tipi races,” he said, recalling how the family would erect a tipi encampment on the hillside above the Deadwood rodeo grounds to take part in the yearly affair.

A prominently positioned, wall-size photo enlargement of the early Days of ‘76 Celebration at the entrance of the museum gallery is a sepia-toned scene of the tipis and Bald Eagle with relatives in traditional dress. It bears a written quote from him, saying: “During the Days of ’76, we lived, for a time, in our old ways.”

The rodeo has a long list of awards and recognitions, topped with the 2020 Large Outdoor Rodeo of the Year prize from the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA). The rodeo previously won small and medium rodeo of the year numerous times. It is the only rodeo in the history of the PRCA to win small, medium and large outdoor rodeo of the year and to be inducted into the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame.

“As a kid, I always remember seeing Lakota dressed in full traditional regalia and camping by the rodeo,” recalled Mayor Ruth, who said he is a fifth-generation Deadwood resident. In his 50s, he said he remembers missing only three years of Days of ’76 his entire life — when he was in military service. “Days of ’76 gives our community the opportunity to showcase Lakota culture, not only to our residents, but to our visitors,” he said. 

“Seeing Lakota people in the parade over the years has always been a treat to residents and visitors,” he said. Although Deadwood has a population of under 2,000, it has grown to surpass 3 million visitors annually, according to Ruth. Native involvement as “a central part of the celebration” would boost participation, he acknowledged.

Filling Bald Eagle’s role as the Days of ’76 Parade Grand Marshal hasn’t been easy, Kuchenbecker said. Recent increased awareness of the need to focus on the connection to the original people of the Black Hills spurs on the Deadwood Historic Preservation Commission and the non-profit Deadwood History Inc.  As a result, the museums here host a once-a-month program called Preservation Thursday, including Lakota heritage sessions. In the most recent among them, artist and educator Starr Chief Eagle presented hoop dancing.

“It is important to understand our forefathers before Europeans; and to understand how our cultures have impacted each other provides a better understanding of our past,” said Kuchenbecker. The city of Deadwood plans to expand cross-cultural efforts in years to come, he said. For more information, visit daysof76.com

(Contact Darren Thompson at darrenjthompson@hotmail.com)

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