Hang out with Tim Giago long enough, and he’ll head-butt you. Sooner or later, he will.
Not physically, of course, intellectually. A head-butt of the mind.
Say something he thinks is wrong or stupid, especially on Native American issues, and he’ll take a crack at your cranium — with blunt words, not blunt objects.
I didn’t have to wait long in my 30-plus-year relationship with Giago to get a head-butt myself. During one of our first interviews I made the mistake of leading into a question like this: “Excuse my ignorance on this, but …”
That’s as far as got.
“No, I won’t excuse your ignorance,” Giago interrupted. “If you’re going to do stories about the reservation, if you’re going to write about my people, do your homework. I’m sick of excusing the ignorance of reporters who show up without knowing anything.” Bam! Biff! Pow! Point taken. I’ve been taking Giago’s point and trying, year after year, to know at least a little more than nothing when I show up to cover Native American issues — on the reservation and off. The dumb old white guy with the notebook isn’t quite as dumb, perhaps, as the dumb young white guy with the notebook once was.
Along the way, I’ve learned a fair bit from Giago and many other Native people who have been willing to share their time and insights. I’ve also seen others get the Giago head-butt. Most recently it was Bill Walsh, the effervescent Black Hills Democrat and co-coordinator of the Black Hills Forum and Press Club.
Speaking of which, the press club is a good thing. Walsh makes sure it’s good. So does co-coordinator Marnie Herrmann, who provides the soft-spoken organizational skills and attention to detail that fit so well with Walsh’s scattered creativity and pleasingly loquacious ways.
Once a month the press club presents speakers of note and issues of substance, with a bit of entertainment mixed in. Last Friday, the speaker was Giago.
In introducing Giago, Walsh was word wandering through politics and history. He stopped briefly at American Indian Movement leader Dennis Banks and the 1973 AIM occupation of Wounded Knee.
Turned out Giago didn’t much care for the word “occupation.” So, first things first when he strolled to the lectern.
“It wasn’t an occupation,” the indomitable Lakota journalist said. “It was a violent takeover.”
And it was one that Giago thought hurt more than helped.
“I knew Tim I knew he would say something about it,” Walsh said later with a grin. “But I had to bring it up. Tim’s a good friend. And Dennis Banks was a good friend, too.”
That wasn’t so with Banks and Giago, in their early years at least. They shared the same cause but disagreed passionately over AIM tactics. Yet they found peace over time. Which was nice, since Banks entered the spirit world last month, joining fellow AIM leader Russell Means, who died in 2012.
Banks was 80. Means was 72.
I miss both for their strength of spirit, dry wit and unrelenting advocacy for indigenous people. And I’m still waiting to see if Means will fulfill his pledge to come back as a lightning bolt and strike the White House.
But Giago is a living lightning bolt, decades after his newspaper was firebombed, his windows were shot out and his life was threatened — for speaking out.
At 83, he has softened slightly but still persists in his journalism, still speaks out for Native people and still offers the occasional head-butt.
Intellectually speaking, of course. At least, so far.
(Kevin Woster has been a reporter in South Dakota for 40 years. He now writes a blog and does radio commentary for South Dakota Public Broadcasting. He can be reached by emailing email@example.com)