Whenever Indian Country loses a public figure like Tim Giago, many people will write glowing tributes, and papers like the New York Times will seek to contact those who knew him and get his life story. But none of these people really knew him. This column is not a tribute, but an assessment of who he was, where he came from, and what he meant to me.
First of all, for almost half his life, he wasn’t Tim. His dad’s name was Tim so he was Sonny, and then he became my Uncle Sonny. He bounced all over the country, married many times, fathered many children, but success kept eluding him. Finally, one day in 1973, when he was 39 years old, Uncle Sonny pulled into my brother Jerry’s driveway, rough stubble on his face, and he was living out of his car, and needed a place to stay.
Jerry was very volatile, and Uncle Sonny was afraid of him, lots of people were, but the two of them had some kind of visceral connection, they shared an exceptional sense of humor, and if you were lucky enough to be around them when things were going well, it was a privilege to see their humor at work. But things often did not go well, each contributing to the dissension, and so after a few weeks Uncle Sonny moved on to start the final and far more significant phase of his life.
He wanted us to stop calling him Sonny. He was writing poems and columns that were being published and he wanted to be called Tim. I compromised and just called him Unk.
The one thing Tim was a master at was making donuts. One time I helped him out and he paid me with a large bag of jelly fills. I took them home and ate myself sick. His donut shop, the Glazed Donut, made the best donuts Rapid City had ever seen, or has ever seen. It is a shame he never passed this art on to a protégé, but he had his mind on other things. It was 1977 and he was now a respected Rapid City businessman, and he got his own Native issue oriented talk show on KEVN TV, and after realizing white folks would never understand Native issues the way Natives did, and after being told by a white newspaper editor Native reporters would be biased on Native issues (but white reporters were magically not biased on white issues) Tim decided we needed a native newspaper. But—this paper would be pointless if it were controlled by the tribe or some organization, Tim wanted complete independence.
In 1981 he started the Lakota Times at Pine Ridge village, despite having no real idea about how to run a newspaper. He was always a quick study and after a couple of rocky years, he had the formula down pat. The paper became Indian Country Today, and he eventually sold it to an Indian tribe, where it gradually devolved into the exact type of conformist, controlled newspaper he had hated and that prompted him to start the Lakota Times in the first place.
Today, many people try to be the face of Native American journalism, but Tim was the trailblazer, Tim was the driving force behind the creation of the Native American Journalists Association. These people, they are all strangers to me. I will never understand them the way I understood Tim, the way he understood me, the way we understood Indian Country.
(Contact James Giago Davies at firstname.lastname@example.org)