Truth, Controversy, and the Story of Who We Are

Posted by Lori Walsh on
Tim Giago
Lee Strubinger

Sometimes a lifetime of work can be inspired by everything from a chance encounter to an all-too-common brush with stark injustice.

Tim Giago is a singular voice in South Dakota – a community newspaper publisher who resculpted the landscape of state journalism and, sometimes, public policy.

If you think Giago is controversial, that’s fine by him.

“If telling the truth is controversial,” he told me, “I suppose I am.”

Good journalism tells people in community the story of themselves. That’s our daily endeavor at In the Moment as well. Tim Giago’s story of being kicked (literally) through the revolving doors of the Alex Johnson Hotel in Rapid City is just one of the stories that weave together in the tapestry of our history.

We share the uncomfortable stories. We share the triumphant ones.

That's truth.

That's good journalism.

The following is an edited version of the conversation. If you would like to listen to it in its entirety, click here.

 Lori Walsh:

Tim Giago was a singular voice in publishing and in South Dakota. On September 8, Giago receives the 2017 Native American Journalist Association's Medill Milestone Achievement Award. He has been honored for a lifetime of service to journalism. In 1979, Tim Giago became the first American Indian voice in South Dakota newspapers. He went on to found the Lakota Times in 1981. It was the first independently owned Native American newspaper in the country. He founded the Native American Journalists Association and served as its first president. In 2009, he founded the Native Sun News. He has also been a columnist for Huffington Post. He joins us now from the Black Hills Surgical Hospital Studio in SDPB's new Black Hills bureau in Rapid City. Tim Giago, thanks for being with us. 

Tim Giago:

Good morning, Lori. 

Lori Walsh:

Give me an idea of what this award means to you right now. 

Tim Giago:

Well, you know, you spend your life, at least I have for the past 40 years, pursuing a career in journalism and the newspaper business and it's sort of a culmination of all of the hard work you put in all of these years. Running a newspaper and publishing every week is a hard, hard job. It just ... It feels very good to be recognized for all of that hard work. 

Lori Walsh:

Take me back to the first job you ever did. Before journalism, what was the first work that you had to do? 

Tim Giago:

Well, I can go back a long way. I can take you back to the 1950s when I was stationed in San Francisco at the San Francisco Naval Shipyard. I was sitting at my typewriter typing up a requisition and my commanding officer came in and he stood behind me and watched me for a minute and he said, "You know ..." He said, "The editor of the base newspaper has just been transferred. You're going to be the new editor." And so that's how I actually got a start, by accident in the newspaper business. 

Lori Walsh:

And what do you think ... Was it just because you were typing? Why you?

Tim Giago:

Because I was a good typist. 

Lori Walsh:

What were your first thoughts? Were you thinking, "Yeah, I can take that on," or were you wanting to turn away from it? 

Tim Giago:

No, I really enjoyed it. It was just a challenge every week. We always tried to put a little humor into the base newspaper. It was just fun putting it together. It came out once a month. So when I got out of the service, I used the GI Bill and I went to college at the University of Nevada in Reno. I think what really pushed me into journalism was one day when my political science class was assigned to go down to the courthouse, the Washoe County Courthouse in Reno, on a Monday morning to see some of the cases that were being tried. The first case was of about 20 Paiute Indians and they brought them all in and lined them all up and tried them almost as one person. The crime they committed, all of them, they were out on the streets after midnight, and in 1958 they had a curfew. Native Americans had to be off the streets before midnight. That was the law back then. 

I really was incensed over it because I picked up the paper, the Reno Gazette, the next day and saw nothing at all about it. These 20 people were sentenced to 30 days in jail for being out on the streets after curfew. It pushed me to change most of my majors and focus on journalism because I always felt that this was not justice in my mind and I thought that we need to have a voice of our own that's going to address the truth and justice. 

Lori Walsh:

So you could have gone into law, you could have seen that as something -- or politics -- but you saw that moment when you opened the Reno Gazette and saw it wasn't covered. That was the key for you, right? 

Tim Giago:

That was the catalyst for pushing me into a career in journalism. 

Lori Walsh:

Wow. Tell me about the original Rapid City Journal columns. How did you end up getting that job? 

Tim Giago:

Well, you know, there was a managing editor named Jim Carrier who had been at the Associated Press and he came to Rapid City. He was a pretty open minded liberal guy. We had an editor named Jim [Keene 00:05:11], who was I think a little conservative, but a very nice man. I was working for a Native American newspaper in San Francisco, a monthly newspaper that really was the largest Native American paper in the United States back then. It was called Wassaja. It was named after a Yavapai-Apache man named Wassaja, who started a newspaper in Arizona and fought against injustice and was always looking for truth. And so I worked for Rubert Costo, the man who started Wassaja. Jim Carrier was a subscriber to Wassaja and he started reading some of the things I had written in Wassaja, so he called me one day and asked if I would care to come in for an interview. I went in to talk to him and he said, "I'd like to have you write a weekly column for the Rapid City Journal," so that's how I got started. 

Lori Walsh:

Did you have an idea, at that time, that no one else was really doing that? 

Tim Giago:

Well, I don't think in South Dakota anyhow, there was no Native Americans, not even writing columns, but I think working for any of the media in South Dakota. It was kind of groundbreaking for me. Jim was just a very good editor. He told me just write about the things you know, write about your life on the reservation, write about the people you know in Rapid City. And so that's the premise I used for the columns I wrote for a few years. 

Lori Walsh:

How did you approach that as far as were you trying to use your column to change a culture? Were you trying to use your column to express ... 

Tim Giago:

I'm going to keep coming back to the word "truth." You know, sometimes I was accused ... In fact, one time Jim [Keene 00:07:07] had me address a Rotary Club and he introduced me as "controversial" and I said ... To the audience, I said, "Well, if telling the truth is controversial, then I suppose I am." So that's the premise I used. You know, Rapid City was quite a bit different when I was a boy. I came up here from the reservation when my dad got a job at what used to be called Rapid City Air Force Base. We came up during World War II and Rapid City was quite a different place back then. As far as finding a place to live, it was almost impossible for Native Americans and most of us settled up around North Rapid or along Rapid Creek. 

We moved up to North Rapid and a lot of my friends from the reservations came up in the summertime. One of my friends and I got together, his name was Chuck Trimble, who incidentally became a journalist. We were walking to downtown Rapid City and we saw these beautiful revolving doors at the Alex Johnson Hotel and we thought, "Wow, let's try these doors out." So we went through the doors and went around and a doorman came and grabbed us both and literally kicked us and he said, "Get out of here you dirty little Indians." And so that's kind of the way Rapid was back then. I guess the ironic thing of that is those two dirty little Indians are both now in the South Dakota Hall of Fame. 

Lori Walsh:

Talk about some of the challenges to launching an independent newspaper whose primary readership was on the reservation. How did you ... Why was it important to be independent of tribal government or of any government and how did you accomplish that? 

Tim Giago:

Well, you know, in the first place, I wasn't very bright when I did it. I opened it in 1981, my first newspaper, the Lakota Times. The reason I say I wasn't very bright is because back then interest rates were almost 20 percent. Shannon County, where Pine Ridge was located, was declared the poorest county in the United States. So here I am with interest sky high on the poorest county in America trying to start a business. I think the reason it took off and succeeded is because we didn't have a newspaper that addressed all our own issues. We didn't have anything that talked about education, about the justice system, about the schools, about our religion. Our paper came in and it filled that gap. We provided news every single week about all the issues that were important to the people who really weren't being included in the state media. Most of the coverage that took place on the reservation from the outside media was negative, crimes and what have you. Some people even got their news by going down to the courthouse. We bridged that gap and we started doing news that showed we had a lot of good achievers. We had teachers. We had doctors. We had lawyers. We had a lot of people that had come from the reservation and really changed their own lives and the lives of their own people. 

Lori Walsh:

When did you know that the newspaper, that the model that you had created, the business model and the product, the newspaper itself, when did you know that it had taken hold, that it was going to be successful? 

Tim Giago:

You know something? The first issue that was published, we printed 4,000 copies and I loaded it in my car. I printed it in Chadron, Nebraska and I drove to every store on the Pine Ridge Reservation and all the border towns and I delivered it. On the way back into Pine Ridge Village, there's a bus stop just across the street from the Sioux Nation shopping center and as I was driving by -- this is the first day the paper ever came out -- there were two elderly Lakota men sitting on those benches and they both had a copy of the Lakota Times and they were reading it. I just about jumped out of my car to thank them because that was ... I just knew then that the paper was going to succeed. 

Lori Walsh:

Wow. Are there stories that stand out to you or columns when you worked for the Rapid City Journal that stand out to you, work that you did over the years that really resonates now and that you still remember either the process of going through it or the response to it? 

Tim Giago:

Well, you know, I think a lot of people don't really understand the old saying about the power of the pen. Not only were we a newspaper, we were also an advocate for Indian rights. In 1990, it was the 100th anniversary of the massacre at Wounded Knee was coming up. Virgil Killstraight and some of the people from Pine Ridge were going to follow the exact path that Chief Big Foot took when he came from Cheyenne River to Pine Ridge seeking the protection of Red Cloud after Sitting Bull had been assassinated up in Standing Rock. With his followers they came to Wounded Knee Creek and ran into the Seventh Calvary. As you know, probably nearly 300 men, women and children were shot down in cold blood. 

So the anniversary was coming up for the 100th anniversary of it and I did an editorial and I challenged Governor George Mickelson, a Republican governor, to let's do something about this, let's do something to reconcile our differences, so he proclaimed 1990 the Year of Reconciliation and at the same time, I had a visit with him when we were planning some of the activities we were going to do that year and I asked him why don't we also push to change Columbus Day to Native American Day. He introduced legislation, a bill to do that and with his staff and my staff, we pushed really hard at the state legislators to do it and so that year also Columbus Day was not celebrated, but Native American Day for the first time was celebrated in 1990. Those are some of the things a small weekly newspaper can do, I think, if you have someone in a power position that is empathetic and understanding and that's what Governor George Mickelson was. 

Lori Walsh:

Do you remember how you celebrated that first day in 1990? What did you do that day? 

Tim Giago:

I think I went out and had a big dinner. 

Lori Walsh:

What did South Dakota newspapers and South Dakota media in general really need at that time that you really ... You've talked a little bit about what it provided to the people as a community newspaper. It provides something to the community. Did it also provide something to the people beyond that community?

Tim Giago:

Well, you know, I think a lot of people erroneously believe that newspapers are dying. I don't see that at all. Our newspaper is strong and I think one of the reasons is because we don't have access to the internet in a lot of ways or people can't afford to buy computers, so when you get out in the middle of Pine Ridge, Rosebud or Cheyenne River, some of the large reservations, their source of news is the newspaper. They read Native Sun News today. It brings them their local news as well as national news that can help them make sound decisions. When we first started more than 30 years ago in South Dakota, I think we brought a new voice to the media. We started, I think, showing a lot of the papers that had hardly touched Native American news that there's a lot of important stories out there and there's a lot of good stories. We joined the South Dakota Newspaper Association more than 30 years ago and became competitors with some of our fellow newspaper people and went on to win a lot of awards, I think simply because we did have a newspaper that was independent and unique. 

Lori Walsh:

Did you receive pressure from tribal government to be less independent? It seems like every journalist has a story about local leaders sort of leaning into you and asking you to tell a different story. 

Tim Giago:

I think tribal governments owned almost all of the newspapers in Indian country back in those days. Of course they had the say of what went into the paper and what didn't. I chose to be independent because I wanted to have that voice that could challenge the authority or praise or condemn, whatever it was going to take to get the news out. One of the things that was happening just a few years before we started the newspaper was the occupation of Wounded Knee and all of the violence that was taking place on the reservations. We addressed that. We started doing hard-hitting editorials that challenged both sides to stop the violence. We did editorials naming names. We paid a heavy price. Our windows were shot out of the newspaper three times. In December just before Christmas in 1982 we were firebombed. I came out of my office one night after putting the paper to bed, got in my pickup and my windshield was blasted out in my face. These were just, I think ... I always said it's hard enough running a darn business without being killed in the process. 

Lori Walsh:

Did you ever sort of lose your resolve there? 

Tim Giago:

I don't think I ever did. I think I ... All of these attacks did is it made me more angry. 

I thought they can't do this to us. We are here. We're going to bring out the truth and that's all there is to it and if I have to give my life doing it, that's exactly what I was going to do. 

Lori Walsh:

I'm wondering, Mr. Giago, if journalism has an artistic endeavor or an artistic side? How do you balance the facts and sort of the narrative that needs to be told or needs to be developed to tell a story well? What's your relationship with sort of the artistic side of journalism and storytelling. 

Tim Giago:

Well, I think journalism and good writing is art. A good writer has to be creative. A good writer has to go behind the scenes and see the things that other people don't see. I think a well written story can cause people to laugh, cause people to think, cause people to cry and can address some of the really complicated and controversial issues in a way that people will understand all sides of an issue. At least that's our dream. That's our hopes. 

Lori Walsh:

What is the work that's left to be done?  

Tim Giago:

We have a long way to go. 

Lori Walsh:

How far have you come? How far have we come and what needs to be done next? 

Tim Giago:

I think we've come a long way. I'm really proud of the South Dakota Newspaper Association and some of the changes that they've initiated over all of these years. Dave Bordewyk has done his best to bring a lot of good issues up to all of the newspapers in the state. If a newspaper is going to be successful, it has to tell the people in the community the story of what's happened to themselves. That's why I think community newspapers in South Dakota are still hanging on. They're still successful even though maybe some of the large newspapers like the Post Intelligencer in Seattle, Washington and the Tucson Citizen, some of those papers folded, they were daily papers. I don't know that they didn't have a grip on their community and understand their own community. I think that's the most important thing right now facing all of us. 

And then we have such competition. We have people that are doing blogs. We have the internet. We have Facebook. Everybody can create their own little newspaper on their Facebook pages anytime. The only problem with that is I come back to the word "truth." They're not obligated to tell the truth. They're not obligated to be honest with their readers, whereas a newspaper, you are obligated because what you're putting down is print. 

Lori Walsh:

Do people understand that anymore or have people just lost their faith in journalism and in newspapers? Do you think people get the distinction that as a newspaper you're obligated to be objective and to find truth? 

Tim Giago:

Well, you know, we've been accused of being fake news, as you know. I think as long as we stick to our guns and write the truth that we're going to be all right. Our president calls the New York Times a fading, dying newspaper and yet it has grown substantially over the past few years. It has gone a lot to the internet also with its digital version and finally the digital advertising is catching up with the print advertising. You can have a dream, you can have the ideals, but it's like owning a horse. You have to feed it every now and then and that's where you have to have income. 

Lori Walsh:

You talked about understanding your own community. What do you understand about South Dakota, about the readership of your newspapers over the years that maybe you didn't understand when you first started out? 

Tim Giago:

Well, you know, I was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Reservation and didn't know much about any of the communities outside of the reservation except for the border towns like Rushville, Gordon, Chadron. Those were the places that we went to shop since we didn't really have any shopping places at Pine Ridge back in those days. Since I've been in this business, I think I've met a lot of editors and publishers from across the state. I've made friends with a lot of them. I've met a lot of good people in this business, like Tom Brokaw and Allen Neuharth, people that were contributors to helping the Native American Journalists Association get off the ground. It was the very first grant we got to start the Native American Journalists Association was from Allen Neuharth and the Freedom Forum. Al came as one of our speakers at our very first convention. It really started to unite and bring us together as a people, I think. Neuharth was a very strong believer that Native Americans had to have access to the media like everybody else. 

Lori Walsh:

How has the work changed you? 

Tim Giago:

I think it has probably made me more understanding and probably, maybe some people won't believe it, but more of a gentle person. I've seen so much misery in the world and in our communities and the issues I've had to cover that it makes you think. It makes you want to improve the world and makes you want to improve the lives of your own people and I think a newspaper and the media in general can have a strong input into helping change the situation in the world today. 

Lori Walsh:

What's next for you personally? 

Tim Giago:

Well, I would like to sit down and write a book about all of the things that happened in my life, starting with the newspaper business and going back to my days at a boarding school. I find that a lot of people really don't believe, like you and I discussed a long time ago, Lori, that these boarding schools existed and they were a bad time in the history of America for Native Americans. Those are the things I think I want to write about. A lot of the young Native Americans today have no idea what their parents or grandparents went through in order to bring their lives to what they are now, a lot better than their predecessors. 

Lori Walsh:

I would read that book, definitely. Are you working on it now? Do you write daily? 

Tim Giago:

Yes, ma'am, I sure am. I'm taking notes every day. 

Lori Walsh:

Tim Giago, thank you so much for this time that you've shared with us today. Congratulations on your award and I hope that you'll come back again and talk with us frequently. 

Button_ITMargins_328x76_0817.png

I have always been a devoted scribbler in the margins of books. As a reader, I underline and highlight. I add questions marks and exclamation points. I argue with the author. But where are the margins in a radio program like In the Moment? 

You have to create them. 

Welcome to In the Margins. It’s a place for behind-the-scenes. It’s a place for expanding the conversation.

It’s a place for just one more question.

Button_WhatIRead_328x76_0817.png books.JPG

Meet me in the Hills! In the Moment heads to the South Dakota Festival of Books for a live broadcast from the Deadwood Mountain Grand. It's my favorite event of the year, and much reading awaits. I'm currently deep into the sweetness of "Braiding Sweetgrass." Here are a few other titles waiting on the nightstand.