As students at Stanley County High School in Fort Pierre celebrated Native Americans’ Day on Monday, the rest of the nation was playing catch-up.
The South Dakota Legislature, with prompting from then-Gov. George Mickelson, in 1989 unanimously approved replacing Columbus Day with a day to honor Native Americans; it took effect the following year. It was declared the “year of reconciliation” by Mickelson.
Since then, 10 other states have gone that route, while most call it Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Six states made the switch this year.
On Monday, the Rosebud Singers from Rosebud Elementary School — led by fifth-grade teacher and drum moderator Brian Brown — pounded drums, chanted and sang as they helped Stanley County Schools mark the day.
The singers were joined by a family of dancers from Pierre. Matt Sevier, 28, his brother Max, 18, sister Samantha, 16, and Matt’s son, Xavier, 6, dressed in costumes passed down through their family, danced, swirled and stomped in circles through the Stanley County School gym. The Rosebud Singers carved their own rhythms through the air highlighting songs that have been passed down since before they had a written language.
“It keeps our culture alive,” Matt said. “It sheds light on our history, and to be able to show the rest of our community our culture so they can appreciate it like we do, so there is less ignorance.”
Samantha said, historically, “We were never able to practice our culture.”
Superintendent Daniel Hoey, in his first year overseeing the district, is the son of a high school U.S. history teacher who taught 43 years. He said the day was personal; one of his children is Santee Sioux and Hispanic.
“Those things really resonate with me,” he said.
Hoey describes summer in South Dakota learning about “where Custer got it” actually where Custer got it.
Brown, in his introductions of the singers, drummers and dancers, spoke of learning to get along with neighbors and treating them as family.
“You may not be blood related,” Brown said. “We are all related here.”
Brown wants everyone to find a balance in life. A balance between being Caucasian and being Native American.
“Meet in the middle,” Brown said. “Make the world a better place no matter where you are from, we are all still relatives.”
The slow national wave to move toward Indigenous Peoples Day includes more than 130 counties and cities, most in the last five years. Grand Forks, N.D., dumped Columbus Day for Indigenous Peoples Day in July.
Not all of them have turned away from the man credited with the founding of the New World. Several states recognize Native Americans with a proclamation or set-aside day in September and leave October alone. Most states don’t observe anything on the second Monday of October, though Columbus Day remains a federal holiday. States and cities can recognize it or ignore it.
Being ignored is nothing new for Columbus Day. It is among 10 federal holidays each year, but many businesses and schools remain open across the country.
Native Americans’ Day isn’t gaining much more traction, at least not in central South Dakota.
There were no scheduled events in Pierre on Monday, though schools and many businesses were closed.
Around the state, there was a Native American Day Basketball Camp on Sunday in Rapid City, a Native American Day Wacipi (pow wow) in Sioux City, and a smattering of other events including a walk, a prayer and blessing, and a lecture.
Representatives for Sen. John Thune and Gov. Kristi Noem didn’t answer emailed questions about how the state’s leaders were marking the day, and instead directed a reporter to press releases from their offices talking about the contributions and importance of Native Americans.
“Native Americans’ Day is not just today,” Brown said. “Every day is for us.”
Brown’s lesson was simple and for everybody: “Be a better person tomorrow than you were today.”