North Dakota DOT Did Receive Civil Rights Complaint About Red Tomahawk Highway Signs Before Changing Them


Back in July I wrote a post about the North Dakota Department of Transportation removing the image of a Native American leader from the state’s highway signs.

The leader in question was Marcellus Red Tomhawk who is something of a controversial figure due to his role in the death of Sitting Bull. His family members weren’t entirely pleased that his image is being retired.

At the time a DOT spokesperson told me that the decision to take Red Tomahawk off the signs was not prompted by political correctness, but today the Associated Press reports that the DOT did receive a civil rights complaint over the signs before the decision was made to remove them.

“North Dakota’s Transportation Department was threatened with a civil rights complaint before it dropped its nearly century-old image of a Sioux warrior from thousands of highway signs,” reports James MacPherson who cites emails obtained through an open records request in his report.

I spoke with DOT spokeswoman Jamie Olson this afternoon, and she described MacPherson’s article as “kind of misleading.” She said that the genesis for the civil rights complaint was just a pro forma federal requirement. In his article, MacPherson quotes DOT Director Grant Levi as saying the complaint had no bearing on the retirement of the signs.

But even if the civil rights complaint really wasn’t a factor in the sign change, it was clear that the politics of the sign imagery were on the minds of people in the DOT and the highway patrol.

You can read all of the emails requested by MacPherson here. Among them this June 2015 email from Captain Brian Niewind of the North Dakota Highway Patrol to his superiors about a mention of retiring the signs made by columnist and author Clay Jenkinson on radio host Mike McFeely’s show:


Also this email – also from June 2015 – from Captain Gerhard of the Highway Patrol to NDDOT Director Levi:


You can read the NDDOT’s notes on the civil rights complaint here. The person filing the complaint was Deborah Gaudet of New Mexico (whose 2015 letter to the Grand Forks Herald complaining about the highway signs was linked in my original post on this subject).

The issue here is what the NDDOT’s motivation was for changing the signs. They have consistently maintained that it was nothing to do with political correctness. “We acknowledge that conversations took place about the Native American imagery, but the basis for our final decision is to provide nationwide uniformity with road signs and to recognize the state’s historic funding investment in North Dakota’s transportation system as part of the Department’s upcoming 100 year observance,” Olson told me back in July. “With many road projects taking place in the state it was a good time to update and replace the signs.”

Yet, clearly NDDOT and Highway Patrol officials were sensitive to the idea that Red Tomahawk’s image on the signs was offensive to some. Why else would they be emailing each other about the issue coming up on talk radio?

I think the motivation was, absolutely, political correctness and that the other explanations are just a ruse aimed at avoiding controversy over the change.