North Dakota Removing Native American Imagery From Highway Signs

The old North Dakota state highway logo featuring the Red Tomahawk image.

This morning a SAB reader contacted me about a change he noticed to some of North Dakota’s highway signs, and included a photo of one of the new signs which you can see above.

For years signs marking state highways (as well as the logo for the North Dakota Highway Patrol) have featured the image of Marcellus Red Tomahawk, a Lakota Indian who fought against white settlement in the early days of the Dakota Territory and later became a member of the Bureau of Indian Affairs police force (this 2009 column from historian Curtis Eriksmoen has more on the history Red Tomahawk and the logos).

But much like the “Fighting Sioux” nickname/logo at the University of North Dakota, the highway signs have drawn criticism over the years. This 2015 letter to the Grand Forks Herald, which points out that Red Tomahawk was involved with the death of Sitting Bull, is an example of that criticism.

“My brother sent me the photo below today which a noticeable change in our state highway markers,” the SAB reader who contacted this morning wrote in an email. “Did I miss this in the news somewhere? I can’t find mention of it anywhere on the web. Have bureaucrats somewhere deemed the old North Dakota State Highway signs offensive, a lathe UND Fighting Sioux?”

You can see an image of the old sign to the right.

I couldn’t find anything about the change reported anywhere, which is kind of unusual. Typically these sort of changes are announced by press release with a lot of fanfare.

I mean, look at all the attention the new state license plates got.

I contacted North Dakota Department of Transportation spokeswoman Jamie Olson and she confirmed that there is a change in the works with the signs.

“It’s just a part of the regular sign maintenance program,” she told me.

Here’s what’s going on from her email to me this afternoon:

The Marcellus Red Tomahawk route markers are being replaced with the new ND design state route markers through our regular sign replacement program. The NDDOT decided to incorporate the profile of North Dakota on State Route/Highway signs to help provide nationwide uniformity with road signs used by other state DOT’s and wanted to recognize the state’s historic funding invested in North Dakota’s transportation system as part of the Department’s upcoming 100 year observance. The new design also helps new travelers in our state to recognize North Dakota highways.

The decision was made in 2015 to coincide with the Department’s bidding process for construction projects taking place in 2016. Not all signs will be replaced at once as the regular process involves replacing signs during road construction projects and when signs are damaged or have deteriorated. It will take years to replace all the signs as inventory is depleted and signs are replaced through our regular sign replacement program.

So the familiar Red Tomahawk signs will be around for a while still, but eventually they’ll all be gone.

Is this a move toward more politically correct signage?

“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 in response to a follow-up question. “With many road projects taking place in the state it was a good time to update and replace the signs.”

For my two cents, I’m sorry to see the images go. I worry about this removal of Native American names and imagery.

Native Americans are a major part of the history of America, and this region in particular. I’m not sure we’re doing them any favors by making that something which is less visible in our day-to-day lives.

UPDATE: Post updated with further comments from the NDDOT regarding the impetus for the change.

UPDATE: For what it’s worth, I contacted the North Dakota Highway Patrol which also uses a logo inspired by Red Tomahawk. I spoke with Sgt. Tim Coughlin who told me that there are no plans at this time to change their logo.