The North Dakota Department of Transportation has said that their decision to strip the image of Native American leader Marcellus Red Tomahawk from the state’s highway signs had nothing to do with political correctness. Yet emails obtained by the Associated Press (and obtained by me too) indicate the opposite. State officials had received a civil rights complaint over the signs, and were chattering on email about criticism of the signs coming from a bunch of white liberals and non-Native American gadflies.
Highway Patrol officials who heard author and liberal columnist Clay Jenkinson criticizing the sign on Mike McFeely’s radio show were emailing one another about it. And a woman who filed the aforementioned civil rights complaint was also not a Native American.
So now the signs are being retired. But while all the white people were wringing their hands and gnashing their teeth over the signs, Red Tomahawk’s family and actual Sioux tribal leaders are something less than pleased about the change:
“The reason why Red Tomahawk is on those signs was to honor that tribal relationship,” Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Dave Archambault II said. “All of the sudden, they want to take that honoring away. We’re not happy.”
Documents obtained by the AP through the state’s open record laws show the agency took complaints from Deborah Gaudet of Taos, New Mexico in 2015. Gaudet, a former North Dakota resident who is not Native American, began a letter-writing campaign in June of that year, calling for the Red Tomahawk signs to be replaced. …
Judith Red Tomahawk, of Mandan, Red Tomahawk’s great-granddaughter, said there are dozens of descendants in the Dakotas and Montana who should have had the opportunity to comment on the move.
She said criticism of the signage has come from “Indian wannabes” and that her family and the tribe want to keep the imagery. She praised her great-grandfather, whom she said never spoke English but worked with non-Native farmers and ranchers to establish cattle and crops on the 2.3 million-acre reservation.
“It was an honor to have those signs,” she said. “I don’t know why people can’t grasp that. People don’t know how much it means to us.”
Yes, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe is the one which refused to vote on the University of North Dakota “Fighting Sioux” logo. The Spirit Lake Sioux tribe voted strongly in favor of the controversial logo and nickname. If Standing Rock had done the same the NCAA would have allowed UND to keep them, but tribal leadership refused to call a vote.
So I suspect there is some schadenfreude going on about Standing Rock now losing a public image important to them.
But this issue is larger than that sort of pettiness.
Things like highway signs are cultural touchstones. Anyone who has watched a show like American Pickers knows that there is a huge market for these signs. That’s because they speak to people. They have meaning.
And when we erase an image chosen to honor the history of Native Americans? A people who are already out of sight and out of mind far too often in modern American society?
It’s a disgrace. All the more so because the decision was made in order to be sensitive to Native American sensibilities.