This Native Americans’ Day, Make a Difference
One person can make a difference. In the case of two holidays in South Dakota, that person is Lynn “Smokey” Hart, who was a professional bullfighter and rodeo clown. He played pivotal roles in both Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and Native Americans Day being recognized as legal holidays in South Dakota, and thereby gained national attention. He appeared on Bill Cosby’s “You Bet Your Life” show and received the “Making of the King Holiday” award from the Martin Luther King, Jr. Federal Holiday Commission.
On January 17, 1990, Mr. Hart traveled to the state capital in Pierre and testified at a public hearing in support of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day being a legal holiday. He said that South Dakota was perceived as racist because it would not make Martin Luther King, Jr. Day a state holiday. At the time, South Dakota was one of only four states that refused to establish Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a legal holiday. Even though President Reagan signed a bill in 1983 establishing a federal holiday to honor Martin Luther King, GOP leadership in South Dakota would not establish Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a legal holiday in our state.
For a number of years, state Democrats had advocated for a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day legal holiday. Finally, in 1989, the legislature made Martin Luther King, Jr. Day a “working holiday,” which meant schools and state offices remained open and employees were expected to be at work. In response, Mr. Hart went to Pierre to support yet another effort by Democrats to establish Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a legal holiday.
Immediately after the hearing, the legislature voted to kill the bill. But a few days later, GOP leadership unexpectedly reversed their decision. Jerry Lammars of Madison, House Republican leader at the time, was quoted in a January 21, 1990 editorial in the Argus-Leader saying: “The perception, of course, is South Dakota is the outback and the land of desecration and bigotry and racism and all that stuff, which, of course, is totally untrue. But with those perceptions nationally, if not within the state, I think it’s time to address that issue.”
That change of heart led the Republican leadership to support and ultimately establish Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a legal holiday in South Dakota. Forty-six other states had already recognized the federal holiday, but at least our state was not the last to do so.
“It marked the end of public tolerance for open expression of bigotry and beginning of an appreciation of a struggle most of us can’t understand,” said state Sen. Scott Heidepriem (R), in an October 9, 1990, Washington Post article. “It . . . just took a little longer for what was considered conservative to become embarrassing and bigoted.”
In South Dakota, the holiday “is dedicated to the remembrance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” but in an apparent attempt to diminish Dr. King’s importance, the statute states that the holiday is also dedicated to the “observance and appreciation of the various ethnic minorities who have contributed so much to the state and nation.” In other words, the holiday is dedicated to all “ethnic minorities.”
Then, in a surprise partisan one-upsmanship move, the GOP also proposed at the same time another new legal holiday: Native Americans’ Day. So whereas the Democrats championed the King holiday, the Republicans led the movement to establish Native American’s Day.
Native Americans’ Day was the renaming of Pioneers Day, an existing legal holiday in the state. South Dakota did not change Columbus Day to Native Americans’ Day, but instead had changed Columbus Day to Pioneers Day in 1971. Then in 1990, the legislature changed Pioneers Day to Native Americans’ Day, Mr. Hart again having been determinably involved in the process..
The statute states that the day is “dedicated to the remembrance of the great Native American leaders who contributed so much to the history of our state." The past tense of the wording is regrettable. American Indians are still here, and are continuing to contribute to our state. Those who only see American Indians in the past, cannot see the ongoing and systemic discrimination against them in the present.
So in the spirit of Native Americans’ Day on October 12, do as Mr. Hart and Mr. Lammars did 30 years ago: identify the bigotry and racism in our state whenever and wherever you see it, and speak out strongly against it.
(This article is also published in Lakota Times.)