Readers new to Indian Country Today may recognize a familiar name: Tim Giago.
The president and publisher of the newspaper also pens “Notes From Indian Country,” a column syndicated in 317 newspapers worldwide, including The Spokesman-Review.
Since he started his newspaper 16 years ago “not knowing a damn thing,” Indian Country Today has grown from a local weekly with 3,000 copies he delivered himself to a national paper with a circulation of 125,000. A Northwest bureau recently opened in the Spokane Valley.
“It’s one of the great success stories in American journalism,” said Bill Kovach, curator of the Neiman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University.
An Oglala Lakota Indian, Giago didn’t begin writing for newspapers until mid-life, when he was inspired and taught by Rupert Costo, who wrote for a monthly tabloid in San Francisco.
In the fearful and divisive years after the shootout at Wounded Knee, Giago decided the people living on Pine Ridge Reservation needed an independent news source.
He borrowed $4,000 in 1981 to launch the Lakota Times, just as the Census Bureau declared his county the poorest in the nation.
To start an advertising-based newspaper by and for Indians in that economy and make it work is “an extraordinary story of commitment, desire and tenacity,” said Kovach.
Almost immediately, Giago’s strong editorials made enemies.
The windows of the newspaper office were shot out and a Molotov cocktail was tossed inside, said Giago’s former wife, Doris. Now an assistant journalism professor at South Dakota State University, she was working at the newspaper when the nighttime attacks occurred.
A tribal leader stood up at a council meeting afterward and said any more attacks on the paper would be considered an attack on the Oglala people.
“All of a sudden, the dam broke,” Tim Giago said. Letters to the editor, obituaries - and readers - flowed in. Within five years the paper was circulating in South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska and Montana.
In 1990, it became Indian Country Today and went national.
Giago drew the support of journalism heavyweights, like USA Today founder Al Neuharth. Giago became a Neiman fellow and spent a year studying at Harvard. He became and remains close friends with Robert Kennedy, Jr.
Giago has written for the New York Times, USA Today, Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He’s led national debates over sports team mascots, phony medicine men and the harm and benefits of Indian gaming.
But the award-winning Giago wrote recently he never intended to be the spokesman for Indians. He is unabashedly, though, an advocate.
When the federal government shut down last year, he covered what it was like on the Hopi reservation, where there were no police and children sat in unheated schools with no hot lunches.
“What was bad for the rest of the country was disastrous for Indians because we depend so much on the federal dollar.”
When Sen. Slade Gorton voted against restoring the Bureau of Indian Affairs budget, Giago wrote Gorton “learned his Indian history at the shrine of George Armstrong Custer.”
He was and remains a conservative voice in Indian Country, favoring sovereignty over negotiation.
Divorced, the father of eight and grandfather of 12 travels between offices wearing a hat and cowboy boots, a single braid reaching midway down his back. He lives in Rapid City, but is leasing a home in Spokane until the bureau becomes established.
At 62, he is also writing a history book of what he has witnessed in his years as a newspaperman. Its title: “Stands Up for Them,” his Lakota name.
But nearly two decades of standing up so vocally has, at times, meant standing alone.
“He makes people mad. He’s not afraid to attack people if he doesn’t approve of what they’re doing or how tribes are conducting their business. He’s not afraid to tackle issues and take an unpopular stand,” Doris Giago said.
Giago himself says, “I don’t give one damn whether anyone likes me or not. I seldom join anything that I may have to report on at one time anyway. I just try to do my job.”
His newspaper employs about 35 Indians, most reservation-raised. The manager of the printing plant commutes 100 miles to his job in Rapid City.
Unlike other minority journalists, Giago said his staff covers sovereign nations that have their own police, courts and law, he said.
He’s been critical of other Indians who work for mainstream media, saying they are doing more good for their careers than their community. He helped found but no longer even belongs to the Native American Journalists Association (NAJA), whose mission is to empower Native journalists.
But even those Giago differs with sharply respect what he’s accomplished. They include NAJA President Paul DeMain, editor of the journal News from Indian Country in Wisconsin.
“He’s busted the hurdles, he ought to be admired for that,” said DeMain.
“His main commitment is creating a network of newspapers that allow Indians around the country to express their view and interpret events through the prism of their culture,” Kovach said. “That’s what community newspapering is all about.”
, DataTimes MEMO: See main story under headline: Reservations’ voice