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WOSTER: On Monday, remember hearts can change

Terry Woster, Daily Republic columnist  Monday is Native American Day in South Dakota, and every time the day arrives, it reminds me that people’s hearts can be changed.

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I think of two incidents from my newspaper reporting years. One actually involved Native American Day and a governor who wanted to improve relations among races in South Dakota. The other involved a Lakota woman, an elder in her culture, and a governor who sometimes seemed to enjoy his reputation as a tough customer.

For several years prior to 1989, a small group of people had worked and advocated and lobbied for a holiday recognizing the unique history, traditions and contributions of Native Americans in South Dakota. After Gov. George Mickelson took office, he began making efforts to improve relations between Indians and non-Indians in the state. He sometimes told the story of how his father, former Gov. George T. Mickelson, told him that the biggest problem he failed to solve during his administration was that of race relations. The younger Mickelson took office in 1987 with a goal of at least starting to turn the corner on that issue.

Mickelson declared 1990 a “Year of Reconciliation.” However, the Native American Day holiday, which replaced Columbus Day in South Dakota’s October calendars, didn’t happen without other good-hearted men and women stepping up to lobby the 1989 Legislature. Tim Giago wrote eloquently on the topic, and a tough little bull rider and rodeo clown named Lynn Hart lobbied lawmakers in a quiet, dignified one-on-one campaign that helped create the observance.

That’s one time hearts were changed. In that instance, the hearts belonged to many legislators who had opposed the initiative in the past for a variety of reasons.

In the other instance, the heart belonged to Gov. Bill Janklow. The issue was a mural in the governor’s reception room, and the heart-changer was a Lakota elder named Marie Randall.

The mural, created in 1910 and titled “Spirit of the West,” was the work of a noted artist named Edwin Blashfield. The work was commissioned for the Capitol as it was being completed. As the piece began to draw public attention, it was often described in media outlets as showing a heavenly woman and a group of armed white settlers walking over Native Americans. The Indians, if my memory serves, are lying on the ground reaching for the skirt of the woman, who apparently represented the spirit of the West.

The mural was displayed for decades in the governor’s outer office on the second floor of the Capitol, a public receiving and waiting room for anyone with an appointment to see the governor and, as far back as I can recall, any visitor to the Capitol building.

After Richard Kneip became governor in 1971, he ordered the mural covered with drapes. He commissioned a Native American artist to paint a new mural that for a while hung in the reception room. That painting had a lighter tone, from the content to the hues and shades of the paints used.

Bill Janklow became governor in 1979, during a period of Capitol restoration. Believing, and I hope I’m remembering this accurately, that a state should learn from its history, whether uplifting or distasteful, he had the drapes removed and the Blashfield mural came back into view, part of the original Capitol building and historically authentic.

Eventually, after Janklow became the first South Dakotan to serve more than two terms when he took office again in 1995, Marie Randall came to visit. They talked, and he said he would have the mural permanently covered — protected, however, because of its historical place. When the governor and the elder emerged from their talk, Janklow said she made him realize the painting was hurtful to her and many other people. He said she told him the mural didn’t belong openly displayed in a place visited every day by citizens, particularly young people.

Marie Randall said simply that the governor’s heart changed during their conversation.

It was one of those moments that made a lifetime of being a newspaper reporter worth every single day. It’s good to remember on this weekend that hearts can change.