The North Dakota DOT is replacing the old Highway Signs, as pictured on the right. Being that this is happening in ND, it will take half of forever, and the old signs will still be seen for some time, unless people start stealing them all, which might happen. Out in my part of the wilds, the old signs are still all over the place.
I’ve been conflicted about writing this up, it’s a bit more complex than it seems on the surface. It seems that most people feel replacing these signs is erasing Native people, and their presence here in Indian Country; that it’s a mark of disrespect and whitewashing. A lot of people are unaware of the history behind the sign, and who it honours. No, it’s not a generic Indian profile. It’s a specific honour to Red Tomahawk, later known as Marcellus Red Tomahawk. The Red Tomahawk family is a large one here in ND, and as far as I know, they are all good people.
The reason Marcellus Red Tomahawk was chosen to be honoured on the road markers was because white people felt he brought peace to the Plains by executing Sitting Bull. Marcellus Red Tomahawk was not in the least shy about recounting the event, but other peoples’ versions disagree with his account. Almost all of the accounts narrated by people other than Red Tomahawk place Bull Head as shooting first, striking Sitting Bull in the torso, whereupon Red Tomahawk pulled out a pistol and shot Sitting Bull in the head.
At this time, the Ghost Dance was spreading, and the white government and military feared it greatly. I don’t think it would be unfair to say that the white people at the time believed in it more than Natives did. The 7th Cavalry carried out their massacre at Wounded Knee, citing the Ghost Dance as the justification. Sitting Bull did not take part in the Ghost Dance, however, he did not forbid his people from dancing. White authorities feared this meant the Indians would regains strength and continue to fight, rather than settle down into assimilation. The order was given to arrest Sitting Bull. The federal government had started instituting police on reservations, and Marcellus Red Tomahawk was one who joined the police force at Standing Rock rez. He had also embraced Christianity and was devout in that regard. Marcellus Red Tomahawk never disavowed his heritage, but it became terribly twisted by a desire to not only assimilate, but to be an important person among those he sought to be a part of, that of white men. While he himself often stayed dressed in regalia and traditional clothing, photos of his family show his wife and children dressed in the Western white manner. He sent his own children to the Carlisle Indian School:
One of Red Tomahawk’s sons came home in 1909 and committed suicide. I look upon what happened to Red Tomahawk as a tragedy, a by product of genocide and the demands of assimilation. It makes me feel so sad and wounded. Sitting Bull would never have survived arrest, he would have been murdered anyway, as Crazy Horse was, but it’s a hard thing to face that he died at the hands of his own. Personally, I’m glad the signs are being replaced, because they were never meant to honour Indigenous people at all. They were honour to a murder, an honour to the white way of doing things, a paean to how colonialism works.