The Complexity of Road Signs.

roadsign1The 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.


  1. blf says

    The North Dakota DOT is replacing the old Highway Signs, as pictured on the right.

    Eh? The Indian profile is on the left. Or is there supposed to be a second photo, showing the new sign?

    Only vaguely related, this sign-fixing story reminds me of a completely different sign-fixing story, Iceland toughens up road signs to deter souvenir hunters:

    Pictograms accompanied by exclamation marks that had been frequent targets have been made too heavy to remove

    [… S]o many visitors to Iceland have been stealing road signs as souvenirs that the North Atlantic island has been forced to take remedial action.

    According to Viktor Arnar Ingólfsson, a bestselling crime fiction author and official at the national Road Traffic Directorate, the new generation of Icelandic road signs have been made too heavy to carry, and using bolts “that can’t be undone with an ordinary car toolkit”.

    Ingólfsson told the state broadcaster, RUV that the most popular targets were pictograms — often topped with an exclamation mark — of a kind rarely found abroad, alerting drivers to fords across rivers, single-lane bridges, blind rises with possible oncoming traffic and unmade roads.
    “It’s the way our signs look,” Ingólfsson said. “In English, for example, you just have the word ‘ford’. But in Iceland we also have a picture of a car driving into water, which is more easily understood.”

  2. says


    Eh? The Indian profile is on the left. Or is there supposed to be a second photo, showing the new sign?

    The whole photo is on the right. If you want to see more, you can click over to the article linked.

  3. blf says

    The whole photo is on the right.

    NO. For me the photo is at the top, before all of the text.
    The reason is because I am viewing the site at c.200%, and hence the photo, which(I agree) is laidout to be on the right, becomes too wide and thus “floats” to the top, allowing all the text to “float” down to underneath the photo, and thus still be seen. Thank you for not “pinning” it to the right and allowing it to “float”; had it been pinned, chances are the OP would have been unreadable.

    (I am actually missing the terms pin and float, but that is neither here-nor-there.)

  4. says

    Well, I’m sorry about that, but I don’t have mind reading capacity to know how every single reader is managing their reading. If I did, I suppose I could spend 10 paragraphs on individualizing for everyone.

    At any rate, this was a difficult post for me to write, so that’s all I have to say at the moment, unless there’s some sort of discussion about the actual content of the post.

  5. abear says

    That’s all nice, but I don’t see the sign some of my family would like to see displayed “Ancestral land stolen from the Cree by the bloodthirsty Lakota Sioux”.

    Oh, so you’re Cree, neh? Hmm, what band, what dialect? Got syllabic? Kind of doubt it, so I’ll do image instead of type, mixed dialect. Oh, and I’m half Oglala Lakota, asshole, regardless of how bloodthirsty you think my people are. I’d think an NDN would get that one right. So, are us bloodthirsty Lakota still sitting on your land, or is it white people? Figured it wouldn’t be that long before you just couldn’t cope and had to cross the asshole line, šíčela. You hateful assholes have no self control.

  6. rq says

    Thanks for that glimpse into history. Things get complicated back then, and people forget why symbols get put up. I think your reasons are valid for wanting the signs down. It would be nice if they could figure out a better symbol to actually represent the local Indians instead, though they’ll probably be putting up generic new ‘shield’ signs.

  7. says

    rq @ 5:

    Yes, they chose a generic state outline, looks like a box badly drawn. Like I said, I feel really conflicted. If I thought the signs were actually honouring Red Tomahawk in any way, I think I would have come down on the side of keeping them, not that the decision would have changed. The signs were not an honour to the man, they were an honour to an act, a very bad one.

  8. rq says

    The signs were not an honour to the man, they were an honour to an act, a very bad one.

    Makes all the difference, though. I like the image, too, and I’m sad it doesn’t represent what it should.

  9. says


    I like the image, too, and I’m sad it doesn’t represent what it should.

    Yeah, same here. The whole damn thing just leaves me sad.

  10. abear says

    At any rate, I don’t at all hate you Caine, but it seems you hate me or at least have some unhealthy anger issues toward me.

    I have a major problem with you being an asshole slymepitter, and it’s not like you were unaware of my feelings about that, or the shit you spread all over. There was a line, you crossed it. Now you have your fucking ban. Happy now? Have fun with your victory at the pit. -Caine

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