Tim Giago, the outspoken founder of the first independently owned Native American newspaper in the United States who challenged discriminatory government policies, American Indian stereotypes in popular culture and, at times, tribal leaders themselves, died Sunday in Rapid City, S.D. He was 88.
Mr. Giago died from complications of cancer and diabetes, Doris Giago, his first wife, said.
When he started as a local reporter for The Rapid City Journal in 1980, he was frustrated that he was rarely allowed to write about life on the reservation.
“One editor told me that I would not be able to be objective in my reporting,” Mr. Giago, a 1991 Nieman fellow at Harvard University, recalled in a 2005 essay for the foundation’s newsletter. “I replied, ‘All of your reporters are white. Are they objective when covering the white community?’”
To him, such attitudes were part of a larger problem: dismissive, and often skewed, coverage of Native American issues in the mainstream news media.
In response, he and Doris took out a $4,000 bank loan using a cousin’s old Ford sedan as collateral to found Lakota Times in 1981. Their ambition was to create an independent newspaper for Native Americans by Native Americans, reporting news that stood “in contrast to the local and national media’s constant misrepresentation of Indian people.”
The newspaper, run out of a former beauty salon on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, started out as a hyperlocal community weekly. But it quickly found an audience and by 1992 had shifted to a national focus and changed its name to Indian Country Today.
Over the course of a celebrated four-decade career in journalism, Mr. Giago also wrote a syndicated column, “Notes From Indian Country,” and published four books, including “Children Left Behind: The Dark Legacy of Indian Mission Boarding Schools,” in 2006, in which he recounted the abusive conditions at a reservation boarding school, run by the Roman Catholic Church, that he had attended as a child.
The first Native American to be inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame, Mr. Giago (pronounced guy-ay-go) also was one of the founders of the Native American Journalists Association, a national organization that promotes American Indian journalists and issues, in 1984.
A successful entrepreneur as well as a newsman, he also founded The Lakota Journal, a weekly newspaper based in Rapid City, S.D., in 2000. Nine years later, he started Native Sun News Today, another Rapid City newspaper, which he owned, with his wife, Jackie, and wrote for until his death.
Timothy Antoine Giago Jr., a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe, was bornJuly 12, 1934, in Kyle, S.D., on the Pine Ridge Reservation, one of seven children of Tim Giago Sr., who worked in a store in nearby Porcupine, andLupita Giago, a homemaker. His Oglala name was Nanwica Kcjii, which translates to “He Stands up for Them.”
Mr. Giago attended the University of Nevada, Reno, before he began writing a column on Indian affairs for The Rapid City Journal in 1979, becoming the first regular American Indian voice in a South Dakota newspaper. The following year, he was hired as a full-time reporter at the paper before striking out on his own.
With no precedent for a plucky, pugnacious reservation newspaper, Lakota Times was thought to have little chance of success. “Some people said, ‘I’m only going to take out a six-month subscription, because I don’t expect you to be around much longer than that,” Ms. Giago recalled.
But the newspaper filled a void for Pine Ridge citizens.
“It was often the only way they could get information about what was going on,” said Rhonda LeValdo, a former president of NAJA who now teaches journalism at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan. “For us as Native people, our issues were rarely talked about in mainstream news unless it was about something affecting non-Natives.”
Under his leadership, the newspaper published investigative articles that “caused banks to be fined and rip-offs of the tribal government to be halted,” Mr. Giago wrote in Nieman Reports. In 1990, he spearheaded a successful campaign to get South Dakota to rename Pioneer Day, celebrated on Columbus Day, to Native American Day.
Lakota Times also exposed sham medicine men and women, both “Indian and non-Indian, who are trying to make money on it, selling sweat lodges and vision quests,” he was quoted as saying in a 1991 interview in The New York Times. “They’re bastardizing our spirituality.”
But while Mr. Giago championed Native American culture, he was no cheerleader. He chafed at what he saw as softball coverage of tribal affairs in traditional reservation newspapers owned by the tribal authorities.
“That’s what made it successful,” said Amanda Takes War Bonnett, a former reporter and editor for the newspaper. “He wasn’t censored, so he could say what needed to be said.”
Free speech, however, came with a price. In the early 1980s, deep divisions still remained among Pine Ridge citizens about militant activists like the American Indian Movement, whose 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee, S.D., left two activists dead and a U.S. marshal paralyzed.
“There were a lot of bad feelings,” Ms. Giago recalled. “It was almost like a civil war, a lot of Indians were against Indians.”
Mr. Giago remained highly critical of violent protest.
“After I wrote a strong editorial in the fall of 1981, the windows of our newspaper office were blasted out with gunfire,” he wrote in another essay. “We came right back with another editorial challenging the ‘cowards who strike in the middle of the night.’ Two days before Christmas of that year firebombs were smashed against our building.”
As the reputation of Lakota Times grew, Mr. Giago became a recognized voice nationally.
He attracted reams of hate mail over a 1992 article in Newsweek titled “I Hope the Redskins Lose,” published before the Super Bowl game between Washington’s football team and the Buffalo Bills.
The headline missed the point of his essay, he argued, which was part of his long crusade against the use of Indian names for logos and mascots of sports teams, but he was undeterred.
“‘Redskins’ is a word that should remind every American there was a time in our history when America paid bounties for human beings,” he wrote in The New York Times the following year. “There was a going rate for the scalps or hides of Indian men, women and children.”
Mr. Giago’s survivors include his wife, Jackie Giago, who declined to be interviewed for this article; a sister, Lillian; 12 children and numerous grandchildren.
Looking back on his career in a 2021 interview with Indian Country Today, he recalled the personal danger he faced at Lakota Times.
“One night I got in my pickup and somebody put a bullet through my windshield and just missed my head,” Mr. Giago said. “So, I mean, if that’s what it took to get the freedom of the press going on the reservation, I guess that’s what it took.”