Emails: North Dakota faced complaints over Sioux image signs

Road sign depicting Sioux warrior
This May 2015 file photo provided by the North Dakota Department of Transportation shows a road sign in Devils Lake, N.D., depicting the image of Sioux warrior Marcellus Red Tomahawk.
Poppy Mills | North Dakota Transportation Department via AP, File

North Dakota's Transportation Department was threatened with a civil rights complaint in the months before it decided to drop its nearly century-old image of a famous Sioux warrior from thousands of highway signs.

Department officials said the possible complaint played no part in their decision, but emails released to The Associated Press in response to a public records request showed that top officials closely monitored the progress of the complaint as well as a talk radio show where callers offered opinions on the image.

The Transportation Department this summer began replacing more than 4,400 state highways signs with the silhouette of Marcellus Red Tomahawk in favor of an outline of North Dakota. The effort will take up to a decade to fully phase out under the agency's sign replacement program that's funded at about $500,000 annually.

Transportation Director Grant Levi said Tuesday the threats and potential legal action had nothing to do with changing the signs.

"It was not the basis of our decision," Levi said.

He said the change was done to pay tribute to the agency's 100th birthday next year and get in step with other states' signage. He said the agency had internal discussions about the change months before it received any criticism about them.

Marcellus Red Tomahawk became the first elected chairman of the Standing Rock reservation, which straddles the North Dakota-South Dakota border, in 1914.

He is best known outside the tribe as a government policeman involved in the killing of Sitting Bull a quarter-century earlier during an attempt to arrest the Sioux chief, who defeated Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer at the battle of Little Bighorn.

His profile was featured on state road signs starting in 1923, and word of its removal dismayed some descendants and tribal members.

"The reason why Red Tomahawk is on those signs was to honor that tribal relationship," Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Dave Archambault II said. "All of the sudden, they want to take that honoring away. We're not happy."

Documents obtained by the AP through the state's open record laws show the agency took complaints from Deborah Gaudet of Taos, New Mexico in 2015. Gaudet, a former North Dakota resident who is not Native American, began a letter-writing campaign in June of that year, calling for the Red Tomahawk signs to be replaced.

Gaudet called Red Tomahawk "merely an agent of a genocidal federal policy" for his role as a government policeman involved in the killing of Sitting Bull.

"North Dakota should want to symbolize itself with something other than a symbol of Sitting Bull's killer," Gaudet said in an interview. "It's a romanticized idea of the past, while Native people in North Dakota are still living in extreme poverty and without the buffalo."

Emails indicate Levi and troopers corresponded about criticism from Gaudet, who also called state officials several times.

"Did we get Civil Rights involved?" Levi asked in a June 2015 email. An official with the agency told him the Civil Rights department within the agency had "talked to her and documented her complaints."

Emails also show that top Highway Patrol officials made Levi aware of a Fargo-based radio talk show that aired shortly after Gaudet's letters appeared in some of the state's biggest newspapers, where callers were asked to give their opinions of the Red Tomahawk signs.

In September 2015, Ron Henke, DOT's deputy director of engineering, proposed changing the signs in a "decision document," to which Levi agreed.'

Levi said three descendants of Red Tomahawk were notified of the sign swap in December.

Judith Red Tomahawk, of Mandan, Red Tomahawk's great-granddaughter, said there are dozens of descendants in the Dakotas and Montana who should have had the opportunity to comment on the move.

She said criticism of the signage has come from "Indian wannabes" and that her family and the tribe want to keep the imagery. She praised her great-grandfather, whom she said never spoke English but worked with non-Native farmers and ranchers to establish cattle and crops on the 2.3 million-acre reservation.

"It was an honor to have those signs," she said. "I don't know why people can't grasp that. People don't know how much it means to us."

Gaudet also criticized the North Dakota Highway Patrol, which has used Red Tomahawk's image on shoulder patches and trooper vehicles since the early 1950s. In a telephone interview, she told the AP that she will continue to push for troopers' patches and vehicle signage to be removed, and will likely file a formal complaint to do so.

Highway Patrol Lt. Tom Iverson said the troopers have no intention of removing the imagery, which has been used with permission from Red Tomahawk's descendants.

"We adopted this profile of Red Tomahawk -- in a sense it was almost gifted to the agency," Iverson said. "We feel it is important to honor and continue using that image."