Note: I originally wrote this column back in August of 2010 when I was the publisher of the Wahpeton Daily News. I am sure most readers in our area have been to North Dakota a time or two and may recall that the North Dakota highway signs feature the profile of a Native American. It’s an interesting story that I think you will all enjoy.
Ever wonder why North Dakota state highway signs have the profile of a Native American wearing a feathered war bonnet? If your answer is to honor Red Tomahawk, you would be correct. Red Tomahawk, a Standing Rock Sioux and sergeant of the Indian police, is credited with killing the great Sioux Chief Sitting Bull. Like most people, I had never really thought about why the state highway signs had the profile of a Native American and do not recall this being on any history test I ever took. Being a history buff this caught my attention immediately as I felt I should have known this fact of North Dakota history already. It really is a good story and we should pass it on so younger generations will know about this. According to rootsweb.com in South Dakota on December 15, 1890, 39 Sioux Indian policemen entered Sitting Bull’s camp on the Grand River and arrested him so they could take him to meet two troops of cavalry who would then escort him to Fort Yates. The ranking members of the Sioux Indian policemen were Bull Head, Shave Head and Red Tomahawk. While moving Sitting Bull from his cabin they were attacked by nearly 200 Sioux warriors. Bull Head and Shave Head were killed at the first shot, however, as he went down, Bull Head got a shot off and it struck Sitting Bull in the side. Red Tomahawk was behind them and he had a small revolver that he took from Sitting Bull. He quickly shot Sitting Bull in the head and was given credit for killing the most famous of Sioux chiefs. With the death of Sitting Bull peace came to the prairie. This is a great story, but how did Red Tomahawk’s profile end up on the state highway signs?
Red Tomahawk resided near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, where he would often meet famous people and be called upon to represent his people as a prominent old-time Sioux. In 1923 the road marking division of the State Highway Commission was created. They decided to use the silhouette of Red Tomahawk’s profile in honor of the man who served the government magnificently. According to the North Dakota Highway Bulletin of November 1925, there were a total of 8,590 Indian head markers along the highways of the state. Back then the cost for each sign was $1.08.
Red Tomahawk passed away in August 1931 and is buried at Cannon Ball, North Dakota, Catholic Cemetery.
In 2016 North Dakota began replacing the Native American profile highway signs in favor of an outline of North Dakota. According to NDDOT the process could take years to complete as there are more than 4,400 signs to replace.
Ken Harty is the publisher for the Daily Journal.