The sweet aroma of smoldering sage wafted through the air at Main Street Square as the late morning sunshine chased away the persistent chill of an October day.

Native Americans' Day participants — adults and children alike — smudged themselves with the smoke, waving it toward themselves with outstretched palms and washing it over their bodies and around their heads in a ritual of spiritual cleansing dating back centuries.

A recognition of cultural similarities and cleansing of differences is what Native Americans’ Day is all about, said Kobi Ebert of the Oyate Okolakiciye Prevention Coalition, which was established in 2010 to prevent underage drinking.

“This is a celebration of all cultures, Native American and non-Native alike,” Ebert said.

Monday’s activities at Main Street Square started with prayers in Lakota by Kay Allison, a signing of the Lord’s Prayer and a Hoop Dance by her daughter, Marina Allison. Also included were displays of cultural art, along with a mixing of old and contemporary flute and guitar music by Sequoia Crosswhite, cultural relations adviser at the Children’s Home Society.

“It’s a great opportunity to express the lives and the things the indigenous peoples of the Americas shared with the newcomers from Europe," Crosswhite said. "It’s also an opportunity to share with the kids what happened back in those times."

Native Americans’ Day, formerly known as Columbus Day, is celebrated only in South Dakota. In 1989 the state Legislature approved a proposal by then-Gov. George S. Mickelson, at the urging of newspaper publisher Tim Giago, to rename the holiday. 

Many places have adopted Indigenous Peoples Day in lieu of Columbus Day since then.

The first Native Americans' Day in South Dakota was celebrated in 1990, 100 years after the Wounded Knee Massacre.

“It’s awesome for (Mickelson’s) legacy to carry on here in 2017,” Crosswhite said.

Monday’s celebration at Main Street Square was the third sponsored by the Oyate Okolakiciye Prevention Coalition.

Event organizers at Crazy Horse Memorial near Custer first had to clear 5 inches of snow at the memorial grounds before Monday’s events, which included hands-on activities, a program, food drive, Native American performers and a buffalo stew feed.

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Vaughn Vargas was recognized as Native American Educator of the Year during ceremonies at Crazy Horse. Vargas, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, was named the Rapid City Police Department’s first cultural advisory coordinator by Police Chief Karl Jegeris in 2015.

Jadwiga Ziolkowski of Crazy Horse Memorial said Vargas was honored for establishing understanding between police officers and Native Americans.

“The honor is based upon the fact that education comes in different ways and how you educate others," she said. "The work that he does as community advisory coordinator of the Rapid City Police Department is so very important for so many young people."

Crosswhite said Mickelson’s legacy in his efforts to create Native Americans’ Day serve to help break down barriers between cultures as exemplified by the Lakota saying, "Mitakuye oyasin," meaning, “We are all from one.” (It is also commonly translated as "all my relatives.")

Ebert also made that observation as children played on the turf courtyard at Main Street Square.

“You see these children out here running and playing together and learning that we are so alike in many ways,” she said.

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