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Red Tomahawk image disappearing from North Dakota highway signs

BISMARCK—North Dakota highway signs that portray a silhouette of a Native American head are being switched out for ones featuring the state's shape, but it could take years before the signs that have represented North Dakota for almost 100 years disappear.

The state Department of Transportation recently began replacing what are known as the Red Tomahawk signs used to number state highways, spokeswoman Jamie Olson said Thursday. Signs with a silhouette of North Dakota will slowly replace the old signs on an as-needed basis, she said.

"It'll kind of be a slow process," she said. "It could take several years before everything is changed over just because we're not going out to replace the signs just to replace them. We're waiting until they need replacing. People will see both versions out there for a number of years before everything is changed over."

Drivers may have noticed the signs on a few routes across the state. The change mostly has taken place along highways undergoing construction, though signs that have lived out their life expectancies are candidates for the replacement.

The switch was calculated into the DOT's budget and will not require additional funds, Olson said.

Not everyone is happy about the change. Some have taken to social media to criticize the decision, saying it is an attempt to appease the politically correct movement.

"We do this politically correct crap just to be politically correct," Ron Martin of Fargo said. "That's the real sad part."


The DOT decided last year to begin the switch during the 2016 construction season, Olson said. There were multiple reasons behind the decision, including changing out the signs ahead of the department's 100-year anniversary, which will be celebrated in 2017, and to mark significant spending on updating North Dakota's roads in recent years.

Another reason was to help keep uniformity across the nation, Olson said.

"A number of different states use their state outline or symbol on the highway signs," she said.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has a model for state highway signs, which features a circle and the highway's number, but states are free to choose the design of the signs.

More than a dozen states, including Minnesota and South Dakota, have an outline of their states on state highway signs, while others feature squares, circles or other geometric shapes.

But several states use other symbols on their signs, such as an outline of George Washington for Washington state, New Mexico's sun symbol from the its flag, Wyoming's cowboy riding a bucking horse and a beehive for Utah.

Kansas' state flower, the sunflower, is featured on its state highway signs. Eric Nichol, state signing engineer for the Kansas Department of Transportation, said he doesn't know how long the signs have featured the sunflower, though he doesn't expect it'll go away any time soon.

"Those (signs) have been a part of the state for quite a long time," he said. "The shape of it has been modified over the years, but for the most part it still looks like a sunflower."

History of Red Tomahawk

North Dakota's signs were modeled after Marcellus Red Tomahawk, a Lakota Indian who fought against U.S. soldiers as settlers moved in the 1800s to the Dakota Territory. He eventually took part in several peace negotiations, worked as a Lakota goodwill ambassador and became a member of the Bureau of Indian Affairs' police force. He's mostly remembered as the man who shot and killed Sitting Bull in 1890.

Red Tomahawk's image first appeared on the North Dakota signs in 1923 after the state developed a marking and numbering system for state highways. The North Dakota Highway Patrol also features a more detailed image of Red Tomahawk on patrol cars, uniforms and elsewhere. It has been an official symbol of the Highway Patrol since 1951, and there are no plans to retire it, according to the Highway Patrol.

The state highway signs have been criticized in previous years, with some calling them offensive and demanding that the state remove the image. Olson said the NDDOT has heard from both sides of the argument.

"Some people don't like Red Tomahawk on the signs, and some don't like the state on the signs," she said.

The department considered the history of Native American in the state as well as the sentiment the image may have to North Dakotans, but it wasn't the main reason for the switch, she said.

"We know there is some sensitivity surrounding that," she said. "We know that has been a hot topic, and it certainly played a part in our conversations when we began that process."

NDDOT officials contacted the descendants of Red Tomahawk to discuss the switch, Olson said, adding everyone walked away from the conversation with an understanding of the changes.

Others have criticized the move, with some comparing it to the retirement of UND's Fighting Sioux nickname in 2012.

That change and the switch of the state highway signs are not related, Olson said.

Martin said the move is just another attempt by bureaucrats to "just continue to mold society" while disregarding history. He said he feared North Dakota's Native American culture may be forgotten as a result of moves like this.

"That's the real sad part," he said. "We're losing our heritage."

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers crime and education. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family raises registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as a city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

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