BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — The profile of a famous Sioux warrior that has adorned North Dakota's highway signs for nearly a century is being quietly replaced by a rectangle.
One descendant of Marcellus Red Tomahawk said it "tears my heart out" that officials decided to swap out the markers featuring his great-great-grandfather with versions displaying the nondescript North Dakota outline, an homage to the upcoming 100th birthday of the state's transportation agency.
"Anything that represents American Indians is being dismantled," Wilbur Red Tomahawk said. "The time will come when the only way to know about an Indian is to read about them in a book or go to a reservation."
Marcellus Red Tomahawk was the first elected chairman of the Standing Rock reservation 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.
North Dakota's Transportation Department adopted Red Tomahawk's profile on state highway signs in 1923, and there are more than 4,000 of the signs displayed throughout the state, said Jamie Olson, a transportation agency spokeswoman.
Olson said switching to an outline of North Dakota is being done not just to celebrate the agency's anniversary next year but also to "help provide nationwide uniformity" with other states' signage.
The latter reason, Olson acknowledges, is arguable, since only 15 or so states at present use outlines or silhouettes on highway signage. Most state markers are just simple squares or have unique logos. Washington state, for example, uses a silhouette of George Washington, and Utah uses a beehive, which represents hard work and industriousness.
The agency decided to remove the American Indian imagery internally and had no public notification or hearings on the plan. Olson said the move "in no way was done out of political correctness" or in response to the University of North Dakota's controversial Fighting Sioux nickname that was dropped in 2012 after the NCAA deemed it "hostile and abusive."
LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, a tribal historian at Standing Rock, said the removal of the signage of will be unsettling to the tribal members on the reservation that straddles the North Dakota and South Dakota border and is home to about 9,000 people, more than half of whom live in North Dakota.
"The emblem of Red Tomahawk has always been a great deal of pride with the tribe and the majority of people here do not know this is happening," Brave Bull Allard said. "I think there are going to be some really upset people here on Standing Rock."
But Olson said some descendants of Red Tomahawk were notified of the plan last year and "they were OK with it."
Wilbur Red Tomahawk said he and some of his relatives were contacted and had differing opinions.
"I have mixed emotions, out of respect for them," Red Tomahawk said, adding that his brother, Pete, supported replacing the signs.
Pete Red Tomahawk, who serves as the tribe's transportation director, did not return telephone calls from The Associated Press seeking comment. Replacement of the Red Tomahawk signs began this summer and 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, Olson said. Signs typically last five to 10 years before they become faded, damaged or stolen, she said.
Brave Bull Allard said Red Tomahawk is remembered among tribal members for "standing up for treaty rights and standing up for the people here."
"He has his own history even though this unfortunate incident happened with the Indian police," she said. Red Tomahawk's wife, Marcella Blue Earth Woman, made a reparation payment to Sitting Bull's five wives that alleviated future tribal feuds, Brave Bull Allard said.
Red Tomahawk, who died in 1931, helped write the tribe's constitution in 1916, Brave Bull Allard said. He is still honored by the North Dakota Highway Patrol, which has used his image on shoulder patches and trooper vehicles since the early 1950s.
Capt. Aaron Hummel said troopers use Red Tomahawk's image as a show of respect and they have no intention of replacing it.
Hummel said troopers have consulted with Red Tomahawk's descendants in the past about the use of the image.
"The family has been very supportive," he said.