We Were All at Wounded Knee

Jun 10th, 2013 | By | Category: Opinion, The Inquisitive Academic, Web Exclusive
By Ryan Winn
we were all at wounded knee

Photo illustration by Ryan Winn

In late April two billboards in Greeley, Colorado made national news for combining a historical photo of three American Indians, one armed with a rifle, with the sarcastic words, “Turn in your arms. The government will take care of you.” Matt Wells, an account executive for the billboards, told the Greeley Tribune that the signs were purchased by a group of local residents who asked to remain anonymous. The paper quotes Wells as stating, “I think it’s a little bit extreme, of course, but I think people are really worried about their gun rights and what liberties are going to be taken away.” The paper contrasts Wells with Irene Vernon (Mescalero Apache), a Colorado State University professor who believes the billboards are myopic in their retelling of American Indian history and says, “It wasn’t just about our guns.” The article then transitions to Greeley resident Maureen Brucker, who says “the billboards are making light of the atrocities the federal government committed against Native Americans” and that they remind her of “one of the most horrendous examples of that, the Wounded Knee Massacre.” At first glance, these billboards could be dismissed as the latest example of a self-serving reappropriation of America’s Indigenous people’s history. But if we educators seize this opportunity to reframe their problematic message, we can help preserve that often-forgotten history.

I believe that these billboards, and most other distorted representations of our Indigenous history, are based on ignorance derived from generations of faulty education. In his book Bound to Have Blood: Frontier Newspapers and the Plains Indian Wars, Hugh J. Reilly examines how the newspapers of the mid to late 1800s shaped how America discussed and minimized American Indian tragedies. He quotes numerous sources that framed Natives involved in events like the Sand Creek Massacre, the Trial of Standing Bear, the Battle of the Little Big Horn, and the Wounded Knee Massacre as instigators and menaces. Reilly’s book is fascinating in that it exposes how frontier journalists used American Indian tragedies to advance propaganda, influence politicians, and, of course, to sell advertisements.

The sad truth is that modern media outlets are too often still echoing this problematic frontier newspaper influence. In an April episode of the Fox News show The Five, Eric Bolling said about the billboards, “I can’t find what’s insensitive…others think it was accurate.” Bolling went on to argue that not all Natives are offended by the advertisements and that he saw Native American and the U.S. government’s intertwined history as a cautionary tale to combat the national gun registry that he believes “gun-law advocates would love to see.” Dana Perino agreed, questioning whether the images were as effective as gun-control advocates “using (contemporary gun violence) victims to make their point.” She concluded by saying, “I’m not offended by this at all. I think that point could be made on either side. It’s effective advertising because here we are talking about it.” Juan Williams played the foil, saying that unlike gun violence victims, American Indians were not given a choice before their images were used to advance a Second Amendment issue. All of this built to Andrea K. Tantaros’ conclusion that “had the Native Americans been armed, it would have been much harder for us to not keep our promises to them.”

Like too many Americans, the hosts of The Five could have benefitted from a lesson on American Indian history and the events that built to the disarmament at Wounded Knee and elsewhere. The Wounded Knee Massacre is the most documented atrocity in American Indian history. However, generations of historical and social obfuscation mean most Americans don’t know the details that led to this tragedy. The reality that nearly 300 mostly unarmed Lakota men, women, and children were slain by the U.S. military is too often omitted from textbooks. The details that lead the 7th Calvary to fire their sophisticated repeating firearms are too often forgotten or viewed in the inaccurate context that the carnage occurred as an act of war. The truth is that the assault on the Lakota was the tragic conclusion to years of mistreatment, near-starvation, forced relocation, and, finally, the hostile disarmament that gun rights advocates are trying to capitalize upon.

In a recent online commentary, “Pro-Gun Native American Billboard is a Good History Lesson,” John A. Tures states that “while the pro-gun and anti-gun factions continue their debate, with a poster as a prop, it is a real opportunity for Americans to understand what happened” at Wounded Knee. Tures also points out that this very month the Oglala Sioux missed the deadline to pay the $5 million that owner James Czywczynski is asking for the purchase of a 40-acre piece of the Wounded Knee National Historic Landmark on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Czywczynski claims he will now open the parcel, which the tribe had appraised at less than $7,000, to outside bidders.

Those of us who teach at tribal colleges and universities need to educate our future leaders about the people who lost their lives at Wounded Knee. We need to work to help diminish the misuse of American Indian history in self-serving propaganda, and instead shift the world’s focus towards accurate representations of Indigenous history. Of course, we cannot rid the world of ignorance, but if we fail to act, future educators will have an even more daunting task before them. Can you even imagine what would become of the Wounded Knee site if the wrong people purchase Czywczynski’s land? After all, commercial properties thrive by selling advertising rights and an opportunistic real estate developer could easily erect a multitude of billboards on those 40 acres of hallowed ground.

To put it another way: the Greeley, Colorado billboards intended to remind gun-rights advocates of their need to protect themselves—but what they actually expose is that American Indian victims of gun violence need us all to protect their legacy.

Ryan Winn teaches English, theater, and communications at College of Menominee Nation (CMN, Keshena, WI), where he also serves as the Humanities Department chair. In the past seven years he has presented several papers, chaired a few panels, and directed and/or acted in stage readings at both national and regional conferences on the topic of American Indian theater. Similarly, he has directed 11 plays for CMN, coached their American Indian Higher Education Consortium speech team, and has been recognized as the American Indian College Fund Faculty Member of the Year.

Works Cited

Associated Press. (2013 April 30). Pro-gun Native American billboard in Colorado draws criticism. Sioux Falls Business Journal. Retrieved from http://siouxfallsbusinessjournal.argusleader.com/

Associated Press. (2013 May 1). Official: SD tribe can’t pay for Wounded Knee site. Rapid City Journal. Retrieved from http://rapidcityjournal.com/

Fox News. (2013, April 30). The Five [television broadcast]. Retrieved from http://www.foxnews.com/on-air/the-five/transcript/controversy-over-pro-gun-billboard-colorado

Redbone.be/index. (19 September 2011). History 1970-1974. Retrieved from http://www.redbone.be/history2.html

Reilly, Hugh J. (2010). Bound to Have Blood: Frontier Newspapers and the Plains Indian Wars. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Tures, John A. (2013 May 3). Pro-Gun Native American Billboard is a Good History Lesson. Yahoo! Voices. Retrieved from http://voices.yahoo.com/pro-gun-native-american-billboard-good-history-12121875.html?cat=37

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.