Every once in a while a really nice example of institutional racism emerges from the corporate media and gives us a chance to expose unexamined assumptions that make truth impossible.
The March 30 New York Times carried a front page article about Indian country that rolls up the nicest example of institutional racism I’ve seen a long time. John Eligon penned a bizarre story about an effort to sell the Wounded Knee massacre site, and in so doing actually managed to convert genocide into a real estate story.
On December 29, 1890 the 7th Calvary tried to disarm a group of Indians in South Dakota. A shot rang out and up to 300 Indians were massacred in what the US Army calls the last “battle” of the American Indian Wars: Wounded Knee.
Since 1968 the site of that massacre has been owned by a white man who purchased it in order to exploit its tourism potential. Do I even need to comment on the irony of that factoid? Now the owner is trying to sell the 40 acre site and this is where the Times’s Eligon picks up the story.
This is a sad story of a poor white man, James A. Czywczynski, whose scheme to exploit an Indian massacre for profit fell apart in 1973. What happened in 1973? After decades of corruption, intimidation, violence, and murder some Indians made a stand at the town of Wounded Knee and called for the removal of a corrupt tribal president.
Check this out: the town of Wounded Knee is on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, here’s what Wikipedia says about it:
“The town lies within the Pine Ridge Reservation, occupied by the Oglala Lakota (Sioux).” (Emphasis mine.)
Occupied. Apparently whenever Indians exist somewhere it’s an “occupation”. When members of the American Indian Movement moved into Wounded Knee in 1973 according to Eligon and Wikipedia it was an “occupation”. In 1973 Czywczynski had to move away:
“… after the violent occupation of Wounded Knee by an organization known as the American Indian Movement left much of the town destroyed, including the trading post and his home.”
So it wasn’t just an occupation, it was a “violent” occupation, one that destroyed a white guys investment.
PBS has a website for a special they once did on Wounded Knee called: “We Shall Remain”. At the time, this is how anchorman John Chancellor described it:
“We have tonight one of the strangest stories to come along in a long time. A group of American Indians has taken over the town of Wounded Knee in South Dakota and they have been holding it for nearly a whole day. This afternoon the FBI said the Indians are in charge of the town.”
Indians in charge of a town in the middle their own reservation, how strange is that? The idea that Indians somehow needed or used “force” to “occupy” their own land at Wounded Knee is a surprisingly durable fiction. All eye witness accounts report a caravan of cars and trucks driving into town and setting up camp. There was no violence, no force, no “invasion”, and this was after all Indian land on an Indian reservation. Most people would say that the AIM caravan moved in, like Circe De Soleil moves in. When Cirque de Soleil moved into St. Louis Park, Minnesota a couple years ago no one described it as an “occupation”.
The Federal response to AIM’s arrival at the town of Wounded Knee was to surround the town with hundreds of officers and several armored personnel carriers with 50 caliber machine guns. Then they started a gunfight.
Let me clear this up in a short and succinct way: This was not an Indian occupation, it was a government siege. It was not the occupation that destroyed Czywczynski’s property; it was the FBI siege that destroyed his property. This is not-so-long-ago history and there’s really no good reason to get it wrong.
Now Czywczynski is trying to recoup some of his losses and the Indians are all riled up. He’s asking for $3.9 million, the tribe is currently $60 million in debt and would have to borrow the money to meet his asking price. If the Indians don't buy it he’ll sell it at open auction. That could be interesting.
But how did Czywczynski end up with this land in the first place? Eligon puts it this way:
“The land is believed to have gotten into non-Indian hands sometime after a process of allotment began in the late 1800s in which the federal government divided land among the Indians and gave some parcels to non-Indians.”
Hold on there cowboy, let’s not gloss over this “allotment” thingie that happened in the olden days.
What was the Allotment program? Some will say it was well intentioned, but it was a deliberate program of cultural genocide. Indian people in America had not disappeared like they were supposed to by the turn of the 19th century so a frustrated US government decided to do what it always did when it got frustrated with Indians, it tore up the treaties. The treaties established that reservation lands were supposed to be governed by tribes as dependent sovereigns. Tribal or traditional culture is collectively organized, the individual functions as a member of something more important than themselves. Indian lands are not “owned” by individuals. The US government decided they didn’t like the way the tribes were using their reservation land collectively and all right-thinking white folks of the era agreed that Indians were way past their “assimilate by” date. So the Indians were forced into homesteads.
Homesteading had worked so well in the past you know, one in five white homesteads had actually succeeded to some extent! How could you go wrong with a model that had an 80% failure rate?
The reservation lands were chopped up into individual chunks that were “given” to each Indian family. The idea was that they would do something useful with their land and stop being Indians.
Unfortunately the Indians were no better at homesteading than white folks had been. The parcels were too small to work as farms, the land was ill suited in many cases and had no buildings on it. The whole thing turned into another white land grab in Indian country. Like anyone stuck with property they couldn’t afford and couldn’t use Indians sold their land to mostly white speculators who assembled multiple allotments into viable land holdings. Many of these would later become the sizeable farms you see there today. Due to the Allotment program the tribe lost 30% of the land in Pine Ridge Reservation. THIS is how a white guy by the name of Czywczynski ended up owning an Indian massacre site. And now the tribe is supposed to buy it back?
Notice how Eligon obscures history by pretending no one actually knows how the Indians lost the land, it’s “believed” to have gotten into non-Indian hands after the Allotment. I was discussing this with my friend Carter Meland who teaches Native American literature and film at the University of Minnesota. Meland pointed out:
“Making the land loss a “belief” rather than a fact, we can hide who did the act and why they did it. No one did it, such a sentence suggests, it just happened. Placing the federal role in the context of belief absolves it of any malignant intent. These kind of passively constructed sentences show up in almost every article written about Native people in mainstream news reporting–especially those dealing with historic injustices.”
Meland recommends this article that examines this use of a passive voice in journalism, the article is a feminist critique but it’s easy to see how it applies to a Native context.
Finally check out this passage from Eligon’s article:
“And now the massacre site, which passed into non-Indian hands generations ago, is up for sale, once again dragging Wounded Knee to the center of the Indian people’s bitter struggle against perceived injustice…” (Emphasis mine)
What “perceived” injustices can Eligon be talking about? Is it possible that massacre, theft, treaty violations, and cultural genocide were acts of Justice? Are we possibly missing something here? Is this just a matter of perspective? Would any writer for the New York Times talk about the “perceived” injustices of the Holocaust or slavery? Why are we modifying this injustice, who are we placating? What are we “balancing”? Why can’t we just say that American Indians are still fighting injustices and fighting to recover from injustices of the past?
This is not a story about a guy trying to sell his damaged land to fickle Indians. This is a story about an American Genocide and the real last battle of the Indian wars that’s taking place at the same location as the last two battles of the Indian wars. This is the story of how the massacre at Wounded Knee continues.
Eligon isn’t a bad man, I’m positive he was actually trying to be culturally sensitive. The problem is he comes from an institution that’s blind to its own assumptions. He comes from a place where Indians are “occupiers” of their own homes, and driving into a town is an invasion, and massacre and land swindles may be “perceived” injustices. He comes from a place where sales receipts trump history. These assumptions are invisible because they are not questioned, and they are not questioned because they are assumptions that colonizers always make. Everyone from Wikipedia to John Chancellor gets it wrong. Let’s hope the New York Times and Mr. Eligon do better in the future.