The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee
Brooke Gladstone: Monday was Indigenous People's Day, renamed from Columbus Day to honor the lives and histories lost to centuries of colonization. Often the stories shared about the First people here are those of loss, like the trail of tears and the Massacre at Wounded Knee. In this midweek podcast, David Treuer and Ojibwe Professor of Literature at the University of Southern California offers a counter narrative to this tragic account of Indian life in his book, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America From 1890 to the Present. This conversation originally aired in 2018.
David Treuer: It was a pretty vanilla vision. He basically said, we have to get along with white people. You have to work hard. You can't cheat or steal or drink. If we do all these things, well, then we will be reunited with our loved ones and our ancestors in the after world. It was almost Protestant in its insistence on a work ethic. As it spread and grew in other tribes interpreted differently, some people thought if they did the dances in the right way and wore the right shirts and did all the right things, that they would be among the chosen and the saved, and everyone else would be wiped away in a massive flood, or some kind of catastrophe.
Brooke Gladstone: Meaning all the white people?
David Treuer: Meaning all the white people and all the Native people who didn't do this stuff. The Ghost Dance was a religion that was growing around the Pine Ridge Agency and there was a troop buildup out of fear that this religion would lead, once again, to open armed conflict with the government. It was never going to go there, but the increased presence of troops put people on edge around the same time Sitting Bull was murdered, when they tried to apprehend him, that scared most of the Native folk at Pine Ridge, and so everyone was running for cover. Contingent of the reconstituted seventh Cavalry stopped Spotted Elks band, Sioux, as well as some other allied bands and surrounded them.
The next day, they moved to disarm them. It's not really known what caused the shooting in the first place, but almost immediately, the government opened fire with Hotchkiss cannons on largely unarmed men, women, and children.
Brooke Gladstone: The descriptions of the massacre are horrifying. You quoted a reporter from the Deadwood South Dakota Times who wrote, "Why should we spare even a semblance of an Indian?" Then you have L. Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, writing for the South Dakota Saturday Pioneer. He said, "Having wronged them for centuries, we had better in order to protect our civilization, follow it up with one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untameable creatures from the face of the earth."
David Treuer: By virtue of of being wronged, we're now a threat. Almost immediately after the massacre, it came to contain and symbolize all of the preceding 400 years of interactions between colonists and indigenous people in the New World. This was basically the end and it stood in for everything that had come before.
Brooke Gladstone: Now, what most Americans know about the massacre, they learned from Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, and the HBO film adaptation in 2007. Tell me about the importance of this book.
David Treuer: Dee Brown's 1970 classic Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, is the most widely read book about American Indian history ever, published in 17 languages, never out of print. It's sold over 4 million copies. I read that book when I was in college. I was thrilled to be introduced to a book about me, and in the very first pages of the book, he says something like, "This book is about the Indians plains wars from 1850 to 1890. I start at the beginning of the wars and I end at the Massacre at Wounded Knee, where the culture and civilization of the American Indian was finally destroyed. If you ever happen to travel through modern Indian reservation and you notice the poverty and the hopelessness and the squalor, I hope by reading my book you will understand why." I can't tell you how frustrating and how humiliating it was to be praised, and held up on one hand and then silenced and done away with on the other.
Brooke Gladstone: One reason why you found Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee doubly dismaying, you put it, is because your reservation, the Leech Lake Reservation in Northern Minnesota was a nowhere place, where nothing happened and good ideas went to die.
David Treuer: It took a great amount of effort to try and see myself, the place I was from and my people as more than simply a collection of eternal sufferers. American Indians are once great peoples with a great future behind them, that's it. I was in search of a different story, not just different facts, not just a story of hope to stamp on the other side of the coin of despair. I thought that Dee Brown, despite his passion on the behalf of Native people, which I appreciate, missed the point. Wounded Knee was a low point. We had withstood constant assaults in our sovereignty and our cultures, on our religion, on our families. By 1890, we were very low, but we were not done, and since that point, we've been doing so many amazing things with such energy and intelligence to live fully realized and satisfying lives on our own terms.
Tony Morrison once said that if there's a book you want to read and it doesn't exist, well then you have to write it, and that's exactly what I've tried to do.
Brooke Gladstone: The Occupation of Alcatraz, that was the year before Dee Brown's book came out. Describe what happened there.
David Treuer: Alcatraz suddenly thrust Indians into the national spotlight. They declared it Indian land, and they camped out there, and they had a bunch of demands they hoped would be met, and they really weren't met.
Male Speaker 1: We wish to be fair and honorable in our dealings with the Caucasian inhabitants of this land, and hereby all for the following treaty. We will purchase set Alcatraz Island for $24 in glass beads and red cloth, a precedent set by the white man's purchase of a similar island about 300 years ago.
David Treuer: I think it was doomed from the start. There was a lot of chaos that occurred on Alcatraz and that kind of tolerance for dissent, for drama, and even violence, came along with subsequent activist movements in the '70s.
Male Speaker 2: Just as we got down there, the whole courtyard was covered with FBI agents with rifles. They all had rifles and shotguns, and they searched me.
David Treuer: I don't think it was meant to achieve a direct end, but to raise the consciousness of most Americans to not only our plight, but our continued existence and also, direct people's attention toward the responsibility of the government, toward the First people of this country, and it did definitely do that.
Brooke Gladstone: In '72, you were a baby when a few hundred Indians led a caravan to Washington dubbed the Trail of Broken Treaties.
David Treuer: The caravan was the brainchild of both the American Indian Movement and tribal leaders from places like Standing Rock. My own personal view is that the takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which ensued was in many ways, skewed by the unhealthy self-promotion of people like Russell Means, who was a Lakota activist, who was one of the founders of AIM and who thought a great deal of himself.
Brooke Gladstone: Was it really an effort to get a meeting with President Nixon?
David Treuer: Yes. They'd hammered out a bill of rights, if you will, that they were going to present to the government. They wanted the Bureau of Indian Affairs to be revamped from top to bottom because it had done a dismal job. It was paternalistic and it was shortsighted, and it lost billions of dollars of Native money that it was holding in trust, that were the result of grazing and timber and mineral leases, among other things. The government still hadn't copped to the fact that it was ignoring its basic treaty obligations, and this takeover was supposed to draw attention to it. But then the people who were in the BIA trashed the place, and did something like $6 million of damage to the building itself, and the whole occupation ended when these dark agents of government like Frank Colucci.
Brooke Gladstone: One of Nixon's guys?
David Treuer: A bagman, even then, agreed to pay them something like $66,000 to get them to leave, which they took. None of that $66,000, not that I can tell, made its way into the rank and file and the very poor Indians who put themselves on the line to join that caravan.
Brooke Gladstone: Then there was another dramatic act of protest, and this time, it was at the symbol of Indian suffering and injustice.
David Treuer: That's right. In '73 there was the takeover in the siege of Wounded Knee.
Female Speaker 3: Oh, I believe that the time has come that we have to commit violence in order to be heard. I don't want to see anybody killed. The things is, the time's going to come when violence might have to be committed.
David Treuer: There'd been a number of very high profile murders of Native people in the years leading up to 1973, in and around Pine Ridge and in other places in South Dakota, Custer, South Dakota, to speak of another symbolic place. People were frustrated with tribal government, the federal government. They felt that there was no justice because these white guys who were murdering Indians were getting charged with things like second-degree manslaughter or misdemeanors at best. It was truly, truly awful.
Brooke Gladstone: For 71 days in 1973, Wounded Knee was under siege.
Male Speaker 4: I declare Wounded Knee an independent country, [unintelligible 00:10:02] from United States of America is found within our borders to be shot before a firing squad.
Brooke Gladstone: You say you had very complicated feelings about it.
David Treuer: I did. AIM activist showed up at Pine Ridge at the behest of a lot of community members to help them solve this rash of murders of Native people. The tribal government at Pine Ridge was very against this. Dick Wilson, the chairman of Pine Ridge, was interested mostly in staying in power, and he was working closely with the federal and state government to bring in more and more law enforcement. There's again, another military buildup. Everything boiled over and AIM activists took over the Wounded Knee training post and subsequently took over the entire village of Wounded Knee at first holding village residents, some of whom were not Native hostage. Then later the hostage just said, "We were free to go at any time, we just didn't want to go because we figured if we did go, the government would kill all the Indians." They were actually very sympathetic.
Brooke Gladstone: Wilson was the head of the reservation?
David Treuer: He was the tribal chairman.
Brooke Gladstone: It sounds like you didn't have a huge amount of respect for him either?
David Treuer: No. He was a strong-armed guy. Tribal government was one of the few ways, in those days, an uneducated person could bill the tribe and the government for a few years before they get voted out, but then they got a nest egg. It's totally cynical. Inside Wounded Knee, all sorts of dark and awful things were happening. Some law enforcement people were shot and some Native people were shot and killed. An African American activist by the name of Ray Robinson showed up and disappeared within a week, and it later turned out that he was killed by an AIM security detail and buried someplace in the hills and no one knows where.
This was the kind of violence that dogged the American Indian Movement for years to come. Defined it in some ways. Also, on a local level, nothing really changed at Pine Ridge. There was still violence being done to Native people by white people, and they're getting away with it. There was still violence being done by Dick Wilson's government to other Native people, and no one was doing anything about it. AIM didn't make it any better, but once again, what they did do was keep the issue of Native life and Native lives in the national consciousness.
Brooke Gladstone: Because that did have an impact.
David Treuer: It did.
Brooke Gladstone: There was some substantial legislation.
David Treuer: Yes, there was amazing legislation finally passed in the 1970s that improved American Indian education. I remember going to school, this was in the '70s and '80s, but I did not have an American Indian teacher until graduate school. By the time my younger brother and sister who were eight years younger went to school, they had Native teachers, they had teachers who were like them. This meant a great deal to them.
Brooke Gladstone: This was due to the Indian Education Act of 1972?
David Treuer: A lot to do with that. In 1978, I believe Carter signed into law the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. Until 1978, it was illegal for Native American people to practice their religion. We weren't being prosecuted by the government if we practiced our religions in the 1970s, but for Carter to finally grant Native American people religious freedom had an incredible effect. No longer, if you were a traditional Native person, were you suspect, were you dismissed out of hand or pushed to the side. Yes, a lot of good things happened in the '70s and many of those good things happened because of bringing our case onto people's television sense.
Brooke Gladstone: We're speaking ahead of Indigenous People's Day, October 8th. The movement to change the name of the holiday really began in the early '90s.
David Treuer: Right. 1992, what was the 500th anniversary of Columbus's arrival in the New World. 1992 was also the cresting of the multicultural wave, especially in academia. People in African American studies, Latino people, Asian American people were saying, no, no, no. In fact, the progress of human thinking and the evolution of human civilizations has never been simply the progress of white people. People were not content to simply celebrate Columbus. People were much more interested in interrogating the legacy of colonialism, which was still being felt in populations around North America.
Not only Native Americans were protesting that very special Columbus Day, but Latinos were protesting, African Americans were protesting. We all were finding common causes as we looked back at 500 years of colonialism, and what it had done to us and how it had made the country. When the Spanish government decided in conjunction with the American government, that they were going to send some replicas of the Niña, Pinta and Santa María across the ocean, then around the United States, it's pretty tone-deaf on the part of the Spanish government, if you don't mind me saying. Like, "Let's send these ships to the places where they introduced slavery, to Native populations, to modern populations descended from the slaves that were owned by Columbus and his brother," for instance. They were rebuffed. It just fizzled.
Brooke Gladstone: In the meantime, our government was planning a quincentenary jubilee to kick off 1992 with its own replicas of the three boats sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge, but corporate sponsors retreated. The Jubilee never happened.
David Treuer: Exactly. Because American Indian activists and American Indian people just said, enough with this Columbus crap. We are not going to sit by and let you do this. By 1992, we'd had generations of Native people completing high school and going to college and serving in the Army and serving in World War I and World War II in Korea, in Vietnam. By 1992, we'd had Native veterans coming back from the first Gulf War for that matter, enough with this.
Brooke Gladstone: Now the states of Alaska and Hawaii, Oregon, South Dakota and Vermont don't recognize Columbus Day. There are cities, Austin, Texas, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Seattle, they celebrate Indigenous People's Day.
David Treuer: It has ways to go, but we've come a long ways.
Brooke Gladstone: Why don't we jump ahead to Standing Rock? You take issue with a popular narrative that was used by the former chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the author of a New York Times op-ed, who compared the treatment of Indian protestors and the Bundy Brothers, the protestors who seized the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. He wrote, "On the same day that the armed Malheur militants were acquitted, I watched as Riot Police with military-grade weapons rounded up hundreds of peaceful water protectors in North Dakota, protesting an oil pipeline. The juxtaposition of these two events, one system of justice for self-styled white cowboys and another for Indians was stunning."
David Treuer: I don't buy it. There's a crucial difference that Chairman Ashambo was missing here. The white supremacist, whatever you might call them, at the Malheur Refuge, they were occupying federal land. The water protectors at Standing Rock, were being arrested for trespassing on private land. The issue wasn't that white people were being treated differently than Indians. I think to maintain that us, them, Indian White, Cowboys and Indians, discourse is to miss the larger point that the federal government privileges private property above almost everything else. That's the problem.
Brooke Gladstone: Weren't the protestors at Standing Rock trying to protect what would ultimately be damage to their own land?
David Treuer: Of course, but the problem was that 90% of the pipeline was routed through private land. There were ways to reroute it away from you. You could meet with the pipeline and meet with the Army Corps of Engineers as many tribes on the pipeline's route did, and subsequently, the pipeline was rerouted around those communities. Standing Rock missed meeting after meeting, negotiation after negotiation, deadline after deadline until the government finally, without their input, approved the pipeline under the lake and very close to Standing Rock.
Brooke Gladstone: What you're saying is this us versus them mentality was a huge missed opportunity?
David Treuer: The original sin is that the government broke its treaty obligations and promises to the Standing Rock and other Lakota tribes, which resulted in opening up Lakota lands to private non-Native ownership. That's what allowed the pipeline to go through because our government will bend over backwards for private enterprise.
To me, this is a story of local communities against capitalism, not cowboys versus Indians. I'm sorry, but we already know that story. We already know it happens to Indians. We're sealing our own fate. Let's face it. Part of the problem at Standing Rock was that their government didn't show up for meetings. I think it's really important that our activists put their bodies on the line, but I think it's also important that our elected tribal officials should put their bodies and chairs and show up for meetings.
Don't get me wrong, Standing Rock was amazing and important and powerful. What was amazing about that protest was that they shooed figureheads and I would say, chauvinist, sexist, violent leadership. Like we saw in past iterations of Indian activism at Wounded Knee, we had a collection of the diaspora that was coming to the defense of Standing Rock. It was powerful and important and the legacy of that protest will live on. Immediately after the protest was over at Standing Rock, the question of pipelines came up on my reservation. My reservation council had previously approved pipelines through the reservation. After Standing Rock, there is no way they could possibly hope to be reelected if they approved more pipeline leases.
It had immediate effect around the country, and this was the result of healthy positive activism, the likes of which we had not seen before.
Brooke Gladstone: So what is the narrative you want Native American, Native peoples to hold in their minds?
David Treuer: I want, once and for all, destroy the narrative of Indians starting out in God's garden of the New World, enter serpent in 1492, expelled from the garden to wander the earth in shame, in poverty.
Brooke Gladstone: The Jews have that one already.
David Treuer: Right, we've heard that story too. So often we think of Indian life as lives that are defined by having everything stolen from us. Indian lives are lives of loss. That's how our lives are most often understood. I think a better narrative is to think of our lives as full of plenty, plenty of injustice, but plenty of passion and ability to right those wrongs. Plenty of poverty, but also plenty of creativity and hustle, in order to overcome it. Plenty of crime, but also plenty of laws. Plenty of of exclusions and traumas, but also a surplus of grit and ability and intelligence and creativity to overcome them and to do better. In my mind, it's a story of surplus. That's the story I want to tell.
Brooke Gladstone: David, thank you so much.
David Treuer: Thank you so much. I'm really geeking out to be on the show.
Brooke Gladstone: David Treuer is an Ojibwe from the Leech Lake Reservation in Minnesota. He's a professor of literature at the University of Southern California, a novelist and author of the forthcoming book, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present. Thanks for listening to the midweek podcast. You can check out the big show on Friday. It usually posts in the eastern time zone around dinnertime.
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