May 21, 2009

AIM's misdeeds too "complex" to cover?

Continuing the discussion of Wounded Knee, the fifth episode of PBS's We Shall Remain series:

Here's another response to the Controversy in Wounded Knee:

PBS Series Criticism Shouldn't Detract From Show's Worth

By Kevin AbourezkWhen I watched the show last week, I have to say I felt proud of the activists' efforts to gain rights for their people. My grandmother, who lives on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, has always told me she remembers men never wore their hair long before the American Indian Movement came to town.

The activists made Indians proud to be Indian again, she said.

But I've never really believed in the power of militant protest to affect real change. That sort of change seems born only of peaceful protest.

Still, AIM's siege focused America's attention on the plight of the American Indian. And it inspired generations of young Indians to stand up and speak out for their their rights. To this day, names like Means, Bellecourt and Banks carry a weight unfamiliar to nearly any other modern Indian leader.

That said, I recognize AIM's faults, too.

As did the makers of the PBS mini-series, I believe.

The Wounded Knee episode described how AIM ransacked a museum in the village and burned down a courthouse in Custer before driving to Wounded Knee. Those acts must not be forgotten, or minimized.

But neither should those acts be used to invalidate AIM's impact on Indian identity.
Comment:  I think Abourezk means AIM ransacked a trading post, not a museum.

Yes, those are the two worst things mentioned in the film. The ransacking gets 1-2 sentences in a 80-minute episode. The courthouse incident happened before Wounded Knee and therefore wasn't an outcome of Wounded Knee.

So much for AIM's misdeeds at Wounded Knee.

If the filmmakers were aware of the dozens of problems outlined in the victims' letter, they didn't mention them. I'm sure they were aware of them--but they consciously chose to ignore them and present a rosy picture instead. The word for that is propaganda.

Abourezk continues with a line of defense similar to the producers':However, this episode's intent was clearly not to comprehensively describe this confusing event but to describe the siege's place in the evolution of Indian identity and political awareness.

Because that's what good storytellers do--take a subject, hone it to a fine edge and add that human spark every great story needs. If they aim to tell every facet of a complex topic like Wounded Knee, they inevitably fail to connect to their audience.

And in losing their audience, they fail in their mission.
A few comments on this:

  • Talking briefly about the charges of death and destruction wouldn't have muddied the narrative. But it might've muddied the message: that AIM was a heroic organization without significant flaws.

  • The "siege's place in the evolution of Indian identity and political awareness" includes the occupation's negative consequences. Why is it that AIM is no longer a political force, that other rebellious acts rarely occur, and that Indians are stereotyped as angry activists? Could it be because AIM went too far and partially discredited the whole idea of Indian activism?

  • The sanitized Wounded Knee undoubtedly will connect with audiences who want a pro-Indian message of affirmation. Those audiences probably will include many Indians and their liberal supporters.

    I suspect it won't connect with the American mainstream that dislikes angry and violent activism. I suspect those audiences would prefer a more critical look at such activism. Especially if they learn about all the misdeeds the episode covered up.

    Solution to the problem

    But Abourezk does have a point. Describing all the complexities of the charges and countercharges would've turned viewers off. Objectively describing the death and destruction would've turned viewers off too--which is why the producers chose not to do it.

    The key to this is the word "choice." The producers weren't forced to make the best of a bad situation. They chose to do this story. Therefore, they're responsible for the outcome.

    The solution they were looking for was not to tell a sanitized story. Rather, they should've chosen to tell a different story.

    I would've said don't go with Wounded Knee II just because it's (in)famous. And don't go with it because the Indians finally gave up without accomplishing anything except a symbolic public-relations victory. Instead, pick one of the lesser known stories where Indians triumphed without resorting to death or destruction. Perhaps one of the times they won a major court case or got landmark legislation passed in Congress.

    For more on the subject, see Debate in Wounded Knee and Review of Wounded Knee.
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