May 20, 2009

Debate over Wounded Knee

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

Here are more details on the Controversy in Wounded Knee as reported by PBS's ombudsman Michael Getler. First, a few excerpts from the Wounded Knee Victims and Veterans Association's letter of protest:This film attempts to explain away the destruction of the village by invoking historical issues (broken treaties, Indian boarding schools, government-sponsored relocation, etc.) and by rationalizing the criminality of the perpetrators. One of the film's worst transgressions is its contemptible disregard for the real victims of Wounded Knee, the villagers who lived there. Aside from a brief statement from one of the Indian hostages, Agnes Gildersleeve, the villagers' stories are virtually absent from this film. 'Wounded Knee' does not even show how AIM systematically tore the village apart and reduced it to complete devastation. The film does not mention that AIM looted the town, stole people's personal possessions, slaughtered cattle in their bedrooms, fire-bombed their homes and vehicles, and desecrated their churches. AIM occupiers stole or destroyed a collection of priceless Indian artifacts when they pillaged the Wounded Knee museum. Rather than condemn AIM violence, 'Wounded Knee' serves as a mouthpiece for the perpetrators who spew their distortions and lies without challenge. To glorify AIM in this way is not only deceitful, it is offensive. This film cheapens genuine Indian valor and heroism.

For a documentary that purports to be about the armed takeover of a community and its consequences, these are serious shortcomings that demand a response. From a philosophical point of view, the argument that the terror, violence, theft, and loss of life associated with the razing of an Indian village were somehow justified is an argument that is fundamentally flawed and must be exposed.
And:The hostages: 'Wounded Knee' leaves the false impression that the hostages were free to leave once Senators McGovern and Abourezk arrived. This is akin to people breaking into your house and holding you against your will until the authorities arrive and declare that you are now free to leave and turn over all your worldly possessions to the invaders. The truth is, the hostages were never really free, and the media presence may have been the only reason they were not further brutalized. The film fails to report Agnes Gildersleeve's statement that she would give up her home ' . . . only over my dead body. If you're going to burn my home, I'll go with it.' Nor does the film report Dennis Banks's reply, 'That can be arranged.' Agnes's only mention of her status as a hostage is relayed via her captor Russell Means. She is not shown speaking candidly about her predicament. This technique of having the criminal speak on behalf of his victim is patently biased and propagandistic.And:Film narrative: 'After stripping bare the Wounded Knee Trading Post, the village's only store, the protesters took over a local church, holding the minister and other white residents hostage.' In fact, the majority of hostages were enrolled members of various tribes. The film fails to mention that the militants later burned the Trading Post to the ground and that the hostages were threatened and intimidated into making complimentary statements about their captors when the media was present and the cameras were filming. 'Wounded Knee' completely papers over the fact that the captives were always under duress.The letter includes six pages of charges that Wounded Knee lied or misled viewers about what happened. It's worth reading if you want to understand the controversy.

The producer responds

Producer Mark Samels responded to this letter as follows:The film 'Wounded Knee' was reviewed at various stages in its production, from script treatment to final cut, by a group of prominent scholars of Native American history, who served as advisors to We Shall Remain, the ground-breaking series on Native history of which 'Wounded Knee' is a part. In addition, 'Wounded Knee' was reviewed by several program advisors who are expert in this particular chapter of Native history.

Our film was not intended to be a comprehensive history of either the American Indian Movement or the village of Wounded Knee. Instead, it was designed to focus on what happened at Wounded Knee during the 1973 occupation, and what role the siege played in the larger story of Native Americans in the 20th century. We were particularly concerned with the events preceding the siege that contributed to a sense of dislocation and desperation in many Native communities across the country. And we were interested in what effect the occupation, and its widespread media coverage, had on Indians far removed from Wounded Knee.

We believe there is ample evidence in the film of AIM's controversial use of armed confrontation and violence, from the preceding events in nearby Custer—where AIM members attacked and laid waste to the courthouse—to the sacking of a family-owned store in Wounded Knee. Archival footage featured in the film clearly shows devastation in the village during the siege, as Mayor Dick Wilson characterizes AIM members as 'hoodlums' and 'clowns.' As one of the interviewees states in the film, 'Where AIM goes, chaos often follows.'

Our producers took great pains to be even-handed in the portrayal of the siege at Wounded Knee. This is a difficult piece of American history and we believe our film presents it with the care and complexity it deserves.
A few comments on this:

  • The four previous films took place in the distant past, when the number of observers was small and historical records were fragmentary. That's why the episodes had to rely on the informed opinions of historians.

    In contrast, many of the participants at Wounded Knee are still alive. There's little or no excuse for not seeking out a wide range of testimony, including the Natives and non-Natives whom the occupation victimized.

    With all the "prominent scholars" and "program advisors" consulted, how many of them were non-Natives who opposed the occupation? One or two?

    Judging by the on-screen testimony, the pro-occupation forces outnumbered the anti-occupation forces by about 10-1. PBS may think that's fair, but I don't.

  • The prior events in the town of Custer don't tell us anything about how the occupiers acted at Wounded Knee. The "sacking" of the store was mentioned only in passing. The archival footage featured in the film did not clearly show anything I'd label as "devastation." The two comments Samels quoted are about the only negative statements uttered about AIM.

  • In short, I'd give Samels a fail on his "great pains to be even-handed." Trail of Tear seemed evenhanded in contrasting Major and John Ridge vs. John Ross. Wounded Knee was mostly propaganda. Well-done propaganda about an important issue, to be sure, but propaganda nonetheless.

    The ombudsman responds

    Ombudsman Michael Getler responds to Samels:In his response, Samels mentions twice that the series was reviewed by "a group of prominent scholars of Native American history" and by "several program advisors who are expert in this particular chapter of Native history." Having said that, it seems to me that PBS ought to present Trimbach's complaints to these scholars or, even better, a small group of scholars not connected to the program, for some kind of more detailed reply. This might take a while but it seems worth it, especially since there are a lot of teaching materials associated with the series.

    Samels is also almost certainly correct that this film "was not intended to be a comprehensive history of either the American Indian Movement or the village of Wounded Knee." Nevertheless, this is PBS, where people, and students, look for authenticity, and the segment on Wounded Knee is likely to be at the forefront of material on the subject for a long time. So going back and taking a second look at these challenges, responding more fully, and making changes, at least online, if warranted, seems worthwhile to me.
    I'd say Getler is putting it very mildly. I don't know how many schools are planning on using We Shall Remain in class, but this could be the most prominent work on Wounded Knee for a generation. I'd say PBS should address the charges and publish a response to them. Post it on the website, put it in the next edition of the DVD, or both.

    If PBS were really brave, it could include the text of the victims' letter--as an addendum, appendix, or bonus feature. If Samels thinks he covered the occupation's negative side, he should have no objection to this additional information. The information can't contradict the film unless the film was wrong, right?

    Once again, I'm not saying all the victims' charges are valid. I'm saying PBS was negligent by not even mentioning the charges (and countercharges). It'll be more negligent if it lets schools use Wounded Knee without further elaboration.

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

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