May 17, 2009

Review of Wounded Knee

Here's my review of Wounded Knee, the fifth episode of the PBS series We Shall Remain. In this part I'll concentrate on the storytelling aspects.

  • Wounded Knee was written by Marcia Smith and directed by Stanley Nelson. I don't think they're Native, but they are well-qualified. The episode takes the same pro-Indian approach as the previous ones.

  • Wounded Knee consists mainly of archival film footage, archival photos, and talking-heads interviews with the people involved. No real problems here.

  • The episode starts with some overly portentous talk. Indians were doomed, it implies, unless they rose up and fought at Wounded Knee. Here's Russell Means:We were about to be obliterated culturally. Our spiritual way of life, our entire way of life, was about to be stamped out. And this was a rebirth of our dignity and self-pride.And here's the narration:The protesters called for a federal investigation of corruption on reservations in South Dakota and immediate Senate hearings on broken treaties with Indian nations.But as we quickly learn, Wounded Knee II was really about the corrupt administration of Oglala Sioux chairman Dick Wilson. While that may have been a life-and-death issue on the Pine Ridge reservation, it didn't threaten America's other 500-plus tribes. The opening rhetoric is somewhat overblown.

    The controversy

  • The occupation of Wounded Knee has generated much controversy. The protesters were heroes and martyrs, the protesters were thugs and criminals, etc. Wounded Knee mainly takes the former position and glides over the ensuing charges and countercharges.

    Critics of Wounded Knee II have said this episode is nothing but propaganda. Well, yes and no. I'd say it takes a pro-Indian position, but that's been true of all the We Shall Remain episodes. They've emphasized the positive and deemphasized the negative.

    Maybe Wounded Knee is 80% positive whereas other episodes were "only" 70% or 60% positive. But filmmakers are allowed to have a point of view. Indeed, it's basically unavoidable.

    The question is whether Wounded Knee has omitted any significant information. Not being a student of the occupation, I don't know about that. I'll cover the issue in an upcoming posting.

  • I questioned choosing Wounded Knee as a subject, but now I have a sense of why they did it. The Lakota-oriented story lets them mention Plains Indian stereotypes, the Wounded Knee massacre, and the end of the Indian wars. It also let them bring the narrative up to date: the boarding-school era, relocation and assimilation, and the resurgent '60s.

  • Still, they could've covered the last century of developments using other subjects as well. And they would've avoided the critics' attacks on We Shall Remain's credibility. So I'm not convinced their choice was the best one.

    The lack of drama

  • In the middle of the narrative, Wounded Knee devotes about six minutes to boarding schools and three to relocation. Since the occupation dragged on for 71 days, this is perhaps understandable. But it points to a problem with focusing on Wounded Knee II. For most of the occupation, not that much happened.

  • The boarding-school segment is illustrated with ledger-style animations drawn in a childlike fashion. These drawings show Native children being forced onto buses, having their hair cut, etc. Unfortunately, they're too crude and primitive to convey the horror of the events. Live-action recreations with screaming children probably would've been more expensive, but they would've worked better.

  • About half the episode focuses on the occupation's first 3-4 days, when tensions were at a boiling point. Nobody knew if the feds would invade and a battle would break out.

    But for the last eight or so weeks of the ten-week occupation, people merely hunkered in their bunkers, waiting. In the end, the occupiers gave up without having their key demands met. They had to settle for meetings and talks that inevitably produced nothing.

    In short, Wounded Knee II wasn't that dramatic of a story. Again, it was a problematical choice for the final episode.

  • Wounded Knee ends with some soaring rhetoric about the occupation's importance, but again I don't quite buy it. The episode suffers from a common problem in documentaries. The filmmakers have chosen to spend huge amounts of time and money making the film, so they have to convince viewers the subject is critical. Hence it becomes the central event in history to the exclusion of everything else.

    In Native Nations:  Standing Together, the 1960s protests and the Trail of Broken Treaties were the turning points in modern Native history. In Alcatraz Is Not an Island, the occupation of Alcatraz was the turning point in modern Native history. In any documentary on Indian gaming, the Cabazon decision and the passage of IGRA were the turning points in modern Native history.

    You see what I mean? These events happened on a continuum of change. There was no one turning point. Any documentary that suggests otherwise is somewhat misleading.


    Don't get me wrong. Wounded Knee is a fine documentary on an important subject. But for the reasons stated above, I wouldn't say it was the best TV documentary ever. Unlike some critics, I wouldn't even say it was the best episode of We Shall Remain. Rob's rating: 8.0 of 10.

    For more on the subject, see Native Documentaries and News.

  • 1 comment:

    Anonymous said...

    A bit off the mark on a couple of points:
    1. The boarding school segment merely serves as a diversion (and for some a highly offensive one) that insidiously excuses terror, destruction, and murder in the village as payback for historical grievances. Very effective for the unwary viewer, but the boarding schools and government relocation programs really had nothing to do with the destruction of Wounded Knee Village. This angle provides cover for AIM thugs and excuses for the film’s producers and “scholars,” but really has no place in a film that is supposed to be about the demise of an Indian village.
    2. The last few weeks of the occupation were the most terror-filled period of the entire standoff. That was when AIM leaders were interrogating people and murdering those who failed the "spy" test.
    3. It is not accurate to say that “Wounded Knee” “takes a pro-Indian position.” That shows the effectiveness of the film's propaganda. “Wounded Knee,” if anything, takes a “pro-AIM” position, which for the vast majority of Native Americans, is a pro-destruction position. AIM did nothing for Native America except make some people feel better about themselves at the expense of many others. The Wounded Knee critics were right when they said this film glorifies the always violence-prone and self-serving AIM leadership.