July 08, 2010

Why no Wounded Knee National Monument?

At the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, plump white tourists in RVs apparently can't handle the truth:

Why Not Wounded Knee?  A Tale of Two Monuments

By Christian ParentiAt the visitors’ center I find a ramrod-straight former military park ranger in his 60s giving a long, meandering lecture to an entirely white audience in half-opened faux teepees. He paints a picture of something like a football game in which “our Native Americans” who were “camped just south of where your cars are now parked” did well. Any culpability is lost in a swamp of passive construction: “…a conflict existed” and “…the Native American way of life was receding.” And quite crucially, Custer was the underdog that day and his defeat sub-textually inverts reality, casting America as victim.

The ranger’s tone, like that of the viewing station texts, is not overtly offensive or backward. Custer is not portrayed as Errol Flynn, brave and valiant, putting down savagery in the service of civilization. That sort of off-the-hook bigotry would almost be refreshing, or at least entertaining. Instead, the Little Big Horn monument is imbued with a creepy and polite sterility. The language and images have all been updated for a post-’60s, “multi-cultural” America, but in the most technocratic I’m-okay-you’re-okay sort of way. This is perhaps best summed up in how we are told Custer was going to attack the village but never told what he would do there. Answer: massacre sleeping and unarmed Indians as he had done against Black Kettle’s already-beaten Cheyenne on the banks of the Washita in the Fall of 1868.
Which is why there's no national monument at Wounded Knee:Indian people live in poverty yet sit on some of the most valuable land in the US. According to Native American scholar Ward Churchill, Indians—whose reservations control 2.5 percent of the nation’s land mass, but whose treaties give them right to one-third of the lower 48—are per capita some of the most mineral- and land-rich people on the planet. Too much attention to Indians as victims, or to Indians as living people still here demanding rights and property, could cause problems for the uranium, oil, coal, and natural gas industries, which operate in large part on treaty land.

No wonder Wounded Knee lacks a federally funded park, with a walking path and placards illustrating the spot where Chief Big Foot bled into the snow. No wonder there have been no big archeological excavations with forensic analysis using the latest technology to match specific slugs to specific rifles and thus reconstruct during the massacre, as has been done at Little Big Horn. No doubt the VFW types and the retired cop I chatted with at Little Big Horn might find a Wounded Knee monument harder to digest. If America were portrayed as thief and thug in the past, might not school children ask awkward questions about the present?
Comment:  For more on the subject, see Custer Re-Enactor at Veterans Powwow, Custer Country in Montana, and Custer's Last Stand and Ethnic Studies.

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