Skip to main content

A history of critics getting our story wrong

Mainstream press had a bumper crop of anti-Indian articles last year. The Wall Street Journal seemed to be on a holy mission to portray Indian people and issues in a negative light. So did myriad print and broadcast reporters and commentators in Connecticut and at least half of the shouting heads on cable television.

The capper for 2002 was TIME magazine's coverage of Indian casinos in two December issues.

As a result of TIME's articles, "members of Congress are calling for hearings" on gaming and federal recognition, Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, told delegates at a Feb. 24 Washington meeting of the National Congress of American Indians. Senate hearings will take place in the Committee on Indian Affairs, which Inouye has led in one of the two top positions since the 1980s and now serves as vice chairman.

"The magazine articles pose a question: What is a tribe for the purposes of conducting gaming," said Inouye. While "personally against gaming," he said that Indian gaming monies "meet the long unmet needs of decades of broken promises. As long as those promises are not carried out, you'll find me marching with you for gaming."

Inouye said Indian ancestors would say, "You've done well, you've stood tall?you've succeeded." But success has come with a "whole legion of critics," he said, counting TIME among them. "Don't let the critics tell your story."

Historically, the American mainstream press has been our critic, missing and ignoring our story, or deliberately getting it wrong.

Greed for Indian land, rather than Indian success, was the trigger for negative reporting in the 1800s and 1900s. Most newspaper families - such as the Hearst publishing empire that was built on Black Hills gold - owned the mines and railroads and were an integral part of westward expansion. True believers in the manifest destiny of whites to own the "new world," they advocated and instigated violence against Indian people who stood in their way.

Newspapers were essential to the federal government's 1880-1934 "civilization" campaign to eradicate Indian religions, languages and traditions, including ceremonial dancing. Most of the stories were written in what one federal circular promoted as a "careful propaganda" to "educate public opinion against the dance."

The Army and the Smithsonian in the late-1800s used newspapers to advertise for "collectors" to "harvest Indian crania" and "grave goods." No papers reported on these activities, but occasionally they reported on Indian skulls of local interest.

One in 1890 in the Rocky Mountain News appeared under these headlines: "A Bad Ute's Skull/An Indian's Brain Pan in a Denver Gun Store/Tab-we-ap Was a Redskin of the Worst Type/His Career of Deviltry Was Brought to an End by the Avenging Bullet of a White Man."

Newspapers of the day publicized bounty notices on current "uprisings." A 1922 article in the Rocky Mountain News reported a $25 reward for those who defeated "efforts to sign the roads into the Navajo reservation ... The redskins are said to tear out or carry away all sign-boards."

The Rocky Mountain News had political and proprietary interests in the Colorado gold and in clearing the territory of Indians to get at it. The newspaper started a drumbeat against Cheyenne Dog Soldiers and other "hostiles" that culminated in the Sand Creek Massacre of a peace camp of Cheyenne elders, pregnant women and children on Nov. 29, 1864.

The News celebrated the "Battle" of Sand Creek, lauding the Colorado Volunteers' "Bloody Thirdsters" as having "covered themselves with glory." By contrast, the U.S. Army officers on site reported it as the Sand Creek "Massacre" and described the soldiers as "barbaric" and "covered with gore."

The Chicago Tribune ran a 20-year retrospective on the Sand Creek "Battle" on Aug. 8, 1887, with subheads: "Wholesale Slaughter of Indians on the Plains, An Account of the Bloody Fight by Col. William M. Chivington, the Leader of the White Forces - About Eight Hundred Redskins Killed in the Engagement - Savage Atrocities Which Provoked the Fearful Retribution."

A Senate Special Committee on Indian Affairs investigated federal-Indian relations and reported in 1867 that white aggression was the cause of most armed confrontations with Indians. Most editorials dismissed the important report. Newspapers continued to demonize Indians and aggressive whites took more Indian land and murdered more Indian people.

Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, on Nov. 27, 1868, invaded Cheyenne land that had been secured by treaty only one year before in what is now Oklahoma. He attacked Cheyenne Peace Chief Black Kettle's camp along the Washita. Black Kettle and many of his people had barely escaped being killed at Sand Creek. Custer's soldiers killed most of them and all the ponies, and raped the surviving women, girls and boys.

"The End of the Indian War and Ring" was the way The New York Times announced the Washita Massacre. Calling it "a fortunate stroke which ended his career and put the others to flight," the Times editorialized: "The truth is, that Gen. Custer, in defeating and killing Black Kettle, put an end to one of the most troublesome and dangerous characters on the Plains."

Scroll to Continue

Read More

The American press typically proclaimed massacres of Indians as battles and actual battles Indians won as massacres, wildly inflating the number of "redskins" and "hostiles."

The Battle of the Little Big Horn on June 25, 1876, was widely reported as the "Custer Massacre." The Denver Post headlined one of its stories on Captain Benteen: "Major's Men Were Lured into Ambush by Fleeing Redskins/Force of 5,000 Hostiles Surrounded Pursuing Troopers Who Galloped into Huge Village; Desperate Retreat Prevented Annihilation."

Reporters today, even after Congress apologized in 1990 for the Wounded Knee Massacre, continue to refer to it as the "Battle of Wounded Knee" and the "last battle of the Indian wars."

L. Frank Baum wrote about Wounded Knee for The Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer, a paper he edited and drove into bankruptcy. Best known as a writer of children's books and creator of the Wizard of Oz, he first penned editorials calling for genocide of Indians.

His anti-Indian writings in 1890-1891 were so virulent that organizers of a Baum conference in Aberdeen, S.D. a century later apologized "to the Lakota people for the part that our community and nation played in the killing of their relatives."

The Aberdeen planners said, "Baum and other editors in the area contributed to the climate of fear and hatred that led to the massacre at Wounded Knee on December 29, 1890."

Weeks before the Massacre, Hunkpapa Chief Sitting Bull and his half-brother, Chief Big Foot, were placed on the federal hit list of "fomenters of dissent," ostensibly for violating the ban against dancing. Sitting Bull was killed on Dec. 15 by federal Indian Police who were arresting him. His people escaped to Big Foot's camp and they all then fled to the Pine Ridge Sioux Reservation.

At Wounded Knee, they were disarmed by the 7th Cavalry. As Big Foot was dying of pneumonia, he and most of his relatives were mowed down by Hotchkiss and Gatling guns.

In one editorial, Baum built up the murdered Sitting Bull, in order to tear down the living Indian people as "a pack of whining curs who lick the hand that smites them." Sitting Bull was, Baum wrote, "an Indian with a white man's spirit of hatred and revenge for those who had wronged him and his.

"The proud spirit of the original owners of these vast prairies inherited through centuries of fierce and bloody wars for their possession, lingered last in the bosom of Sitting Bull."

Baum's white supremacist editorial continues: "The Whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians. Why not annihilation? Their glory has fled, their spirit broken, their manhood effaced; better that they die than live the miserable wretches that they are."

Baum's Jan. 3, 1891 editorial on Wounded Knee is another call for genocide: "The PIONEER has before declared that our only safety depends upon the total extirmination (sic) of the Indians.

"Having wronged them for centuries we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth. In this lies safety for our settlers and the soldiers who are under incompetent commands.

"Otherwise, we may expect future years to be as full of trouble with the redskins as those have been in the past."

Has mainstream coverage of Indians and Indian issues improved since those days? Of course it has. But far too much of it reflects Baum's disdain masked by this century's make-up. The only stories where the Baums of today can really be comfortable are those that ask, "How 'bout them redskins?"

As the good Senator from Hawaii says, "Tell your story, speak in one voice, take on your critics. You have one good weapon: truth. Truth is on your side."

Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., and a columnist for Indian Country Today.