Burying Some Questions at Wounded Knee
By Michael Getler
May 20, 2009
An ambitious and, I thought, powerful and illuminating five-part series on the relentlessly tragic yet often stirring history of the American Indian unfolded on PBS stations for 90 minutes on consecutive Monday evenings from April 13 through May 11.
This unusual documentary — combining re-enactments with archival photos and films, and loaded with mostly Native American historians and talking heads, and a narrator who carried the theme of valiant yet ultimately fruitless resistance to the encroachment of the white man — took viewers from the time in 1621 when the Native Americans first encountered the Pilgrims who came aboard the Mayflower to the still-controversial siege at the historic village of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, in 1973.
The mini-series, titled "We Shall Remain," is part of the broader "American Experience" documentary series produced by WGBH in Boston. In promoting the films, PBS described the series as one that focuses on pivotal, historic moments "from the Native American perspective" spanning more than 300 years of American history. It "shows how Native peoples valiantly resisted expulsion from their lands and fought the extinction of their culture" and it represents "an unprecedented collaboration between Native and non-Native filmmakers and involves Native advisors and scholars at all levels of the project."
Scholarship and Criticism
That invocation of scholarship has become an issue for me because a group calling itself "The Wounded Knee Victims and Veterans Association" has issued a lengthy and detailed challenge to numerous aspects of the final 90-minute episode that aired last week.
The letter, dated May 10, containing that challenge is signed by nine people, seven of them Native Americans. But the lead writers are the now retired former FBI special agent in charge during the 1973 episode, Joseph H. Trimbach, and his son, John M. Trimbach. The father and son have also co-authored a book, "American Indian Mafia," which offers a sharply different and critical view of events at Wounded Knee and especially of the activities of the American Indian Movement (AIM) members who took over and occupied the village and confronted Federal agents during the 71-day siege. The title of the book mocks the name of the AIM.
The letter from the Trimbachs and their colleagues was addressed to PBS President and Chief Executive Officer Paula Kerger, and it is a detailed, non-stop, frontal attack on the program. Here's the first paragraph:
"We wish to express our concerns about the PBS-backed production of 'Wounded Knee,' the final installment of the 'American Experience — We Shall Remain' series. We believe that the producer, Stanley Nelson of Firelight Media, violates PBS's own guidelines for editorial integrity, honesty, and fairness. PBS guidelines state: 'When editing, producers of informational content must not sensationalize events or create a misleading or unfair version of what actually occurred' and that '(p)roducers must assure that edited material remains faithful in tone . . .' and is presented '. . . in a manner that fairly portrays reality.' Wounded Knee fails on all counts. This production employs distorted editing, deceptive statements, audience manipulation, and a propagandistic narrative that rationalizes the terror, violence, and murders perpetrated by members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) during the 1973 occupation of the historic Indian village of Wounded Knee."
The letter (which is printed at the end of this column) goes on for six full pages, with challenges to several specific statements and scenes in the segment. I'll come back to the body of that letter, but on May 15, Kerger wrote to John Trimbach and included a response from Mark Samels, the executive producer of American Experience, "describing the steps the producers took to help ensure the integrity of the referenced program."
Here's How Samels Responded:
"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."
First, a logistical note. The critique presented by the Trimbachs and their co-signers is, as I said earlier, very long. As far as I know, no one else has written about this other than a news story on rapidcityjournal.com on May 13 reporting on the Victims and Veterans Association's accusation that PBS had slanted the telling of the Wounded Knee story to glorify AIM and disregard the real victims of Wounded Knee, the villagers who lived there. The story did not post the letter online. Trimbach wrote and asked that it be posted on my site and I have done that for those who wish to pursue this in greater detail.
My reaction as a lay viewer to the series, including the final segment, was one of feeling grateful for the production. The history of Native Americans in this country is so extraordinary, so important to understanding who we are and how we got here, so revealing of diversity among tribes, of suffering by all of them, and of the emergence of extraordinary natural leaders from within that suffering population, that all serious reminders of this story should be welcomed. And this was a serious production.
The reviews I read about the series in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and The Washington Post were all generally positive and did not focus or mention the kind of challenge to the history of Wounded Knee that is contained in the protest letter. As I checked various impartial online reference sources about the siege that began on Feb. 27, 1973 and ended on May 8, including, for example, a lengthy report by former Sen. James G. Abourezk there was also little mention of, or material to resolve, the kind of challenges raised by the Trimbachs and their co-signers.
On the other hand, there is no question but that there were, and are, continuing disputes about exactly what happened inside Wounded Knee during that period. There were deep divisions, pitting AIM and some of its generally impoverished tribal allies against other Indians of mixed-blood, like the authorities within the reservation who were reviled and portrayed as corrupt by AIM and many more traditional Indians. AIM was a militant, activist group with a long string of protests and demonstrations, some of which had turned violent, that had grabbed public attention. They sought to take advantage of the growing civil rights movement in the country at that time. And, as dramatic as the siege of Wounded Knee was, and for all the press coverage it attracted, the Nixon administration that would try to deal with the armed stand-off was also distracted by something else that was unfolding at the same time — Watergate.
The confrontation at Wounded Knee in 1973 — which had also been the scene of a historic massacre of Indians in 1890 — was dramatic and confusing. Some of the history and events will undoubtedly always be disputed. In the end, it looked like a defeat for AIM and its supporters among the local Oglala Sioux. But the episode remains one of those formative events that focused the attention of a nation that traditionally looks forward on something that happened in its past that hasn't quite been fixed.
Provide a More Detailed Response
As a viewer, the film left no doubt with me that it was indeed recorded from a Native American perspective. Yet I think Samels' response, although brief, is correct in that the violent and radical actions of AIM were at least there to be seen in the film. In Trimbach's assessment, however, and that of his co-signers, although seemingly a minority view, the role of AIM and others — particularly the government forces, the local authorities, and the "victims" inside the village who lost everything because of the take-over and siege — was inaccurately presented and unfairly represented.
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.
Here Is the Protest Letter:
"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.
"Producer Nelson went to great lengths to tell only the perpetrators' side of the story. He misled interviewees, such as Wounded Knee resident Walter Littlemoon, about what would be in the film. Nelson reneged on his agreement to interview Wounded Knee veteran Richard Two Elk, a condition agreed to in exchange for Joe Trimbach's participation. Nelson used Trimbach's interview anyway. Nelson or his surrogates omitted American Indian Mafia from the PBS bibliography. This book, which is supported by thorough documentation, is arguably the most complete and factual account of Wounded Knee's destruction. After Joe Trimbach registered a complaint with your legal department, Mafia was added to the PBS list. One wonders if Mafia was initially excluded simply because it exposes several of the books in the same list as falsified and fraudulent accounts of AIM history and of Wounded Knee. Nelson relies on these falsified books to support his distorted version of what happened in the village. To reference only the falsified accounts is inexcusable. To use this tainted information to construct leading questions for the PBS-endorsed school curriculum is equally scandalous and must also be exposed. There is not one question, for example, that asks how the villagers lost everything they owned.
"We believe that Nelson's failure to interview Two Elk was partly due to the fact that he witnessed the Wounded Knee murder of Perry Ray Robinson, a topic Nelson shows no interest in pursuing. Robinson, the only black man seen inside the village during that period, was a civil rights activist and a colleague of Martin Luther King. Robinson was shot by an AIM leader during a heated argument. His death and burial near the village ruins is one of many AIM secrets that Nelson's production has now helped cover up. A letter from Robinson's widow, Cheryl Buswell-Robinson, is attached.
"Another example of deception is the conspicuous absence of any footage showing Anna Mae Pictou Aquash, a prominent and highly visible AIM member at Wounded Knee. Aquash was murdered by AIM leaders in 1975 because they mistakenly believed that she was an FBI informant. Ironically, Wounded Knee warrior Madonna Thunder Hawk, featured throughout the film, is also implicated in Aquash's murder and its subsequent cover-up. Carter Camp, another featured AIM leader, has been repeatedly caught in a lie about knowing Ray Robinson. Today, Camp denies ever meeting him. On camera, Camp has nothing to say about Anna Mae either. In fact, most of the AIM leaders interviewed for this film have been implicated in the Aquash and Robinson murders. Anna Mae likely knew about the Robinson shooting and her leaders' attempts to keep his death a secret, and now it appears Nelson has joined the effort to write her out of existence as well. AIM leaders must surely approve.
"Attached are specific examples of the distortions and outright falsehoods in this film. We believe these examples prove that 'Wounded Knee' falls well outside what might be allowable under artistic license or interpretation of historical events. Instead of documenting Indian history, this film denigrates genuine Indian sacrifice and makes a mockery of true Indian heroism shown in previous segments. We intend to pursue every means available to expose this film for its dishonesty, its revisionist agenda, and its abject failure to tell a fact-based and fair-minded story of Wounded Knee. This production abuses the public trust by recycling and legitimizing what can only be described as vintage AIM propaganda. A PBS-sanctioned curriculum that indoctrinates our children must also be challenged. We therefore demand redress. We want equal time for rebuttal, balance, and clarification. The American public deserves better from our publicly-funded programming. We ask for your immediate response to our concerns.
JoAnn Gildersleeve Feraca (Chippewa)
daughter of Agnes and Clive Gildersleeve,
Wounded Knee Trading Post
Romona and Saunie Wilson (Lakota)
daughters of Tribal Chairman Richard Wilson
Richard Two Elk (Lakota)
Wounded Knee Veteran and former member,
American Indian Movement
Joseph H. Trimbach
FBI Special Agent in Charge (Retired)
Professor Patrick LeBeau,
(Cheyenne River Sioux, Chippewa)
Professor of Indian Studies,
Michigan State University
Paul DeMain (Oneida-Ojibwe),
Editor, News from Indian Country
Shawn White Wolf (Northern Cheyenne)
CEO, White Wolf Media Group
John M. Trimbach
Co-author, American Indian Mafia
The Letter Continues with 'Examples of Distortions and Falsehoods'
"'Wounded Knee' constantly cites historical events of the 1800s, the boarding schools of the 1900s, and the government-sponsored Indian relocation plans as a means of rationalizing the terror and violence visited upon Wounded Knee, a village where most of the residents were Indians. Destroying the village had nothing to do with what AIM's Russell Means called 'dignity and self-pride' and must not be used to glorify AIM leaders.
"Film narrative: 'For the next 71 days, Indian protestors at Wounded Knee would hold off the federal government at gun-point.' This statement misreports the facts: government roadblocks were set up to contain the violence and minimize casualties, not to engage the militants in gunfights. This false allegation plays right into the perpetrators' hands and is characteristic of the falsehoods that AIM leaders have so often hoodwinked the media into reporting. It would be more correct to say that Federal Agents and Marshals, in the face of almost nightly, unprovoked gun fire from the militants, tried to protect surrounding villages and towns from violent attacks that could easily have spread across the reservation.
"The film shows several views of Indians donning war paint but does not mention that they were gearing up for the firefight of March 8, 1973, when several carloads of militants attacked a handful of FBI Agents and U.S. Marshals at Roadblock 3. At the beginning stages of this unprovoked attack, AIM gunmen armed with long-range rifles nearly shot to death one of the FBI's first female Agents, who was armed with only her pistol. The group's distress calls were answered by other Agents who rushed to the scene and repelled the attack. Featured warriors Milo Goings and Webster Poor Bear were injured when FBI Agents returned fire. 'Wounded Knee' neglects to mention that this incident and dozens of shooting incidents were initiated by the militants.
"The APCs: 'Wounded Knee' leaves the false impression that the armored personnel carriers were brought in as offensive weaponry. No one from law enforcement is shown explaining that the APCs were moved into position at the roadblocks to protect FBI Agents and U.S. Marshals from almost daily gunfire attacks. At night, the militants would venture out of the village, move towards the roadblocks, and open fire. Law enforcement personnel, showing incredible patience and restraint, often opted to take cover rather than return fire and risk shooting misguided militants. At times, however, there was no other choice but to repel attacks with return fire. The APCs saved lives on both sides of the barriers at Wounded Knee, a fact never mentioned in the film. Another point not mentioned is that government riflemen could have picked off dozens of militants on numerous occasions. The two official deaths occurred in the late, desperate days of the occupation, during the most intensive gunfights. Had it not been for the professionalism of the FBI and the U.S. Marshal Service, the casualties at Wounded Knee would have been much higher.
"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.
"Film narrative: 'On April 26, Wounded Knee sustained the heaviest gunfire of the siege. When the shooting subsided, Buddy Lamont, a thirty-one-year-old Oglala from Pine Ridge, came out to investigate.' This glib distortion fails to report the events that preceded Lamont's death. Lamont was shot and killed during the fiercest gun battle of the occupation, after sustained fire from the militants was aimed at all roadblocks following an illegal weapons and ammunition re-supply. Lamont did not 'come out' as he was already engaged in the firefight. Heavy firing from the village continued from the late hours of April 26 until past noon the next day. The militants had posted one or more snipers at the left flank after which the supervisor on the scene authorized return fire. At 12:20 pm, the militants refused a ceasefire offered by the U.S. Marshals. Lamont was shot during the ensuing firefight, but it is unclear who shot him. Reports show that Lamont was shot in the back. AIM commanders Carter Camp and Stan Holder chose to leave Lamont's body where it lay in a field for two hours before calling for a ceasefire. How did they know if Lamont was even dead? None of these facts are mentioned in the film."
"FBI Agent Trimbach's statement that he immediately proceeded to the main entrance to Wounded Knee is juxtaposed with a daytime reenactment of two cars driving by. Trimbach actually approached Wounded Knee at night, soon after the militants had taken over the village. This distortion minimizes the dangers faced by Trimbach and the handful of poorly-armed Agents left exposed at the emergency roadblock on Big Foot Trail.
"Trimbach's explanation of what it was like to initially approach the militants the first morning of the takeover, unarmed, is juxtaposed with Trimbach's fourth meeting with the militants, once the media had arrived to film it. This distortion minimizes the danger Trimbach faced, since the militants had already fired at FBI Agents, responding Indian firemen, and Indian policemen the night of the takeover. Footage of the fourth encounter does not reflect the reality of the first; it does not show the small group of angry riflemen, all aiming their weapons at Trimbach at close range, as he alone walked up to the barricade. The militants were much better behaved when the cameras were rolling. 'Wounded Knee' constantly showcases the staged, on-camera behavior of the militants to distort the reality of what was happening.
"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.
"Film narrative: 'When traditional Oglalas challenged corruption in the tribal government, Dick Wilson responded with force.' 'Wounded Knee' repeatedly demonizes Tribal Chairman Dick Wilson with charges of corruption and strong-arm tactics but fails to report that Wilson initially supported AIM until they looted the BIA building in Washington, D.C. After that incident, during which Indian land deeds were lost and destroyed, Wilson warned Means not to bring the violence back home. 'Wounded Knee' also fails to report that Wilson and his family, under death threats from AIM, were placed under protective custody on February 23, 1973, four days before the takeover of the village. The record shows that much of the violence that engulfed the reservation following the occupation of Wounded Knee was in fact instigated by AIM members, not the Wilson administration. The U.S. Justice Department investigated over 50 allegations of civil rights violations against the tribal chairman and found evidence of possible wrongdoing in only a few cases. Some of those incidents were likely instigated by AIM members. The film does not mention that the Wilson administration was audited by the accounting firm of Touche, Ross, & Company and that no serious wrongdoing of any kind was found. Additionally, Wilson's 'Goons' [Guardians of the Oglala Nation], much maligned in the film, were in fact a legally sanctioned group created for the express purpose of protecting tribal buildings from AIM violence. It is fair to say that Wilson's Goons came into existence to oppose Russell Means's AIM goons.
"Film narrative: 'Prompted by the dissidents, the tribal council held impeachment hearings in February, 1973. But Wilson intimidated witnesses, strong-armed council members and managed to survive.' This statement is read while showing a newspaper article that contradicts this statement. The narrative also fails to mention that Russell Means and his AIM recruits intimidated and terrorized people far more than Wilson and his deputized 'Goons.'
"Film narrative: 'Just weeks before the occupation of Wounded Knee, a white man killed an Indian near Custer, South Dakota, fifty miles from Pine Ridge.' This statement leaves the impression that the Indian was an innocent victim. In fact, the Indian involved was beating another man to death with a tire chain outside a bar in Buffalo Gap. The third man intervened with a pocket knife and inadvertently nicked the assailant's aorta. This incident led to the Custer riot. By failing to mention the details of this death, PBS plays right into the hands of AIM propagandists."
"Film narrative: 'Not only was Dick Wilson still firmly in charge, he would exact revenge on his opponents as the federal government looked the other way . . . In the three years following the siege, two FBI Agents and more than 60 AIM supporters were killed, giving Pine Ridge the highest per capita murder rate in the country.' Even when juxtaposed with Dick Wilson's bravado, these statements are false and inflammatory. The FBI investigated all murders that fell within their jurisdiction. The myth that 60 AIM supporters were killed is nothing but off-the-shelf AIM disinformation. This falsehood has been repeatedly exposed as such and has been rebutted in an FBI report. Some of the listed victims were children who died from abuse or adults who died from exposure after intoxication. Some of the genuine AIM victims were likely murdered by AIM members. Repeating this lie about 60 murders is a despicable attempt to excuse AIM violence and exonerate the guilty. Furthermore, a U.S. District Court found that there was no evidence that the FBI failed to investigate alleged abuses of non-AIM members. Upon examining these cases, the Court stated that the case files did not ' . . . reveal a lack of investigatory effort on the part of the FBI towards non-AIM members, nor do they indicate a failure to prosecute once meaningful evidence had been discovered . . . the evidence simply does not show that the efforts of the government to limit criminal conduct and to bring the perpetrators of it to justice have been discriminatorily directed at the AIM faction.' Parroting the lie that the federal government 'looked the other way' serves no purpose other than to deceive the viewing audience, promote disrespect for law enforcement, and further the lies of AIM leaders.
"Film narrative: 'The Oglalas had exhausted all legal options' in response to 'Wilson's harassment and intimidation.' This statement, offered as fact, is specious. AIM had committed dozens of illegal acts in the run-up to Wounded Knee. It is dishonest to suggest that the Oglalas had tried all legal options before inviting AIM violence onto the reservation, and it is incorrect to characterize the tension between Russell Means and Dick Wilson as only Wilson's doing. The statement also ignores the dozens of tribal programs initiated by Wilson to improve living conditions on the reservation. The film ignores the views of the vast majority of Pine Ridge residents, who resented AIM's intimidation and violence. 'Wounded Knee' also fails to mention that Wilson, who was largely supported by a sometimes contentious tribal council, later defeated his opponent Russell Means in the tribal chairman election.
"Film narrative: 'Government negotiators were uncompromising. They rejected demands to uphold treaty rights and insisted that they were powerless to remove Dick Wilson, regardless of the charges against him, as he was chairman of the sovereign Indian nation.' This statement is false and misleading because treaties require Congressional action: government negotiators are powerless to either uphold or reject treaty rights. Furthermore, the Oglala Sioux tribe had a constitution which governed the rules of impeachment. It is misleading to suggest that government representatives would not allow Wilson to be investigated. In fact, the Wilson administration was investigated by the U.S. Justice Department which later cleared him of the charges alleged by AIM members and supporters.
"Film narrative: 'In the frigid winter of 1890, Chief Big Foot was leading a group of Lakota, mainly women and children, to shelter on the Pine Ridge Reservation. On the morning of December 29, they were attacked by the U.S. Army on the banks of Wounded Knee Creek.' This statement is blatantly false and misleading. On December 28, Chief Big Foot surrendered under a white flag to Major Whitside and his troops. Whitside elected to lead Big Foot and his people to a site near Wounded Knee Creek. The gun battle erupted the next morning after the Indians refused to give up their weapons. There were casualties on both sides. There is ample factual material in the Congressional record which tells the story of what really happened at Wounded Knee Creek in 1890. There is no justification for inventing details of this historic event."