By Michael Getler
June 5, 2009
Some Not So Old Business
What follows are some more letters and lengthier correspondence dealing with two recent programs that sparked both a good deal of interest and, unexpectedly, a fair amount of controversy.
The first group consists of another round of e-mails dealing with the aftermath of the nationally televised 20th annual National Memorial Day Concert that aired on May 24 and has been the subject of the two most recent ombudsman columns.
The second group involves one important new letter, a response from the producer, and two other contributions — all of them rather weighty and long — dealing with challenges arising from the five-part American Experience series "We Shall Remain" on American Indian history; specifically the final segment, broadcast on May 11, on the events at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota in 1973. That was the subject of the ombudsman column on May 20.
First, a few brief notes.
The earlier column on Wounded Knee contained a lengthy and detailed challenge to several specific statements and aspects in the broadcast by the former FBI agent in charge of that agency's role on the scene, Joseph H. Trimbach, and some others. The letter from Trimbach, who, with his son, has also authored a book on the subject, was the equivalent of some seven type-written pages. But it was included in the column. At the time, the series producer offered, and I posted, a response. But in an effort to gain a more detailed response, I also asked two scholars and historians — both of whom were listed as advisors either to the series or a specific segment — to respond, and those responses are included in full in this column.
At the time, I also suggested that, because this program and its related Web material are likely to be primary source material for some time to come, it would be even better for PBS to present Trimbach's challenges to a small group of acknowledged scholars who have no connection to the series. I think that is still a good idea, but my sense at this point is that it is not going to happen. Nevertheless, the responses toward the end of this column strike me as quite informative and a serious addition to the debate over Wounded Knee, which undoubtedly will continue for a long time.
The continuing letters over the National Memorial Day Concert concern a segment of the broadcast in which two Broadway actresses dramatize the role of the mother and sister caring, in their Florida home, for severely brain-injured and traumatized Army National Guard Sgt. Jose Pequeno. They are posted first.
Some of the new e-mails continue to reflect the intense personal anguish felt by people on all sides of this situation, and criticism of the airing of family tensions surrounding it. Indeed, there were other e-mails from viewers, who asked that their names not be used, containing numerous personal allegations on all sides that are not printed here because they go beyond the two editorial issues that sparked original interest in this situation — the failure to name the wounded soldier's wife and three children (one by a previous marriage) in the broadcast as well as the fundraising and wheelchair accessible house-building efforts of people in his hometown in New Hampshire, and the question of whether the producer knew of certain publicly documented facts and did background checks before the broadcast. There was no attempt, in the columns, to take sides in the ensuing controversy.
Here Are the Letters
I am the mother of Jose's eldest daughter, Mercedes. I have known Jose since we were both 17. Anyone who knows Jose knows that he would never want all the attention that he has gotten if it was to exploit him for pity purposes. But, if his injuries and family struggles are helping other injured vets, then he would be more than willing to do whatever is needed for the cause. The story did not mention his wife or children because the story, as I took it, was about the struggles of what the caregivers go thru to be by their family members side. Kelley makes it well known every chance she gets that she is still Jose's wife, but why is it she has not bothered to see him in 18 months? She admits that there is a rift, which is no hidden secret. But Nellie and Elizabeth had always been willing to work out an arrangement so that they weren't all present at Jose's side at the same time.
There is no doubt that the town of Sugar Hill, and New Hampshire, love Jose. A wonderful thing was done by raising money to build a handicapped accessible home for Jose to come home to. But, those fundraisers were done shortly after his accident, before anyone could even know if and when Jose would ever be able to return to his hometown. There are no VA [hospitals] in New England capable of treating Jose — Boston tried and failed. For those that want to bring up Nellie's past, well, it's the past. She has paid her dues, and even though Jose was upset and embarrassed, he loved his mother. People make mistakes, as we are only human.
Kelley admits that there is a court-appointed guardian for Jose. So, let's think about that for a moment. Not only does he make all decisions on Jose's behalf and in his best interest, but he controls Jose's income as well. Kelley not only lost guardianship, but all control over Jose's money . . . I loved the program featuring Jose, Nellie, and Elizabeth. And Mercedes was so proud to get to be there. She is not upset that she wasn't mentioned. She UNDERSTANDS that Auntie and Grammy have sacrificed 3 years of their lives to care for her daddy.
Lori Chabe, Auburn, ME
Thank you for staying with this story. Over a period of years PBS has made some disappointing choices regarding the production of these concerts. Both the Memorial Day Concert and the Fourth of July Concert were more authentic and more enjoyable when they were completely locally produced by WETA. The increasingly contrived and glitzy productions of recent years don't do those special holidays justice.
Carol Lawrence, Rochester, NY
I'm appalled to see the letters written about SGT Jose Pequeno's family issues and even more shocked that you would allow them to be read. I don't know Jose or his family but now I know A LOT more than any stranger ever should know, especially about a fallen hero. It's disgusting the way you have all aired this dirty laundry out for everyone to read. These are private matters and do not belong on a public forum.
People are talking about exploiting this soldier but many of those same people are the ones publicly announcing this young man's family issues. You have just done more harm with that than a beautiful ceremony honoring him and the family who have been at his side day in and day out since his injury could ever do. Secondly, no matter what troubles his mother has had in the past, they are completely irrelevant. The story was about what happened to Jose and how he and his family have had to cope with such trauma. So many people like myself felt moved by his story and inspired by the love his mother and sister have shown him and opened my eyes to what so many soldier and families are going through and just how hard it is to cope with an injury of this magnitude. Everything I've read about Jose says that he was a remarkable young man who was always willing to help others. If this is true, which there doesn't seem to be any doubt, I would imagine he must be very pleased that he was able to help so many soldiers and their family by allowing them to find strength and inspiration in his story and battle.
Tracy Morgan, Lansing, MI
A Different Take
My wife and I have tried to distance ourselves from the Pequeno controversy. I know much more about the family situation than I generally let on. However, the recent Memorial Day Concert that featured Jose's mother and half sister has required us to speak out. The PBS Concert over emphasized the care being provided by the Jose Pequeno's mother and sister and completely missed another part of the story. We are not certain we understand the emphasis on Jose's mother and sister, but a disservice was done by not mentioning his wife and children. It was painful to watch Jose being exploited for a reason that we hope we do not understand.
We are pleased that Jose's mother and sister are willing and able to provide the care to Jose, however if they did not provide the care, I am certain that others would. What was missed was the fact that Jose's wife has been without a husband for over five years and his children without a Dad during that period. The military did a disservice to Jose when they used extraordinary measures to allow his heart to continue to beat and his lungs to breathe. They did not save his life. Jose in his current state is neither a father nor a husband. I worked with Jose in Sugar Hill and I am certain that he if he could, he would acknowledge that he is not living.
I believe the real story is not the caregivers, but the affect that the war and the injury to Jose has caused to his wife and children. We tend to forget the burden that they bear because of Jose's injury. They did not volunteer to go to war, but they are the ones that carry the greatest burden. Jose's wife Kelley has not disappeared as might be thought when she is not mentioned, but instead has taken on the difficult task of raising Jose's children. That is what Jose would want done and that is what she is doing. Although Jose is trapped inside his own body, the lives of his children continue. They require attention and love as they attempt to reconcile what has happened to their father.
The other story that was missed is how the friends of Jose, the (New Hampshire) community that he served and the communities in the area rallied to assist Jose and his family. They raised in excess of $250,000 in donations either through cash or donations in kind to demonstrate their support to Jose and the family. The result of those efforts was a fully handicapped accessible home with four bedrooms, a large porch and an oversized two car garage to provide the family with a comfortable home and the hope that their husband and father could eventually come home. This was accomplished fully aware that Jose may never come home. In addition, to the new home, the existing mortgage was paid off and funds set aside for the on-going maintenance of the home and needs of the children.
As a living legacy to Jose, a foundation was established that supports the families of law enforcement, firefighters and EMS personnel when bad things happen to good people. The Foundation has helped six families in the short period that it has been created including that of a police officer from the next town to Sugar Hill who was brutally murdered while on duty. We do not take anything away from the good that Jose's mother and sister are doing. We believe that if Jose in his current state of health was in his new home, that it would result in an even greater burden on his children. We believe that PBS has a responsibility and an obligation to be fair and unbiased. Ignoring the wife and the children of Jose and their burdens was neither fair nor unbiased.
Allan and Gail Clark, Sugar Hill, NH
Life is seldom as simple as we would like it to be. I have known Jose and his mother and sister for over three years now. I can only speak to this period and in that context what was said and portrayed about them on the PBS special was accurate and fair. Nellie and Elizabeth have been at his side constantly during this whole time and have sacrificed their lives for his well being. They have literally kept Jose alive and given him the possibility of a good life. As for his wife during this time period sometimes saying nothing can be the kindest thing to do.
Edward Meagher, Great Falls, VA
More on Wounded Knee; The View from the Police Line
I became a trooper with the South Dakota Highway Patrol in 1967. I was stationed in Sturgis for 11 years. I went from there to Mobridge, Sioux Falls, and Rapid City. I attained the rank of Captain and became the Commander of the Rapid City district that covered the western 1/2 of the state. My work assignments put me on and near every reservation in the state except Sisseton. I retired in 1998. I am as aware of Native American issues as any law enforcement person from my era could be.
During the occupation of Wounded Knee, I was sent to man roadblocks outside of the government blocks. Our task was a first line of contact to try to keep non-reservation persons from getting to government blocks and causing trouble from the exterior to the interior of the government perimeter. We were in constant contact with the government roadblocks and we monitored their radio frequencies. I can verify the truth of [FBI retired] Special Agent Trimbach's statements about the occupation.
When a group of persons came to Custer to demand that Darrel Schmitz be tried for 1st degree murder, I was part of the law enforcement group that was to monitor the courthouse for safety and security. We were deployed in the main hallway about 1/2 way into the building. Several persons were allowed in to speak with the state's attorney, Hobart Gates. Among these persons were Dennis Banks and Russell Means. The group was not able to persuade Mr. Gates to change the manslaughter charge. The group left the meeting room and went to the front door of the courthouse. By this time several hundred persons were gathered on the front steps and in the street in front of the courthouse. Dennis Banks yelled to the crowd, "they are not going to charge him with murder, let's get them" At this point dozens of members of the crowd charged into the hallway. The dozen or so law enforcement officers in the back of the hallway met this group about halfway and a pitched hand to hand battle broke out. In this battle, Russell Means sustained a broken arm and was arrested from the bottom of a pile of fighting people. I was an eye witness and participant in all of this.
I was struck in the back by a heavy swivel-back chair that was swung by Dennis Banks. This is one of the acts that led to his eventual conviction for riot. Law enforcement was able to clear the hallway and set up a line on the front steps of the courthouse. Our hope was that the crowd would disperse. This is when the incident portrayed in the PBS special occurred. Sarah Bad Heart Bull, who was very intoxicated, grabbed the jacket of Sgt. Sprague of the SDHP. She lost her footing and pulled him into the crowd. Sgt. Schmoll moved in to try to free Sgt. Sprague, who was being struck and jostled. I was immediately to Sgt. Sprague's left and charged into the fray to try to help get the two officers free. I was able to stop the main combatant, Robert High Eagle of Wakpala, SD, with a blow from my riot control baton. Both Sergeants were able to return to the law enforcement line.
Sgt. Schmoll had been badly injured from a blow to the head. That blow came from a 4' X 3/8" piece of drill steel swung by Robert High Eagle. I personally arrested Robert High Eagle. He was eventually convicted of riot on my arrest. He had come to the meeting armed and prepared to fight as had many others that day. Any suggestion that law enforcement caused the riot in Custer defies imagination!
Suggestions that the occupation at Wounded Knee somehow helped the Native American population of Pine Ridge are not supported by fact. Comparisons of unemployment, alcoholism, and child abuse from 1972 through the present, clearly show an increase of incidents of all three. What is so upsetting to me is that all of the allegations of Special Trimbach's letter and the statements I have made could have been verified in several hours with only a few phone calls. The scholarship leading to the PBS special does not rise to any level of accuracy or fairness. I believe that the special, as shown, did an enormous disservice to many persons on and off of the Pine Ridge reservation, and glorified AIM in a way that is breathtakingly untrue.
Captain Terry Mayes, South Dakota Highway Patrol (retired), Rapid City, SD
The Producer Responds
Here is a further response from American Experience Executive Producer Mark Samels. In that response, Samels also gives his views about the program's broader response to the criticisms raised and mentioned in this column in recent weeks. The comments of the two program advisors that Samels refers to appear after Samels' remarks.
"I believe that you now have two responses to the 'Trimbach letter' by two of our series advisors, Dave Edmunds and Paul Chaat Smith. Together with my initial response, we feel that American Experience has responded fully and responsibly to Trimbach and his associates. Simply put: Wounded Knee is a complex, violent and controversial event; people have understandably strong feelings about the incident; we stand behind our portrayal of the event as an pivotal moment in the larger story of Native American history, particularly as a culmination of a sequence of events in Native history stretching back to the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890. We do not feel it necessary or prudent to respond point by point to the numerous assumptions and allegations made in the Trimbach letter.
"As to the most recent letter from the state trooper, we were impressed with the details he offered about his role in the events in Custer that preceded the occupation of Wounded Knee. Our film, however, clearly shows that the violence in Custer was instigated by AIM members; it is AIM members who are seen forcing their way into the courthouse, setting fire to buildings and smashing cars. The film does not say that law enforcement personnel caused the riot.
"Similarly, while our film does describe how the occupation galvanized Indian identity across the country, it doesn't state or even suggest that the siege at Wounded Knee improved the economic or social conditions of Pine Ridge residents."
The Smithsonian's Paul Chaat Smith Weighs In
Here is the assessment of Paul Chaat Smith, associate curator, Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian:
Thank you for the opportunity to share my views on the Wounded Knee episode of "We Shall Remain." As you know, Robert Warrior and I authored a 1996 book about Indian activism of the 1960s and 1970s, and also were paid consultants for the film.
I want to speak directly to the allegation that the production was unfair, misleading, and sensational. I know you'd prefer a point by point rebuttal, but I am unfamiliar with many of the issues raised in the May 10th letter by Mr. Trimbach and others, and were not issues Warrior and I discussed in our book, or ones that I have investigated since then.
The beginning point of any honest discussion must recognize that Wounded Knee 1973, perhaps the most neutral way to describe the events, is widely regarded as the most controversial and divisive moment of 20th century Indian history. People died, both during the (Occupation? Rebellion? Armed resistance? U.S. invasion? Reign of terror by a criminal gang?) and later. Wounded Knee was a complex, multi-faceted series of events that remain deeply contested almost forty years later. I think any impartial observer would have to agree the authors of the letter would have profoundly disagreed with any version of this film whose main point was not that AIM was, in fact, a criminal enterprise, with no redeeming values whatsoever.
This is a bold argument, and I am glad Mr. Trimbach has written his book and explored these issues at length. His perspective is not mine, but it's entirely possible that in another few decades it will be widely shared by scholars, historians, people interested in the era, and citizens of Pine Ridge. But I can emphatically state that today this is an extreme point of view, and I don't mean to denigrate their argument by calling it extreme. I like extreme views. Have a few myself. But nowhere do I see the acknowledgement that Wounded Knee 1973 is widely celebrated by many on Pine Ridge today, and that it has been observed as an official tribal government holiday. For many on Pine Ridge, Wounded Knee has turned into a reconciliation project, trying to bring those who were with AIM and those with Dick Wilson together, with some real success. The U.S. government museum where I work, whose first director was an expensive private attorney, and whose current director ran the BIA for President Clinton, and which has always been guided by mainstream, establishment Indian folks, has considered in the past (and is still considering) exhibitions about AIM framed by the idea that it was a flawed yet profoundly important organization that is responsible for many positive changes in Indian country, and many feel that NMAI itself would not exist without AIM's inspired, often stupid, and sometimes brutal activism.
Again, this does not mean that Mr. Trimbach is wrong, but it raises the issue of what constitutes fairness where a vast minority (at the very least) of the U.S. Indian world believes AIM did far more good things than bad, and others, who include many people who've never met Mr. Trimbach, sincerely believe AIM was a disaster. Where is the middle ground in this case? Stanley Nelson's film reflects as close to a consensus position on AIM as there can be on such a contentious issue.
One question Stanley gets at every screening is why didn't he discuss Leonard Peltier, who many in the left regard as Nelson Mandela. For these folks, the film was a sellout, and certainly Russell Means is not alone in sharing this view. Having partisans on both sides furious at you doesn't mean you are being fair, but it does persuasively suggest those who find Wounded Knee a love letter to AIM have their own agendas.
Professor Edmunds Responds
What follows are the comments of Professor Russell D. Edmunds, a specialist in the history of Native American people at the University of Texas at Dallas:
Obviously, the program was designed to portray these events from a particular Native American perspective, and although not all Native American people supported the American Indian Movement and its leaders in their occupation of Wounded Knee, I'm pretty sure that the majority were supportive, and in retrospect believed that the occupation focused the attention of the American public on issues within the Native communities that needed to be addressed/resolved. It seems to me that Mr. Trimbach's criticism is that the program did not portray the federal government, FBI, or the Wilson regime at Pine Ridge in a "fair" or favorable manner, but the program was produced and presented to illustrate the general Native American point of view on these events — and in this case, I think it did so.
Mr. Trimbach's litany of complaints is so lengthy that any well-constructed, fully developed (with documentation), and nuanced response would amount (in my opinion) to a document of at least fifty pages (and I think that is a conservative estimate). Moreover, Trimbach's letter impressed me as a protest by a few individuals (Trimbach, relatives of Dick Wilson, and survivors of some of the people killed during the siege) who felt personally aggrieved that they or their relatives did not receive adequate coverage in the film. But obviously the film cannot contain everything that everyone thinks should be included.
I must admit to almost no legal expertise, so I am unable to gauge the legal impact of Trimbach's complaints; but as an academic who has taught Native American history/studies for almost 40 years and who has worked extensively with both the academic and Native American communities, I believe that Trimbach's protest reflects the perspective of a very small group of people with a particular agenda, and will be generally ignored by almost everyone else. I've worked on quite a few TV documentaries, and in my opinion this series ("We Shall Remain") is by far the best series with which I have had the privilege to be associated. Throughout the series there are some interpretations or perspectives with which I do not agree, but that is the nature of a collaborative project — particularly a film.