PBS Series Criticism Shouldn't Detract From Show's Worth
By Kevin Abourezk
May 21, 2009
Every story is told from a perspective.
Sometimes it's that of the writer. Sometime's it's that of a character in the story. Often, it's both.
Journalists are often accused of unfairly presenting a story and failing to report all sides of an issue.
This week, a collection of self-described "Wounded Knee victims and veterans" took aim at an episode of a PBS mini-series about the 1973 siege of Wounded Knee. The "We Shall Remain" mini-series examined the history of U.S. government and Indian relations from the arrival of the Pilgrims to the siege.
The veterans and victims group alleges the producer of the mini-series inaccurately and unfairly portrayed the siege, glorifying the militant actions of the Indian activists while presenting the government's actions as overly aggressive and racist. The group is made up of nine members, including seven Natives, a retired FBI agent and the former agent's son.
In a letter the group sent to PBS President and Chief Executive Officer Paula Kerger May 10, they lay out their concerns, which include their claim that the show neglected to fully describe the destruction the activists left behind in Wounded Knee.
It's a deep wound some in Indian Country feel has long been ignored.
The argument goes like this: The activists' looting, destruction of property and even murder of a fellow activist completely undermined any good they accomplished through the 71-day siege.
And by minimizing those actions, PBS has perpetuated a lie, the group says.
When I watched the show last week, I have to say I felt proud of the activists' efforts to gain rights for their people. My grandmother, who lives on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, has always told me she remembers men never wore their hair long before the American Indian Movement came to town.
The activists made Indians proud to be Indian again, she said.
But I've never really believed in the power of militant protest to affect real change. That sort of change seems born only of peaceful protest.
Still, AIM's siege focused America's attention on the plight of the American Indian. And it inspired generations of young Indians to stand up and speak out for their their rights. To this day, names like Means, Bellecourt and Banks carry a weight unfamiliar to nearly any other modern Indian leader.
That said, I recognize AIM's faults, too.
As did the makers of the PBS mini-series, I believe.
The Wounded Knee episode described how AIM ransacked a museum in the village and burned down a courthouse in Custer before driving to Wounded Knee. Those acts must not be forgotten, or minimized.
But neither should those acts be used to invalidate AIM's impact on Indian identity.
A particularly powerful segment of the Wounded Knee episode described the impact of government spying on AIM. By employing spies within the organization, the government succeeded, where so many others had failed, in turning AIM on itself.
One scene showed Dennis Banks pointing to the back of the room while giving a speech during the siege and angrily asking, Who is that? What is he pointing at me? The camera turns to the back of the room, where row after row of activists shrug and raise their hands in bewilderment.
That paranoia, some believe, led to executions on the part of AIM leaders of fellow activists, like Anna Mae Aquash and Perry Ray Robinson. And that's a point the veterans and victims group claims the show's producer ignored outright.
While I certainly can't argue the show didn't describe executions by activists, I also think it's important to understand those claims are only ALLEGATIONS. No one within AIM's leadership has ever been convicted of executing a fellow activist.
As the show's producer certainly understands, allegations can be tricky, even libelous, matters and must be handled with care.
As an avid student of the history of Native activism, I would be interested in seeing a show focused on the devastation wrought by AIM at Wounded Knee and elsewhere. But watching such a show, I would do so understanding the inherent perspective the show was taking.
However, this episode's intent was clearly not to comprehensively describe this confusing event but to describe the siege's place in the evolution of Indian identity and political awareness.
Because that's what good storytellers do - take a subject, hone it to a fine edge and add that human spark every great story needs. If they aim to tell every facet of a complex topic like Wounded Knee, they inevitably fail to connect to their audience.
And in losing their audience, they fail in their mission.
Kevin Abourezk, Rosebud Lakota, is a reporter and editor at the Lincoln (Neb.) Journal Star. He writes reznet's "Red Clout" political blog and teaches reporting at the Freedom Forum's American Indian Journalism Institute. Abourezk was awarded a Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism in 2006.