News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to MinneKota@gmail.com

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Bury not my arse in wounded and mangled words

HBO takes indecent liberties by claiming that its video version of "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" is based upon Dee Brown's 1971 best selling book of that title. In fact, the production is a gross bowdlerization (a term I learned from a bronco-breaking uncle) that makes scant reference to the contents of the book and imposes a number of stories from popular and sloppy sources on it.

I did not know Dee Brown well, but I knew him well enough to say with great assurance that the kind of easy and glossy reprensentations made in the video production are just the kind of thing he objected to. I became acquainted with Dee Brown when, as a newspaper editor, the College of Agriculture at the University of Illinois was an important part of my coverage beat. Dee Brown was a librarian there. An important part of the job of agricultural journalists was to provide accurate and complete contexts for the information coming from the research and development there. The library was a ready and convenient resource, but most of the journalists who frequented the place admired Dee Brown as a writer of civil war and western history.

"Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" is an account of the American frontier based upon documents from the history of the time: transcripts of treaty proceedings, newspapers, interviews with Native Americans, and oral histories. Up until the publication of this book, no comprehensive account of the western frontier included those perspectives. Brown included accounts of the Navahos, the Apache, and other western tribes, as well as the Sioux. However, the HBO video focuses on the Lakota.

The title of the book comes from the closing line of a poem by Stephen Vincent Benet.

The video weaves in the story of Charles Alexander Eastman as a narrative line in the story. Eastman, although an important presence in South Dakota reservation country during the events of Wounded Knee, is not mentioned by Brown. The rivalries between reservation agents and prominent Lakota are reduced to soap-opera simplicity. Valentine McGillicuddy at Pine Ridge was resentful and vindictive at times at the power and respect accorded Red Cloud and the leader's refusal to bend to the agent's will. Up at Standing Rock that same kind of resentful and seething dislike was extended to Sitting Bull by agent James McLaughlin. The way these attitudes produced the killings of Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull is a huge part of the story of what led to Wounded Knee. Dee Brown understood these matters. The HBO writers did not.

Neither did they understand the full import of the Ghost Dance religion, although some passing references to the hope it held out to the Lakota people was made.

The best thing ab0ut the HBO production is that it should encourage people to read the real story written by Dee Brown. And Benet's poem, "American Names."

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States

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