My New Book!

My New Book!
My New Book!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

August 21, 2012: Bad Memories, Part Two

[One of this blog’s central premises is that we Americans need to do a better job remembering many of our histories, including, even especially, our most dark and negative histories. But the question of how to do so is a pretty challenging and complicated one. This week I’ll be examining five such dark histories, and highlighting a few distinct options for how we might better remember them. As always, both your responses to these examples and your suggestions for others will be very welcome!]
On three distinct attempts to raise our national awareness of a horrific event.
It’s nothing short of a national travesty that we don’t better remember the 1890 massacre at South Dakota’s Wounded Knee Creek, perhaps the most egregious and symbolic violence committed against Native Americans by the US military (although that’s a long and tragically competitive list). That’s my take, but it’s also one of the central arguments of Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (1970), among the truly pioneering works of Native American history and studies, multiculturalism, and ethnic studies. As its subtitle suggests, Brown’s book covers much more than just Wounded Knee—but throughout, his overt and impassioned purpose is to force such events into our collective memories and histories, to use his recovered sources and scholarly analysis to change Americans’ awareness and perspectives.
Obviously I’m on board with such a project, and Brown’s book was a best-seller for more than a year, suggesting that his message reached far more readers than do most scholarly works. But it’s also possible to imagine that most of those readers were already sympathetic to Native American experiences and voices, and thus that while his book might have enriched and enlarged such perspectives, it didn’t necessarily change them. Genuine and sweeping change, this argument might go, requires more aggressive actions, ones that demand national attention and response on both political and social levels—actions like those undertaken by members of the American Indian Movement, including their 1973 “occupation” of Wounded Knee. That 71-day occupation, the resulting federal “siege,” and the accompanying and subsequent threats and even acts of violence, eerily mirrored certain aspects of the original Wounded Knee massacre—but that, as much as anything, was precisely AIM’s point: that so long as we don’t engage with histories and communities such as those connected to Wounded Knee, we will simply continue to replicate and reinforce those histories and further destroy those communities.  
I couldn’t agree more, and despite the legal and controversial challenges that significantly derailed AIM’s efforts later in the decade, the group most definitely brought such awareness to Native American voices and histories. Yet as the Wounded Knee occupation illustrates, they did so in an explicitly confrontational manner, one likely to create as much anger as empathy in broader American audiences; while such activism is entirely appropriate and even necessary, it’s worth considering whether and how it can be complemented by efforts to entertain as well as educate those broader audiences. To that end, I would point to Michael Apted’s film Thunderheart (1992), a murder mystery and thriller that stars Val Kilmer and Sam Shepard, features a great deal of humor and suspense, and is in many ways a Hollywood movie. Yet at its heart, the film centers on, and connects the spiritual and psychological awakening of Kilmer’s protagonist to, two historical events: a fictionalized representation of AIM’s efforts; and an accurate engagement with the Wounded Knee Massacre. Thunderheart’s broad American audiences wouldn’t necessarily know they were learning about Wounded Knee and its related histories and contexts—but there’s no question that they, like Kilmer’s character, would come away with significantly strengthened perspectives on those questions.
The answer, of course, is d) All of the above! Next post in the series tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Responses to this post? Suggestions for other bad American memories?
8/21 Memory Day nominees: A tie between two game-changing performers who jazzed up American culture and scored hugely influential legacies, William “Count” Basie and Wilt Chamberlain.


  1. I think the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment is one of the more ugly U.S. memories, right up there with Wounded Knee.

    Aaron Huey gave a TED talk about photographing poverty at the Pine Ridge Reservation ( and some of his photos are featured in a recent issue of National Geographic. Along with it is a discussion of the AIM's efforts in the past thirty years.

  2. Hi Matt,

    Good stuff, thanks! I agree about Tuskegee for sure, and it too is illustrative of a larger pattern and systemic discrimination and brutality.

    And thanks so much for the link to the Huey info, which I will certainly check out.