This paper was written by students in a University of Nebraska-Lincoln journalism class that examined the Omaha World-Herald’s past coverage of race-related news events.
In the bitter cold of late December in South Dakota, artillery shots from rapid-fire early-model machine guns rang out and streams of bullets flew through the frigid air. Native men and women with children on their backs ran desperately to avoid the withering crossfire, vainly trying to survive.
The descendants of the survivors never forgot what happened, passing stories on to their children as a warning of what had been done to their people.
“Some of the stories that people have told me, my elders, as I grew up about what happened there… about soldiers grabbing little babies by the heels, by the ankles and bashing them, their heads against trees in order to kill them,” said Kevin Abourezk, reporter for Indianz.com and Rosebud Sioux Tribe member. “Native women running with children on their backs and turning around to find that their children had been shot. Taking the bullets that were really meant for them. An incredible trauma that was experienced afterward.”
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Tákuwe, a Lakota term for the question “why,” is a word many continue to ask when looking back on the Wounded Knee massacre. Part of the answer, according to modern academics, cultural groups and journalists, was false, biased and sensationalized coverage by the Omaha World-Herald.
On Dec. 29, 1890, U.S. Army soldiers killed 290 Lakota people, including 200 women and children and 90 men on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Newspapers from around the country sent 21 reporters who covered the 1890 massacre. Earlier, some had run stories that led up and in some respects, caused the tension.
A month before, on Nov. 21, 1890, the World-Herald’s article “In Wounded Knee. Six Hundred Buck Indians Are Holding Their Savage Dance of Death,” written by Carl Smith, set the stage for the army’s action. Smith described the Ghost Dance from the perspective of a non-Indigenous person, getting the significance of the dance wrong and disregarding its meaning, according to Abourezk.
Smith’s inaccurate narrative began with his description. He reported that the “savage dance of death” consisted of “Indians” circling around a tree that was covered in gifts for the “Messiah.” He also noted that this “old savage custom” had them in a trance, saying the participants would tell each other their visions once they recovered. He painted a picture of the Native people rallying as if for war, a preparation for retaking land from the white colonizers.
In fact, the ritual, which first began in the late 1860s, arose from a Paiute prophet, Wovoka, through a series of visions. The dance was similar to the traditional circle dance, in which believers would dance or move quickly in fast, tight circles. Wovoka's prophecy was associated with the demise of colonial expansion, which had brutally harmed their sovereignty and resources used for living. Violent takeovers of Indigenous land were spreading from east to west taking with them the livelihoods of Indigenous people.
Abourezk analyzed newspaper coverage of Wounded Knee in his thesis titled “From Red Fears to Red Power: The Story of the Newspaper Coverage of Wounded Knee 1890 and Wounded Knee 1973.” He included the misconceptions reporters had about the Ghost Dance while covering Wounded Knee.
Contrary to reports that it was intended to whip up war fever among the Native people, Abourezk described the Ghost Dance as “... a final desperate attempt to revive the dying culture of the plains tribes, mixed with a certain religious fever akin to religious revivals that have swept white America at various times throughout its history.”
The Ghost Dance rose in significance approaching the events at Wounded Knee as incursions continued by white settlers and federal agents against various Native tribes. Joe Starita, an author of various works on Native history and former journalism professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, described the effect of the circle dance on its participants.
“The Ghost Dance, in my opinion, was the saddest dance in the history of the world. The Ghost Dance was a dance born of complete and utter desperation,” Starita said.
Coverage of it by publications including the World-Herald, Starita said, was appalling. “This is not legitimate journalism that we’re looking at in the coverage of the Ghost Dance or Wounded Knee,” he said. “They’re just outrageous, what the reporters were saying to their audience.”
Many reporters were sent from all over the country, joining those of the World-Herald. In most of their reports, the most glaring omission was of Native voices, according to the critics.
Not all the journalists got it wrong, though. Thomas Henry Tibbles, a long-time World-Herald correspondent, was widely known for his coverage of Indigenous topics. According to Abourezk’s thesis, Tibbles concerned himself, a white man married to a Native woman, with the issues and crises facing the Indigenous people and offered more accurate reporting, in direct opposition to the files of Smith and other reporters.
Susette La Flesche was also a World-Herald reporter, along with her husband Thomas Tibbles, and an Omaha tribal member who reported about those killed at Wounded Knee and other Native issues. On Jan. 2, 1891, in the article “Horrors of War” La Flesche wrote of the massacre: “I have been thus particular in giving horrible details in the hope of rousing such an indignation that another such causeless war shall never again be allowed by the people of the United States.”
After surviving women and children were taken to the Pine Ridge reservation and tended to in an Episcopal church, Tibbles recorded his thoughts: "Nothing I have seen in my whole varied life has ever affected or depressed or haunted me like the scenes I saw that night in that church, under the festive decorations of the Prince of Peace, which hung above the rows of suffering, innocent women and children.”
Other journalists justified the bloodshed and called for more. As reported by National Geographic, South Dakota journalist L. Frank Baum argued for the extermination of the Native tribes. “We had better, in order to protect our civilization…wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the earth,” the future author of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” wrote after the massacre.
In an editorial in his newspaper, Baum wrote: “The Whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians. Why not annihilation? Their glory has fled, their spirit broken, their manhood effaced; better that they die than live the miserable wretches that they are.”
A century later, the World-Herald recognized the sharp differences in the coverage. On Dec. 31, 1995, the paper ran an article headlined “Centennial Series - Reporter Tibbles Provided Truth In Stories of Battle at Wounded Knee.” Staff writer Hollis Limprecht detailed Tibbles’ coverage of the event and, while he described Tibbles as a “colorless writer,” he noted that Tibbles reported facts about the “friendly Indians” on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
The differences between Tibbles’s work and that other reporters at the time was drastic, pointing up the sensationalistic tendencies of other publications, according to Starita and Abourezk.
“There’s no context whatsoever in the other reports that are cited. They’re just ignorant, shameless, circus performers who were throwing red meat to the animals. There’s no thought. There’s no history. There’s no context. There’s no cultural awareness,” Starita said.
Some of the shortcomings in coverage persisted years later. More than 100 years after the massacre, in a Nov. 1, 1989 piece headlined “Indians Seek Centennial Events for Battle, Sitting Bull’s Death,” staff writer Fred Thomas described the Wounded Knee massacre as the “Battle of Wounded Knee.” But there was no battle, according to Abourezk, and Thomas’ use of the word offended the Native population and contributed to a romanticization of this part of American history and a lionization of the U.S. Army at the time. Soldiers who took part were honored with medals afterward.
“I am offended when people call it a conflict or battle. It certainly will resist that description of it. It was a massacre… It's ridiculous to call it anything else,” said Abourezk. “That massacre was nothing like the glorious act it was described as at the time.”
The use of language when describing events like this massacre is important to the Indigenous population and those who support the accurate representation of history involving the Native community. Starita, while recounting the way news shaped how the massacre was perceived by the rest of America, said “language shapes culture.”
To call a massacre a battle implies two sides with offensive and defensive lines, rather than a military group rounding up innocent civilians and killing them or chasing them down and doing so, even if some tried to fight for their lives.
To this day, the memory of Wounded Knee lingers for Native people across the nation, but especially of the Plains. To heal and move forward from the painful history, Indigenous communities in South Dakota created Thunder Valley Community Development Cooperation, a non-profit organization that strives to heal, educate, build, and serve as an example for future Lakota generations.
“We try to help individuals reconnect their pathways through, with the use of culture, the use of our prayers, use of our history or language. Everything,” said Marlon Kelly, Lifeways and Wellness Equity director of Thunder Valley CDC. “And to let them know, this is who we are. This is who we are, even though what has happened during that time of that massacre.”
Lit sage in hand, Warren “Gus” Yellow Hair, Wicasa Wicohan coordinator, along with Thunder Valley CDC members recalled the tragedies of Wounded Knee. The members were visibly emotional with watery eyes while talking about their passed down memories and recounts of life, saying ‘blessings’ in Lakota in the middle of their statements.
“Our generational trauma from that is real. It’s a really hard topic for us to talk about. We still get emotional, as you’ve seen, not as Lakota people, but as descendants of survivors or people who were able to escape. But also as a mother who could imagine how your child was treated there. How they were killed,” said Mary Jo LeBeaux, Winyan Wicohan coordinator for Thunder Valley CDC. “You will never, ever read those graphic details in a book. A lot of things that happened there that, as Lakota people, we just won’t share with you because it's intense. But you can imagine all the things that happened there, and a lot of the things you can’t imagine happened there.”
The question of why, or tákuwe, has not lost urgency, more than 120 years later. The Wounded Knee Massacre was not the first or most recent burst of violence against Indigenous people, but their memories of the event have not waned.
LeBeaux went further and mentioned the current struggle the group is concerning themselves with; critical race theory (CRT). In South Dakota, the governor signed a law banning “divisive concepts” from classrooms that would essentially ban CRT and its related subjects, which would include teachings of the massacre at Wounded Knee.
“These struggles are real for us. It’s almost like we’re always walking into a brick wall. We turn, we find ways to try to help ourselves, and we turn around and there’s another brick wall,” LeBeaux said.
As members of the Indigenous community continue to fight to preserve their culture and history, inflammatory and inaccurate storytelling by newspapers has imposed a heavy cost.