Clearly nothing ended happily ever after

Our readings gave us a wonderful look, firsthand, at the plight of Native Americans in postwar America. A theme of abandonment runs through Sherman Alexie’s short story “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” and the selected works from Great Documents in American Indian History. Both readings did end with an optimistic sense of acceptance and the hope for change, however.

Though informative and enjoyable, the readings painted an incomplete picture. Just a few years after the Alcatraz island takeover, one of the worst periods of Indian relations in the twentieth century took place. Stopping the story where we did felt like shutting off Old Yeller right before the father has to put down the poor dog, thus shielding us from the horrific ending to this period of Indian rights activism.

I saw a story arc through the four documents that mirrored Alexie’s piece. It started with an initial abandonment. Victor’s father left him, much like a paternalistic United States government had selectively neglected Indian treaties about fishing and land rights. Yet, both readings end rather optimistically. Victor was able to accept his father abandoning him and then he reconnected with tradition through the story teller, Thomas Builds-the-Fire.  By 1969, the documents shift from pointing out the failures of the U.S. government to asking for the sovereignty to solve the Indians’ own problems from a base on Alcatraz island. They seemed to accept their abandonment and wished to be left alone.

A sign from Alcatraz island, showing the lasting marks from the American Indian occupation in 1969. Unfortunately, American Indian relations only worsened in the following years. Photo Courtesy of Tewy at Wikimedia.org

In some ways, I really wish that the occupation of Alcatraz would have marked a beginning of an even more hands-off approach toward Native Americans by the government. In 1973, however, members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) occupied the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and held out for a 71-day standoff with FBI agents, U.S. Marshals, National Guard troops and local law enforcement agents. In the end, two law U.S. agents were wounded and two Indians were killed.[1] It was only the beginning of violence within the Pine Ridge Reservation. Murders, beatings and other crimes continued to take place under the jurisdiction of Bureau of Indian Affairs agents.

Another notable Pine Ridge Reservation incident took place on June 26, 1975, and resulted in the death of two FBI agents and one Oglala Indian. The Pine Ridge Shootout started with a gunfight between Special Agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams, and it ended with both men killed, the AIM encampment surrounded by federal agents, one dead AIM member and the rest of the Indian resistance fighters fleeing.[2] Three arrests were made and a famous and heavily contested trial landed AIM member Leonard Peltier serving two consecutive life sentences for the murders of the agents.[3]

Alexie alludes to the Pine Ridge Shootout in his 2007 novel Flight. His main character is transformed into an FBI agent who is on his way for a meeting with supposed Indian resistance fighters in 1975. In the book, the incident takes place in Red River, Idaho. Events unfold that lead to the execution of a young Native American man at the hands of the two FBI agents and their double-agent Indian allies. Alexie’s protagonist, Zits, feels that he is in Hell, “And Hell is Red River, Idaho, in, 1975.”[4]

Reading one of Alexie’s short stories and the documents about the Alcatraz occupation triggered ominous memories of the literary reference in Flight, which I thought was factual. It led me to read accounts of the Pine Ridge Shootout. The incident in Flight can also help us understand Native American feelings of anger and betrayal over the shootout and subsequent trial that still linger today. We can not forget to discuss these and other violent clashes with the United States when telling the story of Native Americans in the twentieth century.

***

[1] U.S. Marshal Service,  “History – Incident at Wounded Knee,” U.S. Department of Justice, http://www.usmarshals.gov/history/wounded-knee/index.html, (accessed, 4/25/2010).

[2] Time Magazine, “INDIANS: The Pine Ridge Shootout,” Time Magazine, 7 July, 1975, http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,913222,00.html, (accessed 4/25/2010).

[3] Douglas O. Linder, “Famous Trials: The Leonard Peltier Trial (1977),” University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, 2006, http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/peltier/peltieraccount.html, (accessed 4/25/2010).

[4] Sherman Alexie, Flight, (New York: Black Cat, 2007), 47.

One thought on “Clearly nothing ended happily ever after

  1. I felt like the Native American readings were a bit thin. It fascinates me to learn about current tribal structures, and conditions on reservations around the country. Throw in the Casinos and you really have what can be a tragic, strange story. Measuring it along our nations other laundry list of what the greatest nation on Earth REALLY FEELS TERRIBLE about. I will have to get the book and dig deeper.
    I know we are looking at history, and the sixties provide us with clear examples of revolt that fit into the kind of larger social movements of the class but where else can we see the strange story of America’s relationship with the continent’s 1st people?

    I am wondering if a look into the world of Arthur C Clark, and his strange relationship with his personal identity and his relationship with the Iroquois could inform our study of Native American’s. He is extremely compelling considering his vocation.

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