Monday, July 20, 2009

PBS Accused of Distorting Indian History; Falls Prey to Propaganda

"The last place we thought we would encounter resistance to the truth is the taxpayer-funded Public Broadcasting System. But now it appears that the bigwigs at PBS intend to dig in their heels. They insist that their recently released film, “Wounded Knee,” is a fair and balanced account of the takeover and destruction of the historic village in 1973...Another example of deception [in the PBS film "Wounded Knee"] is the conspicuous absence of any footage showing Anna Mae Pictou Aquash, a prominent and highly visible AIM member at Wounded Knee. Aquash was murdered by AIM leaders in 1975 because they mistakenly believed that she was an FBI informant. Ironically, Wounded Knee warrior Madonna Thunder Hawk, featured throughout the film, is also implicated in Aquash’s murder and its subsequent cover-up. Carter Camp, another featured AIM leader, has been repeatedly caught in a lie about knowing [the disappeared] Ray Robinson."---Wounded Knee Victims and Veterans Association (WKVAV.)

In its Tuesday, July 14, 2009 post, the AIM Myth Busters accuse PBS of distorting history and falling prey to propaganda. The Accuracy in Media site also carries a July 14 article by John M. Trimbach.

For previous posts about this issue, search PBS on this blog, the AIM Myth Busters, the Wounded Knee Victims and Veterans Association (WKVAVA), the American Indian Mafia site, or Joseph and John Trimbach's Expert Click homepage.

I have reproduced the original AIM Myth Busters post below:

PBS Accused of Distorting Indian History; Falls Prey to Propaganda

Sometimes you have to take a stand against widely-accepted propaganda and defend unpopular truths. The last place we thought we would encounter resistance to the truth is the taxpayer-funded Public Broadcasting System. But now it appears that the bigwigs at PBS intend to dig in their heels. They insist that their recently released film, “Wounded Knee,” is a fair and balanced account of the takeover and destruction of the historic village in 1973. We beg to differ. To make our point, we formed a group, the Wounded Knee Victims and Veterans Association (WKVAVA.) Our group includes people who have either studied Wounded Knee or else have documented knowledge of what happened there. We stack up well against PBS’s “prominent scholars.” Unlike them, some of us were actual participants in the occupation and the efforts to end it peacefully. We therefore carry credibility of the sort that seems to be lacking at PBS HQ. Included in our group is JoAnn Gildersleeve Feraca (Chippewa), daughter of Agnes and Clive Gildersleeve, owners of the Wounded Knee Trading Post; Romona and Saunie Wilson (Lakota), daughters of Tribal Chairman Richard Wilson; Richard Two Elk (Lakota), Wounded Knee Veteran and former member, American Indian Movement; Patrick LeBeau, (Cheyenne River Sioux, Chippewa), Professor of Indian Studies, Michigan State University; Paul DeMain (Oneida-Ojibwe), Editor, News from Indian Country; and Shawn White Wolf (Northern Cheyenne), CEO, White Wolf Media Group. In addition to protecting the true story of Wounded Knee, our mission is to correct the historical record wherever we find evidence of distortion and propaganda with regard to the legacy of the American Indian Movement (AIM.) And we find much distortion and propaganda (and some backpedaling) from the folks at PBS. Here are excerpts from our first and second letters (May 10 and July 10, 2009) to PBS’s CEO, Paula Kerger.

Dear Ms. Kerger,

We wish to express our concerns about the PBS-backed production of “Wounded Knee,” the final installment of the “American Experience - We Shall Remain” series, which is scheduled to air on May 11, 2009. We believe that the producer, Stanley Nelson of Firelight Media, violates PBS’s own guidelines for editorial integrity, honesty, and fairness. PBS guidelines state: “When editing, producers of informational content must not sensationalize events or create a misleading or unfair version of what actually occurred” and that “(p)roducers must assure that edited material remains faithful in tone…” and is presented “…in a manner that fairly portrays reality.” “Wounded Knee” fails on all counts. This production employs distorted editing, deceptive statements, audience manipulation, and a propagandistic narrative that rationalizes the terror, violence, and murders perpetrated by members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) during the 1973 occupation of the historic Indian village of Wounded Knee.

This film attempts to explain away the destruction of the village by invoking historical issues (broken treaties, Indian boarding schools, government-sponsored relocation, etc.) and by rationalizing the criminality of the perpetrators. One of the film’s worst transgressions is its contemptible disregard for the real victims of Wounded Knee, the villagers who lived there. Aside from a brief statement from one of the Indian hostages, Agnes Gildersleeve, the villagers’ stories are virtually absent from this film. “Wounded Knee” does not even show how AIM systematically tore the village apart and reduced it to complete devastation. The film does not mention that AIM looted the town, stole people’s personal possessions, slaughtered cattle in their bedrooms, fire-bombed their homes and vehicles, and desecrated their churches. AIM occupiers stole or destroyed a collection of priceless Indian artifacts when they pillaged the Wounded Knee museum. Rather than condemn AIM violence, “Wounded Knee” serves as a mouthpiece for the perpetrators who spew their distortions and lies without challenge. To glorify AIM in this way is not only deceitful, it is offensive. This film cheapens genuine Indian valor and heroism.

For a documentary that purports to be about the armed takeover of a community and its consequences, these are serious shortcomings that demand a response. From a philosophical point of view, the argument that the terror, violence, theft, and loss of life associated with the razing of an Indian village were somehow justified is an argument that is fundamentally flawed and must be exposed.

Producer Nelson went to great lengths to tell only the perpetrators’ side of the story. He misled interviewees, such as Wounded Knee resident Walter Littlemoon, about what would be in the film. Nelson reneged on his agreement to interview Wounded Knee veteran Richard Two Elk, a condition agreed to in exchange for Joe Trimbach’s participation. Nelson used Trimbach’s interview anyway. Nelson or his surrogates omitted American Indian Mafia from the PBS bibliography. This book, which is supported by thorough documentation, is arguably the most complete and factual account of Wounded Knee’s destruction. After Joe Trimbach registered a complaint with your legal department, Mafia was added to the PBS list. One wonders if Mafia was initially excluded simply because it exposes several of the books in the same list as falsified and fraudulent accounts of AIM history and of Wounded Knee. Nelson relies on these falsified books to support his distorted version of what happened in the village. To reference only the falsified accounts is inexcusable. To use this tainted information to construct leading questions for the PBS-endorsed school curriculum is equally scandalous and must also be exposed. There is not one question, for example, that asks how the villagers lost everything they owned.

We believe that Nelson’s failure to interview Two Elk was partly due to the fact that he witnessed the Wounded Knee murder of Perry Ray Robinson, a topic Nelson shows no interest in pursuing. Robinson, the only black man seen inside the village during that period, was a civil rights activist and a colleague of Martin Luther King. Robinson was shot by an AIM leader during a heated argument. His death and burial near the village ruins is one of many AIM secrets that Nelson’s production has now helped cover up.

Another example of deception is the conspicuous absence of any footage showing Anna Mae Pictou Aquash, a prominent and highly visible AIM member at Wounded Knee. Aquash was murdered by AIM leaders in 1975 because they mistakenly believed that she was an FBI informant. Ironically, Wounded Knee warrior Madonna Thunder Hawk, featured throughout the film, is also implicated in Aquash’s murder and its subsequent cover-up. Carter Camp, another featured AIM leader, has been repeatedly caught in a lie about knowing Ray Robinson. Today, Camp denies ever meeting him. On camera, Camp has nothing to say about Anna Mae either. In fact, most of the AIM leaders interviewed for this film have been implicated in the Aquash and Robinson murders. Anna Mae likely knew about the Robinson shooting and her leaders’ attempts to keep his death a secret, and now it appears Nelson has joined the effort to write her out of existence as well. AIM leaders must surely approve.

Instead of documenting Indian history, "Wounded Knee" denigrates genuine Indian sacrifice and makes a mockery of true Indian heroism shown in previous segments. We intend to pursue every means available to expose this film for its dishonesty, its revisionist agenda, and its abject failure to tell a fact-based and fair-minded story of Wounded Knee. This production abuses the public trust by recycling and legitimizing what can only be described as vintage AIM propaganda. A PBS-sanctioned curriculum that indoctrinates our children must also be challenged. We therefore demand redress. We want equal time for rebuttal, balance, and clarification. The American public deserves better from our publicly-funded programming. We ask for your immediate response to our concerns.

PBS responded a few days later with a letter from PBS Executive Producer Mark Samels and with comments from some of their paid consultants. Here is our reply:

Dear Ms. Kerger,

This is in response to your letter of May 15 and to comments from the June 5 PBS mailbag in support of the American Experience film, “Wounded Knee.” In our letter of May 10, we expressed misgivings about the film and the manner in which it was produced. We believe that the points we raised deserve consideration and debate because they identify issues this film does not address but that are nevertheless central to its integrity and historical accuracy. As you know, we drew attention to a range of issues producer Stanley Nelson took pains to avoid, all of which would have undermined the credibility of AIM leaders Nelson interviewed for the film and whom he portrays as reliable sources. Our concerns focus on the film’s tendency to cover up serious crimes committed by these same AIM leaders during the occupation of Wounded Knee. We were also troubled by the explanation for why American Indian Mafia, the only book that mentions these crimes in detail, was initially dropped from the PBS bibliography. We had hoped PBS officials would respond in an honest and objective manner and perhaps offer insights unknown to us. After reading PBS’s official response, however, our concerns remain.

We do not agree with Executive Producer Mark Samels’s assessment that the film is “even-handed in the portrayal of the siege,” primarily because the film almost completely ignores the Indian victims of Wounded Knee. Nor is Samels correct when he claims that archival footage “clearly shows” the village devastation. In fact, the film does not show any of the fire-bombed homes or the mass vandalism that left most Indian residences completely uninhabitable. Tribal Chairman Dick Wilson was never the mayor of Pine Ridge, as Samels asserts, nor does the film follow through with what Samels says is its intent to show the effect the takeover had on Indians across the county. The film’s argument that Wounded Knee had a positive effect on Native Americans is almost entirely anecdotal and is offered by AIM supporters. There is hard evidence, as well, that suggests the takeover had a negative effect on Indians nationwide and on AIM. Just after Wounded Knee, AIM leaders drew less than 200 Indians to their national convention. The National Tribal Chairman’s Association condemned AIM for destroying the historic village; and when AIM took over a manufacturing plant in New Mexico the following year, hundreds of Navajos lost their jobs. Nelson’s film mentions none of this. On an empirical basis, it is easier to show that the destruction of an Indian village spelled the end of AIM as a credible organization formed to help other Indians. The producers are left with the shaky proposition that legal defense costs explain why AIM’s demise coincided with AIM’s greatest achievement.

Mr. Samels claims that American Experience has responded to our concerns “fully and responsibly,” but then he seems to contradict himself by saying that he does not feel it is “necessary or prudent” to respond point by point to our objections. It may not be prudent to admit the film’s shortcomings, but it is definitely necessary in the interest of portraying true Indian history. We are not persuaded by his assurances that the film was reviewed by “prominent scholars of Native American history,” especially when it appears that our first-hand insights into what really happened at Wounded Knee address the very questions these experts are unable to answer.

Film advisor Paul Chaat Smith admits he is unfamiliar with many of the issues we raised. That is understandable, but it is not a basis upon which to label them “extreme.” Reporting a myriad of sourced facts, as was done in American Indian Mafia, may be ground-breaking, even provocative; but it is surely not extreme. Furthermore, if Mr. Smith is going to make our argument for us, we wish he would do so accurately. Our concerns have always been with the corruption and criminality of the AIM leadership, not, as Mr. Smith suggests, with the membership or the ideals the Movement espoused. We do not accept the notion that “Wounded Knee” presents the “Native American perspective.” Rather, the film presents, very effectively, a dishonest “AIM leadership perspective”; and there’s a huge difference between the two. Then, as today, the leadership preyed on the membership, as evidenced by the distortions in this film. We agree with film adviser Robert Warrior’s assessment that, “…where AIM goes chaos often follows,” if “chaos” means violence, destruction, and murder perpetrated by the leaders. We do not see the need to parse words, however, or to provide cover to those who still wield power through fear and intimidation.

“Wounded Knee” strongly suggests that AIM “is responsible for many positive changes in Indian Country”; yet, like Mr. Smith, the film is short on evidence, aside from a hazy reference to Indians feeling good about being Indian and a hard-to-prove correlation to the revitalization of Indian culture. For example, the argument that the National Museum of the American Indian would not exist without AIM’s influence is more than problematic, especially considering that AIM is virtually absent from all exhibits. Mr. Smith raises some interesting issues, however, such as the phenomenon of an annual Pine Ridge celebration of the 1973 occupation, an event that left the reservation worse off in countless ways. How did the local history become so perverted? And how did national media coverage of the occupation color the way the history was recorded?

We find Professor R. David Edmunds’s comments particularly disappointing. He insists that a response to our concerns would be too lengthy to be of much use. How odd for an academic to make such an argument. He further states that he lacks a law degree that might otherwise enable him to answer a few questions of the sort that can be found through honest research. The professor might simply be unqualified to address the issues we raised. Perhaps this is why he fails to mention our primary complaint about the film, which is of course the lack of information about the real victims of Wounded Knee: the people who lived there and the people who died there. Why is it so difficult to address the charge that this film runs roughshod over the Oglala perspective in favor of AIM criminality?

Professor Edmunds concludes by referencing his vast experience as a basis for belittling our point of view as “the perspective of a very small group of people with a particular agenda, and will be generally ignored by almost everyone else.” He may hope so, but it appears the professor has an agenda of his own. We challenge him to debate us on the AIM lies and distortions in his book, The People: A History of Native America. A number of this book’s characterizations of AIM are easily exposed as propaganda that originated with AIM leaders and their lawyers. While there may be many fine attributes to the professor’s research in other areas, his AIM expertise is suspect; he seems threatened by the facts, especially the facts with which he is unfamiliar. This gets to the heart of our objections and the weaknesses inherent in the film’s premise of presenting AIM leaders as reliable sources and as righteous pioneers. This approach tied the hands of “Wounded Knee” producer, Stanley Nelson, as he avoided certain issues at all costs in order to advance his agenda of sanitizing the Wounded Knee historical record. We maintain that a more objective approach to Wounded Knee realities would have led to some very interesting questions.

Consider, for example, the death of Viet Nam veteran Buddy Lamont on April 27 of the occupation. As alluded to in the film, challenging AIM leader Dennis Banks’s authority was a very dangerous thing to do at Wounded Knee, even for a local Oglala leader like Lamont. The film has AIM member Beau Little Sky saying that, to him, Lamont’s death was a murder. It may very well have been a murder, since Lamont was shot in the back, and apparently from a much shorter range than the hundreds of yards that separated militant bunkers from government roadblocks. Why didn’t AIM leaders immediately call for a ceasefire when Lamont was hit, as they did when Frank Clearwater (the only other “official” death) was struck by a stray bullet ten days earlier? In fact, Dennis Banks rejected a government-offered ceasefire at about the time Lamont was shot, and AIM leader Carter Camp admits he left Lamont’s body where it lay for over two hours before staging a rescue. Why?

The same Carter Camp extolled in the film as he speaks of the “horror” of the 1890 massacre is not asked about murder victim Ray Robinson or the horror he surely experienced. Robinson bled to death after being shot by an AIM leader a few days before Lamont was killed. Why did Camp once claim that he had to leave Robinson after he was “shot through both legs” at Wounded Knee? Why does Camp now say he never met the man? What does Camp have to say about Robinson’s friend, Al Cooper, who was chained to a bed while Camp and other AIM leaders pondered his fate as a possible snitch? And what happened to the people who didn’t pass the spy test? We would like to see a film where narrator Benjamin Bratt asks these questions with the same serious tone as he uses when misstating what happened at Wounded Knee Creek in 1890. At the very least, these issues would lend new meaning to the PBS questions designed to “challenge students,” such as: “Who are some of the most successful Native American leaders at the beginning of the 21st century?”

To summarize, we are not satisfied by the responses to our concerns from the PBS experts and their paid consultants. We believe that any impartial examination of this film must acknowledge its tendency to promote distortions injurious to true Indian history. We will continue to press for a fair, impartial, and informed response to our concerns. PBS viewers should be presented a fuller picture of what happened at Wounded Knee than only the perspective of AIM leaders engaged in cover-up and the massaged story of a doomed village with no victims. That is why we are encouraged by the words of PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler. We agree with his conclusion that further discussion is warranted; the public interest is not well served by stifling debate and undercutting honest inquiry. We applaud his call for a group of scholars not connected to the program to take a second look at the film and possibly debate its merits. We can suggest a panel of experts such as Native publisher Tim Giago and former government administrator Dr. Jim Wilson, both of whom will challenge many of the film’s premises and claims. In the spirit of fairness and historical accuracy, we ask you to schedule a roundtable discussion of the issues we have raised. We look forward to PBS following through with what Mr. Getler agrees is the quintessential mandate of PBS: the pursuit of historical “authenticity.”


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