Michael Taylor, assistant professor of English, examines the Wounded Knee Massacre through a new perspective.
PROVO, Utah (January 19, 2018) —We dislike clichés because they are redundant, overused, or expose something already known and understood. For example, the cliché “history is written by the victor” expresses the notion that the oppressed and marginalized do not lend their experiences to history as it is recorded. These records, whether they be written, passed through oral tradition, or even digitally preserved, instead tell the tale of victors, champions who were on the winning side of conflicts; we revere their stories and implement them into our public school curriculums. However, it is telling that the voices of those who win often share one thing in common: they are predominantly male. It is women, no matter the conflict or cause, who have found themselves without a voice, and therefore without the chance to offer a feminine perspective on history as it unfolds before them.
Recognizing this fact, assistant English professor Michael Taylor has sought to reinterpret history through the voices of women whose input, influence, and perspective have been missing from annals of history. Taylor’s research, presented in a recent lecture given to the BYU Women’s Symposium, reflects on this disparity in the context of a single event: The Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890.
Widely misunderstood in its time, the Wounded Knee Massacre was exactly what its name suggests: a massacre of the cruelest nature. Despite reports of a pitched battle between noble soldiers and savage revolutionaries, Wounded Knee was the violent manifestation of the preconceived biases that so many settlers had of Native Americans at the time. News reporters, themselves victims of this bias, focused their stories on a “cowboy vs. Indian” narrative that fit in line with what their readers thought of Native Americans. Instead of detailing how U.S. Cavalrymen were forcibly disarming Native Americans before blatantly opening fire, reporters were extreme in their prejudice and glossed over the plight of not only those killed during the massacre, but also the many left in its brutal wake.
Enter Susette Bright Eyes La Flesche, a Ponca reporter for The Omaha Morning Herald, and the subject of Taylor’s research and lecture. A Native American woman herself, Bright Eyes was well acquainted with the suffering of both Native Americans and women, having experienced it firsthand. However, with this suffering came understanding and opportunity for Bright Eyes to offer a new perspective in her reporting. Instead of embracing a pre-established narrative, Bright Eyes dared to defy the “exclusively masculine” and “frustratingly limited” voice of her day so as to report the facts as truthfully as possible.
Historians occasionally make mention of Bright Eyes, but never in recognition of her work. Rather, she is documented as the wife of Thomas H. Tibbles, a white journalist for The World Herald. However, by Tibbles’ own admission, Bright Eyes was not “some silent, accompanying Indian spouse, but rather a fearless friend, fact-finder, nurse, witness, and woman journalist.”
Instead of describing Wounded Knee from a distance, Bright Eyes experienced and documented the massacre firsthand. Her stories were not of gallant soldiers or an honorable battle; rather, Bright Eyes was reporting on Native American councils and interacting with Sioux women at their kitchen tables. She was an avid critic of the U.S. government, served as the conduit through which the stories of the voiceless were made known, and became a force to be reckoned with.
As Taylor puts it, “Rather than hostility, [Bright Eyes] reports on Indigenous humanity. Rather than focusing on generals and chiefs, she interacts with Indigenous widows. Rather than sensational fiction, she offers straightforward observations. Even as she writes of violence, her letters witness Indigenous cooperative resistance against the root, rather than the immediate fruit of the ongoing ‘Indian problem.’”
It is through these methods, with grace that could only be proffered by a woman in her circumstances, that Bright Eyes explored the plight of the marginalized. Her words, now becoming a greater part of our historical understanding thanks to Taylor, provide the alternative account that was notably missing from original reports of Wounded Knee.
Through personally revisiting Wounded Knee and other similar events from the perspective of marginalized individuals, we can then, as Taylor hopes, witness as “the archive of Indigenous women becomes visible again, challenging readers to reconsider the Indigenous and collective U.S. pasts, in order to collaboratively imagine and help build better Indigenous futures.”
It is perhaps this—giving voice to the voiceless—that allows us to do some of the greatest good possible for the marginalized people of today.
—Eric Baker (News Media, ’18)
Eric Baker covers events for BYU’s International Cinema. He is a senior pursuing a degree in News Media with a minor in Political Science.