When Omar Mateen gunned down 49 people in an Orlando night club last week, many news organizations quickly identified it as the worst mass-shooting in United States history.
Many Native Americans quickly noted that claim ignored history. Still acknowledging that the pain inflicted by Mateen on June 12 at the Pulse night club is beyond comprehension, the Natives and other historians pointed out several massacres claimed far more lives.
“I can think of 15 or 20 off the top of my head,” said Tim Giago, the publisher of the Native Sun News in Rapid City.
It's important to remember the lives lost, he said.
“It’s a very powerful message,” Giago said of being forgotten. “Too often in the history of this country, Native Americans weren’t even considered to be human beings. They were shot down by the hundreds, like you would shoot an animal.”
The Associated Press appears to have aligned itself with Giago’s way of thinking. The international news service now describes Orlando as the deadliest shooting in "modern" U.S. history. The AP also published a list of "frontier bloodshed," describing mass shootings dating to 1857.
The list includes the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890, when U.S. 7th Cavalry soldiers gunned down hundreds of Lakota men, women and children — making it among the worst mass shootings in American history.
Giago and a handful of other Native American leaders in South Dakota have expressed sorrow and frustration that the public appears to have forgotten what happened at Wounded Knee 125 years ago.
“The government came and opened up their guns, and slaughtered 150 to 300 people,” said Ruby Gibson, executive director of Freedom Lodge, a Rapid City based nonprofit that specializes in historical trauma. “They stripped them down and piled them in mass graves. And that was that.”
In its article, the AP also listed the Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857, where 120 people traveling on a wagon train to California were shot to death by Mormons as they went through Utah; the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, where a group of Colorado volunteer soldiers attacked an encampment of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians, killing at least 200 people; and a 1921 white mob attack, burning a prosperous black section of Tulsa, Okla., to the ground. Shooting was widespread. It is estimated that up to 300 people were killed.
“American history,” said Chas Jewett, a Native American community activist in Rapid City, “is full of violent atrocities committed by men with guns and other weapons of mass destruction, with fear and hate in their hearts.”
Orlando's death toll is the worst by a lone U.S. gunman in the last decade. There were 12 people slain at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., in 2012. Another 32 were killed in Virginia Tech in 2007. And in 2012, a man gunned down 20 children and six staff members at a school in Newtown, Conn.
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'It's painful to be invisible'
Some will say Wounded Knee happened a long time ago, Gibson said, but the memory of the slaughter is still raw, contributing to a framework of historical trauma that lingers and reverberates across generations.
Giago’s grandmother was a little girl on the day of the massacre, attending a parochial school 10 miles from Wounded Knee creek.
“She saw the cavalry riding through the school grounds,” Giago said. “The students watered and fed their horses.”
He remembers listening as a little boy to the stories of Lakota elders on the benches at the Wounded Knee site. Some of them were there that day. Sleep was elusive for those elders, Giago said, because their dreams were haunted by the sounds of children crying.
Collins "C.J." Clifford is the representative of the Wounded Knee district on the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council. All too often, Clifford said, the message sent to Native Americans is to "get over" what happened at Wounded Knee — but that’s never the message sent to the victims and survivors of other mass shootings.
Watching news outlets label what happened in Orlando as the worst mass shooting upset many in the Native community, Giago and Gibson said. They feel that all too often the place of Native Americans in U.S. history goes unacknowledged or is erased entirely.
“It’s painful to be invisible,” Gibson said.
While the value of human life cannot be quantified, it is important to remember Wounded Knee and other massacres in their proper historic context, Giago and Gibson said. Giago noted that at the time of the Wounded Knee massacre, South Dakota was a state, not a lawless frontier wasteland. Gibson also finds it noteworthy that men in the U.S. military carried out the slaughter.
“We have historical amnesia about those events, because a lot of them have been taken out of the history books,” Gibson said. “Consequently, we disregard the terrorism of the United States on its own soil.”
Education is key if things are to improve, Gibson said. She says a comprehensive awareness is needed about how historical genocidal policies against Native Americans fit into the ongoing saga of gun violence in the United States.
“I think that when news writers start writing about something and start calling it ‘the worst,’ they need to think about the overall history of America,” Giago added. “They need to think about the indigenous people, who were here as the country moved West. We are part of that history, and too often we’re excluded from it.”