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FORUM: Wounded Knee has made a difference for Native Americans

FORUM: Wounded Knee has made a difference for Native Americans


The Journal's Feb. 27 editorial, "Wounded Knee, 40 years later," is wrong that "in many ways, nothing came out of the ordeal." In the past 40 years, much has changed for American Indians, although much has not. The Journal's editorial outlines what has not changed, including grinding poverty on South Dakota's reservations.

But the Journal's editorial omits what has changed, most of which is far more visible outside South Dakota. Some tribes are relatively well off because of casino revenue made possible by the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. The Indian Child Welfare Act has sought to keep Indian children with Indian families. The American Indian Religious Freedom Act protects traditional religious observances. The Indian Self Determination and Education Assistance Act strengthened tribal government by authorizing federal agencies to make grants directly to tribes, and enter contracts with them. All these are new since 1973.

It is difficult -- arguably impossible -- to predict how the present would be different if a particular historical event had not occurred. So, too, with Wounded Knee 1973. But the occupation undeniably focused national, as well as international, attention on the present reality of living conditions of American Indians.

Public awareness of a problem is the first step toward change. A wheel that never squeaks is rarely greased. The 1973 occupation made Americans -- including me -- far more aware of Indian problems and issues. And it gave many Indians a sense of identity and purpose, as well as a vision of themselves not as victims of history, but as participants in helping to create their present and future.

Ironically, even as the Journal's editorial asserts that nothing changed because of the occupation, it proves the opposite, by using the anniversary as a reason to address continuing problems still affecting Indians, and how far we all have to go, especially in South Dakota. So the occupation continues to bring attention to those problems, even 40 years later. That is a remarkable accomplishment.

The Journal wrote that "public demonstrations and occupations aren't enough to bring about change." This is not exactly a revelation. News reports and public statements during the occupation show that the occupiers were acutely aware that it was but a first step toward change. Many of the occupiers, and many inspired by them, have worked for change during the past 40 years, and many continue to do so today.

As the New York Times wrote this fall, before the 1973 occupation, Indians were "seen as functionally extinct, living on celluloid and in history books," and "as place names and car models, but not in the larger public consciousness," but the occupation "punctured that invisibility."

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