When I write my column, I always try to think of those who will be reading it. And when I write something negative about a person, I try to keep in mind that my words will be read by people who love him, or who have fond memories of him if he’s passed on: his children, grandchildren, other relatives, and dear friends. I have had uneasy feelings as I wrote columns on the actions of Richard “Dick” Wilson in his tenure as President of the Oglala Sioux Tribe during the tumultuous times in the 1970s. My words were not kind to him, and, I’m sure, much resented by those who survive him in his family especially.
I have dreaded the thought of meeting any of his relatives; not out of fear, but more out of my distaste for any confrontation. But recently I received an e-mail from a person I guessed rightly was Dick’s grandson. He asked if I would call him; that he would like to talk with me. For reasons of my own privacy, I do not talk with anyone on the phone regarding my columns, and told him so. However, I do welcome comments and criticism of my writing, and that is why I always list my e-mail address and website. I did write a lengthy e-mail to him giving some of my thoughts justifying my columns. I received an answer from him that was very articulate, enlightening, and courteous. With his permission, I am including parts of that e-mail below.
His name is Ryan Wilson, and he has a great background of achievement, including having served as President of the National Indian Education Association. I will make it a point of learning more about him, and meeting him personally in the future. But his note got me to thinking deeply into my own attitudes as I write from the pulpit of the press, especially as a columnist.
I often criticize writers on historical inaccuracy, fabrications and exaggerations, particularly when I feel that the writer is twisting history to make his own point of contention. But for my part, I too have been remiss in not giving the whole story when I wrote about Dick Wilson. Although I still condemn the violence sanctioned during his time in office, I have never presented the backdrop of those times, and the great pressure on him and his family, from outside forces, the press, national church organizations, and many in the tribal communities.
I have never written how those times on the Pine Ridge Reservation split families apart over ideologies, issues and actions. In 1973, I went to Pine Ridge as Executive Director of NCAI to assist the tribal government, especially their President. There I found myself at times alienated from members of my family on both sides of the ongoing confrontation.
I watched as the U.S. Marshals came on the scene, dressed in light blue jumpsuits, and watched them unpack their rifles from cases and fix telescopic sights to them. They were arrogant and intimidating, and had no regard for the tribal government or its president. They spread an air of tension, probably not much different from what federal troops spread during the time of the Wounded Knee massacre eighty-three years earlier. It was martial law, pure and simple, and Dick Wilson was no longer in control. But it was in such situations that he made decisions, and listened to advice that resulted in what were clearly vigilante actions. It was goading by the press that led him to belligerent outbursts that they used with glee. But I believe he was sincere in his belief that it was the right thing and the only thing he could do.
I do remember sitting in the Wilson home on one occasion, having a beer with him and helping him devise press relations strategy to get his message out, and working with him to ameliorate the situation, which he would agree to. But there were some in the goon squad that had no use for me or for my family, and didn’t like the idea of amelioration.
But those days are gone, albeit not in the memories of some -- perhaps many -- left bitter by the experience of loved ones being brutalized. I can never and will never forget some of the things that happened to my brother and family members at the hands of the goons. And I have written only in response to Tim Giago’s efforts to justify the actions of the goon squads, and even to praise them.
But I have written enough about that. It is time perhaps for a new reconciliation -- individually and community wide – putting aside those times, and starting anew to a better future. Hanging on to bitterness too is victimhood in a sense, and it is time to move beyond that.
Here are some of the things Ryan Wilson wrote in his letter to me:
“The Wilson family has produced doctors, lawyers, educators, and war heroes. I know we are all proud of our families. I am very proud of Dick as well and remember him fondly from my youth. I have never felt a need to defend him or justify his actions. I still remember at his funeral which many said was the largest held on our reservation the incredible outpouring of grief and love, as I watched on I wondered silently how could one person be so loved and hated at the same time. As I grew older and emerged as the president of NIEA and leader in the language revitalization movement many people came forward from our homelands to offer encouragement and support regardless of their affiliations.
“I could be wrong, Charles, but I sense broad based support in our tribe to heal and move forward. Perhaps I have no status to say this but I want to say in a good way its time to let it go and use your ink for something more positive. What more could possibly be said about Wounded Knee that hasn't already been said from your perspective? There comes a time when everyone needs to say enough is enough.
“I read your articles and enjoy them and almost always agree with you, I especially liked your article on my grandmother Helen Peterson. I plan on reading your articles as long as you write and I tell my children to read them not just because they are good but because I am proud our creator put so many gifted Oglalas on this earth.”
I will take Ryan’s advice to heart, and I hope many of our tribal family will do so.
Charles E. Trimble is Oglala Lakota from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association in 1970, and served as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1972-78. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his website at iktomisweb.com.
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