Heather Cox Richardson


On her book Wounded Knee: Party Politics and the Road to an American Massacre

Cover Interview of June 06, 2010

The wide angle

Since the 1970s, there has been a tendency in America to see inequalities in society solely through the lens of race.  Our understanding of the Wounded Knee massacre has reflected this: we have blamed racist soldiers alone for the brutal deaths of the Sioux that day.

But using racism as a scapegoat for society’s inequalities is far too easy.  It lets modern-day Americans—most of whom pride themselves for not being racist—condemn inequalities in the past while insisting that problems in the present are not of their making.

Wounded Knee demands that we use a wider lens when we look at society’s problems.  I recognize the racism of the soldiers, but if the soldiers had had their wish, they would never have been in South Dakota in the first place.

To understand what created the Wounded Knee massacre, we have to look beyond the racism of the soldiers.  We have to figure out what led President Harrison to deploy a third of the U.S. Army to the new state of South Dakota when there was no obviously pressing reason to do so.  It turns out that what prompted him to make that fatal decision was a toxic brew of politics and economics.

It is a mistake to let racism alone bear the responsibility for American inequalities. Wounded Knee suggests that to understand events like the massacre—as well as myriad other instances where one group has advantages over another—we have to look at larger societal systems.  We need to see how economic policies privilege certain groups over others; how seemingly even-handed legislation can in fact discriminate against certain groups of people; how political machinations have winners and losers.

Looked at this way, continuing inequalities in society cannot be explained away by blaming somebody else’s racism. They implicate anyone who participates in the system without addressing its flaws.

In 1890, the soldiers were responsible for pulling the triggers, yes.  But anyone who had voted for the Harrison administration was also responsible for what happened at Wounded Knee.

Some of those Republican voters prided themselves on their goodwill toward the Indians.  But they were nonetheless instrumental in setting them up for destruction: accepting the idea that Harrison’s opponents were socialists who wanted to destroy America, they handed the reins of government to men who were determined to promote big business at all costs.