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Mavis Richardson

The Telling of Wounded Knee Through the Use of Narrative Form

Volume 12, 1999


This study looks at the news stories written by one of the many reporters covering the Wounded Knee Battle on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota on December 29, 1890. This reporter was one of three reporters who had accompanied the soldiers to accept the surrender of Big Foot and his band. By using narrative analysis, this study examined the dispatch of C. W. Allen to discover the narrative that emerged from the story and if the narrative reflected the commonly accepted viewpoint of Native Americans during this time period.


Researchers have been investigating the communication process in an attempt to understand mass media messages and their underlying meanings. Their research has suggested that, to use Dave Domke's words, "the mass media's selection and framing of language, news and perceptions conveys and abets a social reality that legitimates the practices and ideas of the dominant social class,"--generally the white majority (1996, 231). Put another way, media messages reinforce, whether intentionally or not, the commonly accepted viewpoints or ideologies through the representations, descriptions, explanations, and frames which are embedded in the discourse (Domke, 1996, 231).

This research seeks to examine the narrative that emerges from the media messages generated about the massacre at Wounded Knee in South Dakota in 1890. In particular, this study focuses on the news stories written by one reporter who witnessed the massacre first hand. Stories written about the Wounded Knee massacre have been called sensationalistic in style, but a new examination of the material utilizing the narrative form is expected to show what narrative emerges from the stories of the Wounded Knee massacre. In particular, this paper examines the dispatches written by one of the reporters covering the massacre: C. W. Allen.

This paper is guided by two research questions: What is the narrative that emerges from the dispatches written by C. W. Allen? And does the narrative reflect the commonly accepted viewpoint of Native Americans during this time period?

According to Gaye Tuchman, news is a window on the world and, through that window, we learn of others, of our institutions, leaders, and lifestyles and those of other nations and their peoples and ourselves (1978, 1). In other words, news presents a mirror of a society's concerns and interests. However, readers' definitions and interpretations of news are dependent upon the social structure and not on the activities of reporters and news organizations (Tuchman, 1978, 183).

The mass media provide these frames through the language choices journalists make in writing news accounts. Journalists manipulate symbols of language as they write and present news accounts to translate values, interests, ideas, and purposes that are then converted into a symbolic strategy designed to inform or persuade an audience (Carey, 1969, 28). As Teun van Dijk explains:


Language systems and language use are not autonomous but are inextricably related to the interactional functions and the social contexts of verbal communication. Language and discourse forms thus mark or 'indicate' their relevant social parameters and are treated as manifestations of social action of a specific kind (1983, 22).


Language signifies reality because of meanings that words carry. Fairclough has asserted that "particular texts embody particular ideologies or theories" (1992, 55). In another source, he argued that language use in any text is "always simultaneously constitutive of social identities, social relations, and systems of knowledge and belief, that is, any text makes its own small contribution to shaping these aspects of society" (1995, 55).

The term discourse is used to "imply a mode of action, one form in which people may act upon the world, and especially upon each other, as well as a mode of representation," according to Fairclough. "Discourse is a practice not just of representing the world, but of signifying the world, constituting and constructing the world in meaning," (Fairclough, 1992, 64).

How does narrative construct and constitute the world? According to Fairclough (1992, 64), first, it constructs social identities and subject positions for social subjects and types of self. Second, it constructs social relationships among people. Third, it contributes to the construction of systems of knowledge and belief.

Narrative analysis allows the researcher to examine media messages, in van Dijk's works, "to explain, in precise cognitive models, how various structures of media discourse come about and how media discourse is understood and represented in memory" (van Dijk, 1983, 27). Further, it allows us to discover the underlying semantic structures of media messages and identify implicit implications, presuppositions and connections (van Dijk, 1983, 27). Fairclough argues that narrative analysis is necessary to reveal how particular "constructions of reality in language contribute to the production, reproduction, or transformation of existing social relations" (1992, 87).

Stylistic choices made by journalists also have "clear social and ideological implications, because they often signal the opinions of the reporter about news actors and news events and the group memberships of the speaker" (van Dijk, 1991, 116). Finally, the news schema used to organize the story also imply or signal a dominant ideological position. Traditional news schema involves categories such as headline, lead, main events, context, history, and comments.

Analyzing textual structures gives only a partial picture of the ideological meanings underlying the text. To show how underlying meanings are related to the text, cognitive, social, political, and cultural contexts also must be analyzed. According to van Dijk, researchers "need to spell out the cognitive representations and strategies of journalists in the production of the news report and those of the reader when understanding it" (1991, 117).

First, in textual understanding, the meaning of the text itself is gradually and strategically constructed and represented in memory as a text representation. Second, language users, and hence journalists and readers, have a unique, personal representation of the news events referred to by the text. This knowledge representation in memory is called a model (1991, 117).

This model referred to by van Dijk features the information expressed by the written word and what is not expressed but assumed to be known by the readers. It is this model, van Dijk suggests, that "manages the interactional, communicative aspect of discourse and which relates discourse with social situations and structures" (1991, 118).

One method to approach the contextual analysis is through the examination of the narrative. All news stories are narratives about the events and people reported about. J. E. Fair has argued that narrative analysis "allows for the interpretation of texts in relation to the cultural contexts in which they operate. Texts can take on many different meanings, though one meaning may dominate; and interpretations themselves are subject to interpretation. Hence, analysis does not provide 'the meaning' of texts but strives to render texts meaningful by placing them within a relevant interpretative framework" (1996, 8).

Sonja K. Foss defined narrative analysis as a "way of ordering the presenting of a view of the world through a description of a situation involving characters, actions, and setting" (1989, 229). The use of narrative analysis allows for the identification of a central action or plot to decide what a particular experience is about or to allow a dominant central action or point to emerge in the discourse. Narrative also establishes connections between and among the central action and the various underlying elements or meanings contained within the story. Finally, narrative analysis allows the researcher to judge reality presented or created in the narrative for completeness and consistency to dominate social ideologies.

Scholars say that, as part of the communication process, news can become part of the myth that reinforces societal views, values, and beliefs. Bird and Dardenne (1988) wrote that members of a culture learn values, definitions of right and wrong, and sometimes can experience vicarious thrills through myths. "News is a way in which people create order out of disorder. As a symbolic system, myth and news both act as a model for a culture (Bird and Dardenne, 1988, 70-71). Bennett and Edelman add that "recurring and stereotypical narrative accounts in the mass media can elicit powerful responses of belief or disbelief" (1985, 156). "People create myths at certain times and places for certain purposes--they reflect the values and concerns of the period and the people who produced them," White has argued (1991, 616). In other words, news stories constitute social relations of a given reality and carry characteristics of knowledge that are organized and processed by the dominant culture--in this case, the white culture.

James Carey wrote that "national media give public and identifiable form to symbols and values of national identity and also block out public communication areas of potential conflict" (1989, 25). The media of 1890 America reinforced the culturally accepted negative myth about Native Americans because it gave a symbolic personae that the public could easily understand. It provided, in Bormann's words, "systematic explanations within the general approach of the narrative paradigm" (1985, 136).

Cultural myths are rearticulated and reinterpreted over time, and journalists play a role in affirming and maintaining the social order or myth, according to Bird and Dardenne (1988, 72). "The media, using existing conventions and maps of meaning [myths], construct reality to conform to these maps" (Bird and Dardenne, 1988, 81). And Lucaites and Condit assert that, by using the existing conventions of writing, the audience assumes that "the speaker [writer] has no special self-interest in the narrative and his or her credibility is at least theoretically presumed. They must portray a logically or aesthetically complete vision, creating a whole world or a whole truth" (1985, 101-102).


Journalist Practices in 1890

Hazel Dicken-Garcia has argued that the Civil War brought changes to the role and appearance of the press as it took on a more important role in the daily lives of American citizens. An insatiable demand for war news established a reliance on newspapers as a means of obtaining information about the events affecting the daily lives of households across the nation (Dicken-Garcia, 1989, 52). In addition, she continues, the news form and writing style also changed. The inverted pyramid style of writing gained popularity among journalists during the Civil War. Stories also contained information gathered from several sources, thus giving readers a broader view of the battles and government policies reported on during the Civil War.

According to Dicken-Garcia, the definition of news again changed by the 1890s, now "dwelling on individual personalities and using drama to lure readers" (1989, 89). And Michael Schudson has argued that reporters were less likely to be interested by then in facts "than in creating personally distinctive and popular styles of writing" (1978, 71).

Others argue that newspaper reporters were eager to exploit any situation. For example, Jerome Nerone says they believed they were performing their primary function: serving the information needs of an increasingly dependent public (1992, 15). City people turned to the daily newspaper for the story of their urban life and their common interests. The paper was the chronicle of the national scene.

Both Dicken-Garcia and Schudson say that new technology and a wider awareness of the world created a demand by the public for information about the world and the public wanted it as quickly as possible. Readers needed this information to interpret their own lives and, in turn, relate this information to the nation, town, or class to which they belonged. And Carey says that the reporter needed to "consolidate and stabilize for the reader his identity and the reality of his group. Friends and enemies are identified along with evidence of their goodness and badness" (1989, 26).

The growing competition among newspapers by the 1890s led to disregard for the truthful, fact-based stories. Instead, news stories needed to be "spicy, saucy, smart, interesting, exciting. Reporters were to exhibit 'enterprise'--that is, be aggressively resourceful in getting interesting stories," Dicken-Garcia has written (1989, 198). Reporters were to supply exciting stories and large quantities or else they might find themselves out of a job.

The writing style used by the reporters covering the massacre at Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota in 1890, becomes, in the words of Robert Hariman, an analytical category for understanding a social reality (1995, 9). In other words, by adopting a particular style of writing that reflected accepted myths, reporters aided their readers in interpreting and understanding the news about events on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.



The purpose of this study is analysis of the dispatch C. W. Allen wrote about the Wounded Knee massacre for his newspaper, the Chadron Democrat. With the use of narrative analysis, this study will demonstrate the various narrative forms Allen uses in his account and the moral implications imbedded with Allen's use of narrative. Walter Fisher refers to "narration as a theory of symbolic actions--words and/or deeds--that have sequence and meaning for those who live, create, or interpret them" (1984, 2). Narration consists of a "teller" and a "told to," and contains a plot and characters.

The narrative form ascribes some knowledge to the narrator that is not available to the characters--knowledge at a more general and abstract level, according to J.H. Rushing (1986, 427). However, if a narrator's account is to be believed, it needs to present a feasible guide for action by providing a narrator whose personae are harmonious with the choices within, and with the trajectory of, the story in its entirety (Chisholm, 1997, 280). Writers can adopt a dual persona to accomplish this; they can be both narrator of the story and a character within the story.

A first-person narrative that appeals to the identity of its audience can incorporate and exceed the logic of good reasons (Chisholm, 1997, 281). These narratives can confirm or enhance the author's credibility. The first person narrative encourages audience identification and participation by constructing a role for the audience and by giving that role mythic, historic, and legendary significance.

Myths provide solutions to problems of value present at this time in history. Myths also provide "a sense of importance and direction and provides a communal focus for individual identity" (Lewis, 1994, 296). Myths about Native Americans presented in writings during the 1890 massacre had to appeal to the accepted societal view of Native Americans. According to Chisholm:


Audiences accept myths, commit to them, identify with them, and use them as a frame of reference for understanding and participating in social life. Accordingly, when a first-person conventional narrative infuses an audience's role with mythic significance, it gains rhetorical power because it conjures up related, culturally familiar stories relevant to group identity that rehearse accepted values and articulate prevailing conceptions of the 'good society' (1997, 281).


Events at Wounded Knee

Historians consider the Wounded Knee massacre the final battle between the U.S. military and Plains Indians. Taking place on December 29, 1890, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, this conflict ended the Plains Indian Wars that began during the Civil War and included such infamous battles as Custer's Last Stand in 1876.

Tensions between the white settlers and Sioux had continued to grow throughout the summer and fall of 1890. The death of Sitting Bull on December 15 brought tensions to a head. Several members of Sitting Bull's band broke from the reservation and joined Big Foot's band trying to escape to the Badlands. Starving and sick, the band decided to return to the Pine Ridge Reservation rather than continue to hold out against the military. Members of the Seventh Cavalry, under the command of Gen. James Forsyth, confronted the band near Wounded Knee Creek on the afternoon of December 28. Accompanying the soldiers to ask for the surrender of Big Foot were three reporters, among them C. W. Allen, editor of the Chadron Democrat.

First accounts of the massacre appeared in newspapers across the country on December 30, a day after the massacre.

Allen had several barriers to overcome in telling his story. These barriers included physical problems, competing stories, and a journalist style that seemed to demand exaggerations. The physical barriers that Allen faced included distance. Distance separated Allen from his eastern readers and access to the telegraph lines that were located 40 miles from Wounded Knee Creek. Competition also posed a problem because Allen was competing with two other reporters to file his story of the massacre within a reasonable amount of time. Finally, Allen needed to write a story that conformed to the journalistic style of the era. Consequently, Allen needed to file a dispatch that drew the readers into the story and provided the facts of the massacre.

The Wounded Knee conflict was not the first conflict written about by journalists. Nor was it the first time historians have accused journalists of indulging in sensationalism when writing about the events (Watson, 1943, 205). Exploitation by the press of Indian wars began during the Red Cloud War of 1866-67 (Watson, 1943, 205). When it appeared that Red Cloud's Ogallalas were again taking the war path in South Dakota, these same journalistic practices were repeated. According to Watson, "unverified rumors were presented as 'reports from reliable sources' or 'eye-witness accounts'; idle gossip became fact; and once more a large number of the nation's newspapers indulged in a field day of exaggeration, distortion, and plain faking" (1943, 205).

Therefore, the journalists, including Allen, faced two additional obstacles: verifying facts versus rumors and gaining access to credible sources. Rumors and half truths spread regularly throughout the newspaper corps and determining which item was fact and which was rumor became an even more difficult task as military sources censored information about the events taking place on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. As the military became close-mouthed about details, reporters were forced to seek out any source to provide the information for stories (Smith, 1975, 203).

At this point, according to one reporter, a group of locals set up a "news factory operated in one of the Pine Ridge's favorite hangouts--the back room of Asay Bro.'s Store," according to Smith (1975, 137). From here, these locals would scavenge the reservation agency headquarters area, gathering all the raw rumors and grapevine gossip possible. These were tailored into marketable form and then sold to the correspondents. Smith wrote:


If such a news factory actually existed, it is certain that the local reporters would have been far less likely to use it than the 'foreign' reporters would. And the strong evidence that such a thing did exist lies in the fact that the discrepancy between the local and 'foreign' reporting of the Ghost Dance troubles at Pine Ridge must surely have been as great as in any event in American history (1975, 137).


Narrative Analysis

Allen began his dispatch by telling his readers that he "will endeavor to give the readers a short description of the fight on the evening of the 29th." In his account, Allen provides the details of the massacre, in addition to giving a brief summary of the previous night's events when the military accepted the surrender of Big Foot and his band.

Allen used persona and myth to form the narrative of his newspaper account. He was an eyewitness to the event and he intended that his readers also become eyewitnesses to the event. Reporters try to capture the event by providing as much detail as possible so that readers can then recreate the image in their mind's eye. Allen is serving as an intermediary to the events.

To accomplish this persona, Allen provided time frames such as designating when things happened. For example, Allen describes when the troops moved into camp followed by "(B)oot and saddle were sounded at once" to indicate the troops going out to meet the Sioux and finally, the cavalry "watched through the night"--which describes the events of December 28.

Allen provides even more precise detail as he begins his narrative of the events of December 29 by telling when the troops deployed--at 8 o'clock. The length of the massacre "continued for about a half hour and then was continued in skirmish for another hour" which adds to the time sequence.

However, what is left out of the details is an explanation of some of the terms and images Allen presents in the story. The exclusion assumes that the audience has an understanding of what he is writing when he describes various military and Native American religious practices. On the other hand, inclusion of these same terms and images leads the reader to believe that Allen is familiar or may possibly be an authority on these events.

Allen described how the troops are called to "boots and saddles," a military term that may mean saddle up and ride out to meet the enemy. Allen also describes the number of troops using various military terms such as battalions or companies. There also was a "battery of Hotchkiss guns" and reports of two different skirmishes. Allen also provided a description of how a military enemy would surrender, as opposed to how the Native Americans surrendered. When white soldiers surrendered, "they gave up their guns and that they [Sioux] must do the same."

Allen's expert role continued with his descriptions of the events involving the Sioux. He described an incident with a Native American ghost dancer master, again leading the audience to believe that he is an expert in this situation, because he writes: "arrayed in full paraphernalia, began to make medicine, holding his hands up to the sun and calling upon the messiah to visit his wrath upon the soldiers." Continuing in the next sentence, Allen wrote "(I)t was evident that he was getting the Indians worked up and he finally told them to be brave and that bullets would not hit them if the soldiers did shoot at them." Again later, he referred to the shirts as their impregnable ghost shirts.

Finally, Allen also writes of his expertise of weapons. "After some time spent in rustling through their camp, they returned with three guns, one Winchester and two old squirrel rifles of the vintage of '49."

Overall, the persona that Allen tries to portray is that of a courageous story teller. He chooses to accompany the military to meet the hostiles and remain on the scene as the massacre unfolds before his eyes. The story teller persona Allen assumed invited the audience to accompany him on his great adventure. He did this by acting as the readers' eyes to the scene. He provided the details that helped recreate the battle scene for the reader.

By omitting explanations of military and/or Sioux religious practices, Allen assumed that his audience shares his own expertise. Whether the reader was an expert or not is unclear and may, in turn, lead the reader to believing that this story is only a tale of great conflict. Allen is describing a confrontation between two opposing groups.

Allen invited the reader to participate in the battle. He described how the "Indians began to evince an uneasiness, and most of the bucks were walking about in front of their tepees." Throughout the story, Allen described each move, culminating with the brave who jumps up and fires at a soldier. Finally, Allen began his conclusion of the tale: "Then the smoke cleared away from in front of the tent where it began [sic] there were forty-five dead Indians."

Looking at the word choices that Allen used in reference to the participants perpetuated a commonly held myth of good (military) and bad (Native Americans). Never do the readers perceive the military acting in any other manner than according to military procedures. We do not get a sense of the nervousness the soldiers may have felt confronting a band of 300 Sioux who were considered to be hostiles. Instead, Allen wrote about how the military obeyed orders in an orderly manner. The troops are deployed to surround the camp, searches are made of the lodges, orders are given to close in on the camp, and disarmament begins. Gen. Forsyth confronts the Sioux in a no-nonsense manner and outright calls them liars when not enough guns are turned over to the authorities.

Allen described the Native Americans as being uneasy about the situation and milling about the tepees. The description of the actions of the ghost dance master painted a vivid portrait of a crazed man trying to incite an incident. Reading these words, readers can almost picture a half-crazed madman dancing around the troops.

The terms used to indicate male and female Native Americans such as "buck" and "squaw" may be considered defamatory terms today, but Allen used the accepted terminology of the day. References to male and female Indians were, in most cases, "buck" and "squaw." These are used in most newspaper accounts, and the literature of the day also applied these terms to Native Americans.




Overall, Allen does attempt to provide an accurate telling of the events by using the first person persona and use of mythic structure in his story. However, by choosing this persona and structure, Allen abandons objective reporting in favor of presenting a story that his readers can easily understand and accept. While his account may lack objectivity, this story is the least sensationalistic of those dispatches coming out of Wounded Knee. Allen brought into his story the same cultural assumptions about Native Americans dominant in newspaper stories of this era. These assumptions are evident through the words Allen chose to convey the seriousness of the situation. He used the accepted terms of brave and squaw to denote male and female Native Americans. Allen also leaves the reader believing that the military are the heroes because they acted according to orders while the Native Americans may be seen as crazed, disorderly, uncivilized because of their actions.

The persona that Allen assumed accomplished two things--he became both narrator and a character within the story. Both of these roles are needed in a first-person narrative. These roles lend credibility to the piece. By adopting the dual role of narrator and character, Allen must also construct a role for his audience within the piece.

To determine how Allen accomplished this dual role, this study has analyzed the myths Allen employed within his news story to promote and perpetuate the accepted community value of the good military versus the evil Native Americans. Allen did this by describing how the military followed orders while the Native Americans were portrayed as uneasy and half-crazed. Readers understand how the soldiers must obey the orders. They also understand the image Allen presented of the Native Americans. This image was popular in the literature of the day and also portrayed in the Wild West shows touring the country.

Further, Allen is an eyewitness to the massacre and therefore has knowledge of details of the massacre that the general public does not. He is able to control the actions described in his dispatch in a way that the actors within the story are unable to do. He determined who would be the hero and who will be the villain in the story. By controlling these aspects, Allen provided his readers with the facts of the event along with descriptions of the participants, all according to various myths commonly known among his reading audience. Both the persona and use of myths helped Allen to write a story that became believable to his reading audience.




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