Charles Trimble: Doing right for the 'Children of the Plains'

Ed. Note: The original version of this column failed to attribute quotes that were originally reported in a copyrighted piece by Brenda Norrell on Censored News.

I was in the Colorado Rockies when ABC’s 20/20 show “Hidden America: Children of the Plains,” aired on October 14th, but my daughter taped it for me and I saw it a few days later. I was pleased at the way Diane Sawyer approached the subject by giving voice to the children. And I was greatly moved by the children telling their dreams and aspirations, and by the upbeat stories about some of their successes.

But the haunting feeling that came to me as I watched was that some of the children, even the tiny ones, would end life early as victims of drugs or by their own hand in a void of utter despair and hopelessness.

The children needed to have their say, and Diane Sawyer provided a mighty platform with a guaranteed large audience. And the children did great, genuine and sincere, strong and articulate, and ultimately hopeful.

I knew there would be much criticism of the show from many in Indian Country; and there was. A common criticism was that the Lakota people should be allowed to tell their own story, not through some white woman. That seemed to imply that ABC or another source should provide funds, technology and a national audience so that the Lakota could produce and air their own story.

As Brenda Norrell reported on her Censored News blog, Louise Thundercloud (tribe not given) is quoted as saying, “The real story will not be told unless it is told by us. We can never expect our stories to be accurately told by waichitsu (sic) can we? After all, you accurately stated the crap done to our people by this government, so can we really expect anything other than some sugar coated sympathy ‘sort of’ story told by a non-Lakota?”

A major criticism of several people was that the main story that should have been told was that of foreign colonial domination and control over Indian Country, and the sad results of misguided and malicious national Indian policy, which the Lakota children in the program typified.

Brenda Norrell also reported the following remarks from John M. Kane, Mohawk, host of the radio show Let’s Talk Native Pride: “The show was all about evoking sympathy for these poor ‘Americans’ that time forgot and casting (Diane) Sawyer as a compassionate hero for telling this ‘compelling’ story. Time didn’t do this to the Lakota, Americans did. They trespassed on our lands until their government 'legalized' the theft. They cheated us on mineral rights, water rights, grazing rights and general land use. $40 billion worth of Native assets have been lost by the BIA. No financing available for businesses unless it is for 'Americans' to set up beer stores just off the rez line. The real story won't win Sawyer an Emmy. The real story would evoke anger, not sympathy and disgust."

Another observation was that the program would result in no tangible benefits to the children and the people of Pine Ridge, given the fact that many other stories in print and broadcast national media have failed to bring any relief to the reservation.

The presentation, according to several critics that were first reported by Brenda Norrell, was “pathetic and paternalistic,” and although “patronizing” may be a better word than paternalistic in this instance, it is clear that the show was indeed meant to be pathetic, to evoke pathos or pity or empathy. The tragedy of the children, especially the young girl who attempted to kill herself by strangulation, is real; many of the children complete their suicide. Other children spend their energy and spirits grieving for the friends, and this detracts from their schooling and the happiness that they should expect from their youth.

I’m glad that Diane Sawyer did not propose answers, at least as part of the show. That is for the Lakota community, especially the Oglala, in this instance. What about it? What should be done to give those children a decent chance in life?

John Kane has a suggestion, as reported by Brenda Norrell: "Maybe they should build schools where these kids can live and learn to be industrious. They could be strict; no drugs, no alcohol, no sex, no silly Native stuff. They could teach them good English. They could aspire to be US presidents and American Idols or be quarterbacks in America’s game. They can work the fields to raise their own food. They can learn to march and take orders. Oh yeah, that didn't work either. Let's just let John Stossel and Diane Sawyer show pictures of them every now and then instead."

Although given in sarcasm, Kane’s suggestion may have merit; after all, with the exception of working the fields, marching and taking orders, the other goals were specifically aspired to and requested by the children in the show. Why not dream of being an American Idol, or an NFL quarterback, or even President of the US? And what is wrong with being industrious, or with living under strict regulation relative to drugs, alcohol or sex? These are children we are talking about…our children, Lakota children.

There could be state-of-the-art study centers in the villages of Kyle, Wounded Knee, Manderson, Wanblee, Porcupine, Oglala, Pine Ridge and others. This could give the children a haven to study and to communicate with fellow students, free from alcohol and drugs, domestic violence and other distractions. Why not use the reservation day schools in the evenings for this purpose?

Indeed, dare I say it? OK, why not a five-days-a-week boarding school where children can go voluntarily, and be free to leave voluntarily? Ask the children, and I’m sure the response would be affirmative. There is likely a significant number of parents and grandparents (even boarding school survivors) who would also respond affirmatively to the suggestion of a boarding school.

Several weeks ago, I was contacted by a member of Diane Sawyer’s staff who wanted to know what could be done about the terrible, tragic situation at Pine Ridge. I responded to his questions as to the economy, or lack of it, on the Pine Ridge reservation, but to the question of what could be done, I told him that it was completely up to the people on the reservation, and their leaders in the communities and less so in the tribal government. Nobody else can do it for them, although they could use much help with financial and other resources.

I didn’t warn him of the criticism that should be expected, but if he called me now, or if even Diane Sawyer herself called, I would give her the very valid criticisms that I quote in this article. And I would tell her that I thought the show went well, all things considered, and that I would hope that someday she would visit those children again and see what has happened to them.

Charles "Chuck" Trimble, was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and is a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation. 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 1972-1978. He is retired and lives in Omaha, NE. He can be contacted at cchuktrim@aol.com and his website is www.iktomisweb.com.

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