Stew Magnuson: Bringing View from a Wasicu column to end

The following opinion by Stew Magnuson appears in the latest issue of the Native Sun News. All content © Native Sun News.

Stew Magnuson

Bringing the View from a Wasicu column to an end
By Stew Magnuson

Back in August 2009, I emailed Native Sun News Editor/Publisher Tim Giago and proposed a new column: A View from a Wasicu, which as the name suggests, would be opinions on Native American issues from a white guy’s point of view.

Giago has always welcomed a diversity of viewpoints in his newspapers, so he readily agreed.

After nearly four years, I’m pretty much ending the column to concentrate on a new blog for a new book project. I say “pretty much” because one should “never say never.” I may occasionally submit a letter to the editor or a book review.

Writing an opinion column, which I had not done since my college days, was liberating. My day job is all “just the facts” reporting. I had not wandered into punditry during my career, and I really enjoyed just typing up how I felt on certain topics.

For the first year, I wanted to see if I could produce a column every other week, and I managed to mostly do so. After 2010, they tailed off quite a bit, though.

I tried to stick to topics where I felt I had some expertise and something to say: history, media, Whiteclay, border town issues, etc. I stayed away from internal Oglala Sioux Tribe politics, for example. Other NSN columnists such as Jeffrey Whalen and Ivan F. Starr were much better informed on that topic.

I always felt comfortable and never apologized for being a white guy writing about Native issues. Readers are free to accept or reject what I have to say for any reason — and I’m sure being a wasicu was one of them. However, I was uncomfortable writing about some of these topics all the way from Arlington, Va. Since kicking off the column, I haven’t had many opportunities to travel back to Lakota Country or the border towns. This physical disconnection is one reason I think I am running out of things to say.

It is impossible to know what newspaper articles are being read. You can glean some anecdotal evidence from letters to the editor or emails. But I also reran the columns as a blog at: stewmagnuson.blogspot.com. In that case, I can get precise data on what people are reading.

So, here were the top five most read columns online:
1. Army Tradition of Naming Aircraft After Tribes Continues, Sept. 15, 2010
2. Truth and Accountability Still Buried At Wounded Knee, May 12, 2012
3. Here’s Hoping the Newest Western TV Show Portrays Native History Accurately, Nov. 18, 2011
4. Conference Will Take Hard Look at Wounded Knee Occupation, March 28, 2012
5. Hey Russell Means! The Jerk Store Called. It Wants You Back! July 18, 2012

Perhaps the surprising thing about this list is that a column I wrote about the Army naming its helicopters and unmanned aircraft for Indian tribes was by far the most popular one online. Years later, it is still read online sometimes by more than 100 people every week. It turns out that there hasn’t been a lot written about this topic, and when someone anywhere in the world Googles, “Native Americans and “Army helicopters,” this column is close to the top of the results.

Less surprising is that three of five columns were the result of the controversial Dakota Conference held last year one year ahead of the 40th anniversary of the Wounded Knee Occupation.

While these columns and the series I wrote during the 10-week, 40th anniversary of the occupation were widely read, I’m not sure they had a large impact on people’s views. It is a polarizing topic, and those who care deeply about it, whether they are in the anti-AIM camp, or the pro-AIM camp, seem to have their minds made up, and they aren’t going to let facts — or in some cases a paucity of facts — get in the way of their deeply held assumptions and beliefs.

Some may disagree, but I was one of the few actively writing on this topic, who didn’t have an ax to grind or an agenda.

I still believe the definitive book recounting the Wounded Knee Occupation needs to be written. I’ve said several times that I won’t be the one to write it. But like I said, “never say never.” Maybe I could produce something by the 50th anniversary. Sometimes I think I should just to piss off John Trimbach. But that’s not a very good motivation. Which brings me to my final point: the motivation also won’t be for money. I know there is a misconception that white folks writing about Native Americans are “exploiting them.” Or we are “getting rich.”

The fact is that Native Americans are out of sight out of mind for most Americans. That goes for the big time publishing houses that produce best-sellers. For them, Native American history ends in 1899.

Twentieth Century or contemporary topics are regulated to the small or academic presses. Peter Matthiessen I suspect did well with In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, but it’s hard to find many other examples. The amount of royalties I received for my two books, The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder and Wounded Knee 1973: Still Bleeding came to about two paychecks at my day job. The only compensation Native Sun News has given me is a free subscription, (which was greatly appreciated!)

We wasicu who write about this topic do so because we actually care on some level about the current state of affairs in Indian Country and when you’re out of sight, out of mind, the more people who care, the better. While I am ending the column, my passion and interest for writing about the issues remain.

My next book is The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83, which is a hybrid travel-history book based on true stories found along this 1,885-mile border to border to highway, which happens to cut through the Rosebud Reservation.

There is Native American history found along every inch of those 1,885 miles. One of the most enjoyable parts of researching the new book has been learning more about the history of the Assiniboine, Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Sicangu Lakota, Pawnee, Northern Cheyenne, Comanche and Apache nations.

I hope the readers here follow me to the new blog, The Highway 83 Chronicles at http://ushighway83.blogspot.com.

I promise you it will be interesting, and that there won’t be anything about AIM or Whiteclay!

Thanks again to Tim Giago for the opportunity.

Copyright permission by Native Sun News

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