Fact-checking Sitting Bull

Wednesday, December 16, 2009 - 5:49 pm

Fact-checking Sitting Bull

Nancy's desk
We’re nearing the finish line of a new show: “Reimagining Sitting Bull, Tatanka Iyotake (that’s Sitting Bull’s name in Lakota). This program has been a year-and-a-half in the making, and we’re eager to put it out in the world. Kate, our managing producer, has said she’s always known a show about Sitting Bull would create unchartered challenges for us practically and editorially. As a team of wasicu (i.e. non-Native) producers, we’ve been engaged in new levels of intercultural communication that’s stretched us all.
The learning curve has been steep. As we’ve sifted through all the information gathered, sometimes it’s been confusing to do the best we can to ensure that what Krista says on the radio is journalistically accurate. The historical narrative is complicated, and along the way we’ve had to make judgment calls, recognizing that sometimes there’s no singular, discernible truth.
Last week, Colleen wrote about her adventures fact-checking the script for The Moral Math of Climate Change. Likewise, we wanted to shed light on our script process for “Reimagining Sitting Bull.” Oceans of ink have been devoted to telling the story of this Lakota leader and historical icon, much of it penned by non-Lakota.
And yet, as we’ve verified our facts, we’ve had to remember that we’re neither historians nor documentarians. Our job as producers of a weekly radio program is to offer our audience engaging, illuminating — and yes — accurate audio and multimedia storytelling. One of our goals with this show is to explore a dimension of Sitting Bull that doesn’t get talked about that much — namely his spiritual legacy and connection to the Sun Dance. We’ve tried mightily to stay focused on this aim and keep the script from devolving into an unwieldy history lesson that’s difficult for listeners to digest. Let us know if we’ve hit the mark.
Here are a few “before-and-afters” that reveal how we’ve been refining the script as we’ve gone along. You can see in the photo above that my desk is cluttered with multiple versions of the script as it has progressed.

First script draft:
Not until 1978 did the American Indian Religious Freedom Act make it legal for the Lakota and other tribes to worship through ceremonies and traditional rites.

Second script draft:
Not until 1978 did the American Indian Religious Freedom Act guarantee the right of the Lakota and other tribes to perform their sacred rituals and ceremonies.

The first draft version suggests that up until 1978, it was “illegal” for Lakota and other tribes to take part in traditional spiritual ceremonies. As I’ve come to understand it, there was a period from 1883–1934 when the government passed laws to suppress Native spiritual practices and promote assimilationist Christianization policies. The 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRF) provided legal protection under the First Amendment’s establishment clause for Lakota and other Native Americans to worship without interference from the federal government. We changed the script language to more accurately reflect the nature of the AIRF legislation.

First script draft:
The Indian Offenses Act of 1883 decreed their social and religious customs to be “barbarous and demoralizing.”

Second script draft:
U.S. officials deemed native customs and rituals “barbarous” and “demoralizing” and passed the Indian Offenses Act in 1883 which banned participation in ceremonial dances, including the Sun Dance.
Third script draft:
[We cut the sentence].
Fourth script draft:
U.S. officials deemed native customs “barbarous” and “demoralizing” and passed the Indian Offenses Act of 1883.

I couldn’t find a primary source version of the Indian Offenses Act of 1883 to confirm that the words “barbarous and demoralizing” were included in the original legislation. A colleague in the MPR newsroom pointed me to an excellent 1997 Stanford Law Review article that provided more detail about the U.S. government’s Christianization policies and how these suppressed Native spiritual practices like the Sun Dance.
This article includes references to government officials using the words “barbarous” and “demoralizing” in published reports so we adapted the script accordingly and provided a little more information about the Indian Offenses Act itself and the Code of Offenses it defined. By the third draft, we cut this sentence from the script for time because the show was running long. Then at the last minute, Krista shortened the sentence and added it back in.

First script draft:
For Sitting Bull’s legacy also embodies divisions that arose with the Lakota people as part of their encounter with the Wasicu, or White, encroachment on their traditional lands as the Western frontier was settled.

Second script draft:
For Sitting Bull’s legacy also embodies divisions that arose among the Lakota as part of their encounter with the wasicu, or non-natives, as the Western frontier was settled.

Wasicu is a Lakota word that translates roughly as “those who take the fat” and you’ll see it used by Lakota to refer to non-Native Americans. Carole Barrett, a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Mary in North Dakota wrote to us that, linguistically, the term has nothing to do with skin color. It’s used to describe a greedy person who takes the all the buffalo fat, “a choice part of the buffalo that was generally shared with others,” according to Barrett.
As you can see, some language we tweaked while other sentences landed on the cutting room floor. We’re curious if you have more knowledge and insight to add to the mix? Are there facts we got wrong or may have misunderstood? Please let us know your input.

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