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Woster: South Dakota's race relations education really does matter

I want to believe South Dakota kids today learn more in school about our state’s race relations than I did. It really does matter.

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Looking back on my newspaper career, I realize I spent a lot of time in and around the village of Wounded Knee for a person who had finished college before he even knew the place was in South Dakota.

I know. It’s shameful what I didn’t know. Wounded Knee, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, is where 250 or more Lakota men, women and children died at the hands of U.S. soldiers on Dec. 29, 1890. That was 131 years ago today, more than a year after South Dakota became a state.

I first visited Wounded Knee on assignment in 1972. It’s a small village east and north of Pine Ridge. The first time I was there, a trading post anchored the main street. A mass grave, containing remains of those who were massacred, dominated a nearby hilltop. The grave remains. The trading post is gone.

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It burned down in 1973. That year I spend considerable time around the village. A wire service reporter in Pierre, I was assigned to cover a standoff between American Indian Movement-led activists and federal marshals and FBI agents. I continued to travel to the Pine Ridge area frequently over the next several years to cover breaking news stories.

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Before I was a reporter, I knew Wounded Knee only as a name in a Stephen Vincent Benet poem I read for a literature class. The poem, “American Names,’’ ends: “You may bury my body in Sussex grass, you may bury my tongue at Champmedy. I shall not be there. I shall rise and pass. Bury my heart at Wounded Knee.’’ I liked the passage, but I didn’t know Wounded Knee was an actual place in South Dakota.

After college, perhaps in 1970, I became aware of a Dee Brown book titled “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.’’ I intended to buy a copy of the book. I didn’t follow through.

In 1973, the wire service assigned me to the Wounded Knee story. The standoff lasted from Feb. 27 through May 8. Terry DeVine, the other AP reporter in Pierre, and I split time on site during that 71-day stalemate. We took two-week shifts, one of us working alone on the Wounded Knee story, the other working alone to cover state government, the Legislature and politics back in Pierre. DeVine went first. When we swapped places, he gave me the Dee Brown book to read in the evenings at the motel.

I’m not a history scholar. I can’t say with any authority whether the book is good or not. But for someone like me with almost no knowledge of Wounded Knee, the Treaty of 1868 or the history of race relations in the state, it was a start. I knew of Red Cloud and Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse largely from western movies at Saturday matinees when I was a kid. Almost any additional knowledge was better than nothing.

I read the book and traded with another reporter for a copy of Vine Deloria Jr’s “Custer Died for Your Sins.’’ Other reporters assigned to the 1973 story brought books on the history of tribes and their interactions with the federal government. We swapped books with each other. Sometime as we waited for government briefings or statements from leaders in the village, we talked about what we had been reading.

The out-of-state reporters expected that because DeVine and I both were born and raised in South Dakota, we’d be experts on everything about Wounded Knee. It was embarrassing to admit we knew little more than they did about a place and a people who shared our home state.

I read one book after another during that time, trying to hold my own. DeVine said he did the same thing. It was like cramming for a final exam on knowledge of tribes and reservations and treaties. Over the years since, I’ve tried to read any new books I can find on the subject. For Christmas this year, I got a book called “The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee.’’ It looks good.

I want to believe South Dakota kids today learn more in school about our state’s race relations than I did. It really does matter.

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