by David Kopel
July 5, 2003
The late-June dedication of the new Indian memorial at Little Bighorn battlefield in Montana provoked more unfair and distorted accusations in the Indian-related culture wars.
The Rocky Mountain News went all-out with the story, offering not only a long "day of'' story, but a long "day before'' story, plus many gorgeous color photographs of the event. The Denver Post sent a reporter who filed a normal-sized story on the day of the dedication of the new Indian memorial, which supplements an 1881 memorial to the U.S. Cavalry.
Both papers did a terrible job of reporting the views of critics of the new monument. The News (June 26) wrote that a California group called the Custer/Little Bighorn Battlefield Advocate "described the placement of the Indian monument as a 'desecration. Period.'"
The News' preview story (June 25) repeated the "desecration'' quote and announced that the group ``has never taken to the concept of an Indian memorial.''
The Post (June 26), for its part, wrote that the Battlefield Advocate "once circulated a petition against the monument.'' The Post's online edition of the article included links to eight relevant Web sites, but not to the Battlefield Advocate.
Readers would have been well-served by a link, however, since the online issue of the Battlefield Advocate's newsletter contradicted much of what the News and Post had written about the group. By reading the newsletter, I found out that the group supported the idea of an Indian monument, but opposed the National Park Service's insistence on placing the monument so close to the mass grave at Last Stand Hill where many of the 7th Cavalry are buried. The petition which the Battlefield Advocate group circulated was in opposition to the current monument near the grave, but not against the idea of a monument itself.
I e-mailed the writers of the Little Bighorn stories, and by deadline time had received a response from the Post's reporter. She said she "didn't have enough space for the story to get into all of the nuances'' about the monument critics. Fair enough, but it would have taken only seven extra words to write: "once circulated a petition against building the monument so close to the Army graveyard.''
The News called Little Bighorn "the greatest military victory in American Indian history,'' but this was plainly wrong. About 260 U.S. soldiers were killed at Custer's Last Stand in 1876, in a battle which did not prevent U.S. victory in the Great Sioux War several months later.
In contrast, on Nov. 4, 1791, at a battle in western Ohio, a coalition of Miami, Wyandot, Iroquois, Shawnee, Delaware, Ojibwa and Potawatomi led by Chief Little Turtle demolished about two-thirds of the entire U.S. army, killing more than 600 U.S. soldiers (plus 56 soldiers' wives) led by Gen. Arthur St. Clair.
``St. Clair's Defeat'' humiliated the Washington administration at home and abroad. The administration had to invent the notion of ``executive privilege'' in order to shield its military records from congressional investigators.
The place where a Denver paper got everything right about Little Bighorn wasn't on the news pages, but on the Post editorial page. There, a superb piece (June 28) honored both the Army and the Indians as brave Americans who each deserve respect - just as we should admire both Union and Confederate soldiers from the Civil War. The rich historical detail, wise perspective, and generous spirit of inclusion were characteristic of Post editorials at their best.
Not every Post editorial is so well-informed, though. Consider the June 19 editorial which repeated the oft-circulated factoid that "Innocent bystanders - the majority of them women and children - now account for 90 percent of the dead or wounded'' in war zones. Actually, this figure has no empirical support, and was fabricated by overzealous arms-control advocates purely for propaganda purposes, as admitted by the 2002 edition of the pro-control reference book Small Arms Survey (published by the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva).
A very long News article (June 28) explored the issue of whether murderer Nathan Dunlap, who killed four people in cold blood at an Aurora Chuck E. Cheese restaurant in 1993, should be spared the death penalty because he was abused as a child.
Although the article was well-researched and thorough, its final paragraphs veered off into a completely different direction, with little factual support. The article announced that "For Coloradans there is one last issue to consider . . .'' Namely, "In Colorado, virtually everyone sentenced to death has killed white victims,'' according to a prominent criminal defense attorney.
But when I looked at the Web site of Coloradans Against the Death Penalty, I found that there are only three people currently on death row in Colorado: Dunlap himself, Edward Montour (who pleaded guilty to first-degree murder for killing a prison guard, and who did not oppose a death sentence), and Cody Neal (who pleaded guilty to murdering three women). This is hardly a large enough group to support the News article's insinuation that the Colorado death penalty is racist.