Brad Knickerbocker is a Monitor correspondent based in Washington. The mistreatment of American Indians is a subject that ebbs and flows in public interest. Sad to say, many people probably would just as soon forget about it.
But this book by a distinguished Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist adds much our understanding of a particularly dark spot in official United States treatment of the continent's natives, the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee, S.D.
Forrest Seymour's book should attract wide general interest, but it also adds to the body of scholarly works on this tragic episode. His goal was to avoid writing with "maudlin sentiment about the Indian, racial prejudice, or military chauvinism." He has succeeded admirably.
The strength and freshness of "Sitanka: The Full Story of Wounded Knee" comes from the firsthand source material Seymour draws upon. These are interviews with the survivors of Wounded Knee as well as others directly involved -- Indians and whites -- conducted beginning in 1905 by Eli S. Ricker, Nebraska county judge and newspaper editor.
Woven together with other historical information (including official government reports and dispatches), these recollections by the participants give a sense of urgency and presence that a skilled screenwriter would be hard put to match.
The main character is "Sitanka," or Big Foot, the elderly Sioux chief. In trying to hold his tribe together he has to find the workable line between the angry and frustrated younger warriors and his own knowledge that what the white man wanted he would ultimately get.
The description of his failure to do this -- his dealings with other Indian leaders, with whites who were genuine friends as well as those who acted out of greed and racism -- gives depth and breadth to the superficial and distorted history most Americans receive.
One particularly fascinating aspect of the story is how the Indians' exposure to Christianity influenced their fate. An Indian "messiah" emerged, who preached a millennium when the tribes would be freed from the white man's bondage. Unfortunately, this Indian prophet's pacifism was lost, as the new evangelical spirit swept through the reservations.
It is ironic -- and perhaps a hopeful sign -- that this book comes just as the US government begins investigating the forced internment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II. Separated by 50 years, Wounded Knee and the more recent episode both were racially motivated. One hopes that the historica l lessons have been learned.