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The Privilege Narratives of Settler Colonial Discourse in South Dakota

David Everson, PhD

Research Fellow, Center for American Indian Research and Native Studies

November 2, 2018


While my initial CAIRNS report focused on ongoing efforts to pursue decolonization at my current institution, the University of Southern Maine, here I will focus on my current research project on the dominant culture’s memory and narratives of the American Indian Movement (AIM). While augmenting a variety of Indigenous organizational efforts to pursue sovereignty and self-determination in the post-WW2 era (e.g., National Congress of American Indians, National Indian Youth Council, tribal activism, etc.), the mass media’s penchant for drama ensured that AIM became the face of Native activism in the 1960s/1970s. Similar to the Black Panthers, the image of AIM projected to the public was driven by the media’s focus on “riots” and violence rather than the movement’s multi-faceted approach to strengthening Native sovereignty in the United States (e.g., survival schools, legal assistance programs, cultural revitalization).  

Thus while AIM divided both Native and non-Native communities, its media visibility, particularly during the 71 day occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973, presents an opportunity to investigate the narratives that the dominant culture constructed to make sense of both the movement and the broader white-Native racial order that it was attacking. My initial foray into the project, which would eventually become my dissertation, was motivated by my upbringing in South Dakota, a state in which the unequal white-Native racial order is deeply institutionalized. My socialization in Sioux Falls had imparted minimal knowledge of the state’s Native communities or the history of European/Euro-American colonization of the region; fear and racist othering was rampant-some of my most durable memories of school are of the Native American stereotypes which seemed to flow so casually amongst my classmates. As a result I later became fascinated with trying to understand the prevalence of this ignorance and animosity, and how white South Dakotans reaction to AIM in the 1970s might lend insight into the cultural narratives legitimating the state’s racial order.

My research project on the public’s reaction to AIM was carried out in two stages. First, I spent over a year collecting relevant archival materials from collections at the University of South Dakota (Richardson Collection), Princeton (George McGovern Papers), and the Minnesota History Center (State Archives). From these sources I was able to collect three types of records on AIM: 1) voir dire transcripts of jury interviews for various AIM trials, 2) public opinion data on attitudes toward AIM, and 3) the constituent political mail related to AIM sent to Governor Richard Kneip (SD), Senator George McGovern (SD), and Senator Walter Mondale (MN).

This archival data provided me with a snapshot of the public’s reaction to AIM in the 1970s, primarily across South Dakota and Minnesota. Quite fortuitously, the archival records also provided names and addresses of those who had either been surveyed/interviewed or wrote a letter to their political representative in the 1970s. Using these personal identifiers, I was able to track down 47 people to conduct follow-up interviews with in the fall of 2014/summer of 2015. The primary purpose of this second stage of the process was to compare the dominant narratives toward AIM, and Native Americans more broadly, both at the peak of the movement’s activism in the 1970s and some forty-plus years since the wave of “Red Power” had crested.

Perhaps the project’s most important finding relates to evidence that while the dominant cultural attitudes toward AIM have changed little since the 1970s (ranging from deep antagonism in western South Dakota to more sympathetic attitudes in Minnesota), the narratives individuals construct to discuss the movement in 2014/2015 shift, most significantly in western South Dakota, the site of AIM’s most confrontational protest. Whereas AIM grievances in this context were delegitimized in the 1970s through narratives fixated on the violence and militancy of the movement, some forty years after the Wounded Knee Occupation western South Dakotans were invalidating AIM through what I categorize as a “historical conquest” discourse. With some slight variation, most of the antagonistic AIM narratives now attempted to invalidate the movement through the establishment of a moral equivalence between pre-settler Indigenous vs. Indigenous conflict and the subsequent white colonization of the state. I provide two examples that are reflective of the general narrative pattern:

“They [AIM] were mad about Wounded Knee [1890]…but I didn’t say ‘what about the Arikaras that you killed?’ There aren’t many around here because the Sioux drove them off. These ‘peace-loving’ Sioux acquired the land the same way we whites did.” (Fairburn, SD interview)

“You know I can’t change the fact that the Sioux took the Black Hills from another Indian tribe the same way the white man took it from them.” (Custer, SD interview)

It is, of course, entirely possible that this conquest narrative has proliferated around the Black Hills since the earliest days of Euro-American conquest and settlement. One would hear a similar discourse amongst the opponents of expanded Indigenous rights in other settler states like Canada or Australia. Yet it was a narrative that was almost completely absent in the discourse surrounding AIM derived from the archival documents; its ubiquitous contemporary presence in the dominant culture’s AIM narratives reveals a compelling shift in discourse toward the movement from 1973-2015.

In explaining this discursive shift toward AIM in western South Dakota, I rely on the insights of settler colonial theory, an interdisciplinary framework for understanding settler colonialism as a distinct form of colonialism. Settler colonial states (e.g., US, Canada, New Zealand), engage in various forms of transfer [1] to remove and acquire the populations, sovereignty, and land of pre-settler territories. In addition to genocide, forced removal, and assimilation of Indigenous communities, settler states seek legitimacy through a variety of discursive transfers. American discourse, for instance, is replete with the “myth of emptiness”-the early settlers traversing a frontier wilderness of uninhabited land that God had destined them to exploit. This myth, combined with settler colonialism’s historical erasure of its violent and often genocidal foundations,[2] continues to provide legitimacy for a culture still unwilling to acknowledge its past. 

In contrast to settler colonial theory’s focus on the erasure of historical violence, I find that western South Dakotans actually amplify pre-settler conflict amongst Indigenous tribes. They do so, I argue, to delegitimize Native grievances and claims for an alteration of the white-Native racial order. In disrupting what I term the “privilege narratives” of the region, or the stories that legitimate white settler supremacy, AIM encouraged the dominant culture to privilege a narrative that transferred away the validity of Native grievances and any moral responsibility for their historical origins.                  



1. See, e.g., James Belich (2009)—Replenishing the Earth and Lorenzo Veracini (2010)—Settler Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview.


2. See, e.g., Ned Blackhawk’s (2009) Violence Over the Land.