Academic journal article Journalism History

Savage Journalists and Civilized Indians: A Different View

Academic journal article Journalism History

Savage Journalists and Civilized Indians: A Different View

Article excerpt

Mark Twain was a funny man, but not always. When he encountered what he called the "Goshoot" Indians of Utah and Nevada during his overland trip west in 1861, he admitted it made him reevaluate his opinion of Indians. "I say that the nausea which the Goshoots gave me, an Indian worshipper," he wrote in Roughing It, "set me to examining authorities, to see if perchance I had been overestimating the Red Man while viewing him through the mellow moonshine of romance. It was curious to see how quickly the paint and tinsel fell away from him and left him treacherous, filthy, and repulsive. ... They deserve pity, poor creatures; and they can have mine-at a distance. Nearer by, they never get anybody's."(1)

Like many of the travel writers and newspaper correspondents who wrote on the West in the nineteenth century, Twain directed a portion of his commentary toward one of the region's most characteristic features--its native peoples. The image we have of what such writers said about Indians is not a pretty one. Typically, their approach to Indian affairs has seemed careless and insensitive at best. Western journalists especially have appeared as unsympathetic, even hateful, and their reports marked by an absence of theoretical speculation on a just and appropriate Indian policy. Instead, such writers, especially western newspaper correspondents, have been thought opportunistic, racist, arrogant, and culturally imperialistic, subscribing more often than not what Roy Harvey Pearce has identified as "savagism," an intellectual construct that reduced native peoples to symbols, thereby making them non-human. Ironically, twentieth-century sensibilities have turned the tables. To the minds of a number of historians, western correspondents themselves have become symbols for hostile attitudes toward Indians. Such correspondents, the reasoning holds, were somehow immune to viewing native peoples humanely. Instead, they encouraged apathy at best and needlessly exacerbated tensions between the races. At worst, they championed extermination, as if Indians were wild animals or pestiferous insects.(2)

Such views of western journalists are not without foundation. Among-the more tragic instances of their abuse, one need only consider the rabid anti-Indian reporting of Denver's Rocky Mountain News prior to the brutal attack on Black Kettle's sleeping village at Sand Creek, Colorado, in 1864 or the exaggerated newspaper reports and call to arms that preceded the wanton slaughter of at least four score Apache Indians, mostly women and children, at Camp Grant, Arizona, in 1871. Even the tragic confrontation between the frontier military and the Sioux Indians at Wounded Knee almost twenty years later in 1890 was laced before and after with sensationalistic newspaper reports. Exceptions in which western newspaper editors campaigned on behalf of Indians, such as Thomas H. Tibbles's defense of the Ponca Indians in Nebraska, are notable because they are so few.(3)

The reporting on conditions in Indian Territory in the early 1870s by two newspaper journalists, Frederic E. Lockley and John Hanson Beadle, helps counter this either/or estimate of newswriting on Indians and largely refutes Mark Twain's notion that sympathy came only with distance. For Lockley and Beadle there was a middle ground in which newspapermen could work as disinterested professionals and write of Native Americans with fairness and even sympathy. Lockley and Beadle may not have been unique. One suspects that man western journalists were more sensitive to equitable treatment of native peoples than we have come to believe, but historians have rarely credited them with any such compassion. As a consequence, reporting such as that of Lockley and Beadle appears uncommon. Unique or not, the significance here is to provide a corrective to historical interpretation, to show that at least some western journalists defied the Indian-hating stereotype.(4)

Lockley and Beadle wrote at a critical time. …

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