The Frontier Newspapers and the Coverage of the Plains Indian Wars

By Gabrial, Brian | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Autumn 2011 | Go to article overview

The Frontier Newspapers and the Coverage of the Plains Indian Wars


Gabrial, Brian, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


The Frontier Newspapers and the Coverage of the Plains Indian Wars. Hugh J. Reilly. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2010. 162 pp. $44.95 hbk.

Nineteenth-century U.S. press culpability in encouraging heavy-handed military solutions regarding the troublesome Plains Indians is always worth a study. In a word, then, Hugh J. Reilly's The Frontier Newspapers and the Coverage of the Plains Indian Wars is best described as useful.

Reilly, an associate professor of communication and Native American studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, has collected newspaper accounts and editorials of nearly thirty years of press coverage of what he calls "watershed" events involving primarily Sioux, Cheyenne, and Nez Perce Indians, and their tragic relationships with the U.S. government.

His rationale for what constitutes a "watershed" event pivots on the event's historical significance and subsequent news coverage, as well as the newspapers' proximity to the event. Not surprisingly, his case studies, beginning with the 1862 Dakota uprising in Minnesota and ending with the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, show that with the possible exception of one Omaha newspaper (Omaha Herald, later Omaha World-Herald), editorial sympathies hardly ever lay with the Indians.

Even so, Reilly's book, relying as it does on news accounts from Nebraska, Colorado, and Minnesota newspapers, provides a welcome examination of often ignored nineteenth-century newspapers outside major American cities, notably New York. "Unlike the large Eastern newspapers, which were reporting on events remote from their offices, the frontier newspapers were reporting about events taking place in their own backyards," Reilly observes, although it is not clear how a Colorado newspaper, for example, was in the backyard of Wounded Knee, or how Omaha newspapers were proximate to the U.S. Calvary's chase of the Nez Perce through Montana (or, for that matter, why the Nez Perce is considered a Plains tribe). As the chapters unfold, the author's bias toward Omaha newspapers emerges. While not necessarily problematic because by the mid- to latenineteenth century Omaha had become an important bustling river town with crucial links to the Union Pacific Railroad's routes to points west, this preference needed some justification.

While it was likely not Reilly's intention to duplicate Dee Brown's sweeping Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee or John Coward's important The Newspaper Indian, inevitable comparisons do not favor this book, which lacks the strong, graceful narrative arc of Brown's history or the theoretical depth of Coward's. While heavy on newspaper excerpts, it is light on analysis, giving the book a rushed feel. This is too bad because missed opportunities for original analysis abound here. I was surprised, for example, by the sympathetic voice found in the Omaha Herald (and Omaha World-Herald) compared to its yellow rival the Omaha Bee, whose accounts of Indian trepidations were usually wild exaggerations. …

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