On December 28, 1890, the U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment intercepted a group of Lakota Native Americans en route to South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Agency and escorted them to Wounded Knee Creek, where they were instructed to make camp for the night. Historians still disagree as to what happened next but by most accounts, the cavalry surrounded the Lakota, confiscated their weapons and found themselves in a bit of a kerfuffle when a deaf Native American named Black Coyote either didn’t understand their orders or refused to give up his firearm without compensation.
“Kerfuffle,” however, is an understatement in this case. A shot was fired and within hours, at least 150 Lakota had been killed, including women and children who were pursued on horseback as they attempted to flee to safety. Some estimates place the loss of Native American life as high as 300, whereas the cavalry incurred only 25 causalities (including several resulting from friendly fire, as they’d surrounded the Lakota and shot through them).
As a professor of cultural anthropology at a community college in New Jersey, I devote a class to Wounded Knee each semester. “History textbooks used to refer to Wounded Knee as a ‘battle’,” I tell my students. “At least 20 soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor. But what does the word ‘battle’ imply?”
“That both sides were armed,” one young man replied this past spring. “That they were evenly matched,” a classmate echoed, “a battle means that there were two armies fighting against each other, not women and children, not men who’d had their guns taken away.”
We then examine a photograph of the entrance to Wounded Knee, which has been designed a National Historic Site. There’s a pale green sign with white lettering that reads “The Massacre of Wounded Knee.” Of course, it didn’t always read this way; the original version labeled it the site of a “battle” and the word “massacre” was welded on top in a literal rewriting of history.
“What does the word ‘massacre’ imply?” I ask my students. “Is a ‘massacre’ something that we want to have as part of our nation’s history?” I zoom in on the slide and tell my students to take a closer look because the sign, even in 2016, is riddled with bullet holes.
Language matters. We know that “massacres” are wrong, just as we know that “murders” are wrong, and yet we still use euphemisms like “incidents” to downplay the acts of police brutality that our country’s systemic racism continues to engender (just as we used “acts of genocide” in 1994 to downplay the atrocities then occurring in Rwanda).
On Thursday, President Obama acknowledged that the “shootings” of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were “symptomatic of a broader set of racial disparities that exist in our criminal justice system.” But he carefully referred to their deaths as an “incident,” a word which he repeated five times in his address to reference previous examples of police brutality.
He never used the word “killed,” “attacked,” or “shot,” and he certainly didn’t use the word “murdered.” Instead of “death” he used “tragedy” and “tragedies” (three times in total), thus rendering the continued loss of life somehow less embarrassing to our nation’s collective psyche.
A few hours later, however, he addressed the nation again, this time in response to the now “tremendous” tragedy that occurred in Dallas in which 5 police officers were killed. He didn’t mince his words this time: this was a “vicious, calculated and despicable attack on law enforcement.” There were “twisted motivations” and “senseless murders” with “no possible justification.”
I’m not faulting Obama here, at least I’m not faulting just Obama here. As our nation’s first black President, he doesn’t have much choice. He has to walk a fine line, lest he show too much allegiance to a particular group, but he’s not the only one who talks this way. These euphemisms have permeated our national dialogue: traditional media, social media, even the so-called “liberal media” who ought to know better.
I even find myself using the word “incidents” when I kick off my annual lecture on systemic racism because I know I’m going to alienate half my class if I jump right in with the truth and they’re never going to see the fallacy of “all lives matter” if they’re not even listening.
But when we sugar coat reality again and again, the message becomes clear: black lives matter, but not as much as blue lives; not as much as white lives. And until we have the courage to call a spade a spade, to admit that a “battle” is a really a “massacre” and that an “incident” is really a “murder,” our country will see this pattern play out again and again.