The Wizard and Wounded Knee

Prior to the publication of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum published a weekly newspaper in Aberdeen. More than 100 years later, his descendants are coming to South Dakota to apologize for editorials he wrote just before and after the Wounded Knee massacre calling for the extermination of the Lakota Sioux.

Baum published the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer from January 1890 to March 1891. On December 20, 1890, Baum wrote an editorial about the recent death of Sitting Bull. After noting Sitting Bull was the “most renowned Sioux of modern history,” Baum opined:

With his fall the nobility of the Redskin is extinguished, and what few are left are a pack of whining curs who lick the hand that smites them. The Whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians. Why not annihilation? Their glory has fled, their spirit broken, their manhood effaced; better that they die than live the miserable wretches that they are.

Nine days later, troops from the U.S. Seventh Cavalry opened fire on a group of captured Sioux near Wounded Knee Creek in southwestern South Dakota. At least 150 Sioux were killed (some estimates are higher), most of them women, children and unarmed men. Twenty-five cavalry soldiers also died.

Within the week, Baum published another editorial, saying that what occurred at Wounded Knee “resulted in a terrible loss of blood to our soldiers” and was “a disgrace to the war department.” He then wrote,

The Pioneer has before declared that our only safety depends upon the total extirmination [sic] of the Indians. Having wronged them for centuries we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth.

Baum eventually left Aberdeen and went on to write his Oz books. Although his editorials reflected the racial outlook of the time, they remain sore spots in the history of race relations in South Dakota. Some even began efforts seeking an apology from the planners of an annual “Oz Festival” in Aberdeen.

Now, South Dakota Public Broadcasting reports that some of Baum’s descendants are in South Dakota to help reconciliation. Some family members told SDPB that journalists of the time helped create some of the problems that led to Wounded Knee. They felt it important to continue to look at those issues today and plan to apologize to the Wounded Knee Survivors Association. An association mermber told SDPB that the apology would be a historic event.

UPDATE: An expanded version of the SDPB story was broadcast on NPR’s Morning Edition on August 17.

I think you are wrong to want a heart. It makes most people unhappy.

L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

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2 comments to The Wizard and Wounded Knee

  • Baum was a talented writer of boilermakers who struck it lucky with the Oz books and even luckier with the movie starring Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, etc. But he was a main-street-type booster, and, while creative, not by any means an intellect. His invective against the Lakota is consistent with the kind of enterprise of that time that found Native Americans an obstacle and sometimes a threat to the imposition of their culture on the land.

    The reason that other commentaries such as Baum’s do not appear in surveys of American Literature is because they have not been regarded as writers of the caliber that have created the best that is thought and written.

    The problem with the apologies at this late date is that they attend an effort to promote Baum as a major literary figure, which he was not. He could entertain children. Fortunately, his moral sense did not intrude into his entertainments. And along with other editorial commentators of the time, he must assume his share of blame in stirring up the racist hatreds that linger so persistently on the upper plains.

  • I heard this story this morning on NPR while dropping my youngest off at kindergarten. I read your article while listening to a CD of the Cherokee Children’s Choir singing “Jesus Loves Me.” I think the Baum Family should be commended for their act of contrition. True, apologies don’t bring back the lives of the children murdered at Wounded Knee, but the first step in redemption is to admit blame for your moral failings and Baum’s family is at least attempting to do so.