True Stories of Inspiring American Leadership

July 28th, 2011

Wounded Knee is part of our family’s history.  Leonard’s great-grandfather, the first Crow Dog, had been one of the leaders of the Ghost Dancers.  He and his group had held on in the icy ravines of the Badlands all winter, but when the soldiers came in force to kill all the Ghost Dancers he had surrendered his band to avoid having his people killed.  Old accounts describe how Crow Dog simply sat down between the rows of soldiers on one side, and the Indians on the other, all ready and eager to start shooting.  He had covered himself with a blanket and was just sitting there.  Nobody knew what to make of it.  The leaders on both sides were so puzzled that they just did not get around to opening fire.  They went to Crow Dog, lifted the blanket, and asked him what he meant to do.  He told them that sitting there with the blanket over him was the only thing he could think of to make all the hotheads, white and red, curious enough to forget fighting.  Then he persuaded his people to lay down their arms.  Thus he saved his people just a few miles away from where Big Foot and his band were massacred.

Mary Crow Dog, Lakota Woman (Grove Weidenfeld 1990).  This story bears a striking resemblance to a well-attested incident in the life of Sitting Bull.  There are differences.  In Sitting Bull’s case, the soldiers already were shooting, and Sitting Bull was accompanied between the lines by a small group of followers.  Sitting Bull sat down and in an unhurried manner engaged in a pipe smoking ritual.  It was a statement: “You can shoot all you want, but this is who we are, and that is not going to change.”  Ultimately, as we know, on those terms, the Indians narrowly won that war, although it took the better part of  a hundred years and the cost was enormous.

They won that war in large part due to the efforts of people like Leonard Crow Dog, descendant of the Crow Dog who sat under the blanket.  In the Crow Dog story, the blanket stands out to me.  The statement here was, “I am stepping totally outside this track you are on.  You should want to ask me why.”  In both cases, Sitting Bull and Crow Dog exercised a level of leadership that seems to us, today, almost surreal.  It’s hard to identify any leader in American politics, today, who would have the creativity and intellect  to imagine a way to get people to think about what the hell they are doing, let alone the acuity to direct the message where it is most needed and the courage to act accordingly.  Even if such a leader existed, his or her success would depend upon having an audience willing and able to get the message.  And this, in turn, would depend upon a media capable of transmitting the message with some degree of thoroughness and accuracy – of looking under the blanket, as it were, and asking the important question.

So, from a tale of two chiefs, this little essay turns to a tale of two interviewers.  One is a BBC reporter I saw recently interviewing a spokesman for Newscorp.  The flack said that the News of the World phone hacking scandal was being investigated in-house at the highest levels.  With varying degrees of incredulity, the reporter found one way after another to ask his ill-prepared interlocutor to explain how Rebecca Brooks could be expected to investigate herself.  It went on about nine minutes, was fascinating and painful to watch, and was utterly revealing of the Murdoch corporation’s almost frivolous cynicism.  The other interviewer works for NPR, which broadcast yesterday his interview with a prominent female Tea Party blogger.  Asked about Tea Party Republican house members’ willingness to compromise on the debt ceiling, she said that their willingness to consider raising the debt ceiling at all was compromise enough.  Having been primed by the BBC interviewer’s take-no-prisoners technique, I waited for the followup questions.  But there were none.  The NPR reporter, having knocked on the door to the House of Idiocy, stood on the threshold and watched it open and made not one move to enter, leaving his listeners with the false impression that this is just a house like any other.

Presumably, if some modern American reincarnation of Crow Dog were to come along, American’s journalists would breathlessly report on the colors of the blanket.  They would tell us what a Republican party operative said about it, and what a Democratic party operative said about it, and what a right-of-center commentator said about it.  They would give us the sounds of the shots fired at the blanket, with film of the bullets going through.  A suitable warning would be broadcast that this might be inappropriate for some viewers.  The reporters would compete to find shooters to ask, “When you pulled the trigger on the blanket, how did it feel?”  The only thing they would not tell us was, what was Crow Dog doing under there.

UPDATE 7/29/11:  What Paul Krugman says.

This entry was posted on Thursday, July 28th, 2011 at 12:14 pm and is filed under American history, media. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.