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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Unquiet Eternities

Steve Earle, the Virgil of the Left, once lamented that he wished he were as certain of anything as Bill Monroe, the Isaac Newton of bluegrass, was of everything. It is a problem unique to the Left. Thought begets doubt. The Right, lacking the impetus of the former, rarely suffers from the latter.

I thought of Earle’s lament often while writing my new book, The Unquiet Grave: The FBI and the Struggle for the Soul of Indian Country (which Jesus’ General has unabashedly, and heterosexually, plugged on this page). In the tangled story of how the FBI sabotaged the Indian rights movement of the 1970s and how the Indian activists themselves turned violent under the FBI’s provocations in the badlands of South Dakota, shades of gray were as prevalent as those of black or white.

Some certitudes did, however, emerge. One was that if there is a hell, it has an endowed wing for the press of South Dakota. Last week this infernal annex grew by a few chambers as Wild Bill Janklow, the longtime Dakota governor and congressman who ran over a motorcyclist in 2003, had his manslaughter conviction erased. After his trial, Janklow was given a trifling hundred days in jail, a suspended sentence, and a promise that his record would be erased in 2007 if he didn’t slaughter anyone else in the interim. It was enough, the judge said, that Janklow had to undergo the “special humiliation” of giving up his congressional seat. The Dakota press, which over the years had ignored the hundreds of speeding and reckless-driving tickets that Wild Bill racked up, thought the punishment Solomonic. No surprise that newsrooms offered not a bleat of critique when Janklow’s record was scrubbed last week.

The manslaughter was covered at all only because it had to be. A dead cyclist at a public crossroads is hard to ignore. Not so Janklow’s other, often legal crimes. Three decades back, Janklow was the George Wallace of Indian Country, a onetime hayseed who rode his state’s racist winds to power, then used that power to fan the gusts of anti-Indian prejudice into prairie gales. He did so unchallenged by a cowardly Fourth Estate—yellow journalism indeed. The difference between Dakota and Dixie is that George Wallace, Orville Faubus, Bull Connor, and other mastodons of Jim Crow were eventually speared and fossilized. Janklow endured, the stegosaurus in the state’s living room. Given the choice of appeasing the grocers and car dealers who peopled their display ads or lending a voice to the Plains Indians who had been raped for a century, the newsmen of Rapid City and Sioux Falls always sided with its fellow burghers. May the memories of fat ad accounts be cool comfort in hell.

Steve Hendricks

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