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Law & Policy


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Amerindian History & Law

The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder and Other True Stories from the Nebraska-Pine Ridge Border Towns by Stew Magnuson, with a foreword by Pekka Hmlinen, with Series Editor John R. Wunder (Plains Histories Series: Texas Tech University Press)

The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder engages a number of key themes of current scholarship racism, masculinity, construction of cross-cultural spaces, historical memory without the interference of a heavy theoretical apparatus. Refreshingly, Magnuson doesn't place anything between his words and readers. His stories lie bare and thoroughly accessible. Pekka Hmlinen,

The long-intertwined communities of the Oglala Lakota Pine Ridge Reservation and the bordering towns in Sheridan County, Nebraska, mark their histories in sensational incidents and quiet human connections, many recorded in detail in The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder for the first time.
After covering racial unrest in the remote northwest corner of his home state of Nebraska in 1999, journalist Stew Magnuson returned four years later to consider the border towns' peoples, their paths, and the forces that separate them. Examining Raymond Yellow Thunder's death at the hands of four white men in 1972, Magnuson looks deep into the past that gave rise to the tragedy. Situating long-ranging repercussions within 130 years of context, he also recounts the largely forgotten struggles of American Indian Movement activist Bob Yellow Bird and tells the story of Whiteclay, Nebraska, the controversial border hamlet that continues to sell millions of cans of beer per year to the dry reservation.
Within this microcosm of cultural conflict, Magnuson explores the odds against community's power to transcend misunderstanding, alcoholism, prejudice, and violence.

As Pekka Hmlinen says in the foreword to The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder, the border towns that edge Indian reservations in places like Arizona or Nebraska are plagued by many of the same problems that haunt Tijuana or Matamoros. But while US-Mexico border towns figure prominently in popular culture, their reservation counterparts rarely enter the picture. Although quintessential American places, they are largely forgotten.

Told through layered stories that move back and forth in time and across the physical and mental borders separating Native and white communities, The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder is not conventional academic history. It is instead about the people drunks and petty criminals, Indian militants and exasperated state officials, journalists and shopkeepers, men, women, and children who occupy these peculiar American places and whose lives and histories have become irrevocably entwined.

The cumulative effect of the numerous individual stories Magnuson tells readers is devastating: they evoke a deep sense of sadness over the destitution, exploitation, fraud, racial hatred, sheer boredom, and alcohol-fueled aggression that permeate the lives of these border peoples. The book's broken temporal composition underlines Magnuson's notion that violence in the Nebraska-Pine Ridge border towns is historically conditioned and structural: the past, and peoples' inability to let go of the past, fuels an endless cycle of violence between Indians and whites even as the social space between the two groups grows narrower. In these stories all the protagonists are multifaceted. flawed, and profoundly human; whether Indians or whites, they all struggle and repeatedly fail to come to terms with each other's presence in their lives.

The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder spins against the way it drives. Even as the peoples of Sheridan County despise, scorn, exploit, assault, and kill one another, their lives, like objects slipping out of control, become more and more inseparable. Indians and whites coexist and, against all odds, somehow get along, sharing space they really don't want to share. This countercurrent is the source of the many unexpected stories Magnuson brings forth like that of a policeman who cares for a town drunk, an Indian, by regularly locking him up on freezing nights. A deepening interdependency marks the relations between Lakotas and white Nebraskans, and the book draws much of its dramatic thrust from the failure of so many from both sides to accept that fact.

While fixing its focus on the local, The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder does not ignore the larger developments influencing the history of Nebraska-Pine Ridge border towns. The U.S. government's repeated attempts to dismantle Lakota culture, the shock of the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890, the crushing poverty and hopelessness of Pine Ridge, the ascendancy of the American Indian Movement in reservations, the climactic 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee, and the post-Wounded Knee dirty war between AIM and Indian activists on the one side and the FBI and U.S. government on the other are all here. Other historians have discussed these events, but the book provides a look into the ways in which they played out at the grassroots level. Magnuson suggests a slow-burning conflict smolders: Nebraska-Pine Ridge border towns are battle zones, where the meaning of sovereignty and peoples' right to defend themselves against external exploitation remain undetermined.

A riveting and intricately textured retelling of a dreadful murder and its long history. Daniel M. Cobb, Western Historical Quarterly

In terms of artistry, The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder is a grand sweep of history told in the best tradition of literary journalism. Border town inhabitants come to life and past and present merge seamlessly. Carol Berry, Indian Country Today
A model of how local and regional history can and should be written. W. David Baird, Journal of American History
From readers looking for an informative read that flows like a well-written novel to researchers seeking information, this text is a valuable source. Jeanette Palmer, Studies in American Indian Literature

With lots of detail, The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder provides a rare look at the smoldering conflict between Indians and whites. Magnuson's mission is to reveal the full spectrum of human experience in the border towns' charged cross-cultural spaces, and in that he succeeds beautifully and compellingly. Although the topic is controversial and veiled by distorting layers of historical memory, Magnuson's approach is remarkably balanced. The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder breaks new ground by bringing the story to the twenty-first century, and in doing so, it reminds readers that although it rarely makes headlines, racial violence between Indians and whites is still here.



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