Before there were shows like “Yellowstone” and “Joe Pickett,” before Butch Cassidy and Annie Oakley and the Marlboro Man, and even before the dawn of filmmaking and radio, there was a man who wanted to sell a gun. In the middle of the 19th century, Samuel Colt needed to build a civilian market for his firearms — so Colt, a master marketer, realized he had to build a mythology. The result of his and other gun manufacturers’ efforts, Alain Stephens and Grace Tatter explain on the third episode of The Gun Machine (a podcast from The Trace and WBUR), was the creation of an iconic genre, one whose stories are often mistaken as facts today: the Western. And central to gunmakers’ fantastical version of the American West was a racist depiction of Indigenous Americans.
Native Americans, contrary to the “Wild West” trope, were the real sharpshooters: They were often better at using firearms than the white Americans who brought them to battle. While Native fighters were far outnumbered by the U.S. Army, some nations held on to their land for more than a century after the American government was established. “Time and again, many of the worst displacements began with Indigenous people being disarmed,” Stephens says. But “the end effects of the U.S’s policy by gunpoint — the colonization, disarmament, relocation, and culture erosion — are abundantly clear.”
Today, those effects are apparent not only in how gun violence materializes in Native communities, but also in how it’s portrayed. As writer Allen Salway has argued, the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history did not take place in Las Vegas in 2018, as is often repeated — it took place in 1890, in Wounded Knee, South Dakota, where American soldiers killed close to 300 Lakota men, women, and children. Native people are twice as likely to be shot and killed by police as white people, and 1.2 times more likely than Black people, according to a WUWM analysis of CDC data. Activists have raised the issue of police brutality against Indigenous people for decades, yet the Justice Department did not find that any police department discriminated against Native Americans until this past June. According to the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, Native women often face challenges to disarming a domestic abuser. American Indians and Alaska Natives are nearly twice as likely to die by suicide, half the time using a gun, Pamela End of Horn, an an enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota Sioux Tribe and a consultant for the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, told Stephens.
One of the biggest defenses against suicide in Native communities, said End of Horn, is fostering a “connection to the culture.” That’s a central part of the strategy for tribal counselors with the new Native and Strong Lifeline, a mental health support call line: “The biggest ask that I know of,” one coordinator told ICT, is “for cultural connection activities.” Similarly, the Stronghearts Native Helpline, a Native-led domestic violence support hotline, notes that its principles are based on Indigenous values and beliefs. And many members of Native social justice organizations, too, link a cultural connection, albeit a different one, to their activism: the American Indian Movement protests of the 1960s and 70s.
Nick Tilsen, a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation whose parents were activists in the early American Indian Movement, founded the Indigenous-led social justice organization NDN Collective based on what he saw the movement achieve. “It became a spiritual revolution,” Tilsen told ICT. But “it also became a fight that was about human rights. It became a fight that was about where Indigenous people aren’t just within the political system of America, but within the broader context of the system, of the world.”
From Our Team
A roundup of the latest stories from The Trace.
To build a civilian firearms market, U.S. firearms manufacturers pioneered myths about the American West. Episode 3 of The Gun Machine focuses on the man who wrote that playbook: Samuel Colt.
Gun violence is falling nationwide, but the decline in New Orleans is even more pronounced. Community leaders and public health officials want to get the numbers down further.
Named for victim Karina González, the measure would require law enforcement officers to quickly remove guns from people who have orders of protection against them.
What to Know This Week
In 2016, West Virginia legislators overrode a gubernatorial veto to pass a permitless concealed carry law, a measure supporters argued would make the state safer. But a recent study from researchers at West Virginia University shows that gun deaths were about 26 percent more frequent in the state after the law was enacted. [Mountain State Spotlight]
The Justice Department will not bring charges against Border Patrol agents who shot and killed a Native man, Raymond Mattia, outside his home in a remote Tohono O’odham village in southern Arizona earlier this year. Mattia’s family says prosecutors have not answered their questions about his death; relatives plan to file a civil rights lawsuit against the federal government for violating guidelines on victims’ rights. [The Intercept]
The National Rifle Association and other gun rights groups submitted amicus filings to U.S. v. Rahimi — the Supreme Court case that will decide the constitutionality of a federal ban on gun possession by people subject to domestic violence restraining orders — downplaying the legitimacy of many protective orders and arguing that being subject to one is not grounds for disarmament. [HuffPost]
The violent conflict in Israel and Gaza is sparking concerns about antisemitic and anti-Muslim hate crimes in the U.S. For one small Jewish security outfit in Los Angeles, the assault in Israel on Saturday was a call to arms. [Axios/Los Angeles Times]
The number of guns seized in U.S. schools has increased dramatically, according to a review of news reports and a survey of large public school systems. Across 47 of the largest districts in the country, the number of guns found on campuses rose 79 percent between the 2018-2019 school year and the 2022-2023 school year. [The Washington Post]
A judge has given the New York Attorney General’s Office a second chance to depose former NRA executive Willes Lee. The office deposed Lee, then a steadfast defender of NRA brass, in June 2022. After being passed over for the role of NRA president in April, Lee reversed his stance and took to blasting the group’s leadership on social media. The AG will likely ask Lee about his claim that he was retaliated against for not complying when “told to do things and to keep the real reason secret.” — Will Van Sant
The Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, which represents nearly 400 police chiefs, opposes a bill to overhaul the state’s firearms laws in its current form, the group’s executive director said at a public hearing on Tuesday. Members are concerned about a provision limiting where gun owners can bring their weapons that doesn’t include carve-outs for off-duty law enforcement officers. [The Boston Globe]
The inspector general for the Small Business Administration estimates that at least 17 percent of the $1.2 trillion handed out by COVID-19 relief programs was obtained through fraud. Justice Department and court records reveal that street gangs got in on the act, stealing millions of dollars from those programs to buy guns and sometimes employ straw purchasers to obtain them. [Chicago Sun-Times]
Missouri officials asked the Supreme Court to revive the state’s “Second Amendment Sanctuary Act,” a controversial measure that penalizes local police who enforce federal gun laws that are not also state laws, while it fights a federal appeals court’s decision to block it. [USA TODAY]
A school shooter who was released from prison in 2020 went viral on TikTok for talking about his actions, with the stated goal of making change “so that other communities, other people don’t go through what my victims did.” Trauma experts say he’s doing more harm than good. [The Guardian]
Honoree Fleming, 77, was passionate about science — so dedicated to her research, VTDigger reports, that she spent a decade after retirement investigating cell differentiation from her kitchen table, publishing an article on her work just four months ago. She was shot and killed on a trail near Vermont State University in Castleton, where she had worked as a dean until 2012, last week. Fleming grew up poor in New York City, according to her husband, and was a stalwart advocate for students, particularly those without a lot of privilege, in her higher education career. One former student credits Fleming with helping her graduate: “You could just see in her eyes that she believed in you,” the student told the Rutland Herald. She was both uniquely brilliant and uniquely kind, a friend said: “Her intelligence coupled with her empathy and caring were sort of what made her remarkable.”
Viola Fletcher Waited 102 Years for Reparations. She’s Still Waiting: “What Viola Fletcher witnessed that night in 1921 has haunted her for a century.. … And so, on the second Wednesday in May this year, Viola Fletcher spent the morning of her 109th birthday in the front row of a 7th floor courtroom at the Tulsa courthouse. She had dressed elegantly — her green and white blouse poking out from beneath the tan and white scarf wrapped around her shoulders for warmth — and sat silently, at times leaning forward in her wheelchair as she waited to learn whether the lawsuit that is probably her last living chance at justice would be allowed to proceed.” [The Washington Post]
“I could actually get, like, shot. I’ve got to be wary of who to be around at school — and whether they’ve got a gun or not.”
— Markevis Watkins, a high schooler in northwest Georgia, on how his thinking changed after two students brought loaded guns to campus within the first five days of the academic year, to The Washington Post