Last Sunday, Omar Mateen entered the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando and, armed with a handgun and a semi-automatic rifle—both legally acquired—killed 49 people and injured 53 others.
Police haven’t confirmed the shooter’s motives, but it seems pretty clear that LGBTQ people weren’t targeted and killed at random. And the death toll from Sunday’s tragedy is higher by dozens than any other mass shooting in the 21st century: The Virginia Tech shooting left 32 victims dead, Newtown 27. When President Barack Obama told the nation hours after the attack on Sunday that “today marks the most deadly shooting in American history”—a phrase that was echoed by media outlets around the world, including Fusion—it rang true for many.
But for some, the definitive statement sounded like an erasure of America’s violent history—and of one infamous massacre of Native Americans in particular.
In 1890, the U.S. Cavalry shot and killed nearly 150 people who lived on the Lakota Pine Ridge Reservation. It was far from the only such massacre perpetrated by early (and not so early) Americans.
The outcry about the designation of Orlando as the worst mass shooting led NPR to reflect on its use of that phrase in an article published Monday. The piece’s author, Eyder Peralta, wrote that “this is something we discussed in the newsroom. It felt like the shootings—in Orlando, in Sandy Hook, at the Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen, Texas—were different enough [from massacres such as Wounded Knee] that we could say ‘deadliest mass shooting in the U.S.’ and still be respectful of all that previous history.”
Peralta reached out to Grant Duwe, author of Mass Murder in the United States: A History, to hear his thoughts on the terminology. From NPR:
He says he sees two distinctions between mass murders that occurred before and after the 20th century. Before 1900, most mass murders were perpetrated by the “haves” against the “have nots.” After 1900, mass murders began being perpetrated by the “have nots” against the “haves.” Another difference is that before the 20th century, few mass murders were perpetrated by a single person. A gunman opening fire on a public space is what “mass shooting” has come to mean these days, Duwe said. We don’t tend to put massacres involving military or quasi-military actors and those perpetrated by a group in that category.
The question of what constitutes a mass shooting is not a new one. Nor is it particularly easy to answer. The Gun Violence Archive defines a mass shooting as “four or more shot and/or killed in a single event [incident], at the same general time and location not including the shooter.” That’s the definition used by the FBI as of 2013, but it’s not an official one, and, as Vox points out, media outlets compiling lists of shootings don’t always share the same parameters. It’s possible, then, for an outlet to have acknowledged earlier acts of violence—at Wounded Knee, at Tulsa, and elsewhere—and still feel comfortable referring to Sunday’s shooting as the most deadly in history. It’s also possible that outlets simply got it wrong, and that the phrasing shows bias against the histories of marginalized Americans.
Another, perhaps trickier, question is when, and how, to talk about these issues. On Twitter, people argued that shifting the conversation to Wounded Knee and other comparable massacres diverted the conversation away from violence against LGBTQ Americans.
Discussions around mass shootings in America are already so fraught that those hoping to shift the conversation away from gun control and violence against members of the LGBTQ community might seize on anything they can, including conversations about the very real problem of historical erasure. As always, lawmakers are quick to dismiss gun control reform as an appropriate reaction to mass shootings. Some are eager to frame the attack as an outcropping of religious extremism, rather than of homophobia. It’s nearly impossible to bring nuance to mainstream discussions about violence and tragedy, and some argue that while it’s so hard to honestly parse what’s happening in the present, discussions of the past should wait.
This can put people who feel like their stories are being written out of the narrative in an impossible position—caught between wanting to correct the historical record and hoping that forces who have never been allied with them won’t suddenly hijack their concerns and use them in ways they never wanted.
There are, of course, people who don’t see the two narratives as mutually exclusive.
And for those suffering both the pain of erasure and the pain of LGBTQ marginalization, the question can be exhausting.
Sloane Cornelius, a queer, two-spirit member of the Oglala Lakota nation who serves as Guerrilla Feminism’s Native Issues Coordinator and tweets under the handle @CanteZuyawin, teased out some of the complexities of her position in an email. “As natives,” she wrote, “it is always very important that we address inaccuracies when they happen, otherwise we may not get another chance.” She added, “When I saw posts about remembering Wounded Knee, I recognized that it is an act borne out of ongoing extinction, erasure, and desperation.”
Cornelius explained that though “talking about Wounded Knee in this context is not necessarily a bad thing to do… there are important distinctions that need to be made.” She brought up some of the distinctions mentioned in the NPR piece, and touched on what discussions of Wounded Knee—especially when they come from non-native individuals—mean for her own mourning. “As a queer, two-spirit Lakota person, I am not only being forced to put my grief aside, but I am forced to simultaneously defend the memory of Oceti people who were slaughtered at Wounded Knee,” she wrote, continuing “this is especially insulting when these conversations are started and held by straight, cis, non-Oceti people who lack the proper experience to offer insight into what it means to be queer and a member of the Oceti Sakowin (Great Sioux Nation).”
Unfortunately, our country’s history is riddled with examples of such intersectional failures. White feminists pushed black women out of the suffrage movement, and activist groups often have to cope with internal conflicts. It’s what happens when the mainstream narrative is dictated by the privileged, and it’s another example of how marginalized voices can wind up being shut out.
You can find all of Fusion’s coverage of Orlando here.