Where’d the Death Come From? Editing Wikipedia’s Wounded Knee Entry

6 minute read

According to Alexa, the English language version of Wikipedia is the seventh ranked site on the Internet and the only vaguely academic site besides the omnipotent Google on the list. Yet even though Wikipedia and its five million articles have become a ubiquitous part of how we figure out the answer to life’s vexing questions, most people know little about how the content actually gets on Wikipedia. While most theoretically know anyone can edit Wikipedia and contribute additional information or fix errors, few people outside of Wikipedia’s inner circle of active volunteer editors regularly contribute to the site and understand the intricacies of the process. In part this may be the result of technological barriers, but as Tom Simonite noted in an MIT Technology Review article on the “decline of Wikipedia,” Wikipedia’s internal dynamics also play a critical role:

The loose collective running the site today, estimated to be 90 percent male, operates a crushing bureaucracy with an often abrasive atmosphere that deters newcomers who might increase participation in Wikipedia and broaden its coverage.

So at the same time that Wikipedia is remaining increasingly relevant as a way to get information on a myriad of subjects, the structure is growing increasingly dilapidated. While we can’t do anything to untangle to mess of Wikipedia’s bureaucracy, understanding how to edit and engage with articles on Wikipedia is a critical skill for digital humanities moving forward. Unfortunately for academics trained in archival research and standard methods of peer review, editing even a single sentence on Wikipedia can be a headache inducing experience. Here’s my own personal experience editing a Wikipedia entry and my plans to continue working to improve the article going forward.

Background

In February of 2012 Timothy Messer-Kruse published an article entitled “The ‘Undue Weight’ of Truth on Wikipedia” in the Chronicle of Higher Education that covered his attempts to correct an issue on the Wikipedia entry for the Haymarket Riot. Messer-Kruse’s issue centered on the claim that the prosecution in the Haymarket trial failed to provide any evidence linking the defendants with the bombings. As Messer-Kruse discusses, the claim was factually inaccurate and had a mountain of historical evidence contradicting it, but because of Wikipedia’s policies that give preference to published secondary sources over archival materials and the “majority view” of a subject (i.e. whatever most sources agree on), the attempt to correct the assertion only succeeded once he published a book on the subject.

Messer-Kruse’s article hits on many of the issues academics have with Wikipedia’s reliability and academic rigor, but it also provided a helpful look at the backside of Wikipedia’s editorial policies and the assertion that Wikipedia is geared towards policing “verifiability” over the “truth.” The article also resonated with me because when it was published I was finishing my Master’s thesis on the occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota in 1973 and I ended up engaged in my own Wikipedia editing conflict over a subject that I don’t claim to be an expert on in the manner Messer-Kruse is on Haymarket, but I certainly know more about it than the average Wikipedia editor.

The Wikipedia entry on the Wounded Knee Incident has a copious amount of issues ranging from manners of organization, to poor citations, and factual inaccuracies. The biggest issue with the article, and the one I ended up fighting over, is the page’s assertion that one US official died during the occupation. The purported death involves Lloyd Grimm, a US Marshall from Nebraska, who ended up paralyzed after being struck by a bullet during an intense firefight about a month after the occupation began.1 There is considerable debate about how he was shot, each side blamed the other at the time, and due to the chaotic nature of the event, who shot him will probably never be known. The one thing that is certain is that Grimm survived the event, given that he testified at the trial of AIM leaders Dennis Banks and Russell Means the next year.2 When I noticed the error (which was uncited), I corrected the error and started a discussion on the talk page noting that no published source claims Grimm died as a result of his injuries, yet an editor quickly reverted the changes and no one responded to the talk discussion. I did manage to get a [citation needed] tag added to the claim in the hopes it would prompt deletion after a period of time. Unfortunately the assertion is still on the article and includes a link to a BBC World podcast (which doesn’t make any mention of a government official dying).

This is important because, one it’s wrong and history shouldn’t be wrong when the evidence is so clear cut. But secondly, whether we like it or not, Wikipedia is how a lot of people get up to speed on subjects they’re not familiar with. Case in point, this NPR article from 2013 commemorating the 40th anniversary of Wounded Knee. The article noted an FBI agent died on first publication, but when I contacted the author and NPR’s corrections department they both quickly acknowledged the error and removed the reference and added a correction. If only Wikipedia’s horde of editors were as understanding.

Editing the Article Going Forward

As a component of History 5073 - Digital Preservation, we’re required to edit a Wikipedia article and I figured what better way to kill two birds with one stone than editing the entry on Wounded Knee. Given my previous experiences I’m slightly jaded about how successful this whole process will be, and given the time constraints I’ve set pretty modest goals for the project.

  1. The article needs a general clean-up for structural issues, ranging from the sentence level to the overall flow of the article. While I’m guessing Wikipedia’s overlords will object to a wholesale rearrangement of the article’s sections, I’d like to see about getting the “disputed facts” subsection moved to its own section at the end of the article.
  2. The article is relatively short for an important and contentious event so there’s a variety of points throughout that can be elaborated on. Unfortunately on a number of fronts I’m going to run into the issue that Messer-Kruse had with the Haymarket article, because I have a copious amount of sources on Wounded Knee, but many of them are newspapers and other primary sources that Wikipedia’s editors discount because they don’t have easy access to them. So I’m going to limit myself to a small collection of books, particularly Smith and Warrior’s Like a Hurricane, as a basis for expanding the article when needed.
  3. For a contentious article it’s surprisingly lacking in sources. It has a total of 25 footnotes and seven additional readings, none of which are the autobiographies of AIM leaders Dennis Banks and Russell Means. I’d like to flesh out the readings and provide additional footnotes, or at least mark passages that need citations added.
  4. If possible I’d love to get the government death removed from the article. I’ve theoretically begun the process (again) of discussing the death on the talk page for the article, pointing out that the BBC podcast is not a reasonable source for the claim.
  5. The article is also entirely devoid of pictures, so I’d really love to find a picture that could meet Wikipedia’s standards for inclusion. Unfortunately given that the event occurred in 1973, tracking down a public domain photograph from the event is difficult.

Image source: xkcd

This single is mirrored from my Indian Rodeo project, a component of my digital preservation class.

  1. Pat Chaat Smith and Robert Allen Warrior, Like a Hurricane: The Native Rights Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee (New York: The New Press, 1996), 234. 

  2. Prosecution Rests in Trial of 2 Indians Over Wounded Knee, “New York Times,” July 25, 1974.