Jon Lurie of Minneapolis MN is a freelance writer and photographer. His articles appear in National Indian newspapers. Lurie was also a performer for the AIM for Freedom Concert at the Little Wound School Gym in Kyle, February 28th. Reprinted from Pulse of the Twin Cities March 11, 1998 Issue]
On February 27th, 1973, an independent nation was declared in the tiny village of Wounded Knee on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation. For 71 days, a group of American Indian Movement (AIM) members and traditional Oglala Lakota people held ground in a shooting war against the largest internal deployment of federal forces since the Civil War. The Indians had one demand: the return of the Great Sioux Nation, a sovereign land base (consisting of the entire western half of South Dakota) that was recognized by the United Sates in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. Two AIM warriors were killed in the fighting. Buddy Lamont, a Vietnam volunteer who fought for the United states so his people "could sleep safe at night," was shot by a sniper's bullet. Frank Clearwater was fatally wounded in a fire fight with FBI agents and US Marshals. Government promises to address the Indians' demands prompted an end to the stand-off but were never fulfilled.
The renewal of open hostilities between the Lakota people and the United States after 83 years of unjust peace would forever change the course of history. Wounded Knee was the catalyst for Indian uprisings at Oka, Canada, and Chiapas, Mexico, and caused the indigenous nations of North America to see sovereignty-cultural, physical, a spiritual and linguistic-as a realistic goal. Twenty five years after the fire fights, the rebels now hold many of the levers of power in Pine Ridge's tribal government. Early last month (Febr.), a tribal resolution established February 27 as a National Day of Liberation. "I never thought in my lifetime that I'd see a tribal government respectfully honor something that AIM did," says Clyde Bellecourt who cofounded AIM in Stillwater State Prison in 1968.
Milo Yellow Hair, a Wounded Knee Veteran and AIM member, is Vice President of the Oglala Lakota Nation. Twenty five Years ago, as a young AIM supporter, he would have had a better chance of being shot than getting into the Tribal Building.
"As a kid growing up in potato picking fields in western Nebraska," he says, "I saw every day what racism is all about. Our existence had been basically dictated by the federal government since a period we call "The starving time" in the early 1900s. That was followed by World War II, when many of our people fought in the military. And then in 1950 we went through relocations when many of us were coaxed into moving to far away cities like Denver and Seattle. Then there was a period of time when sterilizations were going on in Indian hospitals throughout this country. All that time, the ceremonies of the Lakota people, things like sundance, sweat lodge, name givings, all things that had been culturally relevant to us, had been ignored, and in many cases were outlawed. One day I saw a documentary about the sound of an Indian drum coming up over a prison wall in a place called Stillwater. That Indian drum changed my life." Late last month Yellow Hair joined about 2,000 others from around the world on Pine Ridge for a two-day celebration of the Silver Anniversary of the Wounded Knee liberation.
Yellow Hair says the liberation was not only a physical one, but a spiritual one. "A liberation from the old idea that you couldn't practice your religion, the old idea that you couldn't speak your language in your classrooms, the idea that you had to hide any time the police came around. The liberation of not being afraid to speak in meetings. These are some basic human rights that were ignored prior to 1973, but after 1973, they were respected."
The war on Pine Ridge arose out of desperation. Over 100 Indians had been murdered in previous years in white towns surrounding the reservation. Few of those had been investigated and even fewer solved, testimony to the low value assigned to Indian life by local whites. In addition, the United States had installed a puppet administration headed by Dick Wilson, a plumber and part-time bootlegger and a man who, like many of his generation, had no interest in maintaining traditional ways. Wilson was propped up by a private paramilitary called the GOONs (Guardians of the Oglala Nation) with weapons supplied by the FBI. Wilson handed out lavish salaries to family members while ignoring the needs of traditional people who were languishing in hunger and 90 percent unemployment. In exchange for federal support, Wilson signed away nearly 200,000 acres of reservation land to the federal government, which claimed the space for a bombing range.
When the American Indian Movement was called to Pine Ridge it was asked to protect traditional people from GOON violence. What AIM didn't know was that beneath the bombing range lay the richest deposit of weapons-grade uranium on the North American continent. Nor did they know to what extremes the government would go to have it. Nor were they aware of a federal plan to turn the Black Hills into a "National Sacrifice Zone."
In 1971, the Interior Department endorsed a document that declared that the Black Hills, sacred land of the Lakota people, was to become the nucleus of a massive energy center, producing power in the abundant uranium and coal fields, and exporting it eastward on a network of lines running to St. Louis and Minneapolis. This came with an acknowledgement that 188,000 acres would be devastated, while inflicting irreparable damage to the air, land, water, and life on the Great Plains. A toxic smog of nitrogen, sulfur, and ash would cover the skies of the mountain states, and thousands of square miles of creeks and prairie ponds across the country would disappear. The impact statement specified that Indians would lose their "special relationship to the land," as it "shifted to mineral extractive use."
Within a few years over a million acres were claimed by about 25 multinationals. The energy companies planned to encircle the Black Hills with 13 coal fired plants, producing 10,000 megawatts apiece, with an additional 60 plants under consideration. There would also be a "nuclear energy park" with up to 25 reactors. The companies began test drilling for minerals on a grand scale. Leaking Uranium holes soon poisoned the Black Hills aquifer, the only source of drinking water in the region, killing cattle in the southern Black Hills. The $500 million in estimated potential uranium revenue explains the federal zeal to eliminate AIM. Wounded Knee was at the forefront of protests that ultimately convinced the Interior Department to retreat.
Robert Quiver Jr, coordinator of the 25th Anniversary celebration, was four years old when AIM came to the reservation. "Our house became an AIM house. The AIM people would come over for a shower, something to eat, or to rest. We always had tight security in case the GOONs came around. But one day we were on the road and we came up behind a really slow moving truck. Another truck full of GOONs was suddenly on our tail and we were forced to stop. They got out, put a gun to my father's head and ordered the men onto the road. My dad pleaded with them not to shoot because we were there. My brother and I were scared and started to cry. Those GOONs aimed their guns at us and said, 'If you don't shut those kids up we're going to blow their heads off.'"
Despite memories such as these, Quiver hoped that 25 years later the GOONs would come to Wounded Knee, sweat with the people, and smoke the pipe to promote healing. None did. "I wouldn't expect them to show up," said a tribal secretary. "There are killers walking around on this reservation who are too scared to admit what they've done. The GOONs were death squads, just like they had in El Salvador and Guatemala."
The taking of Wounded Knee was prompted by the realization that the government would back Wilson no matter what atrocities he committed, so long as he stood up to AIM. On February 27th, 1973, after AIM was denied access to the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Pine Ridge by federal marshals, a meeting was held at Calico Hall, attended by an estimated 600 supporters. Dennis Banks, today the National Field Director of AIM, recalls it was the women in the group who pushed AIM to action. "The decision to take Wounded Knee came when Ellen Moves Camp pointed at us and said, 'What are you men going to do about it?' if the women hadn't done that we'd still be meeting at Calico."
These days Calico Hall is a crumbling reminder that over a quarter century has passed since the fighting spirit first returned to the Oglala Lakota people. Plastic ripples from window frames in the powerful Dakota wind. The hall has become the unofficial homeless shelter of local drunks. But on the first morning of the 25th Anniversary, Calico is resurrected by the pounding of the drum, the warmth of the wood stove, and the smell of bread and coffee. The tiny room is crowded with nostalgic Wounded Knee veterans like Kevin McKeirnan. In 1973 McKeirnan, a reporter and photo journalist, was sent to Wounded Knee to cover the liberation. Once inside, he remained until the last weapon was dropped. His tapes and photographs are providing a window into the bunkers for new generations of Lakota children.
The family of Pedro Bissonette serves breakfast in honor of the man responsible for bringing the American Indian Movement to Pine Ridge. Posters of Bissonette, the slain leader of the Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization (OSCRO), hang above candles that burn in his memory. Bissonette was an expert on the Dick Wilson regime and would have been a crucial witness for the defense in the trial of Dennis Banks and Russell Means on Wounded Knee related charges. On August 27, 1973, Bissonette was arrested in Rapid City on the charge of "interfering with a federal officer." He was offered probation in return for helpful testimony about Wounded Knee, and threatened with a 99 year sentence if he refused. To this he responded, "I will stand with my brothers and sisters. I will tell the truth about them and about why we went to Wounded Knee. I will fight for my people. I will live for them if it is necessary to stop the terrible things that happen to Indians on the Pine Ridge Reservation. I am ready to die for them"
A judge dropped the charges and Bissonette returned to Pine Ridge, where Wilson's all out assault on AIM continued. Had Bissonette spoken in court, he would have exposed the corruption on Pine Ridge before the national media. But on October 17, 1973, Bissonette was shot to death by BIA police who claimed he was resisting arrest. His alleged crime was to knock down a man who had insulted him, in what was an apparent provocation. It was later revealed that the shotgun blast that killed Pedro Bissonette was fired from less than two feet away. Dennis Banks called the murder a "federal assassination conspiracy." A group of runners led by Banks depart Calico Hall for Wounded Knee, a distance of 20 miles, emboldened by the drum beat that honors Pedro Bissonette. They run into a driving blizzard, a storm that surprised everyone on the reservation after a week of 50 degree days. At noon the exhausted runners reach Wounded Knee, where there are tipis and warm fires. The pouring snow bathes the camp in a ghostly veil that takes the imagination to 1890. "This weather reminds us of what Big Foot's people endured, and what we endured in 1973," says Milo Yellow Hair. "Being out there and feeling the cold reminds us a little bit of the sacrifices that were made."
"I'm convinced the spirits sent this weather to provide us protective cover," says Pine Ridge resident Ginger Sotello. "We were worried people might try to start trouble, but only people who carry this in their hearts would endure weather like this."
According to organizers, approximately 1,200 people traveling through Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, and Wisconsin have been turned back by storm closed freeways. Many others who call with support are unable to attend for lack of funds, transportation or child care.
Wounded Knee veteran Henry Wawassik is among those who can't make it. He phones from Leavenworth, Kansas, where he serves to support Leonard Peltier (the Lakota/Anishnabe political prisoner framed for the murders two FBI agents on Pine Ridge in 1975) and the other Native American prisoners in the federal penitentiary. He says he has to "stay near Leonard. He's gotten obese. His health is deteriorating fast. He doesn't trust prison food, and the commissary only sells junk food...Please remember the men behind the walls. The brother at Leavenworth will be joining you in prayer."
About 500 people are tightly circled abound Clyde Bellecourt in the tipi's shadow. "In 1965, the life expectancy of an Indian man was 43.5 years, compared to 65 for a white man," Bellecourt blasts through Vietnam era horns. "There was 90 percent unemployment on the reservations of Minnesota, the South Dakota. Native suicide rate was seven times the national average. The American Indian Movement helped to change that. We came here and we offered the only thing we had - hope."
Dennis Banks takes the mic: "Twenty five years ago all we wanted was justice, peace, unity. We wanted to be who we are. We didn't want to be under BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) and still don't because of the policy they enforce that was born of manifest destiny. We are battling every day in the courts of this country for the right to exercise our way of life...White America, corporate America, still cannot fathom why we don't like [this situation]. America does not understand that we don't like to be made a mockery of. America laughs while we are filled with pain...They still hate us, but that's all right. I like that kind of hate. It means they're listening to us." The sounds of rifle fire and defiance fill the air as AIM veterans honor the dead with a ten-gun salute.
William Shelton is one of the lucky travelers who make it through the blizzard to stand and pray at Wounded Knee. In 1973, Shelton, one of a handful of non-Indian combatants inside Wounded Knee, spent three weeks in the bunkers as a warrior and radio operator. When asked to recall the vents of that time, he becomes tearful and speechless. To this day he declines to say whether he fired on federal agents. "That's something I won't even tell my wife," he says. Shelton came to Wounded Knee from Oklahoma as "a crazy 20 year old," he says, "because the spirit moved me."
The time he spent with comrades on Pine Ridge changed him indelibly. Shelton says Wounded Knee is "unquestionably the thing I'm most proud of in my life. Unquestionably the thing that has had the most impact on my life. I hope my daughter will forgive me for saying that. Clearly, Wounded Knee is the most important thing I've been involved in in my life."
Shelton recalls on the day of laying down the arms "an eagle flying overhead. I remember the sense of pride and empowerment" He was accused of insurrection and rebellion, violation of federal riot laws, and impeding federal officers. While he was never indicted, he was under surveillance for three and a half years; his mail would disappear, and strangers often questioned his friends and employers. On the advice of his lawyer, Shelton left the country in the fall of 1977 and stayed away three and a half years. "Which is one reason I speak Spanish," he say. "I have to thank the federal government of the United States for giving me my skills for which I can earn a substantial living as a high school teacher."
Milo Yellow Hair credits people like Shelton for helping to turn the situation in Pine Ridge around. "It was good-hearted people who chose to stand with the Oglala Lakota at the time of their greatest need that have made positive changes possible." In all, 64 Indian tribes as well as whites, Hispanics, and blacks were represented at Wounded Knee.
Wounded Knee was chosen for the 1973 protest because of its symbolic and spiritual significance as the site of the 1890 massacre of Big Foots band, the final mass murder associated with the Indian wars. The more than 200 dead were buried in a collective unmarked grave on a hill above Wounded Knee Creek. The massacre is still an open wound for Lakota people, and "Remember Wounded Knee" continues to be the rallying cry of Native independence movements. In recent years, the federal government has sought to gain control over the area and turn it into a national monument. Many veterans of Wounded Knee II feel that the U.S. has no business at the hallowed site. They fear that federal interest in developing its tourist potential has less to do with presenting history, and more to do with neutralizing the powerful emotions Wounded Knee evokes in Indian people.
"If the monument is built along with a public apology from the U.S. government, it could do a lot of healing among our people," says Albert White Hat, a Lakota Studies professor at Sinte Gleska University on the Rosebud Reservation. White Hat left college in 1973 to aid the traditionals at Wounded Knee. "The question is, are we ready to accept an apology? Are we ready to forgive? Whether we have a monument or not, I don't think we'll ever forget what happened. It is something very much alive within us. We still feel the pain."
On the second night of the celebration, the Big Foot blizzard, as it is now being called, continues to rage. News reports call it the storm of the decade. Over 100 inches fall in the Black Hills. Inside the Little Wound school in Kyle, S.D., a thousand people gather to hear a concert featuring rapper Redsoul and poet John Trudell. Trudell, a former AIM national chairman, lost his wife Tine, her mother, and their three children in an arsonist's attack on their home on the Duck Valley Reservation in Nevada. On February 11, 1979, he burned an upside-down flag on the steps of the FBI building in Washington, D.C., during a vigil for Leonard Peltier. Twelve hours later his family was murdered. The FBI made no investigation even though the crime fell under their jurisdiction.
Banks takes the stage with Kathy and Markita, the daughters of Leonard Peltier. "We want our father back," they cry. Banks, in his black beret and weathered warrior's face, is a folk hero on this reservation, his status equal to Che Guevara in Cuba. "Free Leonard Peltier," he shouts angrily, as if commanding the spirits to open the cell door.
Trudell comes on later and warns the rapt crowd to beware, "They're mining our souls...You can't out-mean this system, don't even try. But you can out-think it." The equal mix of elder and youth soak up his words with quiet reverence and respectful shouts, "Good words, John!"
Yellow Hair says the legacy of Wounded Knee is a string of Positive Accomplishments for the Oglala Lakota people. "We have the Porcupine clinic, the brain child of some of the women of the American Indian Movement. They did this to eliminate the fears people had of having to go to the Indian Health Service hospital.
"KILI Radio, the voice of the Lakota Nation, is celebrating its 15th year. A lot of the problems that happened on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation happened because of lack of communication. In the schools, our children are now starting to speak Lakota, and [are] using Lakota flag songs in the mornings before beginning classes. The biggest thing is that we've had an explosion of ceremonies. We have something like a total of 32 different sundances on the reservation. Before that we didn't even have one."
The next goal, says Yellow Hair, is another step toward the fruition of the dreams of those who sacrificed at Wounded Knee. "There will be a traditional based government in place that reflects the needs and desires of our people here on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. That is what we have in mind."
For the second night in a row, the Big Foot storm has closed the roads. People take refuge in the church, the District Office, and the bleachers in the gym. No one really minds. The people are together and tonight there is peace.