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Siege was wake-up call for a culture
But deadly violence tarnished movement
WOUNDED KNEE - A caravan of cars and pickups winds its way south among the prairie hills at dusk toward the village of Pine Ridge.
A frothy wave of righteous activism - whipped up at a two-day meeting called by the American Indian Movement and Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization - propels the approximately 200 men, women and children in the procession.
In the village, U.S. marshals peer warily into the gathering darkness from fortified positions on the roof of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building.
They are mindful of a series of AIM takeovers beginning in 1969 at Alcatraz Island in California and a riot just weeks before at the Custer County Courthouse. The marshals assume they will have to defend the BIA building on the Pine Ridge Reservation from the Indians coming toward them.
But the vehicles turn off, pass through town and head east to Wounded Knee, a scattering of houses and mobile homes, a store, small museum, Catholic church, and a graveyard. There is a spiritual connection to this place. This is where the U.S. Cavalry killed more than 250 Sioux in 1890, a massacre that marked the close of the Lakota's free-roaming life.
In the caravan ride the destinies of Indian leaders such as Russell Means, Dennis Banks, Clyde and Vernon Bellecourt. Amid the tired vehicles is a cultural and spiritual rebirth. But also lurks the destruction of a community, the death of two men and crippling of a third, and years of bitter division and violence for the Lakota and AIM.
It is Feb. 28, 1973.
What started as a loosely conceived protest 30 years ago turned into a 71-day standoff with federal authorities at Wounded Knee.
The world glimpsed what it was like to be an Indian, to face bleak poverty, an almost casual racism, and the frustrating powerlessness of being wards of federal bureaucracy. What has been done with the knowledge? Thirty years later, does the siege at Wounded Knee reach beyond the memories and anecdotes of those who took part?
Yes, says Winona LaDuke, an activist, author and Green Party vice-presidential candidate from the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota.
The occupation was as significant as Rosa Parks refusing to move to the back of an Alabama bus and igniting the Civil Rights Movement, says LaDuke. "In our memory of why we have anything, we must remember Rosa Parks. In our memory as to why we, as native people, have anything, we must remember Wounded Knee," she says.
But to some observers the occupation and the violence it represents hinder real progress between whites and Indians in South Dakota. In some ways, it is best tucked away as a historical footnote to remember but not celebrate, they say.
The occupiers originally presented a list of 20 demands that boiled down to five topics ranging from examination of the hundreds of broken treaties between the United States and the tribes to reform of government on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
The siege grew into an international media event that ended May 8 after a series of negotiations and intervention of the White House and Lakota elders.
People on both sides of the Wounded Knee bunkers in 1973 agree the occupation was a complexity of soul-lifting highs and crushing lows. It was by turns boring and intense, enlightening and bewildering, tragic and funny. But always it was fluid, vital, dynamic.
The occupation defined the lives of many involved and was a watershed
Madonna Thunder Hawk visits the monument marking the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre, reflecting on the American Indian Movement-led occupation of the village 30 years ago. Thunder Hawk, who served as a medic in the compound, says: "We made our stand. I knew modern day Indian history had been made... and I didn't want it to end."
event in Indian history. It cemented the name of Wounded Knee as a contemporary symbol of Native American grievances with the government and its management of reservation land by the BIA.
"We don't have a gene pool anyplace else. This is where we are from," says Madonna Thunder Hawk, who spent the 71 days inside the Wounded Knee encampment serving as a medic. "I always feel I am here identifiably as an indigenous native person of this land. As long as we have a land base, the struggle goes on.
"I am totally amazed at what we did without any plans, without any big strategy," she says of Wounded Knee, "and I think that is what indigenous struggles are around the world. When you are struggling for your land, it is automatic."
Grabbing the World's Attention
The Wounded Knee occupation was a layered event.
At one level, it was simply an effort by traditional Oglalas to enlist AIM's help in solving what traditional people felt was an unequal distribution of federal resources on Pine Ridge. They alleged burglaries, house burnings, drive-by shootings and murders by supporters of Oglala Sioux President Dick Wilson.
AIM leaders also saw it as a forum to dramatize the plight of all Indians.
"It called attention to issues, not only here, but issues all across the country," Banks says.
During the months of the standoff, it seems everyone with an axe to grind against the government - such as Angela Davis of the Black Panthers - and everyone trying to hitch a ride on Lakota traditions - such as actor Marlon Brando - linked to the movement to enrich their own lives.
Means says he didn't think he would live through the occupation. Such fatalism also hung over Clyde Bellecourt.
"At that point, we had made a decision," he says. "We were willing to give our lives right there for what we believed in."
The Wounded Knee occupation was a desperate attempt to grab the world's attention, they say.
"We were pushed to the limit of cultural survival. This was a statement we had a right to live as Indians," Means says.
And South Dakotans had a ringside seat.
Gov. Mike Rounds was a high school senior in Pierre at the time.
"I think people were very disturbed by the violence involved," he remembers.
In a philosophy class at South Dakota State University a few years later, Rounds was introduced to the classic narrative text about the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre, "Black Elk Speaks." That added a level to his understanding of the 1973 event.
"I got to thinking that what happened at Wounded Knee was one more symptom of what we have suffered through in our state," he says.
Rounds carefully frames a thought that, while hurtful history should not be forgotten, both Indian and white South Dakotans should make a conscious decision to put away Wounded Knee in their contemporary dealings with each other.
"For me, I try to start over rather than talk about areas that are so sensitive or where we had people die because of the animosity in our races," Rounds says.
"I try to talk about where we go today, what we do today to get past the issues of hard feelings and rejection that have occurred in the past, both on the part of the white and Native American populations."
AIM Forms In Minnesota
In the beginning, AIM was a mainstream effort to improve the lot of Indians, envisioned by the larger world as residents of a homogenous, urban society where a red minority was just a different shade of white.
Banks and Clyde Bellecourt founded AIM in 1968 in Minneapolis to advocate for Indians against alleged abuses by police and courts.
In North Minneapolis "you could set your clock when the cops would come down Franklin Avenue with their paddy wagon to Bud's Bar. With their nightsticks, they'd force everyone out the back of the bar into the wagon," Banks says. He was arrested more than 30 times.
Soon after AIM's founding, Means traveled to Minnesota from Cleveland, where he was working as an accountant in the federally funded Council of Economic Opportunity, to meet the heads of the new group. He recalls Banks was wearing his hair short and parted to the side, Clyde Bellecourt had an even shorter haircut, and Means acknowledges he was wearing "my mod clothes at the time, my ascot ties, loafers."
While the AIM leaders were beginning to reclaim their cultural history, at Pine Ridge, Dick Wilson, a plumbing contractor, already knew how to be an Indian. As tribal president, he was trying to bridge that culture to the white world, says his daughter, Saunie Wilson.
She says her father's reputation suffers in accounts of Wounded Knee. He is customarily cast as an oppressor of traditional Oglalas and a meddler who thwarted an early settlement to the standoff.
What is not portrayed, she says, is "the way he cared for the people, the positive change he brought.
"He was real instrumental in trying to establish Oglala Lakota College. He knew we couldn't be comfortable in colleges in the outside world," she says. "We needed something pertaining to who we were as an Indian culture."
Dick Wilson died in 1990.
His daughter was a college student in New Mexico in 1973. She moved back to South Dakota after the Wounded Knee occupation and lived on the Pine Ridge Reservation during the subsequent years of bloodshed, made infamous by the shooting deaths of Wounded Knee participants Anna Mae Aquash and Pedro Bissonette, FBI agents Ronald Williams and Jack Coler, and the arrest and murder conviction of Leonard Peltier.
Women Elders Were 'Warriors'
Accounts of Wounded Knee usually feature the men who took part. Oglala women elders were as important, Means says.
"Without Gladys Bissonette (Pedro Bissonette's aunt)and Ellen Moves Camp, this never would have happened. They are bigger heroes than Banks, myself, or anyone else in AIM," he says.
Clyde Bellecourt agrees.
At the two-day meeting at the Calico community hall leading up to the occupation, AIM compiled nearly 1,500 grievances against the BIA and the tribe.
As the meeting dragged, he says, Gladys Bissonette stood up, exasperated. "Haven't you heard enough?" she asked AIM leaders. "Go back to Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Los Angeles or Portland. We are going to stand here and be warriors."
"I was stunned by that confrontation with an elderly woman, wrinkles all over her face," Bellecourt says.
Oglala elders chose Wounded Knee instead of Pine Ridge for the occupation, says Means, because the spirits of the 1890 massacre victims would protect the occupiers.
Clyde Bellecourt says the decision was reached by elders and AIM leaders at a meeting the previous week at Cedar Pass.
"There was discussion of taking over the BIA," he says. "I thought that was foolish. We had already done that a few weeks before" in Washington, D.C.
The world had heard of the place because of the Dee Brown book, "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee," he says. "I threw out the idea of occupying land already belonging to us that had already been exploited."
Saunie Wilson believes Banks called her father from the BIA building in Washington, D.C. - which they took over in November - and said "we're coming to Pine Ridge to celebrate."
"He said, 'The hell you are.' That's what started this thing," she says.
Gun Battles Take Heavy Toll
For all the talk of camaraderie, the siege was also marked by the death of two occupiers and the paralysis of a federal agent.
Frank Clearwater was mortally wounded by a stray bullet in a firefight April 17.
After another vicious firefight April 27 - where marshals estimate they fired 6,550 rounds and occupiers 2,875 - Lawrence "Buddy" La Monte was killed. He was buried at Wounded Knee on May 6, two days before the occupation ended.
No federal agents were killed, but on March 26, Lloyd Grimm, a U.S. marshal from Nebraska, was paralyzed for life by a gunshot wound.
In the occupiers' camp, nothing changed after the deaths, Means says during a recent trip to the Wounded Knee Cemetery on a raw, blustery winter day.
On the hilltop where the cemetery looks out over the ruined village and the ground of the occupation, Means pauses from recounting the events of 1973 to spend a few moments kneeling at La Monte's grave.
"That was the cost of doing business," he says. "That's why we were here. Nobody was scared or ran off."
Means still owns a house and land at Porcupine, near Wounded Knee.
"There isn't a time I drive through here when I don't think about it," he says. "The passage of 30 years has saddened me. Our people have saddened me.
"We won. We won, and our people don't even celebrate the victory here. There were 600 arrests arising from Wounded Knee. There was not one conviction, not one plea on the original charge."
Occupation Story Is Seldom Told
Winners write history.
But little scholarly work and only slightly more popular history has been written about Wounded Knee.
"I find that appalling, to the point of genocide," Means says.
"We need filmmakers, writers, journalists," Vernon Bellecourt says, "because our history is not being told here. We need to tell it."
AIM members and supporters march into Wounded Knee cemetery Feb. 28 during a celebration marking the anniversary of the 1973 occupation of the village of Wounded Knee. Some leaders call the standoff a watershed event in Indian-white relations but are disappointed so little has been written on the topic in history books. "I find that appalling to the point of genocide," AIM's Russell Means said recently.
A logical choice to do so would seem to be Sherman Alexie. The 36-year-old author, whose credits include "Reservation Blues" and "Smoke Signals," grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington.
He is a prominent interpreter of the contemporary Indian experience, who does not flinch from sardonic examination of issues such as racism, sexism, drug and alcohol abuse, and suicide.
But not Wounded Knee.
"I'm not sure how the gun-toting Indians of Wounded Knee present different images than the gun-toting Indians of western movies. Certainly I agree with much of AIM's politics but disagree completely with any violence, real or implied," he says.
"I'm a pacifist poet Indian. Russell Means and Dennis Banks and Leonard Peltier are anti-models for me.
"I've read everything I can about Wounded Knee and AIM, and have met Means and Banks É and others who were active at that time, so it's certainly huge in our collected history and my personal history. I'm not downplaying the importance of Wounded Knee. I just see it in a whole different light than most Indians, I suspect. Hell, Indians love war, any war, all wars. I'm anti-war."
Bill Zimmerman organized an airlift of food to Wounded Knee and wrote a book about the experience. But he says scholars have not looked at the standoff.
"It never has been treated seriously. It should be," Zimmerman says.
"When we made the drop, unemployment on the reservation was 40 percent. At the 25th anniversary, unemployment was up to 80 percent. We didn't accomplish anything for the people at Pine Ridge. It needs to be recorded, analyzed and understood.
"Beyond what it meant for American Indians, an amazing set of lessons can be teased out of that whole story about the role of media in American life."
Daily stories in the nation's newspapers, news magazine articles, and television tape flown from South Dakota to Denver each night to make the network news created a protective shield around the Wounded Knee occupants the government was loathe to breach by forcibly taking back the village, Zimmerman says.
Stan Pottinger, who was the chief government negotiator on two occasions, disagrees.
He says President Richard Nixon made it clear to federal law enforcement officials they were going to wait out the occupation and not storm the encampment and run the risk of inflicting great casualties. Pottinger says Wounded Knee has received scant scholarly scrutiny "because it didn't end badly. You get more respect when your book ends badly."
Thunder Hawk is not dismayed that Wounded Knee still exists largely in the memories of participants and has not yet been delivered to the future as a body of ideas.
"Non-Indian people wrote our history in the 1800s. They picked and chose who they would write about," she says. "Nowadays, more of our people are becoming historians, writers, That's all right. We can wait. We're patient people."
Does occupation matter to a new generation?
Mary Moran of Eagle Butte visits the Wounded Knee cemetery near a marker commemorating the Wounded Knee massacre of 1890. Moran was in Wounded Knee last month to mark the 30th anniversary of the occupation of the village by AIM supporters.
At Red Cloud High School at Pine Ridge, three teenagers struggle to see how Wounded Knee is relevant to their 21st Century lives.
"The generation now is really very different. They try to live like other people in big cities. Not in traditional ways. They're trying to be something they ain't," says Cy Patton, a student at the school.
Alex All Runner, Marie Zephier and Patton agree that alcohol, drugs and gangs are the current realities for teenagers on the reservation.
AIM, they think, "is a cool gang," Saunie Wilson says.
Zephier vaguely alludes to stories about Wounded Knee she heard from her grandmother, the woman leader Means singled out, Ellen Moves Camp.
There is a reason the children don't know about Wounded Knee and its aftermath, Wilson says. "Those of us who had to live it, who had to arrange our furniture so bullets would not come through the house, we didn't share it with our children so they would not have to live it again," she says.
Red Cloud teenagers might not draw direct links between their lives and Wounded Knee, says the Rev. Peter Klink, Red Cloud president. But their knowledge of their Lakota culture suggests Wounded Knee is "more significant than they are immediately and consciously aware," he says.
Thunder Hawk agrees and says Wounded Knee gave Indians a confidence that they could determine their own destiny.
"It snowballed for us, for the average grassroots Indian on the street," she says. "They had never had anything like that, where they actually had a voice.
"What I see today is my grandchildren know treaty rights. That is not a big mystery to them. They grew up with that."
Despite the lack of historical research, many of the participants and observers say the occupation at Wounded Knee was a watershed event.
"What did transpire was a cultural renaissance," says Wilmer Mesteth, a faculty member at Oglala Lakota College. His grandfather, Pedro Bissonette, was a Wounded Knee leader. "A lot of young people are identifying with their culture. You see a lot more Lakota culture practiced here now than before the movement came here."
Pottinger, the government negotiator, calls the 71 days of Wounded Knee "a furnace blast of Lakota culture."
The learning was not restricted to Indians, he says. "I realized I was as ignorant as anybody I can imagine. I was worse than ignorant. My perceptions of Indians were formed by Hollywood, which is deeply racist."
Still, Mesteth doesn't use Wounded Knee in his classes at Oglala Lakota College.
"I'm reluctant to talk about it, because it is painful," he says.
He believes AIM abandoned the traditional Oglala people who asked its leaders to come to Pine Ridge. "All the partying, drinking and drugging going on, the traditional people backed off," Mesteth says.
"I think the traditional people felt they had been forgotten about," he says. "In our family, after my grandfather was killed (in October 1973) we felt like nobody cared. Even today he is hardly mentioned. Out of all the AIM members, he was one of the only Lakota-speaking representatives. Our people know he was a traditional person. That's why we followed him."
Hamlet, relations left in ruins by siege
The occupation was devastating to Wounded Knee itself.
The museum chimney of white and red stone stands as lone sentinel over the foundations of the museum and store. The houses and mobile homes are gone, recalled only by the basement slabs still visible in the brush, by piles of rusting flat metal and cans and by a scruff of cottonwoods and cedars along a gravel road.
Across the road and atop the hill on the south side of the 1890 memorial, a basement, spray-painted with graffiti, recently has been filled in. It was all that remained of the Catholic church that was here in 1973 and burned. A new church sits north of the memorial.
Much as in 1973, houses are scattered on the surrounding hillsides, although many of the current homes were built after the occupation. On the northeast side of the hill, a tribal housing cluster has been built.
AIM members and supporters march into the Wounded Knee cemetery Feb. 28 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the occupation. People near the front of the column carry a "Free Peltier" banner, a reference to Leonard Peltier. He is serving two life sentences in prison in connection with the 1975 shooting deaths of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The killings were part of a violent period that continued to rock the reservation even after the siege at Wounded Knee ended.
Gov. Rounds first saw Wounded Knee in 1974, when he was working a summer job for the state Department of Transportation.
The site today is as plain and unadorned as the drought-parched prairie hills from which it springs, and it bears the signs of having withstood both hard weather and hard use. Probably it looked even rougher in 1974, just months removed from the occupation.
"One thing I remember, even now, is thinking, 'This is a place of consequence. It is a place of historical importance,' " Rounds says. "I wondered, even then, whether it was appropriate to leave it in the shape it was in."
Thinking out loud, he speculates about the state reaching out now to those who have family members buried at the Wounded Knee cemetery, and to the residents of the Pine Ridge Reservation and offering to refurbish the site.
"Perhaps that is something we could do as a way of trying to address the past and recognize that past," Rounds says.
Worse than property destruction, Pine Ridge families were split between supporting AIM and the tribal government.
The bitterness lasted two decades, according to Saunie Wilson. "I think people on opposite sides can finally talk about what those differences are without violence."
Whether or not the changes are the result of Wounded Knee, the reservation is different 30 years later, Wilson believes.
"You had to be white to make it here," she says. "My father didn't agree with that. He always told me to be who you are and be proud of who you are. Now there are people in positions formerly reserved for whites. The Indian people are in charge here, for good or bad."
'Modern-day Indian history had been made'
Wounded Knee's participants remain close to the event, but they are beginning to realize how fragile the tie is becoming. Walking down a gravel path from the monument, Means pats his stomach and remarks wistfully about being as trim as he was in 1973.
Thunder Hawk still lights up when she talks about Wounded Knee. It was the genesis of her lifelong career of activism, she says.
She was there from winter into spring, through three blizzards, periods of hunger, and the deaths of Clearwater and La Monte. The worst time was when she finally walked out of the encampment the night before it disbanded.
"We made our stand. I knew modern day Indian history had been made. I didn't know how to articulate it. But I knew something had happened, and I was a part of it, and I didn't want it to end."
WHAT THEY WANTED
Those who led the uprising at Wounded Knee issued many demands as conditions for ending the 71-day siege. The demands changed as circumstances changed, but here is a general list and the results:
• Creation of a presidential treaty commission to review abuses of the nearly 375 treaties established between the United States and Indian tribes, especially the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty that established a Sioux homeland that included the Black Hills.
Result: No commission was established. A recognition of tribal sovereignty has been heightened and its limits have been tested by three decades of litigation in South Dakota and elsewhere.
• Direct negotiations between the American Indian Movement and a White House representative as a condition of the Wounded Knee occupants surrendering their arms and submitting to arrest.
Result: Did not occur.
• Removal from office of the Oglala Tribal Council at Pine Ridgeand the Bureau of Indian Affairs superintendent.
Result: Did not occur.
• Recognition of traditional Oglala government by the United States.
Result: Did not occur.
• A federal investigation of Oglala Tribal President Dick Wilson and his supporters, called the GOON squad. Kent Frizzell, as chief government negotiator, brought a representative of the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division to Wounded Knee to record more than 1,000 civil rights complaints from standoff participants.
Result: There is no record of prosecutions resulting from those complaints.
– Compiled by Peter Harriman
BY THE NUMBERS
71 The number of days the occupation of Wounded Knee lasted. It began Feb. 27, when a group of about 200 people led by AIM activists seized the trading post and tood hostages. The standoff ended May 8.
11 The number of hostages taken the first day of the occupation. The hostages' release was negotiated soon after, but only one of them left.
1 The number of federal agents who were paralized by funfire during the seige. Lloyd Grimm, a 56-year-old marshal from Omaha, was shot in the chest during a firefight at sundown on March 2. Grimm died several years ago, according to the Marshal Service.
2 The number of Indian occupiers killed by federal agents. Frank Clearwater, 47, of North Carolina died on April 26, a week after being wounded in a gunfight. Two days later, Lawrence "Buddy" LaMont, a 29-year-old Oglala, died of a gunshot wound.
500,000 The number of bullets fired by the Indian occupiers and federal agents combined, based on an estimate in federal reports. "Most of the fire was the marshals throwing up a front to defend themselves," says George Tennyson, the U.S. Marshal from South Dakota at the time.
600 The number of people arrested in connection with the occupation of Wounded Knee, according to AIM leader Russell Means.
0 The number of those 600 people arrested who were convicted of crimes stemming from the occupation or who pleaded guilty on the original charge, according to Russell Means.
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