Monday, October 22, 2012

Russell Means at Wounded Knee—A Look Back

Russell Means and Assistant Attorney General Kent Frizell signed the the agreement ending the Wounded Knee siege in 1973.  That's Dennis Banks in the head band and serape standing center.

Note:  Russell Means died early this morning at his ranch in Porcupine, South Dakota after a long bout with throat cancer.  He was 72 years old. This is a look back at the Siege at Wounded Knee which brought him to national attention.  It first appeared in this blog on May 8, 2010.

On May 8, 1973 the Siege at Wounded Knee was lifted after 73 days in a negotiated truce in which members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) who had occupied the small South Dakota town and the Federal Marshalls who had besieged it lay down their arms.

The siege had two different roots.

In 1968, inspired by the militancy and self-defense philosophy of the Black Panthers and similar organizations beginning to take root in Latino communities, young urban Native American activists including Dennis Banks and Clyde Bellecourt founded AIM in Minneapolis.  It aim was to resurrect Indian (they preferred that term to Native American) culture and pride, assert tribal treaty rights, monitor police activities against Indians, and to provide direct services to native people both on and off reservations.  Their movement spread rapidly to urban centers and reservations from coast to coast as their confrontational style drew headlines and consternation from government authorities, and tribal leaders who had grown comfortable in a dependent status. 

Early protests like seizing a replica of the Mayflower on Thanksgiving 1970, occupying Mount Rushmore and the offices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) in Washington made AIM leaders heroes to both Indian communities and the left. 

The second root was a virtual civil war that was brewing among the Ogallala Sioux on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.  The reservation was listed as the poorest county in the United States beset by chronic unemployment, ramshackle housing, inadequate medical care with soaring infant mortality, wide spread alcohol abuse, and crime.  Traditional chiefs who struggled to maintain tribal identity, culture and language clashed with the tribal government under Richard “Dick” Wilson which was supported by the BIA.  The Tribal Council pursued a policy of economic development that included leasing tribal lands for grazing, allowing strip mining, and even considering selling the sacred Black Hills, and was bitterly opposed by the traditionalists and many young people who had returned to the reservation from the cities.

Wilson organized Guardians of Our Oglala Nation (GOON) to harass and assault his tribal opponents.  By early ’73 violent confrontations between the two sides had become routine both on the reservation and in near-by South Dakota towns.  The Traditionalists invited AIM members to assist and aid them. 

Wilson, who had narrowly survived an impeachment vote expected trouble and fortified his tribal headquarters at Pine Ridge with barbed wire, bunkers, and machine gun emplacements on the roof of the building.  He also appealed to the BIA, which requested Federal Marshals.  Fifty arrived in the area on February 25.  It was obvious that any confrontation at Pine Ridge would lead to wide spread violence. 
Instead AIM members led by Banks and Russell Means turned their attention to the tiny village of Wounded Knee just outside the boarder of the Reservation and the site of the notorious Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890. 

Accounts by AIM and the government vary widely, but AIM claims it came to an open meeting in the village and found themselves surrounded by Federal Marshals.  The government claims that they acted only after the activists had “seized” the town by force.  By February 28 both sides were entrenched, heavily armed and exchanging gun fire.  At this point AIM leaders and a handful of Ogallala supporters did declare that they were reclaiming the town as Indian land. 

Media from around the world converged on the site for the dramatic confrontation.  Means and Banks used radios to communicate while AIM leaders on the outside drummed up support.  The Marshalls, reinforced with FBI and possibly some covert military personal, cut off electricity and water to the town and set up a blockade to prevent any re-supply hoping to starve the occupiers out.  Despite increasing privation, AIM leaders repeatedly refused to surrender. 

There were attempts, some successful, to smuggle in food, medical supplies, and ammunition by back pack at night.  AIM claims that 12 volunteer smugglers were intercepted by Wilson’s police and never heard from again.  Searches for a mass grave, half heartedly pursued by Federal authorities and quickly abandoned, never turned up anything.  Other backpackers were arrested and detained by the Marshalls.  There was at least one re-supply by air drop from a private, single engine air craft. 

Shooting was a daily occurrence.  Sometimes the fire was intense.  Marshalls employed snipers with orders to kill anything that moved in the no-man’s land between the two positions.   They also took aim when targets presented themselves inside buildings.  Government forces had 130,000 rounds of ammunition, automatic rifles, grenade launchers, 15 armored personnel carriers, fixed wing air craft for observation, and helicopters which sometime carried snipers. 

For their part AIM and their allies had ample ammunition for an assortment of old military rifles, sporting rifles, shot guns, pistols, and perhaps some explosives.  They were far out gunned, but their defensive position was strong and the government did not want to chance an all out assault. 

On April 17 AIM member Frank Clearwater was shot in the head as he slept, probably by random, harassing fire regularly laid down by the government.  On April 25 Ogallala tribal member Lawrence Lamont was shot through the heart by a sniper. On April 30 U.S. Marshal Lloyd Grimm was shot and paralyzed.  

As early as March 13 Deputy U.S. Attorney General Harlington Wood, Jr. had entered the compound under a flag of truce to begin negotiations.  Banks and Means flatly refused to surrender for arrest.  Wood continued his talks for days establishing some personal trust until he had to be relieved for exhaustion.  Others took up the talks, all the while Wilson was encouraging an assault. 

On May 5 and agreement was made to disarm and three days later on the May 8 the siege was lifted and the AIM members and supporters marched out unmolested. 

But AIM leaders were not off of the hook.  Within a few days Means was arrested in San Francisco. 

And inter-tribal violence on the reservation only increased.  From March 1, 1973 to March 1, 1974 the murder rate on the Pine Ridge soared to 170 per 100,000, by far exceeding the nearest completion, Detroit, with a rate of 20.2 per 100,000.  Most cases were unsolved.  While some could be blamed on high levels of alcohol violence and general despair, Traditionalists claim that many were known opponents of Wilson’s leadership and others were AIM members from other tribes. 

On June 26 two FBI agents were shot and killed in a shoot out near Wounded Knee.  AIM member Leonard Peltier, who claimed he was only acting in self defense was indicted, tried, and sentenced to two consecutive life terms.  He remains in prison to this day despite many attempts to either win a new trial or a reprieve. 

AIM continued to conduct high profile protests, and has extended its reach to supporting the struggles of indigenous groups in Nicaragua and other Latin American Countries. 

On a personal note the Wounded Knee siege affected me.  I was sentenced to prison for draft refusal on my birthday, March 17, 1973 and surrendered for my sentence in Chicago about April 1.  I was supposed to be immediately transferred to the Federal Prison at Sandstone, Minnesota, but because all available Federal Marshalls, who were supposed to escort prisoners, were deployed to Wounded Knee, I was stuck in Cook County Jail for about a month.  Shortly after I arrived at Sandstone I watched news reports of the end of the siege with Native American prisoners.  They cheered.  So did I.

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