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`... Some of Us Know We've Got More Choices'

Remembering Wounded Knee

In 1973, Monitor reporter David Holmstrom was at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota during the 71-day occupation of Wounded Knee. The radical American Indian Movement took over the small hamlet in a tribal conflict and to protest conditions on reservations. Recently, Mr. Holmstrom and staff photographer Neal Menschel visited Pine Ridge to learn how Wounded Knee is remembered and what conditions exist today. This article begins a five-part series.

A MAN is coming toward me, husky, slow-moving, a man about to ask me what I'm doing at Wounded Knee. Most tourists don't stray far from their cars once they have found this hilly, lonely place where American history does not have a proud ring.

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But I'm way off the two-lane road, down in the broken bottles, junk, and twisted steel girders that once supported a mid-sized grocery store, post office, gas station, and Indian museum in a hamlet that is no more. The buildings were torched to the ground 16 years ago when I was here as a reporter. Nothing has been rebuilt. The weeds and junk own the place.

The man stops a few feet from me, a solid six-footer wearing sunglasses and a red cap. ``Pat Rowland,'' he says quietly when I ask his name.

Later he will say that the Oglala Sioux part of his name is Fire Lightning. He lives a half a mile away over a brown hill with his family in a cluster of well-worn houses built by the tribe with federal funds. Without a job, he stays busy working on the construction of a small visitors' center made of cement and ingenuity a few hundred yards away.

During the 71-day occupation in 1973 by the American Indian Movement (AIM), Mr. Rowland was 16. He joined the occupation as a long-haired teenager glad to flee the tedium of a Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) boarding school on the Pine Ridge reservation. He rode horses, carried a rifle, and helped dig Indian bunkers to defend against United States marshals surrounding Wounded Knee day and night.

``I wasn't scared. It was exciting,'' he says, acknowledging that his motive for being there was hardly political. While AIM was trying to overthrow the ruling political faction of the tribe at Pine Ridge, as well as protest conditions on reservations, Rowland was there to be part of an event which gained worldwide attention. As others did, he escaped under cover of darkness before the occupation ended.

``I'm not too sure what I felt then, except I admired the AIM leaders defying the federal government,'' he says. He remembers occasional meals were served in the basement of a white-steepled church that once stood on the hill behind us. It was burned down for unknown reasons several weeks after the occupation ended.

Ironically, part of the Wounded Knee site, about 40 acres, is for sale. The owner, J.A. Czywczynski from Rapid City, S.D., owned the buildings that were burned to the ground. He says he was never compensated for his loss, nor were others who had property destroyed during the occupation. A $5 million lawsuit has been pending all these years, and Mr. Czywczynski's portion of the claim is $400,000. ``The Sioux offered me $40,000 for the site a long time ago,'' says Czywczynski, ``but I said no.'' He wants the tribe to have the land, but he can't see why he shouldn't be compensated for the damage.

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Standing with Rowland behind the ruins of the buildings, I watch him turn and point toward the grassy, treeless hill across a ravine and road to the small, fenced cemetery at the crest. A white flag on a lodgepole pine flies over the tombstones and wooden crosses there.

He says the flag is a symbol for the 19,000 members of the Oglala Sioux tribe, on the reservation and off. It links them to the first tragic incident at Wounded Knee on Dec. 29, 1890. Many tribal members today are direct descendants of those slain and buried here.

This infamous event, which has been described as a ``battle'' by some historians and a ``massacre'' by Indians, was the last military action taken by the US Cavalry against Indians. Big Foot, the old chief of the Minneconjou Sioux, is alleged to have displayed a white flag of peace the day he and 180 other Indians were killed.

Without exception, Indians are highly critical of the events that day almost 100 years ago (see related story on right) because it virtually sealed their plight as a conquered people. But assessing the importance of the AIM occupation 16 years ago brings a mixed response.

``It didn't lead to anything,'' says Rowland, shaking his head. Poverty and unemployment are as evident as ever on the reservation, he says. ``My aunt had a house across the creek, and it got burned down, and a church here was burned too,'' he says, indicating that neither structure was rebuilt. ``I think the occupation did more damage to Indians than good.''

A day later in the little town of Kyle, S.D., about 40 miles from Wounded Knee, Marcell Bull Bear, director of the Oglala Lakota College District Center, jumps out of his chair impatiently and says, ``I think Wounded Knee was the best thing that happened to Indians. AIM was for the grass-roots people. We need something else like that again, maybe not so radical, but something to shake people up.''

What most tribal members don't want is a return to the years immediately following the occupation. Murders, assaults, and bitterness were common at Pine Ridge. Families were torn apart by the political rivalries triggered by the occupation, and there were numerous killings. The racial issue of who got tribal jobs - full-blooded Indians versus half-breeds - was at a peak. For several years after the occupation, tribal elections - with AIM candidates running - were hostile and dangerous.

AIM continues today, a less-militant organization working out of a Minneapolis office and involved in community issues. It has little presence at Pine Ridge, the second-largest US reservation, and the poorest.

Russell Means and Dennis Banks, leaders of AIM who were acquitted of felony charges following Wounded Knee, are no longer members. Mr. Means tried to become the Libertarian Party candidate for president last year. He also testified at a congressional hearing in January and called for the abolition of the BIA, the federal agency that oversees Indian programs. Mr. Banks published his autobiography, ``Sacred Soul,'' in Japan last year in Japanese instead of in the US because, he said, ``English is a conqueror's language.''

TODAY the mood and effort is quite different at Pine Ridge. The political violence and divisiveness that marked the years following Wounded Knee have all but passed. ``We used to have about 30 homicides a year on the reservation,'' says Paul Rooks, chief of the tribal police. ``This year we've had three.''

To be sure, the rolling beauty of the South Dakota landscape in late summer and the sweet clean air here are counterpoints to the staggering domestic problems at Pine Ridge. Alcoholism, child abuse, fetal alcohol syndrome among children, other health problems, and unemployment continue to be critical and pervasive problems.

But while the occupation of Wounded Knee was violently disruptive, history may judge that it did have a long-range cathartic effect on Indian attitudes and therefore on tribal decisions. ``I'd say we hit the bottom in the years after Wounded Knee,'' says Leonard Little Finger, administrator at the Pine Ridge Hospital, ``and we're on our way up. We have a revitalized sense of Indian pride.''

The heritage all Indians share is the touchstone in their lives. If it is lost, as the federal government has wished and worked for in the past, Indians think they would be lost. There may be political bickering among Pine Ridge Indians now, but common values - respect, sharing, and family - are the core of the Lakota culture. Wa Wo Ici Ya is a familiar Lakota expression meaning, ``We can do it ourselves.''

Delores Bear Killer, a tutor at the District College Center in Kyle, says that Wounded Knee helped Indians ``to be more outspoken, to realize we are somebody.'' She works 10 to 12 hours a day helping her people ``know they can learn and improve themselves.''

Hobart Yankton was 15 when he stayed at Wounded Knee for 57 days, then slipped away one night when he guessed ``the cowboys would beat the Indians again.'' Mr. Yankton, as an adult, was instrumental in launching a radio station, KILI, on the reservation a few years ago. Now he runs a bingo operation four nights a week.

``Wounded Knee was a kick for me,'' he says, standing in a smoke-filled bingo hall a few miles from Wounded Knee. ``It wasn't until much later that I thought about what it was and what it meant. Our Indian past isn't as romantic and gallant as everybody thinks. I think Wounded Knee ended that myth. Today it's ironic that people and families that were split apart because of it are now working together. A lot of people are working together now. I don't know what it is; I guess some of us know we've got more choices.''

A former tribal official told me later in the afternoon, ``From a historical standpoint, we were overwhelmed, our land was taken from us, and we were told lies. Eventually, we lost self-esteem, as all conquered people do. We could have a dozen Wounded Knees, but we've got many daily efforts going now, not one big confrontation. Today most of our people are living in a ghetto with all the problems of any other ghetto - alcohol, drugs, high unemployment, and suicides. That's what we're addressing.''

The Pine Ridge reservation has also been called a third-world country. Unemployment is estimated to be 73 percent, the highest anywhere in the US, and 57 percent of households live below the poverty level. ``It can be depressing dealing with this,'' says Mr. Bull Bear, ``but Indian people have to change it: not the BIA, not the state government; we have to do it.''

Tomorrow: The Hard Road to Self-Sufficiency.

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