MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Tensions smoldering on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota flared up 50 years ago this week, when activists from the American Indian Movement took over the town of Wounded Knee.
In the view of the protesters, Oglala Sioux tribal chief Dick Wilson was in collusion with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and other federal officials, and used threats of violence to intimidate his critics. But the 71-day occupation fueled anger with the federal government over decades of treaties, theft of ancestral lands, forced assimilation and other injustices that had been going on for centuries.
Two Native Americans died in the fighting, and a US Marshal was paralyzed.
Wounded Knee was already explored in history as the site of an 1890 massacre by US Army cavalrymen in one of the last major military operations against Native Americans in the northern plains. Accounts vary, but about 300 Lakota were killed in the massacre—including children, women, and the elderly. Congress apologized in 1990.
Ahead of the 50th anniversary of the occupation, The Associated Press reached out to those who were at Wounded Knee or involved remotely to hear their stories.
Dwayne Camp, a member of Oklahoma’s Ponca tribe, was in California when his younger brother Carter called to say that he and other leaders of the American Indian Movement took a group of activists to Wounded Knee.
“He was telling me they were in one hell of a fight,” Camp, now 85, recalled. “I heard gunshots and that was all I needed. I went there and stayed for the duration of the standoff.
His brother, Craig, a Vietnam veteran, also joined them. Camp said that the rifles and shotguns that the occupiers took from the trading post in the city were no match for the weapons and armored vehicles that the Confederacy had.
Camp said, “We were going to make it very expensive should they go ahead and roll.” “It didn’t happen, thank God.”
Camp recalls this occupation with pride as “a very important time” that changed his life. He said he experienced “the most freeing feeling I could ever imagine.” He met leaders of AIM who became famous, including Dennis Banks, Clyde Bellecourt, and Russell Means. It was also a spiritual awakening for many occupants and visitors, he said, with sweat lodge ceremonies providing a chance to pray and learn about their traditions.
And it helped change the way Native Americans across the country viewed themselves, Camp said.
“The natives of this land after Wounded Knee, they liked the new wave of pride in being a native,” he said.
Camp said the acquisition was a catalyst for policy changes that were previously “unimaginable”, including the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, the Indian Child Welfare Act, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, and the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. Some. And it provided a focus for his own activism.
“After leaving Wounded Knee, it became paramount that protecting Mother Earth was our most important issue,” he said. “Since that time, we have learned that we have to teach our children our true history.”
Camp sees the fight over the Dakota Access Pipeline — which attracted thousands of Indigenous people and supporters for the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota in 2016 and 2017 — as a continuation of the resurgence from Wounded Knee.
“We are not the subjugated and deprived people that we were,” he said. “Wounded Knee was a key start of that. And since we’re resilient people, we take a lot of pride in that.”
Camp said he wishes he could return to Pine Ridge to celebrate the 50th anniversary, but traveling at his age is not easy. Instead, he plans to be with his surviving brother, Craig, who lives near him in Ponca. They’ll burn some of the charred sage that family members bring back from South Dakota each year.
FBI Special Agent Jim Huggins was on the other side of the barriers. He was one of several agents from the Denver FBI office who went to Wounded Knee to support their colleagues.
“It was a dangerous situation,” recalled Huggins, 83, who is retired and lives in Frankfort, Kentucky. “The people who occupied the city of Wounded Knee were a group of militants, mostly based out of Minneapolis. … They were devoted members of the American Indian Movement and very hostile to the FBI.
Huggins said that there were frequent shots fired between the two sides.
“Every time you’re out on the hurdles, you can anticipate a shot coming your way,” he said. “You could hear them sometimes very close. … It seemed that every night just after sunset some shots would ring in our direction.
Unlike Camp, Huggins doesn’t think anything good has come of this business.
“I think it was completely unnecessary on their part,” he said. “I based this on interviews with several Native Americans who lived on reservations for years. They were completely against the acquisition.
And Huggins believes ongoing tensions between AIM and the authorities led to a shootout on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation two years later that killed two FBI agents, one of whom was a good friend of his. AIM activist Leonard Peltier says he was wrongfully blamed for his death, but subsequent presidents have denied requests for clemency.
Phil Hodgen was chief of staff to new US Representative James Abdnor, whose district included the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, when the occupation began just weeks after he moved to Washington.
Hogan recalled, “While this was going on, we were on the front page of The Washington Post for 71 days.” He added that Abdnor “did not take kindly to that disruption. He was in favor of resolving all differences.” But he said he worked hard to try to find a solution, consulting with the FBI, the US Marshals Service and the US Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Hodgen, 77, who lives off a reservation in Black Hawk, South Dakota, has mixed, but mostly negative views on the business.
It is regrettable in more ways than one, he said. “That is, disruption of government, confrontation, loss of life. I don’t know that all those wounds have healed yet. But at the end of the day there was a greater awareness of American Indian/Native American concerns and the injustices done to them.
As a member of the Oglala Sioux tribe, Hogan said he can identify with some of their concerns.
“But it didn’t start from my point of view as a national confrontation, but rather a national confrontation looking for a place to be,” he said. Tribal leader Wilson “sometimes ruled with an iron hand, but sometimes with what was necessary at Pine Ridge.”
Hogan served as US Attorney for South Dakota under President Ronald Reagan.
If any lasting good came out of Wounded Knee’s capture, Hogan said, it was that it “reminds the whole country what a tragedy the original massacre was, and that those concerns or wounds were probably never properly addressed.” It probably channeled some resources toward solving some of those problems. … But it left a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths, so it cut both ways.
Hogan said it is also unfortunate that relatively little has been done with the site of the massacre, which until last fall was mostly private land.
“It is the site of a national tragedy, and it is regrettable that it does not have a better memorial,” he said.
Jim Mooney had been a photographer with The Associated Press in Minneapolis for about 3 1/2 months when he was sent to cover the acquisition. He packed up a few hundred pounds of equipment—including a photo transmitter, a full darkroom, and a large pack of black-and-white film—and flew to Rapid City, South Dakota.
The closest available motel room was in the town of Martin, about 30 miles (48 km) east of Wounded Knee. He set up his darkroom in the bathroom and mixed his chemicals. His editor soon arrived and said, “Let’s go to Wounded Knee.”
But it was not easy. The FBI and AIM set up roadblocks. So they took a back route to get as close as they could, leaving their car about 2 miles (3.2 kilometres) away, and started walking. Soon they began to surprise the members of AIM who let them go on.
“They were kind enough to tell us how far we had to go,” said Mooney, 79, of the Minneapolis suburb of Bloomington.
Entering Wounded Knee, he saw a ransacked church where activists and journalists had gathered – and men with rifles. But Mone said he developed good relationships with AIM leaders during his seven weeks there.
“They knew they needed the media, so I don’t think any media persons were hurt,” he said. “You can stand a few inches away from him, and take pictures of him. He treated us very well and respectfully.”
The most worrying moments, he said, included firefights when he could see tracer bullets overhead, and when a jet buzzed the city a few hundred feet away.
Monáe said that to gain his competitive edge, he practically crawled into a packed tipi where AIM activists and federal officials smoked a peace pipe to mark the agreement to end the occupation. He developed his film using equipment in his trunk before going back to his motel, where he used a bulky transmitter attached to his room phone to send the key picture, which Monáe said the next day to The New York Times. was used by
Mone stated that the atmosphere was polite, tense and businesslike when the agreement was signed, and that he believed the fact that the final negotiations were held at the tipi “was a sign of respect for the Native Americans. “
– by Steve Karnowski The Associated Press