Thirty years later, standoff views differ

"WOUNDED KNEE"? Johnson Holy Rock speaks easily, with the composure of a
history teacher, as he points to a wall map and describes the events leading to the
massacre of American Indians 112 years ago at Wounded Knee.

But his words are more deliberate when talking about a standoff with the federal
government that began 30 years ago this month at the same village. His voice is calm
but there is no mistaking his feelings.

Descendents who wanted to unseat then-tribal President Richard Wilson caused the
1973 takeover, Holy Rock, an Oglala Sioux Tribal Council member, said.

The American Indian Movement, which led the 71-day occupation, should not have
engaged in gunplay, Holy Rock, 84, said.

"If they wanted to resist, they should have come to the right door
without violence," Holy Rock said.

In December 1890, U.S. soldiers slaughtered an estimated 300 Indians,
including women and children. It is considered the last major armed conflict
between Indians and the government.

The struggle between Indians and the government was rekindled on Feb. 27, 1973,
when a group of armed AIM activists who felt disenfranchised by the Oglala Sioux
tribal government took over Wounded Knee, population 60.

The deaths of two Indian men also had fueled the trouble. In 1972, three white men
who forced Raymond Yellow Thunder to dance and then beat him were convicted
of manslaughter. And early in 1973, a white man was charged with second-degree
manslaughter rather than murder in the stabbing death of Wesley Bad Heart Bull,
sparking an AIM-led riot at the Custer County Courthouse.

The tense takeover of Wounded Knee sparked shootouts between the two sides
while negotiations hobbled along. By the time the Indians surrendered on May 8,
two of them were dead, and several people, including federal agents, had been injured.

Today, opinions on the standoff run the gamut even in Indian Country. For some,
it was a shining moment in the quest for self-determination. For others, it was a
bitter and unfortunate event whose divisive effects linger.

"You can probably talk to 10 people and get 10 different opinions on it,"
said Richard Yellow Bird, an administrative assistant to Oglala Sioux Tribal
President John Yellow Bird Steele.

Yellow Bird entered Wounded Knee during the standoff and remained for a few
weeks before leaving. Asked whether he took part in any of the shootouts, he smiled
and jokingly said he did not want to incriminate himself.

He was one of many who sneaked in and out of Wounded Knee during the standoff.
Scores were arrested trying to smuggle food to the occupiers, who had captured the
attention of the national news media. In one instance, a Boston Globe reporter was
arrested for organizing an air drop into Wounded Knee.

Tribal officials set up roadblocks at one point to keep people from sneaking in food
and supplies. Displaced residents, angry at the government for not ending the standoff
sooner, also set up roadblocks. At one point, residents even threatened to drive
out the occupiers themselves.

Yellow Bird said he believes the standoff was needed to call attention to
problems on the reservation.

Others are less reserved in their praise. "The major result of Wounded Knee was the
reinstitution of self-dignity and self-pride among American Indians," said Indian activist
Russell Means. "And it signaled the rebirth of our culture."

Means, one of the leaders of the standoff, said he regretted the loss of life but that there
was nothing he would have done differently.

Frank Clearwater of Cherokee, N.C., and Lawrence Lamont of Pine Ridge were killed
in separate shootouts during the standoff. Also, U.S. Marshal Lloyd Grimm was partially
paralyzed after being shot in the chest.

Dennis Banks, national chairman of the American Indian Movement, also played a
leading role and said it changed Indians' attitudes for the better. "I didn't know how
far the government was going to go to try to crush the American Indian Movement,"
Banks said. "At Wounded Knee, I found out how far."

The loss of life, while tragic, had a more far-reaching positive effect by making
Indians feel empowered, Banks said.

"They didn't die in vain," he said.

Holy Rock said the Wounded Knee takeover caused a divide within his family. He and
his brother did not like the standoff, but his sisters supported it, often prompting
hostility among them, he said.

The wounds are healing, but feelings about the standoff still simmer in the community, Holy Rock said.

"It's had a long-lasting impact," Holy Rock said. "I wish many times that it didn't happen."

Ted Muenster, chief of staff for then-South Dakota Gov. Richard Kneip in 1973, said the
governor's office was bombarded with calls from people around the country who
wanted to express feelings for or against the Indians at Wounded Knee.

Muenster said reservation life needed to be improved. Even today, many in the Indian
community struggle to get health care, food and other necessities. Cars and telephones are luxuries.

"But the question is, how do you address those (issues)?" Muenster said.

Muenster, who has met with activists such as Means and Banks in the past, said
some of their more extreme stances may have hurt them.

"I have a certain amount of admiration for them," he said. "I think they wanted to restore
dignity and a sense of purpose to their people. But I think some of their tactics backfired on them."

And then there is Lyle Sutton, who mans a visitor center at Wounded Knee. He lives out of
one room in the back that contains a bed, refrigerator, stove and kitchen table.

The heater was not working on a recent winter day, and Sutton pulled on a black leather jacket
as he walked into the public part of the visiting center, where it was cold enough to see
one's breath. The center is as much a shrine to Means and AIM as it is to the 1890 massacre.

It contains photos from the massacre and campaign signs from Means' recent,
unsuccessful bid for Oglala Sioux tribal president.

Sutton, who was 11 when the standoff occurred, said he sees both sides.

He remembered watching National Guard troops come and go from a nearby town. He even
sneaked food into Wounded Knee at one point.

"They brought it on themselves," Sutton said of the tribal officials as he smoked a cigarette.
"But I guess the AIM members brought it on themselves."

By Bernard McGhee, Associated Press

February 7, 2003

(Reprinted from News From Indian Country, P. 6A, Vol. XVII No. 4, February 24, 2003)


(View of Grave Site entrance from trading post ruins )




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