Struggle At Wounded Knee

The 1960's radicalization that awakened the nationalist yearnings of various oppressed peoples often gave birth to "restitution" type demands. Some black nationalists gave the "black belt" demand of the CPUSA from the 1930s a second thought. Chicanos conceived of Aztlan, a homeland in the Southwest. There was a brief armed struggle in New Mexico led by Reyes Tejirina, who demanded that significant portions of the state be returned to Spanish-speaking people. All of these struggles gained energy from the fierce struggle of the Vietnamese people to wrest control of their own country.

It was only a matter of time before American Indians reacted to all this ferment. Moreover, hundreds of treaties legitimized their land-claims. When they began to struggle for restitution, the stakes became very high since the stolen lands were some of the richest in the United States.

The first manifestation of the new Indian movement took place at Alcatraz Island in 1969 when over 200 Indians and their supporters sat-in. Led by a Mohawk professor named Richard Oakes and famed Indian athlete Jim Thorpe's daughter Grace, they demanded in Swiftian irony that a reservation be established on the island because it was isolated, poor and suitable only for prisoners.

The next big protest coincided with Nixon's inauguration in 1972. Richard Oakes had been murdered in the previous year and anger was boiling over in the Indian community. The American Indian Movement and other activists called for a Trail of Broken Treaties march. Caravans descended upon Washington from all over the country. The Indian coalition adopted a 20 Point set of demands. The first of these demanded the restoration of their constitutional treaty-making powers, which had been rescinded by the 1871 Indian Appropriations Act. The next seven demands defined the sovereignty of the Indian nations and the revalidation of treaties, including the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. These demands went to the heart of capitalist rule since to recognize or negotiate treaty claims across the country might result in the loss of vast portions of the country to the original owners.

The 1868 Treaty was especially nettlesome since, unlike the average treaty, it was favorable to the Indians. Red Cloud had led a successful military campaign against the whites and they were forced to make genuine concessions in order to prevent further bleeding.

At one of the bargaining sessions, a Crow chief by the name of Bear Tooth attacked the wanton destruction of the environment and wildlife his enemy had wrought:

"Father, fathers, fathers, hear me well. Call back your young men from the mountains of the bighorn sheep. They have run over our country; they have destroyed the growing wood and the green grass; they have set fire to our lands. Fathers, your young men have devastated the country and killed my animals, the elk, the deer, the antelope, my buffalo. They do not kill them to eat them; they leave them to rot where they fall. Fathers, if I went into your country to kill your animals, what would you say? Should I not be wrong, and would you not make war with me?"

The 1868 treaty was subverted almost as soon as the Indian military campaigns came to an end. The Black Hills were turned over to commercial interests and the Lakota Indians were herded into the Pine Ridge Reservations, which contained the village of Wounded Knee. The leaders of AIM fought a protracted battle against US capitalism on this site. It was one of the most important class-struggles of the 1960s and 70s.

The leaders of AIM were not reservation Indians for the most part. Some could no longer even speak their own language. They were not unlike the hard-scrabble men who were drawn to the Nation of Islam or the Black Panther Party who had experienced poverty and prison.

Leonard Peltier was one of the AIM leaders. He now sits in prison on specious charges that grew out of a gun-battle with FBI agents in 1975 at Wounded Knee. He is supposed to be paroled in 1998. He was born in 1944 in North Dakota to a family of migrant farm workers. Indians picked potatoes for 3 to 4 cents a bushel and he began working when he was a child. One of his earliest memories was other children throwing rocks at him and calling him a dirty Indian. He was raised by his grandparents after his parents separated. His father was machine-gunned in the legs during WWII and his uncle had been killed in action. Indians experienced casualties all out of proportion to their actual numbers in every 20th century war.

Many Vietnam veterans of Indian heritage became extremely bitter at American racism. The hypocrisy of fighting for "freedom" in Vietnam and facing second-class citizenship at home gave the 1972 protests a sharp edge. Typical was Sid Mills, a young Yakima Indian involved in fishing-rights struggles. He was a decorated veteran who had been seriously wounded in Vietnam. He renounced the military and offered his full commitment to the Indian struggle.

In 1965 Peltier was living in Seattle, Washington where he was part owner of an auto body shop. The second floor of the garage became a halfway house for Indian alcoholics and ex-cons who valued Peltier's kindness and support. He was initiated into AIM struggles in 1970 when an Alcatraz-like takeover at Fort Lawton, just outside of Seattle, drew him into activity. He signed up with AIM that year and eventually ended up at Wounded Knee.

The occupation at Wounded Knee was sparked by the racist beating of Raymond Yellow Thunder, a 51 year old Oglala. Two white brothers named Hare stripped him to the waist and paraded him around the town of Gordon, Nebraska in February 1972. He died of the beatings a week later and the Hares were arrested. They were charged with assault and battery and released from jail without any bail. His outraged family got in touch with AIM who organized a 200 car caravan from the Pine Ridge reservation across the state line into Gordon, Nebraska. The cops felt the pressure and the charges against the Hares were raised to 2nd degree manslaughter.

Tensions simmered throughout the year until a new racist violent attack brought things to a head. In January 1973 a young Indian named Wesley Bad Heart was stabbed by a white businessman and town bully named Darold Schmidt. Schmidt had bragged that he was "going to kill him an Indian." Schmidt was only charged with involuntary manslaughter and the Indian community called upon AIM once again for support.

Once again a large caravan arrived at the courthouse in the aptly named Custer, South Dakota. The cops told the assembled Indians that they could not have permission to hold an open meeting and a fracas ensued on the front steps. Two cop cars were overturned and set on fire. The Custer courthouse riot was a historic event, the first outbreak of violence between white men and Lakota since the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890.

A month later the old-line Indian leadership organized in the Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization marched on the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Pine Ridge to protest the presence of US Marshals on the reservation who had appeared shortly after the riots in Custer. They were denied entrance to the building by Marshals deployed in sandbags and armed with machine guns. The head of the reservation was Dick Wilson, a corrupt dictator who the marchers sought to remove in a related demand.

Wilson was a right-wing fanatic. He denounced AIM as "Communists" and looked to middle-aged and respectable Indians for support. The civil rights marchers were a clear sign that his base was eroding. AIM for its own part was busy mapping out further confrontations with Wilson and his government backers. It called a meeting on February 26th and over 600 Indians turned out. It was customary for Indians to have a meal at such gatherings and they turned to the Holy Rosary Catholic Church for food money. The priest told them that he couldn't because this would alienate all the good Christians who backed Dick Wilson. This church, not coincidentally, was the largest land-owner on the reservation.

After 90 years, the churches had attached themselves to the Pine Ridge reservation like leeches. All of them remained quiet during the 3 years of violent confrontations with the government. Vine Deloria Jr. described the role of the church accurately. "It has been said of missionaries that when they arrived they had only the Book and we had the land. Now we have the Book and they have the land."

The occupation at Pine Ridge had an extremely militant character because the federal government had failed to respond to the Trail of Broken Treaties 20 Point program. This time the Indians were determined to win some gains. Their protest attracted support from the entire left and many prominent liberal politicians. It was difficult not to recognize the validity of Indian claims, except if you were a member of the ruling class. Polls reflected the popularity of the Indian claims. Fifty-one percent of Americans sympathized with them and only 21 percent were against them.

The Pine Ridge reservation was surrounded by federal troops, FBI agents, US marshals, and BIA police. Trying to bypass AIM, the federal government tried to open negotiations with what they thought were moderate Indians on the reservation. They promptly demanded that the White House appoint a commission to review the Treaty of 1868. When they were told that the Congressional Act of 1871 prohibited negotiations between Indians and the government, all hell broke loose. Russell Means reminded them that the Laramie treaty preceded it by 3 years. He also said:

"This is our last gasp as a sovereign people. And if we don't get these treaty rights recognized, as equal to the Constitution of the United States--as by law they are--then you might as well kill me, because I have no reason for living. And that's why I am here in Wounded Knee, because nobody is recognizing the Indian people as human beings.

"They're laughing at off in Time Magazine and Newsweek, and the editors in New York and what have you. They're treating this as a silly matter, just as they've treated Indian people throughout history. We're tired of being treated that way. And we're not going to be treated like that any more.

"You're going to have to kill us. Because I am not going to die in some barroom brawl. I'm not going to die in a car wreck on some lonely road on the reservation because I've been drinking to escape the oppression of this goddamn society. I'm not going to die when I walk into Pine Ridge and Dickie's goons feel I should be offed. That's no the way I'm going to die. I'm going to die fighting for my treaty rights. Period...

"We haven't demanded any radical changes here, only that the United States Government live up to its own laws. It is precedent-setting that a group of 'radicals,' who in the minds of some are acting outside the law, are just in turn asking the law to live up to its own. We're not asking for any radical changes. We're just asking for the law to be equitably applied--to all."

On May 9th of 1973 the occupation came to an end. For 71 days all the power of the capitalist state had been resisted. The main lesson of the occupation is that it is not arms that can withstand the cops and army, but a mass movement with broadly understood demands. What prevented Wounded Knee from turning into a bloodbath was the power of the American radical movement itself that had put the ruling class on the retreat for a number of years.

This was a time of major possibilities for the left. A powerful coalition of the oppressed might have been forged. The American Indian Movement, blacks, women, peace activists, insurgent labor could have united politically to win ratification of the 1868 Laramie treaty, the Equal Right Amendment, jobs for the unemployed and other significant concessions.

Instead the ruling-class went on the offensive. Part of this can be explained by the disappearance of a major irritant--the Vietnam War--but a more fundamental explanation is the self-destructiveness of the American left which embarked on a sectarian course that characterized politics for the next ten years or so. One of the most important expressions of this was the Maoist movement that, along with the Trotskyist movement, turned its back on the social movements in order to "make the revolution." As it turns out, the most revolutionary thing that the left could have done was to work with AIM in its just struggle. Instead the Maoists decided to denounce AIM as a bunch of romantic primitives who didn't understand the need for progress. This scandalous debate is the subject of my next post.

(The material in the post drawn from Dee Brown's "Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee" and Peter Mathiessen's "In The Spirit of Crazy Horse")