Wounded Knee 1973 - 1998:
In the struggle continues
By Judith LeBlanc

This article was reprinted from the April 25, 1998 issue of the People's Weekly World. All rights reserved - may be used with PWW credits....This is the first of two parts on the history of Wounded Knee and how Indians are continuing their struggles. Judith Le Blanc is a member of the Caddo Tribe of Oklahoma and a national secretary of the Communist Party USA.

The first blizzard of the winter made flying into Rapid City, South Dakota a little more difficult than expected. White-out conditions closed the airport and forced me to spend the night in Minneapolis. It gave me some time to think about the significance of the gathering for the 25th Anniversary of the Occupation of Wounded Knee. I was returning to Pine Ridge Reservation after 25 years. How much had changed, I wondered.

I was going back to a place that had opened up a whole new political world to me. Living on Pine Ridge Reservation in 1973 taught me many things about life that my family had shown me, but were never quite clear. Pine Ridge Reservation is where I realized how the lives of Indian people are inextricably linked to the political direction of the country. Yes, separate problems reflect segregation and racist discrimination against Indian people and yet these problems are so connected with the political and economic conditions for the working class in every community, for every race or nationality.

Pine Ridge Reservation is in the heart of what is called "Indian Country," one of the largest reservations. It is a "showcase" of what centuries of capitalism has done to a people; it contains the poorest county in the country. Pine Ridge has become, in some ways, a prison of poverty and racism.

The "rez," as reservations are affectionately called, is similar to Harlem or East Los Angeles. Each is a place where a people has chosen to live together in a community that shares culture and tradition. These are communities systematically battered by racism, where too few jobs or opportunities exist for a secure life.

The situation on a rez is more ironic because the land is owned collectively, but by those without the resources to make it a livable place.

The system of capitalism and the racist oppression that it breeds bruise the beauty of a tribe living together on a reservation. Unemployment and subsistence living - the norm on most reservations - tear families apart.

Indian people are forced to choose between staying with their families and their tribe or leaving the reservation to make a living.

This can only be blamed on the hundreds of years of government policies that have ranged from open military warfare in the beginning, to policies of inadequate housing and health care, hunger, unemployment and budget cuts today.

The Oglala Sioux Tribe carries with it today the collective memory of the genocidal military assaults used to steal their land. It was no surprise that one of the most dramatic actions led by the American Indian Movement (AIM) would happen at Pine Ridge 25 years ago.

The 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee of over 300 men, women and children was one of the most brutal acts of the U.S. government. Pine Ridge Reservation was created based on a treaty negotiated in response to the armed resistance of the tribe.

Today there are families who trace their history back to the Wounded Knee Massacre and to signers of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty.

In 1973, many elders feared that their cultural traditions and religious ceremonies were quickly being lost. Hopelessness was growing out of the lack of leadership from the tribal council, as well as a series of incidents including the killing by police of an Indian youth in the reservation border town of Custer.

Continued collaboration by the tribal leaders with anti- Indian policies of the federal government led to the occupation of the Wounded Knee hamlet, the site of the 1890 massacre. Oglala Sioux Tribe members and leaders of AIM undertook an action to dramatize the conditions on Pine Ridge Reservation. As a result, the world's attention became focused on the racism faced by Indians on reservations and in the cities, too.

The occupation became a 71-day struggle between activists and armed FBI agents and the National Guard. Those occupying believed the conditions were so drastic that they had to take a stand. Many expected to be killed - like their ancestors in 1890 - and two did die.

On Feb. 27, 1973 approximately 200 people went to Wounded Knee to prepare for an early morning press conference. The government's response was a declaration of war. The press conference was never held.

According to Pentagon documents uncovered later, the government immediately deployed 17 armored personnel carriers, 130,000 rounds of M-16 ammunition, 41,000 rounds of M-40 high explosives for grenade launchers as well as helicopters and other aircraft. Three hundred miles away on an Army base in Colorado, an assault unit was put on 24- hour alert.

Messages of support poured in from around the world. Local support committees were organized from coast to coast to help educate mainstream America about the living conditions on every reservation and the need to defend the languages and cultures of American Indians.

Many young Indians like myself were moved to become a part of the effort to ensure the safety of those who were occupying Wounded Knee. Civil rights and religious organizations spoke out in their support. International appeals for a negotiated settlement were made to the U.S. government.

Compelled by worldwide pressure, the standoff came to a nonviolent end. Despite the weight of public opinion sympathetic to the cause, the government handed down the largest number of federal indictments ever to come out of one incident. Years of court cases and a long defense battle began, led by civil rights lawyers like William Kuntsler, Larry Leventhal and Mark Lane.

The Nixon administration pursued a stepped-up campaign to harass and frame Indian activists on and off the rez. The FBI hounded supporters, Indians and others. Sixty murders on Pine Ridge Reservation during that time remain unsolved.

The media attempted to quell the support by highlighting the violent nature of the standoff, neglecting to mention the incredible fire power brought onto the reservation by the Army and National Guard.

On the 25th anniversary we discussed the mood on the reservation in 1973. In the homes I visited, many said they had supported the action. An elder, who was preparing food for the Wacipi honoring and powwow held in Porcupine, told me, "My children were on the inside. I knew it was dangerous, but late at night the young would come to my house here in Porcupine and I would package up food for them to carry into the compound. Yes, they had their tanks and roadblocks, but we knew how to go there in the dark with food."

The mood among the people in 1973 was a slow boil of anger and, according to many, something was bound to happen.

Goon squads often harassed members of the Wounded Knee Offense/Defense Committee on the reservation. Even more young activists were killed after the occupation than during it. Some, like Leonard Peltier, were sent to jail on trumped-up charges. He has served over 20 years in prison, despite the existence of evidence that proves his innocence.

On Feb. 27 and 28, hundreds of Indian activists - veterans of militant struggles of the 1970s and 1980s - came to South Dakota to remember those who had died during and after the occupation. In a blizzard, we gathered at the mass grave, the site of the 1890 massacre. We came to honor the militant action of 1973. With prayers, singing and speeches, we remembered their commitment to the struggle for a better life for the Oglala Sioux and all our people.

The blizzard continued and the temperatures were far below zero. Some arrived on foot, having participated in the Four Directions Sacred Run. Some had flown in; others had driven hundreds of miles, from as far as Oklahoma, Arizona, Washington, Alaska, as well as Canada and Mexico. Hundreds gathered, carrying banners with names of those who had died. We stood among the tipis, cheered by the broadcast support of the tribe's radio station. Young children played in the snow.

The mood was one of determination, with a note of sadness. Many were thinking about how far we must go to find answers to the problems that persist.

A Feb. 28 symposium on the struggles going on today included discussions covering a wide array of issues: The struggle to free Leonard Peltier, a political prisoner as a result of the 1973 occupation; racism in sports; struggles to defend the existing land base and culture.

Students from the University of North Dakota described harassment they face on campus in their efforts to practice their religious rites. "We go to school to help the people, to help our families, and to help ourselves," one student said. "And still we must face racial and religious discrimination."

That night the blizzard continued and the roads were closed, yet over 1,000 people gathered to celebrate in an evening concert. Milo Yellowhair, vice-chairman of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, welcomed the crowd. "We must use this celebration as a springboard for the future."

The audience, many of whom were very young - not even born during the "Knee" - danced and cheered the singers, poets and musicians. They partied to Red Soul, an Apache rapper from Los Angeles. They rocked to the sounds of the Golden Warriors, a blues band from Pine Ridge. Jim Paige, an Indian folk singer, performed an old Irish song. The crowd cheered the lyrics: "Voices of the dead are always in our ears. Some of us must choose to fight."

For the young people on Pine Ridge, the 25th anniversary reunion brought history to life. For many who were veterans of this struggle, it was a significant victory to have the 1973 action acknowledged as a part of the great history of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and the movement for Indian equality.

Whether we were inside "the Knee" in 1973 or were a part of the movement to support the action, our lives were changed.

Charles "Doghides" Conway from Tacoma, Wash. explained why he had come back to Wounded Knee. "If I had not gotten involved in the fishing struggles of my tribe in the 70s or at Wounded Knee, I would have stayed on drugs or in jail. The struggle gave me a choice to live in misery or come into a new life of struggle."

The 1973 action also changed the political landscape. Vernon Bellecourt, a founder of AIM, reported that more than 100 AIM members are now on tribal councils, 25 as presidents. "Wounded Knee changed the struggle forever," he said.

Clyde Bellecourt said AIM was born in 1968 because "we didn't like what the federal government or the tribal governments were doing. We founded AIM because of police brutality, slumlords, [lack of] health care, education and no health insurance."

In 1998, conditions are much worse. Decades of Reagan-Bush budget cuts and majority unemployment have maintained health problems stemming from overcrowded and inadequate housing and plumbing. A high teenage suicide rate, drug and alcohol abuse and violence are a part of life for young people here.

Government policies have created a rural ghetto. An elder of the Oglala Sioux Tribe who has been called the "Grandma of AIM," Ellen Moves Camp, said, "Things are worse ... just a matter of time before another Wounded Knee and ... a violent confrontation with the government."

After 25 years, there is an urgent need once again to focus the country's attention on the crisis conditions for Indian people. For many who participated there was a sense of renewal - both spiritual and political. However, hunger, joblessness and denial of civil rights remain the issues that must be resolved for Indian people to have the possibility of living a decent, secure life - whether on reservations or in the cities.

Robert Quiver is the organizer of the 25th anniversary gathering and a grandson of Oscar Bearrunner, one of the elders who helped to lead the 1973 occupation. "It was a great accomplishment to bring together a gathering of people, sincere with good intentions," Quiver said. "It is a beginning of a larger voice, a larger spiritual and heartfelt voice for our people. We helped our people learn that 1973 was not about violence but about preserving the old ways, traditions much of which would have been lost without this struggle. It is just a beginning."

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