Wounded Knee, S.D.
Ribbons representing the four directions dance on a timeless September wind above the graves. Madonna Thunder Hawk scratches the hard, dry ground with the toe of her right shoe. She prefers coming here as seasons change, she says, when time's passage is evident in the leaves and air.
Madonna Thunder Hawk at Wounded Knee for the first time since the 1973 siege.
Photos by BRIAN WALSKI / Los Angeles Times
"Our people are survivors, you know? This is just another page in the ongoing history of our people," she says. "The struggle never ends. With each changing of the season, we're still here."
It has been 25 years since Thunder Hawk, 58, walked upon these hills through darkness and steep ravines avoiding roadblocks and arrest, her backpack heavy with ammunition for the AIM cause. She remembers how the dull light of a paper-thin moon shimmered off patches of snow. The faint glow of lights on the right was from the town of Pine Ridge, she was told. The lights to the left were of Denby, and the lights in the center would lead her to Wounded Knee.
She was one of a small group hiking 12 miles in from Porcupine. Among those with her was Lorelei DeCora, then still a teenager, who, three years earlier at age 16, became one of the youngest members of the AIM board of directors.
They were distant relatives, but it wasn't until they became involved in AIM, a civil rights movement born in 1968, that they drew close. The two of them traveled together, protested together, were arrested together. And just as the sky was turning pale one winter morning in 1973, they walked together down into this valley and into the siege that would change their lives.
The conflict started as a result of turmoil between two factions on the Pine Ridge reservation. AIM had been called in by a group of traditional Oglala elders who said they were under attack by Richard Wilson, the elected tribal chairman, and his "goon squad."
It was a conflict that came to symbolize the disparity between those adhering to traditional Indian cultures and those living nontraditional lives. But when the shooting started and federal agents became involved, the conflict pitted AIM against the U.S. government. And as negotiations took place, the issues shifted to the rights of American Indians.
It was a conflict that came to mean different things at different times to different people.
About half of those involved in the occupation were women, Thunder Hawk says. And after Wounded Knee, when many of the male leaders, including her cousin Russell Means, whom she grew up with and considers a brother, were arrested or on the run, women took on greater responsibilities in the movement. Thunder Hawk and DeCora helped form Women of All Red Nations when it became dangerous to declare affiliation with AIM.
Madonna Thunder Hawk at her Cheyenne River home.
DeCora, 44, earned a bachelor's degree in nursing. She helped establish the Porcupine Clinic. Both remain activists on their home reservations, Thunder Hawk at Cheyenne River in South Dakota, DeCora at the Winnebago reservation in Nebraska.
They are typical, they say, of many women who worked before, during and after the siege of Wounded Knee to secure treaty rights, improve living conditions and renew native cultures that over the years were systematically stripped away by the dominant U.S. society.
Thunder Hawk turns and looks up from the weeds and the small scratch in the dirt next to her feet. Her gaze shifts to the east. What Wounded Knee taught her, she says, is how to look at place and time. The struggle is represented by this land beneath her and, like the wind, is timeless.
"I knew after Wounded Knee what our ancestors meant when they talked about the seven generations. You have to think and plan for seven generations ahead," she says. "This is it for us. Right here." Again, she scratches the ground.
"We don't come from anywhere else. We don't have a gene pool in Europe. This is it. So after Wounded Knee, when I saw the real meaning of land struggle, I knew I had to raise my children and grandchildren to continue the struggle. Before Wounded Knee, I was naive, idealistic. I wanted to see change right now, like young people do, and we did change some things. Somebody had to kick in the door to make those changes happen, but after Wounded Knee, I knew it was ongoing and that each generation has to pick up the struggle."
The sun is warm, but coolness settles into the wind. Thunder Hawk walks slowly among graves. Soon it will be fall.
A herd of buffalo moves slowly through cottonwood shadows that line the winding creek. Lorelei DeCora watches their movements closely. She comes here alone sometimes to talk to them to find peace and to pray.
"The kids named the big bull Mike Bison," she says.
Her life as an activist began at age 15, while she was attending high school in Sioux City, Iowa, 20 miles away from the Winnebago reservation. A book titled "Hawkeye Tales" was being used in public schools. It described American Indians as savages and referred to women as "squaws."
DeCora led a successful drive to remove the book from schools. A year later, she helped found a youth center for American Indians and led an effort to stop a construction project on a burial ground.
It was in Sioux City that she met Thunder Hawk and became involved in AIM. They connected immediately and began working together. At Wounded Knee, they became medics, working with volunteer physicians who would fly in for brief stints.
For DeCora, Wounded Knee was a spiritual awakening that shaped her work in the field of health care.
"In my life, what's driven me in the work that I do has always been the spiritual side," she says. "That started at Wounded Knee. When we were at Wounded Knee, I became a medic and I was only 19 years old, and what I saw set the tone for the rest of my life. I saw how dependent Indian people are on non-Indian people for our own health."
In the beginning, Wounded Knee was exciting, even fun, she says. Ironically, there was a sense of freedom.
"We were surrounded by the military might of the United States, but we were a community that had no police, no monetary system, no laws other than what we wanted to make. We were a community that was given a taste of freedom."
All that changed the day Frank Clearwater died in the fighting with federal agents.
"The whole top of his head was blown off," DeCora says. "I had my hands on top of his head trying to hold the pieces together. Everything up to that point was fun, but when I saw that, I thought, 'This man just gave his life, so this better be worth it.' My whole perception of Wounded Knee changed at that moment, and I wondered, 'What are we accomplishing here?' "
The second person killed in the shootout was Buddy LaMonte and it was his death that led to the end of the siege. LaMonte had told his family that if he was killed, he wanted to be buried at Wounded Knee.
"The Feds agreed to let Mrs. LaMonte bury her son there if we agreed to give up the day after the funeral. We had a meeting, and an elder, a medicine man, stood up with tears in his eyes and said it was time to end this. I stood up and said, 'Our chief has spoken to us. We said we would follow the direction of the chiefs.' "
And, with that, the decision was made to end the occupation, but for DeCora, it wasn't the final battle. The one she fights now is against diabetes. She has founded a program that incorporates Winnebago culture into the treatment and prevention of type 2 diabetes.
"Close to 90% of the adults over 45 have been diagnosed as Type II diabetics," she says of the Winnebago reservation. Beyond that, she adds, 48% of the children show signs of a pre-diabetic state.
"That means the future of this tribe is at stake," she says.
There was a story told to DeCora by her grandfather. It was about his mother, who, in her seventh winter, survived the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee. She spoke of her memories only once, her grandfather said.
She said she remembered gunshots and the cold. Her baby brother was placed on her back by their mother, who then told her to flee. She ran toward a creek, fell and landed on its banks. "Keep going," the baby told her, so she ran.
The snow had drifted into a cornice above the creek, and below it she moved steadily without direction. Sometimes soldiers would ride up to the creek bank, and she would hear them above her and remain still beneath the cornice.
She got very tired, very cold. The snow fell hard. As evening approached, she heard her uncle, whom she had left behind at Wounded Knee, yell at her from the top of a hill. "Keep coming," he shouted. She was happy to see him alive and began to think that her family had survived the gunfire.
She ran toward him, and when she reached the top of the hill, she saw him climbing the hill ahead of her. "Keep coming," he shouted throughout the night. Finally, as the sun rose above the snow-covered ground, she heard her uncle in the distance say, "We're home."
She ran to the top of the next hill and found herself in the town they had left before the attack at Wounded Knee. She could find no trace of her uncle.
There is no humanly way possible she could have made the trip in one night, yet that is the story she told, DeCora says. The uncle who led her home, it turned out, was killed at Wounded Knee. The baby on her back who had spoken to her was dead of a bullet wound. Relatives took the girl in and raised her. She grew up and had 18 children, including DeCora's grandfather.
After that journey from Wounded Knee, she could see spirits, and sometimes, just before sunset, she would look out the window and see her uncle.
There is another story about an ancestor who lived in the 1700s who was the only woman to serve as chief of the Winnebagos. Once when DeCora, her three sisters and an aunt were taking a sweat with their grandmother, she told them about the chief. It had been prophesied, her grandmother said, that every few generations the chief's spirit would emerge through female descendants.
It is that spirit, DeCora says, that has guided her. "Things happen around me and always have," she says. "It's not me. It's something else, something bigger than me that gets people motivated and gets people to believe."
Even as a teenager, people listened to her, she says. During Wounded Knee, even though it was men like Russell Means and Dennis Banks who represented AIM in front of the cameras, they valued the words of DeCora and the other women.
"I never felt resentment that they didn't have women right up there with the men," she says. "I spoke at a NOW [National Organization for Women] conference about the role of women in the struggle of American Indians, and I told them that we don't have the luxury as a people to address issues of equality. If your people are dying and they're hungry, then you have to address those issues before you have time to address other issues."
Still, she says, it is important that women share their stories, pass them to the next generation, so descendants will know about the young girl who trudged through snow to escape death, the woman who was chief, another who held in her hands the head of a dying man.
"The stories that women have to contribute are important. It's a part of history that needs to come out, or it will be lost. If you read the book 'Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,' it's all these stories of all these men. They're not the stories of Crazy Horse's wife. Who was she? What did she do?"
Thunder Hawk, too, has stories to tell about the women in her family. Her role models were her grandmothers, one who had a soft lap, one whom she called Twinkle Star, an outspoken woman unafraid to express her views.
"I grew up thinking all grandmothers wrote letters to the president," Thunder Hawk says. "She told us about the stars, about the sacred Black Hills. She was the one who told me about treaty rights. There were no strong, stoic Indian grandfathers in our lives. There were strong grandmothers."
And now it is Thunder Hawk and DeCora who are grandmothers. They don't see each other as often as they would like. Both are divorced, both living with daughters. Both ready to take up a cause with a phone call.
"It's a hard life," DeCora says, "It's easy to just think of yourself and drive a nice car and have nice things, but the reward is that when the day comes that I have to die or Madonna has to die, and our ancestors are there in the spirit world, we can stand in front of them and say, 'I didn't just look the other way. I did what I could.' "
When that day comes, the struggle will continue in the hands of the young. The seasons will still change. And the wind will still blow hard at Wounded Knee