You can only kick so long...
AIM leadership in Nebraska 1972-79©
by W. Dale Mason

Following the re-occupation of Alcatraz Island by Federal authorities in late 1971 after a two-year occupation by Indians living near San Francisco, the emerging nationwide Indian movement entered a new phase. Between the mid-1960s and 1971 there had been numerous "fish-ins" and seizures of Federal property by young Indian activists. Many of these acts of direct confrontation occurred without a great deal of planning. They often lacked a broad base of support among the Indian people living in the areas where they took place. Alcatraz itself was not of major concern to many indigenous California Indians. The impetus for the occupation of the Island had come from Indian college students living in the Bay Area led by Richard Oaks, a 27 year-old Mohawk from the St. Regis Reservation in New York.

What was needed was an incident that could be exploited locally and used by activist leaders as a local as well as national organizing tool. Sioux author Vine Deloria, Jr., had seen this early on. In Custer Died For Your Sins Deloria had observed that unless Indian activists placed more emphasis on exploiting local situations they would not have much impact. (*1) During 1972 and 1973 the American Indian Movement (AIM) was able to do this effectively in several instances, most notably in Gordon, Nebraska, and on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

The New York Times had called Gordon, Nebraska a White Mans Town. (*2) But in the 1970s it played a significant role in the new movement of activism among American Indians. Here in early 1972 the American Indian Movement made its first major impact in a non-urban setting, and here, throughout most of the 1970s there occurred a continuing series of confrontations between local authorities and a small group of supporters of the American Indian Movement. Located fifteen miles from the South Dakota border, Gordon is a small (population 2,200) rural town not unlike countless others throughout the Plains. But it is a border town and that fact dominates much of how life is conducted there.

Roughly ten percent of Gordons population is Indian, but that fluctuates as people come and go across the border to the Pine Ridge Reservation. Indians come to Gordon to look for work and to shop. The near total absence of places to shop on the Reservation and the prohibition of the sale of alcohol there brings a steady flow of Indians to Gordon and other nearby towns. According to former Oglala Sioux Tribal Chairman Albert Trimble, 90 percent of the income earned in the village of Pine Ridge is spent in Nebraska. Trimble admitted that he had borrowed money from a Nebraska bank in order to run for Tribal Chairman.

Indians had for years charged that economic discrimination and a dual standard of justice existed in the Nebraska Panhandle. There were charges by Indians of police brutality, and accusations that Indians were arrested far in excess of their population percentage.

The American Indian Movement became involved in Gordon and the issues came to a head in early March 1972 following the discovery of the body of Raymond Yellow Thunder, a 51 year-old Lakota Sioux from Pine Ridge. On the evening of 12 February, during a Saturday night dance in the Gordon American Legion Hall, Yellow Thunder was stripped of his pants and pushed into the Hall while the dance was underway. Eight days later two young boys found his body in the cab of a pick-up truck in a Gordon used car lot. An autopsy attributed his death to a cerebral hemorrhage. He had been dead for more than two days. Sheridan County Attorney Michael V. Smith called the incident at the American Legion Hall a very cruel practical joke.(*3)

Nearly two weeks after Yellow Thunder was shoved onto the dance hall floor, four men and one woman, all white, were arrested and charged in the incident. Two were charged with false imprisonment; two with false imprisonment and manslaughter; and the fifth with manslaughter.

Soon after Yellow Thunders body was discovered, rumors about its condition spread like a prairie fire throughout Indian country. It was rumored that Yellow Thunders body bore evidence of torture and mutilation and that his skull had been crushed. There were demands that his body be exhumed and that a second autopsy be performed. All rumors were hotly denied by County Attorney Smith. American Indian Movement leader Russell Means, himself an Oglala, was attending a conference in Omaha. He announced that, We intend to put it in the national spotlight and would expose the racist state of Nebraska. (*4)

On 7 March a 12-member all-Indian grand jury was chosen from among the 1000 Indians who had converged on Gordon from across Nebraska and South Dakota. After a march down Main Street, the Indians, including Means and fellow AIM leader Dennis Banks, went to the town hall to hear testimony of police brutality and harassment. The allegations heard by the grand jury were presented to City officials who agreed to establish a biracial Human Relations Council. A police officer who was accused of mistreating Indian prisoners was suspended pending an investigation and two Indians being held for public drunkenness were released.

Yellow Thunders body was exhumed and a second autopsy was performed in Rapid City. It was witnessed by Smith and representatives from the AIM and the Native American Rights Fund (NARF). The second autopsy confirmed the findings of the first: There had been no mutilation and there were no signs of torture. NARF attorney John Echohawk, one of the autopsy witnesses, afterwards addressed himself to the question of the rumors concerning the condition of Yellow Thunders body. The reason, he said, must be the tension that Indians live under in areas near these predominantly white communities. I dont think we need to ask why there is tension when Indians are humiliated in this fashion so often. (*5)

After the protesters left Gordon, the tensions and fears of both whites and Indians remained. The wife of the drugstore owner, a white woman, said, The spell has been broken and life in Gordon will never be the same again. The Indian residents there also sensed a change. An Indian father was quoted as saying, I think people around here now know that were not just a bunch of little Indians, while a 32 year-old Lakota woman said, Yellow Thunder wasn't the first of us to be mistreated, but had better be the last. Were tired of being cursed on the streets, tired of being beaten in alleys. And were tired of doing the white mans dirty work. (*6)

Although Yellow Thunders murder triggered what had transpired in Gordon, the issues that had provoked such an outpouring of anger remained after his assailants were arrested (*7) and Means and the other national AIM leaders left. In the efforts of local Indians to deal with these issues can be seen how AIM grew as a movement. As the national AIM leadership engaged in more and more visible displays of direct action and confrontation, local chapters were organized around the country. A local AIM Chapter was established in Gordon after the Yellow Thunder incident and a statewide AIM organization existed as well.

The issues that bound them into a movement were an emphasis on the sanctity of treaty rights, the right to define for themselves their own identity as Indians and a way of life based on traditional values. In addition to these broader issues of concern to Indians nationally, local AIM Chapters dealt with the specific grievances and issues indigenous Indians of a particular tribe or area. These most often dealt with police brutality, selective enforcement of the laws, dual standards of justice, economic and other forms of discrimination, and the disposition of surplus government or institutional property. Since AIM was indeed more of a movement than an organization, these local Chapters were autonomous. Leadership was locally indigenous. Tactics evolved around those issues of local concern and were often placed in the context of the broader issues.

After the Yellow Thunder incident, Gordon and the entire Nebraska Panhandle were ripe for organized efforts by Indian activists. At the same time, the efforts by national AIM were continuing, first with the Trail of Broken Treaties which culminated in the takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Building in Washington, D.C. in November 1972 and then with the 71-day occupation of the village of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in the winter and spring of 1973.

Shortly after the takeover of the BIA building had ended, a group of about fifty Indians occupied the Nebraska Historical Society Museum at Fort Robinson State Park, just outside of Crawford in western Nebraska. The Fort, which had played an important part in historic Lakota-white relations, had been surplused by the United States Government and 316 acres had recently been turned over to the State of Nebraska. The Indians who occupied the Forts Museum demanded the return of the Fort to the Lakota people under the terms of the 1968 Fort Laramie Treaty.

The leader of the Fort Robinson occupation was Bob Yellow Bird (Steele), a young Oglala student at Chadron (Nebraska) State College. A charismatic Viet Nam veteran, Yellow Bird had served two tours of duty as a Navy Radioman in the Demilitarized Zone from 1965 to 1967. After he was discharged he became involved in a demand for an investigation into allegations of police brutality in Alliance, Nebraska, following a series of what officials termed suicides by Indian prisoners in their jail cells.

After entering the Museum, Yellow Bird announced that the occupation was to protest another flagrant land steal perpetrated by the U.S. government and the State of Nebraska and threatened to burn the damned place down if any attempts were made to force the Indians from the building. We will not leave, he said, until our claim to this land is honored by this government and the State of Nebraska. (*8)

The State responded by moving in State Troopers and refusing to negotiate as long as the Fort was occupied. Nebraska Governor J. James Exon denounced the Indians. The Governors attitude towards AIM was clear. At a press conference he voiced his opinion that the so-called AIM leadership doesn't represent the legitimate concerns of Nebraska Indians. (*9)

The occupation, however, turned out to be brief and without violence. Yellow Bird and the others left the Museum in 14 hours after receiving what they understood to be assurances that Governor Exon would personally meet with them and discuss their claim. Yellow Bird and LeRoy Cassados were arrested and charged with interfering with a governmental function and unlawful assembly.

A meeting was in fact scheduled with the Governor in Lincoln, but he failed to appear. Instead, his Administrative Assistant, Norman Otto, met with about 30 Indians in the Governors office and told them to present their demands at Fort Robinson the following day. Dennis Banks (*10) read the list of demands, which included not only a call for turning over of Fort Robinson to the Sioux, but also a demand for Indian representation on the Parole Board and the repeal of the Indian Bounty Law. This was a State statute that paid county sheriffs departments in counties where there were Indian reservations a per capita for Indians arrested. The law was repealed in the mid-1970s.

The meeting at the Fort, with Banks, Yellow Bird, Cassados, Owen Young of Omaha AIM and John Two Birds Arbuckle of Lincoln AIM was unproductive. Negotiations were halted at one point when Jerry Kromberg, Director of the State Manpower Division, refused to withdraw the more than 60 law enforcement officers present. The issue of the Forts status was not even discussed.

Two days later Exon refused to give permission to the Indians to hold a Thanksgiving feast on the Park grounds. He ordered the Troopers to remain at the Fort to protect state property and keep the peace and tranquility. Banks responded that As long as police are in that area, we might as well give them something to do. (*11) The next day, in spite of the Governors ban, some 80 Indians in 17 cars held a roadside feast on the highway running through the Park. As each vehicle approached the Fort it was stopped at a check point and searched before being allowed to proceed. After some tense moments, the meal proceeded peacefully and several of the officers joined in.

Yellow Bird and Cassados entered into plea bargaining on the charges stemming from the occupation. As part of the negotiations to end the occupations, they had agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge. At the hearing before District Court Judge Robert Moran they were asked to enter a plea and to acknowledge that the Fort was State property. Surprised by the question, Yellow Bird refused to make such an acknowledgement. He replied only, Im guilty of this charge. Moran sent him to the County jail.

After the flurry of controversy surrounding the occupation had subsided, Yellow Bird was instrumental in keeping alive the issue of the Fort. Moving to Gordon, he organized the Committee to Reclaim Fort Robinson. The Committee continued to try to get the State of Nebraska to place Fort Robinson State Park under Indian control, and presented a proposal to the State Centennial Commission. The proposal grew out of ideas generated by an ad hoc committee of traditional Sioux from Nebraska and South Dakota in 1973. It called for:

  • a 99 year, dollar a year lease of 1000 acres of Fort Robinson Park land on which would be constructed a traditional Sioux village;
  • use of the existing Fort buildings which would tell the history of Indian people from the Indian viewpoint;
  • creation of managerial jobs for Indians at the Fort; and
  • the erection of a dance shade. (*12)

Beyond these four points, Yellow Bird envisioned the Park as a land base for Indians in western Nebraska which would improve the economic conditions of Indians living there. He also proposed the creation of a junior college on the land as well as a medical center and a culturally oriented school for Indian youth. The threshold issue, however, remained the status of the park land under the Treaty of 1868.

After the Centennial Commission failed to act on the proposal, Nebraska State Senator Ernie Chambers, the only black member of the Unicameral, introduced a bill in the Nebraska legislature calling for the return of the Fort to traditional Lakota leaders. Yellow Bird and others testified in Lincoln for the bill, but it was defeated in Committee. (*13)

Yellow Birds leadership during the brief occupation of the Fort and his continued agitation for the reclaiming the Park made him the most visible AIM leader in western Nebraska. As the turmoil on the Pine Ridge Reservation increased, Yellow Bird became even more visible and controversial in the Panhandle. In 1974 at the first International Indian Treaty Council in Mobridge, South Dakota. Yellow Bird helped draft one of the major documents in AIMs history, the Declaration of Continuing Independence. Also at Mobridge, the Nebraska delegates to the Conference chose Yellow Bird to be the State Coordinator of the Nebraska Chapter of the American Indian Movement.

As he continued his intermittent studies at Chadron State College, commuting the fifty miles from Gordon, Yellow Bird conducted AIM business from a corner of the one-room house he and his wife Joann and seven kids lived in on Ash Street in Gordon. Their white frame house was down an unpaved road in the Indian section of town. To get downtown one had to cross the railroad tracks to Main Street. A sweat lodge frame usually stood ready for use in front of the house and the yard to the side was used for feeds and meetings. On the front wall inside the house was a pay phone. A red extension phone sat Yellow Birds desk in the far corner, surrounded by files, stacks of back issues of Akwesasne Notes and books on law and Indian history. It was from here that he periodically published a mimeographed newsletter called the Crazy Horse Advocate. Business was conducted amidst the clamor of children, television, friends dropping by on their way somewhere else, or people coming with problems that they wanted Yellow Bird to do something about. For Indians in Gordon, the Yellow Bird household was a focal point.

Indians knew that Yellow Bird spent much time trying to find solutions to the problems facing them in western Nebraska. Economically, Indians remained on the bottom. Jobs were scarce and it was not uncommon to see Indians sleeping in cars, even in the bitter Plains winter. Aggravating these chronic living conditions were the continued allegations of police brutality, unequal enforcement of the laws and the existence of a dual standard of justice. Avenues for redress of their grievances were minimal. There were additional problems with the criminal justice system in Sheridan County, involving adequate legal representation for Indian defendants in criminal cases. Many Indians did not feel that the County Public Defender adequately represented their interests. They were unable to convince local judges to appoint other counsel. In Gordon, the Human Relations Council which had been created after Yellow Thunders murder did not function. Indians had no confidence in its objectivity and consequently those alleging police brutality or harassment would not go before it with their complaints. The only place harassed Indians felt they could turn was AIM, and that was Bob Yellow Bird. Yellow Bird began to conduct an organized investigation into allegations of police brutality. He collected statements from Indians claiming various degrees of verbal harassment and out-right physical abuse. At the same time he attempted to get official action taken and a formal investigation conducted into police misconduct in western Nebraska.

In October 1975 two VISTA (Volunteers In Service To America) volunteers, including the author, were assigned to the Scottsbluff office of the Nebraska Indian Commission to join the one already there. Assistant Commission Director Steve Janis, Rosebud Sioux, assigned the new volunteers to work with Yellow Bird to collect the statements of those Indians with complaints against the police.

The complaints were numerous and the charges varied. Cathy Merrill, a staff attorney for Panhandle Legal Services in Scottsbluff later classified the alleged abuses of the Gordon Police Department as:

  1. use of excessive force,
  2. use of verbal threats and conduct,
  3. selective enforcement of the laws,
  4. creation and escalation of tensions,
  5. using their authority outside of their jurisdiction,
  6. assaulting prisoners,
  7. general harassment,
  8. illegal conduct, and
  9. Engaging in racist, discriminatory and prejudicial conduct against the Indian community of Gordon by word, attitude, manner and acts in violence of civil rights laws, the U.S. Constitution and human decency and dignity. (*14)

The words of the Indians themselves provided the basis for Merrills indictment.

Last night, June 5, 1975, at about 10:00 p.m. I was standing on the Main Street of Gordon, next to my sisters car, when 2 cops in a squad car came up to me and stopped. They both got out of the car and came over to where I was standing. One said to me, you're drunk, and under arrest. I was then put in the back seat of the car and taken to the Gordon Police Station. When we arrived there, I was grabbed by both arms and led into the cell. It had been opened by one of the cops just before I pulled my arm away. As I started toward the cell, the cop who had been holding my arm, grabbed me by the back of the shirt, ripping it, and spun me around so I faced him, and then hit me on the nose, cutting it and causing it to bleed profusely. He then pushed me backwards into the cell and closed the door. Then both cops pulled out their cans of mace and sprayed me and another prisoner in the face and around the cell.

The dog was tied up at the back of the house the night he was shot. He was hit between the eyes, in the hind leg and the neck about 10:50 p.m. . . . parked outside the gate, turned his spotlight on the back of the house and shot the dog. He shot him from the car. The dog is a watch dog, but he was tied up. . . . The second time he drove up in a red and white pickup truck and shined the light at the back of the house. The third time he drove up in a cop car and shined the light again. When he shot the dog, he was in a police car.

Many of those persons charging police officers with brutality and harassment were charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. It was a pattern seen repeatedly as the investigation continued. Among the nearly 50 persons alleging brutality and harassment was Joann Yellow Bird. After visiting her father at the Gordon trailer court, Joann was stopped by a Gordon Police Officer who often figured in the complaints. When she asked why he had pulled her over he replied that he was just checking.

I asked him if he always stops people just to check them. He said the reason he stopped me was because I was drunk. Then asked me to take the test. I refused because I wasn't drinking any kind of alcohol that night. He said Id better do it if I didn't want my ass thrown in jail. I took the test and then I asked him what he would have done if I didn't take the test, he said Dont get smart with me then he said, I think Ill arrest you anyway. So I asked him what for. He said All right you're under arrest. I told him I had the kids in the car and that I wanted to take them home before I go to jail. He said no. I told him if he didn't trust me he could follow me home. He said no I asked him if he was doing this just to harass me, he said maybe. He then asked me for my drivers license. I told him I had left it home. He then said, see how you damned Indians are, always forgetting. I got mad and asked if honkies dont ever forget. He said not something as important as drivers license. As he was writing the ticket out, he asked me why Bob never works and lives off the welfare. I told him maybe its because no one will hire him. He said the only reason Bob didn't work is because he's just too damned lazy. He said no Indian could ever hold a job very long and that they should all move back to the reservation if they want to live off of the government. I told him to shut up and give me the ticket. He again told me I was under arrest. I told him I want to take the kids home first, he said no. I asked him if I could call my husband. He asked if my husband was Bob Yellow Bird. I said yes and he said I knew that. I asked him why he asked if he knew that. He said why do you think Im doing this. I asked him what he meant by that but he wouldn't say anything. (*15)

The charges of a dual standard of justice and selective enforcement of the laws were given credence by arrest statistics in western Nebraska compiled by the author for the Nebraska Indian Commission. In 1975, 75 percent of all arrests made in Gordon were of Indians. The 426 Indians arrested in Gordon represented 13 percent of all Indians arrested in the state. Gordon Police made 365 arrests for Drunkenness and Intoxication and 349 (95.6 percent) were Indians. There was a total of 1009 arrests made that year in Sheridan County and 78 percent were Indians. Nearly 24.5 percent of all Indians arrested in Nebraska were arrested in Sheridan County. In the County seat of Rushville, 101 arrests were made in 1975; all were for Drunkenness and Intoxication and all were Indian.

In November of l975 Bob Yellow Bird and a group of Indians attended a night meeting of the Gordon City Council. They came to present their charges of abuse by the Gordon Police Department and demand that the Council take action to halt such practices. Declaring that Force has become a habit, Yellow Bird demanded to know what action the City Council was going to take on the complaints that had been turned over to the City Manager. But the members of the City Council made it clear that they were not going to look into the matter any further. The Mayor and several Councilmen repeatedly urged Yellow Bird to go before the Gordon Human Relations Council, while Yellow Bird continued to deny its effectiveness, calling it nonexistent. Dismissing the particular complaint of an individual present in the room, one Councilman commented that he monitored the police calls every night and asked Yellow Bird, Cant you people handle it yourself? The meeting ended in apparent frustration for both sides. Even though he doubted the effectiveness of doing so, Yellow Bird did agree to attend the next meeting of the Human Relations Council.

As the efforts to curb police abuses continued, Yellow Bird and Nebraska AIM became embroiled in a divisive statewide battle over the direction of the Nebraska Indian Commission in particular and the control of State Indian programs in general. At issue was the degree of control exercised over Indian programs and financial support by a white church-dominated organization, the United Indians of Nebraska, and the interference in Indian affairs by Governor Exon. UIN had been organized in 1972 to coordinate statewide Indian programs and was the major funding source for Nebraska Indian organizations.

More was involved than the financial support of specific organizations. The Governor had recently appointed a new member to the Commission who was strongly identified with UIN. The appointment had drawn fire from Nebraska Indian Commission Director Robert Mackey who then became involved in a public dispute with Governor Exon. Exon declared that Mackey, a Santee Sioux, was a very bad representative of Nebraska's very fine Indian community and declared that he would have, if it was in my power, fired him long ago. (*16) Yellow Bird and the heads of two Panhandle Indian organizations declared their support for Mackey and denounced the Governor for both his comments and his recent Commission appointment.

At a meeting on the Winnebago Reservation, a badly divided Commission voted to fire Mackey. The resulting split in the Nebraska Indian community was bitter. AIM came to Mackeys support, as did much of the off-reservation Indian population. In a press release he issued after Mackeys firing. Yellow Bird said that Exon had inserted himself into Indian affairs for his own political gain and added, It saddens the American Indian Movement to see the members of the Nebraska Indian Commission play into his hands. (*17) Alex Lunderman of Omaha, AIM also targeted Exon. Two meetings of dissident Commission members and representatives of off-reservation organizations, including Yellow Bird and Lunderman, were held in Kearney in an attempt to develope a plan of action to force Mackeys rehiring. But the Commission refused to back down. The issue of UINs influence and the Governors control was never resolved.

Despite Yellow Birds leading role in the public and private maneuverings in the battle over Mackey and UIN, his focus remained on law enforcement issues. The struggle was often lonely. Steve Janis continued to offer staff support and worked to get the Nebraska Indian Commission to take formal action. But efforts to involve other agencies and individuals was frustrating in its futility. Repeated efforts to convince the Nebraska Civil Liberties Union, the Native American Rights Fund as well as arms of State government, including two State Senators, and individuals such as Marlon Brando proved fruitless.

In early February a coalition of poor white and Indian residents of Gordon formed a Concerned Citizens Against Police Misconduct Committee. At a meeting of about thirty people - half white, half Indian - those individuals having complaints against the police made their feelings and allegations public. Most of those taking the floor were white. Only one member of the Gordon Human Relations Council, a Catholic priest, even bothered to attend.

In late winter the movement for action began to gain momentum. The Nebraska Indian Commission, after hearing first-hand reports from Janis and others, decided to hold its March meeting in Gordon. Cathy Merrill continued to provide legal advice. Contacts with attorneys and potential supporters across the State and around the country were made from the Indian Commissions Lincoln office. An attorney from the Kansas City office of the United States Civil Rights Commission agreed to attend the March Commission meeting and to look into the entire matter. Riding the upturn in activity Bob Yellow Bird declared his candidacy for the Gordon City Council.

At the Commission meeting Russell Means came down from Pine Ridge in his role as an Oglala Headman to present a complaint of police brutality. When he spoke, Means, in recalling the Yellow Thunder incident, observed that Gordon had regressed rather [than] progressed and declared, You can only kick someone so long before they get tired of the kicking. (*18) Yellow Bird pushed for the Commissions further involvement. The Commission agreed to meet in Gordon again the following month.

That night, at a meeting of the Gordon City Council, Janis read a copy of the l972 agreement made by the Gordon City Council after the Yellow Thunder incident and presented Mayor Jane Morgan with a list of complaints against the Gordon Police Department. Merrill detailed the specifics of the complaints while Mayor Morgan engaged in a heated exchange with Yellow Bird over what he alleged to be City Councils inaction. But unlike the November session, this time the Council was ready to take some steps to resolve the conflict, or at least to blunt the attack. It voted to conduct an investigation into the allegations; contact the U.S. Department of Justice mediation service; and research human relations ordinances in other cities.

Within the week the Justice Department mediator was in Gordon and held a meeting with Yellow Bird. Two of the policemen most often involved in the allegations of harassment and brutality resigned, and there were rumors that the Gordon Chief of Police was going to resign himself. Yellow Bird believed the tide might have turned.

But County Attorney Smith issued his report 6 April l976 and dismissed all but one of the complaints that had been presented to the City Council. Although finding that Gordon officers did hold improper attitudes in dealing with the public and understanding the function of their position, (*19) he denied the existence of a dual standard of justice or any selective enforcement of the laws. The only complaint which he held to contain any merit was the incident involving the shooting of the dog. The report was accepted by City Council.

At the same meeting, however, City Council acted on the recommendations of the Citizens United for Gordon, a group of whites and Indians established with the assistance of the Justice Departments Community Relations Service. The recommendations accepted by City Council involved improved police officer training and recruitment, an increased role for the Human Relations Council and the creation of a Citizens Review Board. Specifically, Council agreed to hire Indian police officers and assist in alcoholism counseling.

Despite these results, the pressures had begun to wear on Bob Yellow Bird. In mid-April he was arrested by two Gordon Police Officers, including an Indian recently hired by the force, and charged with disorderly conduct. He went to work on a road construction job and dropped his classes at Chadron State. After the arrest he said he was about to give up. Then, on 4 May Yellow Bird fled after being charged with the shooting of two white residents of Gordon. A federal fugitive warrant was issued the same day. For nearly three months Yellow Bird remained in hiding.

A month after the shooting, Joann Yellow Bird was involved in an altercation with two Gordon policemen at her house following an argument with her landlord. One of the officers grabbed her by the arm, causing her to fall. She then bit him and was subsequently charged with disorderly conduct and resisting and abusing an officer.

As the summer wore on, tensions in general on the Plains near Indian country were high. Rumors were circulating that Indians, led by AIM, would violently protest on 4 July, the Bicentennial. Joann Yellow Bird was threatened with the loss of her children as a result of the biting incident. All the while AIM supporters were laying the groundwork for Yellow Bird to give himself up. Attorneys in Nebraska were contacted about their willingness to defend him. Most were hesitant to take the case. Through the Wounded Knee Legal Defense/Offense Committee network, a California attorney finally agreed to take the case.

On 26 July Yellow Bird, accompanied by Steve Janis, turned himself in to the Gordon Police. Bond was initially set at $5,000, a comparatively low amount. A Legal Defense Fund was established with his sister as coordinator.

Three days after he gave himself up, a disturbance occurred in the Sheridan County Jail in Rushville where Yellow Bird was being held. Yellow Bird was transferred to the Scotts Bluff County Jail in Gering even though the Sheridan County Sheriff acknowledged that Yellow Bird was not responsible for what had occurred in the jail. A cash bond of $500 was posted the next day and he was released the day after that.

Following the disturbance in the Rushville jail, Yellow Bird called for a federal investigation into the conditions there, calling the lack of air conditioning and proper ventilation cruel and unusual punishment. He also contended that since he was not released until 20 hours after his bond had been posted he was the victim of false imprisonment. (*20) Two weeks later Yellow Bird was bound over to Sheridan County District Court and bond was raised to $50,000. He was once again placed in the Scotts Bluff County Jail. Bond was later reduced and Yellow Bird once again released. Soon thereafter, his wife Joann pleaded to a lesser offense and served two days for disorderly conduct.

While incarcerated, Bob Yell/ow Bird called for an economic and financial boycott of Gordon. The boycott should last, he said, until equal justice is had there for Indians and whites alike. (*21)

On the evening of 15 September the events of the past year culminated in a tragic confrontation between Indians and police in front of the Sheridan Hotel and Lounge on Main Street in Gordon. Leaving the Lounge, Yellow Bird and other Indians who had been inside were maced by the owner. Reaching the street, the Indians were almost immediately surrounded by officers of various jurisdictions and, using Mace and night sticks, the officers began arresting people. Joann Yellow Bird, seven months pregnant, and her sister in law, seven months pregnant, were maced. Bob was grabbed around the neck by an officer. Joann went to where he was struggling to free himself and was kicked in the stomach by the officer attempting to restrain her husband. She fell against a parked car and slid to the ground. Experienced pain in her stomach and lower back, she later testified that, I felt the baby kick once, real hard, and then I never felt it. (*22)

Placed under arrest for disorderly conduct, Joann was driven in handcuffs to the county jail in Rushville 13 miles away. On the drive to Rushville she asked to be taken to a doctor. The officer driving the car began swerving across the road and told her that he was trying to figure out whether to take you out in the country and shoot you, or just take you to jail. Joann asked him, Why dont you go ahead? The officer replied that, I would, but I dont want to waste any good bullets. (*23)

After enduring several hours of pain in the Rushville jail, Joann was driven in handcuffs to the Gordon Memorial Hospital. Doctors who examined her there were unable to detect a fetal heartbeat. She was referred to the Pine Ridge Indian Health Service Hospital. She was examined by doctors there and again, no fetal heartbeat was heard.

Released from the Pine Ridge Hospital several days later on the condition that she not be returned to jail, Joann went back home to Gordon. Bob, who was among seven persons arrested outside the hotel, declared that a state of war exists in Sheridan County, and renewed his call for an economic boycott of Gordon and Sheridan County. (*24) He demanded that action be taken against the officer who had kicked Joann. He also traveled to Pine Ridge to discuss with Tribal Chairman Albert Trimble the possibility of Tribal support for the boycott.

But County Attorney Smith, whose investigation consisted of the reports of the incident filed by the arresting officers, refused to take any further action. He contended that Yellow Bird was merely attempting to divert attention from the felony charges pending against him.

The Gordon Indian community itself was divided over Yellow Birds description of a war in Sheridan County. Joann's father, who had been appointed the Indian communitys liaison with the City was widely quoted in the Nebraska press as saying a state of war exists only in the minds of some individuals. (*25)

A meeting was held in the Yellow Birds side yard and was attended by 40 people, mostly Indians from western Nebraska and Pine Ridge, including a leader of Dakota AIM and an AIM medicine man. Yellow Bird told the gathering that he was willing to work through the system one more time. As police cars periodically circled the block, those sitting before him heard Yellow Bird say that Joann had gone back to the Pine Ridge hospital and was told that there was a 90-95 percent chance that their baby was no longer alive.

Two days after the meeting, Bob and Joann and one of their young sons made another trip to Pine Ridge to see the doctors. Joann was examined yet again and told that her baby was dead. She and Bob emerged from the examining room in silence. Joann walked to the car with tears in her eyes and Bob walked beside her rigid with anger. Not a word was spoken on the drive back to Gordon.

A baby girl was taken from Joann two days later. Named Zintkalazi, she was buried at the Wounded Knee cemetery.

A week later Bob Yellow Bird led a march of 125 people through Gordon. Arriving at City Hall, Yellow Bird handed the city Clerk his written demands that a formal investigation be held and that murder charges be filed against the officer who had kicked Joann.

Joann soon filed an $8 million Civil Rights lawsuit in United States District Court. Named as co-defendants were two Gordon police officers; the City of Gordon; Gordon Memorial Hospital; two doctors at that hospital; the Sheridan County Sheriff and four of his employees; and two employees of the Sheridan Hotel and Lounge.

In November 1976 Bob Yellow Bird went to trial for the shooting of the two men. After a survey conducted by the National Jury Project showed that he would probably not receive a fair trial in Sheridan County, venue was moved south, to North Platte. Claiming that there had been a conspiracy to get him and that he was under fire at the time he shot the men, Yellow Bird pleaded innocent. The all white jury deliberated five hours and found him not guilty.

In July 1979, Joann Yellow Birds Civil Rights suit went to trial in Federal District Court in North Platte. Indian supporters camped outside of town during the trial which was conducted under heavy security and a news blackout. John Trudell, National AIM coordinator, visited North Platte as the trial got under way. Support for Joann also came from the Friends Service Committee, the Native American Solidarity Committee, and Nebraskans for Peace. After a month-long trial, during which Joann's case suffered a string of adverse rulings by the judge, the all white jury of four women and two men found against the city of Gordon and the police officer who had threatened to shoot her. Joann was awarded $300,000.

AIM leader Vernon Bellecourt said that the historic verdict put these communities and law enforcement agencies, on notice that they're going to be held accountable for their actions against Indian people. Bob Yellow Bird was conciliatory and said, Were all brothers. Maybe its time to start walking hand in hand and start straightening the problems out in our society. (*26) Joann herself, the one who had undergone the pain and turmoil of the entire ordeal said that she was not satisfied with the verdict.

Sometime prior to Joann's North Platte trial, the Yellow Birds had moved to Martin, South Dakota, on the Pine Ridge Reservation. It was there, in July of 1980 that Joann, the 32 year old mother of eight, swallowed strychnine and committed suicide. She was buried in the Wounded Knee Cemetery not far from the mass grave of the 1890 massacre victims and next to Zintkalazi and another baby girl that had miscarried some months after the Gordon Incident.

The Trouble in Gordon, Nebraska, during the 1970s was, sadly, not unique. As Bob Yellow Bird afterwards pointed out, there was the reservation trouble that spills over into the border towns. But the turmoil in western Nebraska was more volatile than in most border areas. There was, first of all, the existing conditions and patterns of discrimination in western Nebraska itself. They were in turn exacerbated by the continued conflict on Pine Ridge, including the Wounded Knee occupation, and a shoot-out, in June 1975, between FBI agents and AIM supporters. The FBI agents who investigated both events were a visible presence in the Nebraska border towns where they were billeted. Indians in the area identified themselves or were identified by others as goon or AIM depending on their political sympathies or personal relationships. Tensions increased in the area dramatically. Yellow Bird himself come face to face with it when he saw it through the barrel of an M-16 pointed at him while he was sitting in his car on Main Street in Gordon. FBI agents were looking for Leonard Peltier, the AIM leader wanted for the agents murders, and thought he was in Yellow Birds car.

In looking back on what he and AIM had tried to do seven years earlier, Yellow Bird still believed nothing could have been done differently to bring about a different result. And despite very few violent direct confrontations, he still believed that a war had been going on. The consciousness of Indians, he thought, had been shocked more than those of whites. He pointed to the support he had received at critical times, even though most of the time he was out front alone. He believed that he had to do what the People wanted t@o do and at the same time make sure that no one got killed.

Years later people were still stopping him on the street of South Dakota towns telling him that they were still not shopping in Gordon. AIM, he said, done its job. Perhaps the words of Sheridan County Attorney Smith, although ironic in retrospect, were prophetic. Following the 1972 Yellow Thunder tragedy, Smith lamented the lack of Indian leadership and said, If an American Indian Movement Chapter or some other viable organization is formed that the Indians can look to, then this has served some purpose. (*27)


Much of the material for this article is drawn from my personal knowledge of the events described. However, for nearly every incident I have made an effort to substantiate the facts with either documents in my possession or with contemporary newspaper accounts. Among the former are notes of meetings and phone conversations I took part in; photocopies of the complaints of Indians against police officers; the 1975 Nebraska arrest statistics; personal and official correspondence; and reports by various individuals involved. Those events with which I am personally familiar include the gathering of police brutality complaints; the firing of Robert Mackey; and the 15 September 1976 incident in which Joann Yellow Bird was kicked and the subsequent events, including here Civil Rights Trial.

Contemporary newspaper accounts of the Yellow Thunder incident include the New York Times, the Omaha World Herald, and the Lincoln Journal. For the Fort Robinson occupation see the Omaha world Herald. For coverage of the police brutality issue, Bob Yellow Bird trial, and Joann Yellow Bird trial, see the Omaha World Herald, Lincoln Journal, Scottsbluff Star Herald, north Platte Telegraph, and Gordon Journal.

To place the events that occurred in Gordon in historical context it is necessary to view them in terms of the development of the American Indian Movement nationally. To understand the philosophical and tactical framework of AIMs emergence it is important to consult the following works of Vine Deloria Jr.: Custer Died for Your Sins; Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties; and God Is Red. For the Trail of Broken Treaties and the subsequent chain of events leading to the occupation of Wounded Knee, see the Road to Wounded Knee, by Robert Burnette. For accounts of Wounded Knee itself, see Voices From Wounded Knee, The People Are Standing Up, a Multimedia effort by the publishers of Akwesasne Notes to present the occupation from the inside. Two recent books detail post-Wounded Knee events involving AIM activists; Blood on the Land, by Rex Wyler and In The Spirit of Crazy Horse by Peter Matthiessen. Akwesasne Notes should be consulted for accounts of events as they happen.


1. Vine Deloria, Custer Died For Your Sins: An American Indian Manifesto (New York: Avon Books, 1969), p.218.
2. B. Drummond Ayres, White Mans Town Bows to Angry Indians, New York Times, 20 March 1972, p. 42.
3. Yellow Thunder Death Example of Racism, Omaha World Herald, 10 March 1972, p. 7.
4. Ibid.
5. Indians Body Not Mutilated, Omaha World Herald, 10 march 1972, p. 7.
6. Ayres, p. 42.
7. Three of those arrested in connection with the Yellow Thunder death were found guilty of manslaughter and one was found guilty of false imprisonment after turning States evidence. Those convicted of manslaughter received sentences of 6, 4, and 2 years in the Nebraska Penal Complex. The last of the three was released in the fall of 1975.
8. Governor Says No Deal To Indians at State Park, Omaha World Herald, 16 November 1972, p. 2.
9. Ibid.
10. While Dennis Banks was involved in the Fort Robinson negotiations, Russell Means was being held in jail on the Pine Ridge Reservation for, according to Oglala Sioux Tribal Chairman Richard Wilson, violating a lawful order of the Oglala Sioux Tribal Court. That order prohibited Means from speaking at any public meeting on the Reservation. Wilson had earlier expressed his outrage at the occupation of the BIA and Fort Robinson, calling the participants clowns.
11. Feast Nixed But Indians Make Plans, Omaha World Herald, 23 November 1972, p. 1.
12. Statement of committee to Reclaim Fort Robinson To Members of the Unicameral. Mimeographed, undated.
13. In 1976, as part of the Bicentennial Celebration at Fort Robinson, $1,000.00 was allocated for the construction of a dance shade there. Because the all black 9th Cavalry had been stationed there for a time $1,000 was also allocated for the production of a film depicting the role of blacks in the Forts history. Bob Yellow Bird considered the $1000 grant unacceptable and threatened to boycott the ceremonies.
14. Statement Prepared by Cathy Merrill, Panhandle Legal Services Attorney, Scottsbluff, Nebraska, March 1976.
15. All of the above statements are taken from photocopies in the authors files.
16. Exon Calls Mrs. Ware Fine Choice, Omaha World Herald, 15 December 1975.
17. Bob Yellow Bird Press Release, 13 January 1976.
18. You Can Only Kick So Long, Scottsbluff Star Herald, 12 March 1976.
19. Letter from Sheridan County Attorney Michael V. Smith to Gordon, Nebraska Mayor Jane Morgan, 6 April 1976.
20. Hearing Planned for Yellow Bird, Omaha World Herald, 5 August 1976.
21. Bob Yellow Bird Press Release, 23 August 1976.
22. Request for doctor allegedly rejected, Lincoln Journal, 13 July 1979.
23. Gordon Police told not to stop couple, ex-officer testifies, North Platte Telegraph, 21 July 1979.
24. AIM Move Against County Sought, Omaha World Herald, 22 September 1976.
25. Lakota Indian Group Denies War Feelings, Omaha World Herald, 24 September 1976.
26. Sioux Wins $300,000 in Rights Violation, New York Times, 4 August 1979.
27. Indians Lack Leadership, Omaha World Herald, 10 March 1972.

Concerning the Author: W. Dale Mason received his M.A. in political science at the University of Cincinnati in 1983, with a thesis on the American Indian Movement. He received a Ph. D. in political science from the University of Oklahoma in 1996. His dissertation was "Interest Group Federalism: Indian Gaming and the Place of Tribal Governments in the American Political System." Dale has been an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of New Mexico since 1996. He also worked as a Paralegal with the Nebraska Indian Commission in 1975-76, and as President of Cincinnatis Urban Appalachian Council in 1980-81.

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