Before entering into the subject of the next federal assimilation programme, namely adoption, we must turn to another important and inspiring historic moment in Native American history: the rise of activism. The title of this chapter is a quote and homage to Dennis Banks, co-founder of the American Indian Movement.
The generation of Indians in the late 60s, early 70s, had been to boarding schools or their parents had been to boarding schools. This was an education that had been promised to them through treaties, but it ended up being torture, brainwashing and de-Indianization. The programme failed, but it had devastating effects on its survivors, though the term survivor belies the level of atrocities they faced.
As James Abourezk, Senator said in a documentary, “The Government couldn’t kill the Indians anymore that was “out of fashion”. So they decided to experiment once more. They did a lot of experimenting with Indians. The Relocation Program was one of those experiments.”
Madonna Thunder Hawk, Two Kettle Dakota, testified that “we got to go to big cities and they would help you find a job, you weren’t forced into relocation, but they made it look good.” Over 100,000 Native Americans were relocated in 15 years. The Government had promised help with finding jobs, schools, housing, but for many, those promises rang hollow. “They put us in a real dumpy motel. Everyone was just moving and walking and talking really fast, nobody’s stopping to look around them.” As well as a cultural shock and the empty promises of the Government, relocated Native American found it really hard to get a job, they had to lie about their identity, say they were Hispanic, Italian. If they identified as Indians they wouldn’t get a job.
By the 1970s half of all Indians were living in cities, but the relocation program produced an unanticipated result. It pulled Indian Americans closer together, the similarities in their life experiences and the not so successful relocation program drew them together, they belonged to different Native American nations but they were all Indian, some would say, the same race.
This new Pan-Indian identity led to the growth of activist groups around the country. The American Indian Movement, AIM, was the most radical. It was founded in 1968 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, by George Michell, Clyde Bellencourt and Dennis Banks to represent the urban Indian. AIM was influenced by the struggles of the African-American Civil Rights Movement and used their models to protest against the unfair treatment of Native Americans throughout the nation. In an interview where Dennis Banks looks back to the beginnings of AIM, he states “we started the AIM patrols and they would collect information of police brutality, taking pictures of them. We would have about 15 teams out almost every weekend.” He talks about the relationship with the African American Civil Rights Movement in Chicago. They supported each other in rallies and against police brutality but also became friends and allies in the fight against an oppressive system. AIM’s motto was “anytime, anywhere, anyplace”.
In 1969 AIM and other Native American organizations joined the occupation of Alcatraz led by Native American students of the Red Power Movement, and supported and helped the protests in Mount Rushmore in 1971. But in 1972 AIM organized one of its largest protests along with the National Indian Brotherhood, the Native American Rights Foundation and the National Indian Council: the Trail of Broken Treaties. This trail would cover the US from West to East coast ending in Washington D.C. to call attention to the plight of Native Americans. The participants anticipated meetings with US Congress leaders, but they refused to meet with delegates. A 20 point position paper focusing on re-establishing the process of making treaties was written and given to the US Government. All points were rejected by President Richard Nixon. But this didn’t break the morale of the protesters; the gathering of Native Americans from all over the country enhanced their sense of themselves and their culture: being Indian was no longer a position of weakness but a position of power and strength.
A nation is not conquered until the hearts of its last women are on the ground…” Cheyenne proverb.
This article now goes on to look at the fascinating and engaging historic moment of Wounded Knee. Wounded Knee was already famous for the last massacre of the Indian Wars in the 1890s, but its historic relevance is enhanced and remembered in 1973.
The Oglala Sioux Tribal Council was in charge of the Pine Ridge Reservation, and where traditional chiefs had once sought consensus, elected Chairman Dick Wilson ruled with an iron fist from 1972 to 1976, following re-election in 1974. The Tribal Chairman and the Council had a lot of power in making decisions about funding and food resources, and Dick Wilson used this power to favour one part of the Reservation over the other. There were many claims of corruption and he particularly favoured mixed-race assimilated Indians like himself. He filled the office with friends and family and gave them jobs on the federal payroll. The losing side of the Reservation was the minority traditional Sioux, who spoke their native language, practised their religion and remained loyal to the traditional Oglala chiefs.
When Oglala people challenged the corruption in the Tribal Government as well as systematic food ration withdrawal and intimidation from the militia, Guardians of the Oglala Nation (GOONs), Dick Wilson responded with force. Regina Brave, Oglala Lakota, states that “He had his own army which was intimidating the full-bloods, mostly traditional people. His goons started beating up the people and no charges were ever pressed, and if they did it got thrown out of court. “
In an interview many years later, Marum Stoldt, Oglala Lakota Bureau of Indian Affairs police officer admitted that some officers hated or even refused to arrest any of Wilson’s people. He also admitted that Wilson had helped him out personally a number of times so he felt loyal to Dick Wilson regardless of what he did.
In late 1972, traditional Oglala came together to push for Wilson’s removal. They started a Civil Rights Commission and got together all the documentation about the corruption, the misuse of funds, the intimidation and testimonies of civil rights violations. However, nobody was ever charged. The Tribal Council held impeachment hearings in February 1973, but Wilson intimidated witnesses, strong-armed council members and managed to survive in his position.
Since its founding AIM had been divisive. Its militant tactics were controversial even among Native people. Just weeks before Wounded Knee, a white man had killed an Indian just 50 miles from Pine Ridge. When local officials charged him with manslaughter and not murder, 200 angry AIM protesters came to town. When police barred them from entering the courthouse Aim members forced their way in. Inside they were met with law enforcement, a battle started in the entrance of the courthouse ending in protesters setting the courthouse ablaze. There was an element in AIM that considered itself a revolution movement, some militants carried guns and loved the idea of being out-laws.
The confrontation in the courthouse caught the attention of the Oglala dissidents on Pine Ridge Reservation. When the campaign to impeach Wilson failed, they asked AIM for help. The Oglala had exhausted all legal options, they believed that to put an end to Wilson’s harassment and intimidation they needed what AIM could offer: people and contacts in television networks.
“The Oglala Nation is at a crossroads that can change the course of history for Indian people across the nation. And I would like to ask that the chiefs listen very closely to what is being said here” Russell Means, Oglala Lakota during a community meeting.
At a crowded community meeting dissident Oglala, five traditional chiefs and AIM representatives reached a radical conclusion that would make Wounded Knee famous once more, ensuring that Native American issues would be spread across the world: they would seize the town of Wounded Knee. But this decision did not come easily; in fact, it took the encouragement and voice of a powerful woman to convince the traditional chiefs.
“This has been going on for a long time before we invited AIM here. Because the people were scared and are scared of Wilson with all his men. I don’t see why all these people, come from all over, can’t take him and throw him out for the way he’s terrorised the people here in this Reservation. I live here in Pine Ridge at gunpoint, but I’m not scared anymore.” Ellen Moves Camp, founder of the Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization.
Finally, Fools Crow, the oldest traditional chief present agreed and pushed them to seize the town of Wounded Knee with the help of their brothers from AIM.
In February 1973, a caravan rolled through the Pine Ridge Reservation headed to the hallowed ground of Wounded Knee, site of the last massacre just 80 years prior.
Carter Camp describes what that night felt like, “Going there at night was scary, and we were clinging to our weapons. There was a full moon and we knew that a battle was going to come.” Madonna Thunder Hawk, on the other hand, said “I was ready to do whatever it takes for change, I didn’t care. I had children and for them, I decided to take a stand”. For the next 71 days, the protesters would hold up the Federal Government at gunpoint. Media from around the world would give day by day coverage and Native Americans would come to Wounded Knee to be a part of what they hoped would be a new beginning.
Sources: “We shall remain: Wounded Knee”, “Wounded Knee 1973 An inevitable outcome”, excerpts of interviews of Dennis Banks, Madonna Thunder Hawk, Carter Camp, James Abourezk, Regina Brave, Marum Stoldt, AIM the Documentary, Tele Sur English interview of Dennis Banks, “How the US suppressed Native American Identity”, www.aimovement.org