I read with great interest the Lakota columnist Tim Giago’s column on the 1973 American Indian Movement’s occupation of Wounded Knee village (WKII), and the militants’ nearly three months standoff with the FBI, U.S. Marshals, Tribal police, and the vigilante Goon squad. (See “Wounded Knee occupation was serious AIM blunder,” Indianz.com)
There are two books that I think present the most accurate and least biased accounts of WKII. One is Wounded Knee II by Rolland Dewing, a well-researched and dispassionate account of the events leading up to, during, and following WKII. The other is Like a Hurricane by Native authors Paul Chaat Smith and Robert Allen Warrior.
What caught me in the Chaat Smith/Warrior book is the Preface: “We came to write Like a Hurricane out of a profound dissatisfaction with the existing narratives of this crucial period in Indian and American history, one that we believe too often saw Indian people as mere victims and pawns. Our focus is not on the U.S. government’s failed policies or on police repression, but on how Indian people, for a brief and exhilarating time, staged a campaign of resistance and introspection unmatched in this (20th) century. It was for American Indians every bit as significant as the counterculture was for young whites, or the civil rights movement for blacks.”
This, to me, is what Tim Giago continues to miss: the widespread exhilaration among Indian people, and the significance of their resistance and revolution. I was able to witness some of it when I went to Pine Ridge as NCAI Executive Director to offer technical and political assistance to the tribal government (which was essentially President Dick Wilson). Although I was disheartened at what I saw happening in what was left of tribal government there, I also saw and heard a new sense of pride among the people, and much praise for AIM.
I have never been a supporter of the AIM, or an apologist for their actions. But, I do have an appreciation for what AIM meant to do and what they did, in fact, accomplish.
There was indeed much destruction at Wounded Knee during WKII, by the AIM occupiers as well as by the federal and Goon forces. Dewing’s book provides the BIA’s financial estimates of the losses and damage to the homes that were occupied by the militants, who in many cases were invited by local people to share their homes. And he also includes government reports on recovery of household items that were missing. Nothing that I have read or heard gives credence to Giago’s telling of AIM occupiers evicting families, looting their homes, then setting them afire when they left. Even the burning of the Gildersleeve’s trading post, it appears, was the result of an accident with a kerosene lamp, when the village’s electricity was cut off by the Federal siege. It was not a torching of the building.
In 1981, Giago had a different view of WKII. Dewing’s book tells the following: “Looking back on Wounded Knee II from the perspective of ten years, Tim Giago, editor of the Lakota Times, saw some positive outcomes. According to Giago, the confrontation focused national attention upon the ineptitude of the BIA and the Interior Department. ‘It caused the Indian people themselves to demand changes within these bureaucratic structures and put bureaucrats on notice.’ Giago also said the encounter made reservation inhabitants more aware of whom they selected to fill elected office.”
I appreciate the objectiveness and fairness of the Chaat Smith/Warrior book. It tells of how the campaign of resistance was carried out. And the telling includes anecdotes of Oglala Sioux Tribe President Dick Wilson that are not demeaning but show him as an embattled and frustrated tribal leader. And they tell of inflated egos of certain AIM leaders and how their internal bickering threatened to tear apart the movement.
Both of the above books will give important historical perspective to the 1970s era, which was the most exciting and troubling, yet the most productive era in Indian history.
The Indian story was smothered in the excitement of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and the anti war movement of the 1970s. Love them or hate them, AIM put Indian affairs on the front pages of newspapers and in prime time on TV.
I recall testifying before Congressional committees during those years, and seeing the change in attitudes of Senators or Representatives. I could see that they appreciated NCAI for presenting positive approaches to helping solve the problems of poverty and federal colonial control of reservation life. But AIM provided a dramatization of what we were trying to tell Congress and the White House. The pressure they applied to the United States and world consciousness helped in getting the most significant positive legislation in Indian history.
This is the kind of perspective and context we need in telling our history, especially to our young people. As the Chaat Smith/Warrior book says, Indian people were not “mere victims and pawns,” but were active participants in carrying out a revolution, in the trenches and on the streets and in the halls of Congress.
Charles “Chuck” Trimble, Oglala Lakota from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association in 1970 and served as Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1972-1978. He is retired and lives in Omaha, Nebraska. He can be contacted at email@example.com. His website is iktomisweb.com.