At the beginning of Big Foot Trail, some 45 miles west of Wounded Knee, S.D., a yellow, slightly faded billboard stands frozen against the bleak Dakota horizon. "45 miles to Wounded Knee," the billboard screams. "The historic site and mass grave of the last battle between the Indian and the white man."
Members of the militant American Indian movement passed that sign on their way to seize Wounded Knee. It is unlikely that they took any particular notice of the yellowed billboard. But to the white man, the sign works like a neon light, blinking subconsciously, "45 miles ahead-rid yourself of your guilt feelings here."
The white man's catharsis has been a long time in the making. Since the first meeting of the two cultures, the white man has sought to dominate the red man, and for the last 100 years, he has dominated the Indian completely.
For the Indians, the last hurrah came on this desolate reservation at a creek known as Wounded Knee. The Pine Ridge reservation was only a year old when the U.S. seventh cavalry, Custer's former outfit, slaughtered 200 Indian men, women, and children, in what came to be known as the last battle of the Indian wars.
The cavalry had killed Indians before, but somehow this massacre sapped the Indians of their spirit. Most of the great leaders were gone-Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse had been murdered (see pages 6 and 7), Red Cloud and Big Foot died in the massacre, Geronimo was a prisoner of war.
Gradually, the government herded all the Indians onto reservations, and the slow process of Americanization commenced. In 1924, the Indians obtained citizenship and suffrage rights, and in 1934, the Indian Reorganization Act provided the red man with the mechanism for setting up miniature American democracies. By 1950, the United States had turned the Indian into an American, but still treated Indian people like second-class citizens.
In the fifties, the government began what is now called the policy of "termination." Literally, Congress voted to cut off Federal funds-to terminate financial assistance-to various Indian tribes. But this trend had more insidious-and hidden-implications.
Although many Federal officials argued that the withdrawal of funds would increase Indian self-government, they ignored the following considerations:
* full assimilation of the Indian into American society would eliminate all Indian culture, or at least make it difficult to maintain;
* withdrawal of funds earmarked for impoverished individuals would further contribute to the breakup of Indian culture; and,
* reservation governments could not run without money, again forcing Indians from Indian life into American life.
In recent years, the Nixon administration has reversed the termination policy, increasing funds to Indian affairs by $300 million. Last year, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) received $530 million, the largest amount ever.
But renewed financial support coincided with the formation of the American Indian Movement (AIM), and a resurgance of interest in resurrecting Indian life and culture (see page 8). This apparent contradiction is only one of many in the Wounded Knee incident. Many observers claim that AIM's demand that the United States replace Oglala Tribal Council President Richard Wilson means that the government would once again interfere with Indian self-government.
This is a lame excuse at best. The tribal councils cannot function-either financially or legally- without the approval of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and that organization must answer to the Interior Department.
AIM's demands at Wounded Knee centered around these three agencies. The militants called for the ouster of Wilson, Pine Ridge BIA superintendent Stanley Lyman, and Aberdeen, S.D., area Interior supervisor Wyman Babby.
The animosity between Russell C. Means, the top AIM leader at the embattled village, and Wilson extends back to early 1972. The 33-year-old Means, a full-blooded Oglala Sioux born on the Pine Ridge reservation but raised in Cleveland, Ohio, returned to the reservation last year and took up residence. After AIM occupied the BIA building in Washington last November, Wilson denounced the takeover, and said that he would bar AIM from Pine Ridge.
Wilson, a stocky mixed-blood with close cropped hair, was familiar with AIM's tactics. In March 1972, AIM and 2000 supporters gathered in Gordon, Neb., to protest the violent death of Raymond Yellow Thunder. A splinter group headed to Wounded Knee, determined to use the historic site for a symbolic demonstration.
Unknown to Wilson, or the Federal government, AIM had set its sights on Wounded Knee long before it took over the village on February 27. Justice Department "intelligence reports" on AIM's next move indicated that the militants would seize the reservation's BIA office in Pine Ridge, 17 miles southwest of Wounded Knee.
In anticipation of a takeover, Federal marshals sandbagged BIA headquarters. While the marshals busied themselves fortifying the building, AIM strolled past them into Wounded Knee.
Carter Camp, one of the top AIM leaders, recalled the takeover with a smile. "I led three cars past 'Fort Wilson' [the fortified BIA building]," Camp, a tall, big-boned Oklahoma Cherokee, said. "We arrived about 45 minutes before the caravan. We took a pickup truck that belonged to Jack Czywczynski, the operator of the museum, and placed it in the road for a roadblock."
Later that night, Camp said, Czywcznski snuck away from his house (where he was being held hostage), and left the village in his pickup. "He stole his own pickup," Camp chuckled. "He took that pickup, deserted his family. No Indian would desert his family."
When it entered the tiny hamlet, AIM seized the trading post and the museum, and took 11 hostages. The hostages included Czywcznski, his family, and the Gildersleeves, owners of the trading post.
AIM released the hostages two days after the occupation began. The militants armed themselves with guns from the trading post, adding to the weapons they had brought with them. Although the next few weeks would be tense, and Means would declare himself ready to die, AIM found itself in control of little more than a symbolic plot of ground.
Wounded Knee may be short on buildings, but it is long on symbolism. The tiny hamlet was the site of the 1890 massacre, when the U.S. cavalry slaughtered over 200 Indians. The Indians killed in this battle are buried in a mass grave, located behind the Sacred Heart Catholic Church.
On the grave, a stone marker commemorates the dead Indians. To the white man, the mass grave is a tourist attraction, but to the Indian, it represents a culture that has almost faded away.
The 1890 massacre seems ingrained into the dusty hills that surround Wounded Knee. The heroes of that incident-Red Cloud, Big Foot, and Sitting Bull-mean as much to the young Oglalas as they did to their grandfathers.
A series of complex events led to the 1890 massacre. Sitting Bull, after a long career of battling the white man, had retired to Standing Rock on the Pine Ridge reservation. In the summer of 1890, the "Ghost Dance" came to the Pine Ridge reservation. Wokova, a Paiute, originated the ritual, and many Indians considered him to be the Messiah.
The Ghost Dance swept across the reservation. Indian disciples came to Pine Ridge to teach the dance, and although Sitting Bull did not believe in the religion, he thought that depriving his people of belief in the Messiah would be more harmful than the dance.
Hundreds of Indians adopted the dance, which supposedly revived dead Indian heroes and drove white men from the Indian lands. The U.S. government became alarmed at the spreading craze, and outlawed the dance.
But the dancing continued. In November, the BIA ordered its agents to arrest Sitting Bull. Indian police arrived at the tepee of the great Sioux chief, and in a disputed incident, a U.S. corporal shot Sitting Bull, while they were surrounded by ghost dancers.
Sitting Bull's death brought Red Cloud and Big Foot together and the cavalry chased them to a meeting with death at Wounded Knee. The seventh cavalry captured the two chiefs at Porcupine, ten miles northeast of Wounded Knee. Four Hotchkiss cannons were mounted on the hills, and the Indians were asked to give up their arms the next morning.
As they did so, someone fired a shot, and the four Hotchkiss guns wiped out over 200 Indians. The guns also destroyed the morale of the Oglala people.
Today, the Indians on the Pine Ridge reservation are still demoralized. The reservation, which occupies 2500 square miles, stands as one of the most impoverished areas in the country. Only a few houses dot the otherwise desolate landscape, and less Indians inhabit the land now than lived on it in 1890.
Of the reservation's 11,353 resident Indians, only 2787 are considered capable of holding a job. Forty-two per cent of those are unemployed, and if seasonal jobs are calculated, the unemployment figure leaps to 64 per cent.
Most of the employed Indians work for the Federal government, or farm. The soil there is almost worthless-much of it is clay-and the land is used primarily for grazing. The remainder of the Indian workforce labors at the moccasin factory, a depressing blue building located outside Pine Ridge.
Sunbell Corporation, an Albuquerque, N.M., company, owns the moccasin factory. White men own most of the businesses here, leasing the land at cheap prices from the Indians. Most of the land has been leased, so the Oglala have little control over the reservation's 2,778,000 acres.
Indian land rights are a complex issue. These rights are defined in the Wheeler-Howard Act-better known as the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act-the same set of laws that provides the Indian tribes with self-government.
The Wheeler-Howard Act, written under the auspices of John Collier '23, then Commissioner of Indian Affairs, gave the tribes the right to organize and to adopt a constitution. Most tribes, including the Oglala Sioux, drafted a constitution, but some tribes decided not to ratify the Act.
Unfortunately, the Act stipulated that any tribes that refused to ratify the agreement within one year would be deprived of the rights accorded under the Act. Today, some of the Indian tribes still function without the benefit of the 1934 law.
The Oglala tribe adopted its constitution in 1936. Felix Cohen, a white attorney for the Department of the Interior, drew up the by-laws for the tribe. The constitutional government seems to have had little effect on Indian life at Pine Ridge. It is a white man's system, and few Oglalas acknowledge its existence.
The constitution sets up a 20-member tribal council, spread throughout eight districts, and provides for the election of a tribal president. Tribal Council President Wilson, in response to AIM's demand that he resign, says that he was democratically elected by the Oglala people. When Wilson ran for office 11 months ago, 2684 people voted out of a reservation population of 11,353.
The actual powers of the Oglala Council are limited. The Interior Department must approve all tribal resolutions, as it did when Wilson attempted to remove a National Council of Churches representative from the reservation during the third week of the Wounded Knee siege.
Wilson's office, located in a brick house behind the BIA building in Pine Ridge, resembles a typical corporation. Secretaries and clerks sit behind desks shuffling papers, and a Xerox machine hums continually in a back room.
Out on the reservation, the full-blooded Oglala Sioux know little of Wilson's work or of the Council. These people support neither AIM nor the Council, and do not understand the struggle between these two groups. They only fear that now that AIM has packed its bags and left Wounded Knee, the already difficult battle for survival will be made tougher by a governmental backlash.
The press has emphasized the factionalism between mixed bloods and full bloods, and although the Indian question is deeper than that division, the division does exist. Most of the AIM leaders are mixed bloods, raised in the cities. Wilson considers AIM to be outsiders, or "urban" Indians, who have no real comprehension of reservation problems.
Younger Oglalas refer to Wilson and other Council members as "uncle Tomahawks." AIM charges that Wilson has misused tribal funds, and resorted to nepotism to fill tribal posts. The truce agreement signed last Thursday calls for a complete audit of the Council's books.
Despite AIM's apparent distaste for tribal government, the militant group found bureaucracy a necessary tool. After the first two tense weeks, when it appeared that the FBI would move in for a quick bust, AIM settled in for a long stay. The hard part was over-the town was secured, negotiations had begun.
As the days grew into weeks, it became apparent that the Nixon administration had decided to end the occupation through peaceful means. What was expected to be a short stay turned into an extended visit, and AIM realized that it needed a more efficient way of managing the occupied village.
On Sunday, March 11-the 13th day of the takeover-AIM declared itself a sovereign nation. Wounded Knee rapidly became a miniature government. A six-man council, which included Banks, Means, and Camp, set up security, maintenance, and housing departments.
The security division issued press credentials, which were a copy of an Indian poem printed on yellow paper. The poem had been sold as a souvenir at the museum prior to the takeover. Security officials, armed with guns, checked credentials at the AIM roadblocks, which were located about 100 yards from the center of the village.
AIM set up speed limits for the village, 5 mph in downtown Wounded Knee and 20 mph in the suburbs. The new government also followed a prohibition policy. All liquor, which is illegal on Indian reservations, was poured out onto the brown Dakota soil.
As the occupation entered its third week, life in the village settled down to an idyllic pace. Indians lounged outside and in the trading post, or built bunkers into the hills that surround Wounded Knee. But the armed personnel carriers that stared down on the embattled village provided a constant reminder that the Federal government waited two miles down Big Foot Trail.
The press, well-versed in military terms after a decade of Vietnam, quickly dubbed the two mile stretch between the roadblocks the "DMZ." In the final two weeks of the siege, a third series of roadblocks, manned by the Oglala Tribal Council, was thrown up outside of the government check-points.
The Council, and particularly Wilson, attempted to exert more influence in the last stages of negotiations. Wilson prevented the press from entering the village, and for the last 11 days of the occupation, newsmen wrote their stories from the roadblocks.
For the first four weeks of the siege, negotiations