The genocide against Native Americans remains one of the worst blots on the collective U.S. conscience, but the crime was widely ignored until four decades ago when a movement of Indian activists returned to the historic massacre site at Wounded Knee, as Bill Means recounted to Dennis J. Bernstein.
By Dennis J. Bernstein
It’s been four decades since the American Indian Movement was founded at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, near the site of a U.S. Army massacre of Sioux Indians in 1890. Wounded Knee is also where a standoff occurred in 1973 between Indian protesters and U.S. government agents.
Last month, AIM leaders came together on the Pine Ridge Reservation to recall the movement’s founding on Feb. 27, 1973, and to assess where it stands today. Russell Means, one key member of the original uprising, died last Oct. 22 at the age of 72. He had been at the center of the AIM movement, as an organizer and strategist of this movement for indigenous rights in North America.
Dennis J. Bernstein, a host of Pacifica Radio’s “Flashpoints,” spoke to Bill Means, Russell’s younger brother and another AIM co-founder, about the importance of the action in 1973, in which federal agents and Indians died, and why AIM was founded. Just back from Vietnam fighting America’s battles abroad, Bill Means took up the fight for his own people’s rights. Those actions triggered the modern indigenous rights movement in North America.
DB: Of course we are sorrowful for the loss of your brother but we know how crucial his role was in this. Maybe we can begin by you reminding us what happened 40 years ago to make this happen and little about the role that you and your brother played in this.
BM: First of all, greetings to the Pacifica family from the American Indian Movement here at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. A very historical place, because as you know in 1890 over 300 of our men, women and children were brutally murdered by the Shetland Cavalry of the United States on Dec. 29, a few days after Christmas in 1890.
And of course in 1973 the most historic event in the history of modern-day Indian people in the 20th Century, the past millennium, Indian people from across America came together here to make a statement here in Wounded Knee, directed by our chiefs (and other leaders) who invited us here in Pine Ridge due to the corruption and massive abuse of civil rights. They asked the American Indian Movement to help in the redress of those rights.
So we came here as guests, and some of us are from here. Our Means family, our father, originally came from here. So we are very honored, many of us were living here at that time, it was good to have other members of AIM from around the country to join us to help in the struggle, which became a worldwide struggle for Indian people and eventually for Indigenous peoples rights.
You could say that the most profound effect of Wounded Knee (in 1973) was it woke up the world’s populations, governments, people of the world, that indigenous people, Indian people of America have the right to be who we are, have the right to survive, our own human rights, agenda. So as Wounded Knee brought back the bravery, identity of Indian people, there was a resurgence. It was the catalyst for the Indian movements around the world to become well organized into an Indigenous People’s movement of the world.
We have to mention we lost two very important warriors there, as well as many after. We mention Frank Clearwater and Buddy LaMont, who were actually killed inside Wounded Knee during the 71-day occupation in 1973. We like to recognize them each year, as well as those we lost in 1890.
My role at the time when I came back as a Vietnam veteran was primarily the role of a warrior. That is to defend the land and the people here in Wounded Knee because we had many women, children and elders with us. It wasn’t just a bunch of young militant Indians, but it was a very wide coalition of Indian tribes and nations from around the country, and indeed our non-Indian supporters, who came together at Wounded Knee to let the government know that John Wayne didn’t kill us all.
But in that process we were able to make Indian people feel proud again. That is one of the strongest memories of Wounded Knee, the renaissance of Indian pride and identity of our culture. It was a time of the U.S. policies of assimilation and acculturation. Many of our people forgot their languages, no longer knew their ceremonies. They were under the Christian church’s influence, as far as spiritual awareness, needs.
This is the time to re-establish that we as Lakota have our own language, our own way of relating to the creator. This was a time to make people proud to wear long hair again, to wear bead work, to be proud to be an Indian. That’s the biggest thing we accomplished besides showing the world we still survive as Indian people. We built the pride in the people themselves, ourselves, to stand as Indian people.
DB: I am talking a look at the Atlantic Monthly. The way they are reporting this today is that a number of members of this new movement went to Wounded Knee and took the town hostage and demanded rights. How would you state that?
BM: We demanded our rights, but there were no hostages. They brought in two senators, George McGovern and James Abourezk, senators from South Dakota, to talk to the Gilderstein family, which owned the trading post. They admitted on national television that they weren’t hostages, first of all. They weren’t kidnapped, and they stayed there in support of us for several days.
The idea that there were hostages taken and that people were held there against their will is a stereotype image that is often associated with social movements. Violence is what sells papers. In this case, we are only defending ourselves. So when the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] police began to fire their weapons against women and children, we had to respond, to defend those women and children. This is the true history.
And as you know, one of the largest criminal trials in history lasted about ten months – the trial of Dennis Banks and Russell Means who were dismissed because the judge, Fred Nichol, federal judge, dismissed the case due to FBI misconduct. So it didn’t even go to the jury for guilty or not-guilty. The judge had over 30 counts of misconduct against the FBI, from coercion of witnesses to illegal wiretaps to manipulation of evidence, selective prosecution.
Many of the issues were discussed in over 500 different legal cases that were brought as the result of Wounded Knee. There were maybe one or two convictions from over 500 cases. Our legal record, the right or wrong, the legalities of the 71-day occupation stand on the evidence. It is very clear that we were defending ourselves. We were not the aggressor in terms of the 71-day occupation.
DB: Now you came back from Vietnam as a veteran and found yourself in a war at home. When I read the introduction to this [segment], I almost said founded 40 decades ago instead of 4 decades ago. But I wouldn’t be mistaken at the core because this did happen many, many, many years ago, because when we say Native peoples, you were here first.
BM: That’s exactly right. History is repeating itself, like I mentioned earlier about the 1890 massacre on the very site where we were occupying the village of Wounded Knee. As a Vietnam veteran, I felt more like the Viet Cong and NLF when they ran up against me as a soldier in Vietnam. All of a sudden, I was the VC, the North Vietnamese fighting for the liberation of their country.
So I had a conflict of beliefs even when I was in Vietnam. But when you are in a combat situation, the issue is survival, not politics. I got to relive that conflict within myself, but also I felt like I was exonerated. I had the rare opportunity to allegedly defend the United States when I was in Vietnam. Then I came back to defend my own people against the United States. It was a very ironic situation when as a solider I am perpetuating the policies of the United States in Vietnam and then a very few months later I am fighting against the U.S. government, on our own lands, here on the reservation in South Dakota.
DB: I think it’s important to ask you, Bill, what has changed? Why did you go there at first, and has anything changed? Poverty, medical care, schools, all the battles back then, are they still alive and still necessary?
BM: Oh yes. I think the educational systems have improved 100 percent in terms of having our own Indian educators, administrators. A lot of ceremonies have been restored both within our school system and communities to make them available to our youth. We have elders involved in education now. But we still have a lot of poverty and problems with alcohol and drugs.
Like many of our minority friends and relatives here in America, we have issues of poverty, extreme poverty. Shannon County, home of the reservation, is the second poorest county in the U.S. We were the first poorest 10 years ago. So if moving from the first to the second poorest is improvement, I guess we improved. But in terms of our identity, our people learning their culture, practicing their traditional ways, I think we have been able to turn that corner.
We are Lakota, indigenous people, we continue to fight for our treaty rights, our land, against mining, against many environmental issues of our time, just like the rest of America. At this time, we have our own people in place in various institutions that control us, whether it is the government, schools, churches, So I think things have improved from our self-determination. We have a lot more of our people involved. But (as for) the social conditions, many of the same things exist. But we have the tools in place now to make fundamental changes that we didn’t have before.
We have control of our Indian schools on the reservation. All the schools are now under control of community boards, district councils, under the control of Indian people, rather than the BIA, Department of Interior, or the church. In that sense, we made some fundamental changes. And we fight every day to improve the conditions under which our people live.
DB: Can you talk about how you moved this movement into an international framework through your work with the International Indian Treaty Council?
BM: Our work establishing the International Indian Treaty Council was a direct result of what happened at Wounded Knee. Our chiefs, elders, leaders realized we had worldwide recognition because of what happened in Wounded Knee. The press was here from throughout the world so we realized we needed to do something with the attention. We decided to take our treaties to the United Nations because treaties are a foundation of our legal rights in the International community.
We began in 1974 by hosting a conference that was attended by over 94 Indian nations throughout the hemisphere. Through that, in 1974 we formed the International Indian Treaty Council. In 1977, we had our first international conference at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. There was a conference on racism against the indigenous populations of the Western Hemisphere.
We looked at the United Nations as an instrument for human rights and realized that indigenous peoples were excluded, not even mentioned. The major powers of the United Nations said we were either ethnic minorities or only populations that were internal matters of existing members of the United Nations. Therefore, they said, the United Nations wasn’t authorized to interfere with internal issues of member states. That was the position when we first went there.
As we dealt with the issues of treaties, which even the U.S. Constitution in article 6 says that treaties shall be the supreme law of the land, then we were able to show that we had standing as nations. We took that standing and began our struggle within the institution of the United Nations.
Finally, after 30 years, on Sept. 13, 2007, the General Assembly finally passed the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. That was a very important document – the result of 30 years of work. So we established the international part of our movement as a natural and mandated outgrowth of our treaty rights.
DB: Finally we cannot let you off as we remember the founding of AIM 40 years ago without remembering that Leonard Peltier, who as you mentioned earlier is still suffering in prison, has spent decades in prison, and is in physical trouble. Tell us the significance of Leonard Peltier in this movement, why he is Presente there in Wounded Knee and why freeing Peltier is an important battle to fight.
BM: First of all, Peltier represents the treatment of Indian peoples by the United States government for the last two centuries, since the treaty-making times of the 1800s, and the justice system that we face. The case of Leonard Peltier is a great example of the justice system we face, in that the U.S. government takes someone who is an international figure and continues to deny him his legal rights.
So after countless appeals in this legal process, he still represents the injustice that Indian people suffer by U.S. policy. After about 37 years in prison, he remains a political prisoner as recognized by many prestigious international organizations such as Amnesty International and the World Council of Churches, and leaders such as Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa.
Many have recognized Leonard as a person who did not receive a fair trail, deserves a new trial and certainly should have been acquitted based on the evidence. So Leonard Peltier remains the number one symbol of the United States’ treatment of the legal issues of the Indian people.
Dennis J. Bernstein is a host of “Flashpoints” on the Pacifica radio network and the author of Special Ed: Voices from a Hidden Classroom. You can access the audio archives at www.flashpoints.net. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.