Sunday, March 25, 1973: Inside Wounded Knee

Posted on October 15th, 2007 – 12:33 AM
By Ben Welter

This 1,100-word analysis of the Wounded Knee takeover appeared on the front page of the Minneapolis Tribune about midway through the 71-day standoff. It was written by reporter Jim Parsons, who had been filing daily reports from the South Dakota hamlet almost from the start.

AIM Indians with ‘story to tell’
made Wounded Knee the medium

By James Parsons
Staff Writer

Wounded Knee, S.D.

It was an instantaneous, knee-jerk reaction to a problem.

“Get the press in here! Get the press in here!” yelled Dennis Banks when he learned that federal officers were sealing off the roads into Wounded Knee.

“Get ahold of De Sersa,” Banks said. “Tell him to get Jeff Williams in here.”

Within hours, Williams and his television crew from CBS News were in Wounded Knee, guided past the government roadblocks by Aaron De Sersa, an Indian who lives in nearby Pine Ridge.

March 1973: Russell Means, left, and Dennis Banks at Wounded Knee, S.D. (Minneapolis Tribune photo by Mike Zerby)

Soon, scores of other reporters and photographers from all over the country plus Japan, Canada, Sweden, France and Russia were hiking through the hills or, once the government’s restrictions were eased, driving into Wounded Knee.

Banks and the other leaders of the occupation were delighted to see the press.

The newsmen were insurance of a sort, because any move by the federal forces against the Indian activists would be filmed in living color.

More importantly, Banks maintained that the Indians holding the small community had “a story to tell” and needed the news media to spread the message.

Banks and the other outspoken leader of the takeover, Russell Means, didn’t waste any time in telling their story. All it took to start a press conference was for someone to ask a question and sometimes even that wasn’t necessary.

They flayed white society for exploiting Indians and their lands, for breaking treaties, for generations of racial discrimination. And they said repeatedly and loudly that Wounded Knee was a “good place to die,” a paraphrase of a quote borrowed from an ancestor, Chief Crazy Horse.

The occupation has been colorful, at times comic, and usually photogenic. Several “braves” went out on horseback to round up some cattle for food. Only Russell Means knew how to handle a horse under such conditions, however, and the others had to get off and energetically wave their arms at the bewildered cows.

And once the cattle were in camp, no one knew how to butcher them so one of the television technicians had to take over.

War paint was administered liberally in a solemn ceremony the evening that the federal troops were “expected” to attack. Fifteen minutes later, Banks and two others were merrily bashing golf balls with a set of clubs found in a home that had just been vacated by the residents.

Means, who frequently rails at the bureaucracy of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, moaned loudly about the lack of secretaries to keep records and type rules and regulations promulgated after a “sovereign” Indian nation was formed at Wounded Knee. (The speed limit in the “downtown” area is 5 miles an hour and horse-drawn conveyances have the right-of-way.)

Leonard Crow Dog, a medicine man from the neighboring Rosebud Reservation, conducted religious ceremonies over the skull of a steer. Clyde Bellecourt, one of the occupation leaders, said that Crow Dog is a traditional Sioux medicine man who is bringing the Indians at Wounded Knee back to the original tribal customs and ways.

Bellecourt didn’t mention that in the past Crow Dog and his father have staged religious ceremonies, using the drug peyote, for non-Indians willing to make a monetary contribution.

Many of those opposed to the occupation by the American Indian Movement (AIM) claim that the entire episode at Wounded Knee is being “staged” for the press.

They’re right. At least, they’re right if Dennis Banks is to be believed. AIM has a “story to tell” and it consistently has used confrontations with various governmental authorities as a sounding board.

Without news coverage, the confrontations would be a waste of time. The same can be said for presidential press conferences or statements made by the President or other administration officials on the Vietnam War or other national issues.

Wyman Babby, an Indian who is area director of the BIA in Pine Ridge, maintains that a presidential press conference is different from the takeover because the occupation is an illegal act.

The Boston Tea Party also was an illegal act but history books don’t ignore it. Some of the leaders of the American Revolution argued that acts of disloyalty to the king of England were justified under the circumstances.

The AIM leaders make the same argument. At the same time, one of the leaders acknowledged that much of what AIM has done publicly in recent months has been an “ego trip” for the leaders and done little or nothing to solve problems facing Indians.

At Wounded Knee, the news media’s initial focus was on the takeover and the resulting damage and on the generally colorful scene, including the rhetoric. But reporters and photographers were free in Wounded Knee to see what was happening. They could interview the Indians and the residents, including some who wanted AIM to go away.

In Pine Ridge, where the federal officials and the tribal leaders stayed, four public-relations men flew in from Washington to handle the press. They, like the Indians, hold press conferences but often the top officials on hand do not appear or do not answer questions after reading their statements to the press.

Dick Wilson, the president of the Pine Ridge Reservation, is capable of matching the AIM leaders in rhetoric on a moment’s notice. But he was kept quiet by federal officers, a fact he later complained about publicly.

The press also had complaints about information given by the government. Sometimes it was inaccurate, sometimes misleading.

For instance, the government denied that federal agents had exchanged gunfire with the Indians one night only to have reporters in Wounded Knee point out that tracers fired from the government’s positions had zipped over the town.

On another occasion, it was reported that food supplies were being allowed through the blockade. But the minister responsible for delivering the food later reported that he “hassled” with the government’s negotiators for five hours before resorting to other contacts to get in a “trunkful” of food.

Such inconsistencies wouldn’t have happened, Babby argued, if AIM hadn’t moved in at Wounded Knee. He also maintained that the Indian activists will leave if, and when, the press leaves.

That may be true although Wounded Knee might become a “Woodstock west,” a Mecca for those in the peace and civil-rights movements.

Even if Babby is right, the problems facing Indians on the Pine Ridge and other reservations won’t go away. That reality won’t change whether or not the leaders of AIM are demagogues out for personal publicity.

One of many news conferences held during the Wounded Knee standoff. (Minneapolis Tribune photo by Mike Zerby)

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