Remember Wounded Knee

"Let me be a free man, free to travel, free to stop, free to work, free to trade where I choose, free to choose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my fathers, free to talk, think and act for myself --and I will obey every law or submit to the penalty." -- Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce

The L.A. Times described Russell Means as the most famous American Indian since Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.

His fearless dedication and indestructible sense of pride are qualities admired by nations worldwide.

His vision is for indigenous people to be free... Free to be human, free to travel, free to stop, free to trade where they choose, free to choose their own teachers -- free to follow the religion of their fathers, free to talk, think and act for themselves and then they will obey every law or submit to the penalty. The most difficult lesson of all is to respect your relatives' visions.

Means was born an Oglala/Lakota in 1939, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation near the Black Hills.

As a young man, Russell's life was full of ups and downs. In the late 60s he became focused and put his energy into fighting for Indian rights with The American Indian Movement. He became the first national director of AIM. A.I.M. is dedicated to being the advocates for any Indian man or woman, any Indian family, any Indian community, or any Indian nation. All they have to do is call them and they will respond. But, they will not go anywhere unless they are invited.

For more than twenty seven years, Means has remained active with the American Indian Movement. He has also traveled extensively throughout the world while working for over twelve years with the United Nations.

In the true sense, Russell has lived up to his third name, Oyate Wacinyapi(Works For The People).

In 1991, Means began his career in Hollywood. He has starred in numerous feature films, wrote his autobiography, recorded two albums, and started his own production company. Russell continues the fight for self-determination through the media to reach millions.

Phil Reser, Editor

Rag Baby Online reprints this account by Means of the siege at Wounded Knee in 1973 from Rolling Stone's The '70s, published by Little, Brown and Company, Copyright 1998 by Rolling Stone Press. Available at bookstores.

As Pedro Bissonette, vice president of the Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization, and I drove into the village of Wounded Knee on the Sioux Indian Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota on the night of February 27, 1973, we were at the end of a long line of almost two hundred automobiles. On a clear, starlit night that seemed unusually warm. We drove around the line of cars and went straight for the trading post. We were both lost in our thoughts. During those moments, I could still hear the words of the traditional chiefs of my Oglala Lakota (Sioux) Nation, spoken earlier that fateful day.

Chief Fools Crow had told us, "Go to Wounded Knee. There you will be protected." I knew what he meant. In the frigid winter of 1890, the U.S. Army had brutally murdered Chief Big Foot and over three hundred of my people. Now that ground was consecrated, and the spirits of our ancestors would protect us as we made our stand against the U.S. government once again.

I remembered how the Oglala Chiefs had recently listened to their people's anguished pleas and descriptions of oppression, repression and suppression at the hands of the federal government's puppet tribal government. Women and girls had been raped. Men jailed. Money and valuables extorted. Homes firebombed, I now realized a critical mass had been achieved. The Lakotas were ready to die, if necessary, to end nearly one hundred years of deceit and abuse at the hands of the U.S. government. We were taking back our freedom one foot at a time,one community at a time, one reservation at a time, and it was going to start right now.

Arriving in darkness, the three hundred Lakotas and the two dozen veterans of the American Indian Movement (AIM) began to dig in around the Wounded Knee museum and general store. I started to direct the defense from the high point at the Catholic church, asking those who were Vietnam veterans to take charge of our defenses and establish roadblocks and patrols in the hills around us. All we had were a few hunting rifles and the integrity and moral force of a thousand generations of our ancestors. The cavalry would be arriving again momentarily, and we needed to be ready for them.

Our goals were threefold: enforcement of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, which guaranteed our nation's territories and sovereignty; Senate investigations of corruption within the Bureau of Indian Affairs; and free, honest elections on the local Pine Ridge Reservation.

We were also hoping that our stand would inspire other American Indians and other Americans in general to continue their struggles for freedom. For the past decade, led by the black liberation struggle, a wide range of movements - the youth at UC-Berkeley , the peace movement, the women's liberation struggle, the environmentalists - were demonstrating for their respective causes. It had been an exhilarating time in America, but a time that had been totally misunderstood by the people who considered themselves the guardians of freedom, the conservatives on the right of the political spectrum.

I failed to sleep much that first night, knowing what awaited us. As dawn approached, the radio began to report what was happening. We had taken white people hostage, and one had escaped (in reality, one of the local merchants had abandoned his wife and small children when he realized the Indians were coming to repossess their community, so he invented the hostage story to conceal his cowardice). The radio also reported - accurately - that the Feds were mobilizing, and would soon surround Wounded Knee.

Our breath could be seen in the freezing dawn light while I stood with Severt Young Bear and Edgar Bear Runner and said, "We probably won't get out of this alive." Edgar agreed and Severt added, "Just like our ancestors."

At that moment, I realized we would be forced to defend Wounded Knee to the death. Judging by their past actions, we were convinced the U.S. government would not negotiate our demands. As we stood there, lost in our emotions of the moment, I began to pray to die a good death for my children and my people.

Soon the FBI's agent in charge arrived at one of our roadblocks. Pedro Bissonette, Vern Long, president of the Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization, and I took our demands to him. As we walked back toward our forces at Wounded Knee, he yelled, "Who do you think you are?" You're in a fishbowl. Don't you understand? We can wipe you out!" With that hard line response began the most protracted and intense confrontation between American Indians and the United States government since the end of the Indian Wars in 1890.

For seventy-one days, through three blizzards and more than five million rounds of ammunition expended by the Feds, we experienced a freedom we had not known for a century and have not known since. This wasn't the pseudo-freedom of America that gets bandied about every Fourth of July or during political campaign sloganeering. This was the real, no-holds-barred freedom my ancestors had known before we were corralled into the U.S.-run concentration camps known as Indian reservations.

The media came from all over the globe to report on this armed insurrection by a group of people the U.S. government would have the world believe were safely pacified and out of sight, out of mind. All three major broadcast networks arrived, at times with three entire crews each, to cover the events outside and inside Wounded Knee. The added impact of the print media inside the "Knee" and the intense media coverage in general were some of the major reasons we did not suffer the same fate as our ancestors.

During the Seventies, Wounded Knee proved to be the third most photographed event of that era, surpassed only by the Vietnam War and Watergate. In a poll taken among Americans during the siege, 93 percent were aware of the events at Wounded Knee while only 78 percent knew Spiro Agnew was the vice president of the country.

The siege lasted until May 8. Firefights and skirmishes abounded during that time. To make our limited firepower appear more impressive, we would take our one Kalashnikov Ak-47- with its distinctive and respected bark - and periodically run it from bunker to bunker, shooting off a quick burst at each spot. Then we would paint a length of stovepipe and allow the press to stumble across what appeared to be a rocket launcher or bazooka.

Heroes were made, and discoveries, too. Oscar Bear Runner, a World War II veteran in his mid-fifties, backpacked through the federal lines to bring in needed supplies. Two brave pilots - Bill Zimmerman and Rocky Madrid - flew planes with painted-over identification numbers, dodging sniper bullets to bring in medicine, food and ammunition.

The local Wounded Knee museum - which became our security headquarters - was filled with dug-up remnants from the 1890 massacre and held an accounting record of livestock delivered by the cavalry. The book, written by the captain in charge of the deliveries, had made up the most racist, disgusting, vile names for the Indians - "Shits in His Food," "She Comes Nine Times," "Maggot Dick." We burnt the book.

We emerged from the siege at Wounded Knee with two American Indian patriots dead by sniper fire - Frank Clearwater and Buddy Lamont, a Vietnam vet - and fifteen wounded. More than six hundred were arrested in Wounded Knee- or en route to the siege - and faced multiple federal charges. In the end, not one person, black, brown, red, yellow or white, was convicted on any of the original charges.

At Wounded Knee, just as our ancestors had done, we decided to end the siege by putting our faith and trust in the words and documents of the United States government. And once again, the promises given to end the siege were never honored . How could we have foreseen that those we demanded to negotiate with in the White House - Domestic Council Chief John Ehrlichman, White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, Presidential Counsel John W. Dean III and Attorney General John Mitchell - would end up in prison and the hundreds of fighters at Wounded Knee would not? Now that is spiritual power!

Within three years of the siege and the ensuing court trials, AIM and our Chicano support organizations suffered from dozens and dozens of assassinations, with sixty-three deaths (including that of Pedro Bissonette) on the Pine Ridge Reservation alone. No arrests, no convictions and only cursory investigations, if any, were conducted by the FBI, our national police. In "Incident at Oglala": "The Leonard Peltier Story," a Robert Redford-produced documentary shown worldwide in theaters and on television, a former Bureau of Indian Affairs police officer who served during the siege at wounded Knee admitted the U.S. Department of Justice had trained, supplied and funded an "Indian" death squad to terrorize the people the people of the Pine Ridge Reservation. When it was exposed later, this proved to be the same brutal tactic employed by the CIA during the Seventies in Chile and El Salvador.

In 1973, AIM and the Black panther Party were ideological pariahs and labeled the most dangerous groups in America by the FBI. We were the "thought criminals" of the day. The FBI had targeted the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement for destruction through their infamous counterintelligence program COINTELPRO. We were the ones, along with all the other movements, who dared to envision a different America. Ultimately many people came to see the wisdom of our critique.

We hoped America would remember the advice of legal scholar Felix Cohen, who said the American Indian is the miner's canary for the United States and the general condition of freedom and liberty for America as a whole could be measured by its treatment of Indians. That reflection by Americans has not happened. Instead, American Indian policy has now become general American policy. Look around you.

Today, as I look across the landscape of the United States of America, the opposite of freedom prevails. Just as we had to battle for freedom for our lands, we had hoped farmers and ranchers would realize they were next on America's sacrificial chopping block. Over the past three decades, family farm after family farm and ranch after ranch has been auctioned off or sharecropped out to corporations. Self-sufficiency has been replaced by dependency on a malevolent federal government, and the peoples' love of the land has been replaced by personal desperation and self-interest.

Freedom of thought has been replaced by a state-run educational system that produces docile, self-absorbed automatons that would make Orwell blush. War is peace, freedom is slavery and ignorance is strength. Instead of learning to be critical thinkers, America's youth are conditioned into an ethic of mass consumerism and corporate careerism.

Even during the siege at Wounded Knee, when I had left to meet with federal officials and then to speak at a few university campuses, I still remember the same complacency. I was making a speech at UCLA. The students were lounging about the green lawn, taking in the sun and talking among themselves, paying no attention to my words. I walked off without finishing.

Today, the thought criminals are the Branch Davidians or the Montana Freemen. In the Seventies, members of different liberation movements were called "commies," "pinkos," "kooks," "criminals" and the "fringe element." Now these same labels, along with "cultists," are freely used to isolate, marginalize and silence the modern-day thought criminals who dare to express ideas that deviate from the U.S. government's corporate mind-set.

During the siege at Wounded Knee the American Indians of North America began feeling a resurgence of dignity and pride - an immeasurable benefit that continues to this very day. Not only in North America but throughout Central and South America as well, the tiny spark of ancestral pride grew into a flame that has now spread through the entire hemisphere. American Indian people - from virtually every Indian nation in the Americas - now are demanding that the only color of people in the human race currently not allowed to sit at the table of the family on nations be recognized and respected.

American Indian peoples are walking down the corridors of the international community and have brought the rest of our indigenous families from all around our sacred Grandmother, the Earth, to join in the struggle for human dignity and peace on Earth. It's sad that the United Nations recognizes legitimate Indian organizations while the United States will not listen to any Indian voices but its puppet tribal governments.

I continue to struggle for freedom, and my people continue to revolve back toward the realities of our ancestors. But what of America? If the Indians at Wounded Knee represented Cohen's canary, then the federal-government attack on the Waco compound in 1993 proves the canary has died. One does not have to embrace the ideologies of the Branch Davidians or those of the Freemen to realize the willingness of the U.S. government to kill its own dissenting citizens, and to see a society operating without a moral compass.

Our aim at Wounded Knee was to force the U.S. government to live up to its own laws. From that, one can draw the real lesson of our stand there: It is the duty of every responsible American to ensure that their government upholds the spirit and the laws of the United States Constitution.

After all, what freedom really means is that you are free to be responsible.

Russell Means

Essay: Remember Wounded Knee Poem: Can't Happen Here Film: The Peace Pipe in Powwow Highway News: Did the Makah Kill JJ? Song: Coyote A Lakota Prayer:We Are All Related If They Were Going to Kill My Brother