The opening of the fight at Wounded Knee illustration
On December 29, 1890, the massacre of Sioux warriors, women and children along Wounded Knee Creek in southwestern South Dakota marked the final chapter in the long war between the United States and the Native American tribes indigenous to the Great Plains.
For the entirety of his 27 years, Black Elk’s somber eyes had watched as the way of life for his fellow Lakota Sioux withered on the Great Plains. The medicine man had witnessed a generation of broken treaties and shattered dreams. He had watched as the white men “came in like a river” after gold was discovered in the Dakota Territory’s Black Hills in 1874, and he had been there two years later when Custer and his men were annihilated at Little Big Horn.
He had seen the Lakota’s traditional hunting grounds evaporate as white men decimated the native buffalo population. The Lakota, who once roamed as free as the bison on the Great Plains, were now mostly confined to government reservations.
Life for the Sioux had become as bleak as the weather that gripped the snow-dusted prairies of South Dakota in the winter of 1890. A glimmer of hope, however, had begun to arise with the new Ghost Dance spiritual movement, which preached that Native Americans had been confined to reservations because they had angered the gods by abandoning their traditional customs. Leaders promised that the buffalo would return, relatives would be resurrected and the white man would be cast away if the Native Americans performed a ritual “ghost dance.”
As the movement began to spread, white settlers grew increasingly alarmed and feared it as a prelude to an armed uprising. “Indians are dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy,” telegrammed a frightened government agent stationed on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation to the commissioner of Indian affairs on November 15, 1890.
General Nelson Miles
“We need protection and we need it now.” General Nelson Miles arrived on the prairie with 5,000 troops as part of the Seventh Cavalry, Custer’s old command, and ordered the arrest of several Sioux leaders.
When on December 15, 1890, Indian police tried to arrest Chief Sitting Bull, who was mistakenly believed to have been joining the Ghost Dancers, the noted Sioux leader was killed in the melee. On December 28, the cavalry caught up with Chief Big Foot, who was leading a band of upwards of 350 people to join Chief Red Cloud, near the banks of Wounded Knee Creek, which winds through the prairies and badlands of southwest South Dakota. The American forces arrested Big Foot—too ill with pneumonia to sit up, let alone walk—and positioned their Hotchkiss guns on a rise overlooking the Lakota camp.
As a bugle blared the following morning — December 29 — American soldiers mounted their horses and surrounded the Native American camp. A medicine man who started to perform the ghost dance cried out, “Do not fear but let your hearts be strong. Many soldiers are about us and have many bullets, but I am assured their bullets cannot penetrate us.” He implored the heavens to scatter the soldiers like the dust he threw into the air.
The cavalry, however, went teepee to teepee seizing axes, rifles and other weapons. As the soldiers attempted to confiscate a weapon they spotted under the blanket of a deaf man who could not hear their orders, a gunshot suddenly rang out. It was not clear which side shot first, but within seconds the American soldiers launched a hail of bullets from rifles, revolvers and rapid-fire Hotchkiss guns into the teepees. Outnumbered and outgunned, the Lakota offered meek resistance.
Big Foot, leader of the Sioux, lying in the snow where he was killed during the Wounded Knee Massacre.
Big Foot was shot where he lay on the ground. Boys who only moments before were playing leapfrog were mowed down. In just a matter of minutes, at least 150 Sioux (some historians put the number at twice as high) were killed along with 25 American soldiers. Nearly half the victims were women and children.
The dead were carried to the nearby Episcopal church and laid in two rows underneath festive wreaths and other Christmas decorations. Days later a burial party arrived, dug a pit and dumped in the frozen bodies. For decades, survivors of the massacre lobbied in vain for compensation, while the U.S. Army awarded 20 Medals of Honor to members of the Seventh Cavalry for their roles in the bloodbath.
When Black Elk closed his wizened eyes in 1931, he could still envision the horror. “When I look back now from this high hill of my old age,” he told writer John G. Neihardt for his 1932 book “Black Elk Speaks,” “I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there.”
Bodies of Lakota Sioux at Big Foot’s camp following the Wounded Knee Massacre.
It was not the last time blood flowed next to Wounded Knee Creek. In February 1973 activists with the American Indian Movement seized and occupied the site for 71 days to protest the U.S. government’s mistreatment of Native Americans. The standoff resulted in the deaths of two Native Americans.
Long before Lewis and Clark paddled by, Native Americans built homes here at the confluence of the Cannonball and Missouri rivers, using the thick earth to guard against brutal winters and hard summer heat. They were called the Mandan people.
Now, Native Americans are living here again. They sleep in teepees and nylon tents. They ride horses and drive quad cabs. They string banners between trees and, when they can get a signal, they post messages with hashtags such as #ReZpectOurWater, #NoDakotaAccess and #NODAPL. For weeks, they have been arriving from the scattered patches of the United States where the government put their ancestors to protest what they say is one indignity too many in a history that has included extermination and exploitation.
It is called the Dakota Access oil pipeline and it could carry more than 400,000 barrels of crude oil a day from the Bakken region of western North Dakota across South Dakota and Iowa to connect with an existing pipeline in Illinois.
Native Americans protest the Dakota Access oil pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in southern North Dakota (James MacPherson)
The 1,100-mile pipeline, which is estimated to cost $3.7 billion, is nearly halfway complete. But construction on a section that would sink beneath the Missouri River, just north of the reservation of the Standing Rock Sioux, has been halted under orders from the sheriff of Morton County, Kyle Kirchmeier. He said protesters, nearly 30 of whom have been arrested in recent weeks, were creating safety issues.
Yet the protesters say they are creating something very different – new resistance against what they say is a seemingly endless number of pipelines, export terminals and rail lines that would transport fossil fuels across or near tribal reservations, risking pollution to air, water and land.
“Every time there’s a project of this magnitude, so the nation can benefit, there’s a cost,” Dave Archambault, the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux, who was among those arrested, said in an interview. “That cost is born by tribal nations.”
Archambault and other native leaders have been caught off guard by the support they have received. What began with a handful of natives establishing a prayer camp along the river this spring has now drawn international environmental groups and prompted Hollywood celebrities, including Susan Sarandon and Shailene Woodley, to join them, whether here or in a protest last week in Washington, D.C., or on social media.
“Inspired by the Standing Rock Sioux’s efforts to halt the Dakota Access Pipeline,” Leonardo DiCaprio posted on Twitter this week.
Tech Big Crow, 18, cares for Blue, one of the horses he and others have brought to the protest site, at the confluence of the Cannonball and Missouri rivers. (William Yardley/LA Times)
Lawyers from Earthjustice are representing the Standing Rock Sioux in a legal effort to stop construction of the pipeline. They claim that the Army Corps of Engineers violated the National Historic Preservation Act when it approved the project and that a more stringent environmental review should be done. They say the pipeline and its construction would damage ancestral sites of the Standing Rock Sioux and put the tribe’s water supply at risk.
On Thursday, nearly three dozen environmental groups wrote to President Obama, who visited the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in 2014 with Michelle Obama, saying the Corps approved the project using a fast-track process, known as permit 12, that was inadequate given its size and the many sensitive areas it would cross.
The Corps of Engineers argued in court in Washington this week that the Standing Rock Sioux and other parties had ample time to express concerns during a review process and that the pipeline was properly approved. Energy Transfer Partners, the Texas company building it, says the pipeline will increase the nation’s energy independence and that it is a safer means of transport than rail.
The judge over seeing the case, James A. Boasberg of United States District Court, said this week that he will rule no later than Sept. 9 on a request by the Standing Rock Sioux to stop construction and reconsider permits the project has received.
The pipeline has met resistance elsewhere along its route, including from farmers in Iowa concerned about soil damage and property owners whose land is being taken by eminent domain. But nothing compares to what has taken hold here between the rivers.
Nantinki Young, who goes by Tink, is a member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe from South Dakota; she runs the cook shack here. Winona, who did not give her last name, is Penobscot. She left Maine on Monday and drove 2,100 miles to put together a recycling program for the hundreds of new residents of the protest camp.
And then there is Clyde Bellecourt. He is Ojibwe. He came from Minnesota, but may be better associated with Wounded Knee, S.D. Not the massacre in 1890, but the standoff in 1973, when the group he helped found, the American Indian Movement, suddenly became a household name, the image of Indian activism.
Clyde Bellecourt, 80, who helped found the American Indian Movement in the 1960s, said he sees “fresh energy” among younger Native Americans fighting to stop the Dakota Access pipeline. (William Yardley/LA Times)
He is 80 now. Sitting in a folding chair not far from the Buick where he keeps copies of a flyer promoting his new memoir, he likes what he sees.
“My life is almost over, but there’s fresh energy here,” he said. “Save the children – that’s what this is all about.”
Protesters have vowed to stay at least until Judge Boasberg rules and potentially much longer. Monitors from Amnesty International have arrived. An employee of the federal Indian Health Service established a first aid tent. Vans carpooled people to showers.
Members of the Standing Rock Sioux formed Spirit Resistance Radio, at 87.9 FM, to broadcast updates. An Art Market opened to sell handmade crafts. There was talk, lighthearted for now, about establishing a school that would teach children at the camp site in native languages.
The Morton County Sheriff’s office has blocked one of the main routes to the camp from Bismarck, the state capital, forcing some protesters to drive a lengthier route to the site. Law enforcement is planning to escort school buses that travel through the area, though protesters say they want nothing but peace and prayers.
People have been practicing nonviolent direct action tactics, preparing to try to stop construction should it start again. A lawyer from Colorado working pro bono asked protesters to fill out forms “if you think that you have a clean record and you want to be arrestable.”
Jasilyn Charger, 20, is among a group of young natives who ran together from North Dakota to Washington to protest the pipeline. She remembers the early days of the protest, when just a handful of people prayed by the river.
“When we started this, people thought we were crazy,” she said. “But look at where we are today.”
Don Cuny, 65, was among those impressed with how robust the camp had become. Like Bellecourt, he was at Wounded Knee when natives led a 71-day standoff in the town on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. That effort was driven in part by a goal to rewrite treaties with the government.
“This kind of reminds me of back in Wounded Knee,” said Cuny, who goes by Cuny Dog. “Except that I’m gaining weight. At Wounded Knee, I lost weight.”
PITTSBURGH – A man arrested for painting the letters “AIM” on an American flag that he flew upside-down at his house in protest has settled his free speech lawsuit against the township for more than $55,000.
Supervisors in Allegheny Township, Blair County, have approved letting their insurance company pay Joshuaa Brubaker, the Altoona Mirror first reported Friday. The supervisors approved a resolution on July 12 advising township police to no longer enforce the state’s flag desecration laws as part of the settlement, notice of which was filed Tuesday in federal court in Johnstown.
“The problem is that every couple years we get a report that someone’s been charged with insulting the flag or desecrating the flag under Pennsylvania laws,” said Sara Rose, the American Civil Liberties Union attorney who filed the lawsuit in February. “The U.S. Supreme Court law is very clear that you cannot charge someone with using the flag for expressive purposes, like drawing on it or burning it.”
Brubaker, 39, is part Native American and says “AIM” stands for the American Indian Movement. Brubaker flew the flag on his porch in May 2014 about 90 miles east of Pittsburgh. He was protesting plans to route the proposed Keystone Pipeline through Wounded Knee, South Dakota.
Wounded Knee is the site of a U.S. Cavalry massacre of some 200 Lakota Indians in 1890. In 1973, the Indian reservation town of the same name was seized by AIM and other activists in a 71-day standoff with federal law enforcement.
The dispute with the township began when another resident — an Army veteran who also happens to be part Native American — was offended by the display and contacted police.
Leo Berg III, who was then assistant chief but now heads the township department, seized the flag and charged Brubaker with violating two state laws: insulting the national flag, a second-degree misdemeanor that carries up to two years in prison and a $5,000 fine, and flag desecration, a third-degree misdemeanor carrying up to a year in jail and a $2,000 fine.
A Blair County judge dismissed the criminal charges against Brubaker a few months after they were filed, finding they didn’t apply in a case involving political speech.
Brubaker told The Associated Press when the lawsuit was filed why he displayed the flag the way he did.
“I figured with this generation, if someone drove by this house and saw AIM” that they’d search for the term online and learn more about the group and its causes, Brubaker said. Flying a flag upside-down is also a distress signal, and Brubaker said he believed the country is in distress.
Brubaker must pay his own attorneys’ fees and expenses and any taxes out of the $55,844 he’ll receive, according to the settlement.
For years, Oglala Sioux Tribe officials have been unable to reach an agreement to purchase the historic Wounded Knee massacre site, which occurred on December 29, 1890, near Wounded Knee Creek (Lakota: Čhaŋkpé Ópi Wakpála) on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
In a July 2013, interview with the Daily Mail, Johnny Depp, the actor who portrayed Tonto in Disney’s Lone Ranger movie announced that he was ready to buy Wounded Knee and return it to the Native American people, but Depp failed to keep his word.
Now according to KELOLAND TV, Lakota journalist Tim Giago, who spent his childhood living near the Wounded Knee site, believes he has a plan that will work.
It begins with with a private landowner Jim Czywczynski, who owns key property at the site, including the location of the old Wounded Knee Trading Post.
“I talked to Jim Czywczynski and he gave me the exclusive rights to purchase that Wounded Knee property,” Giago said.
Giago has established a non-profit organization called the National Historic Site of Wounded Knee Inc to use in fundraising and buying of the property for $$3.9 million.
“But the intent of purchasing the land is to set up a trust and put the land in trust for all nine tribes of the Great Sioux Nation,” Giago said. “Every tribe in South Dakota has an historic connection, I think, this sacred ground, Wounded Knee.”
Giago said the Wounded Knee Trading Post was built in the late 1920s along Wounded Knee Creek, in part of the area where the massacre occurred. The business was burned during the American Indian Movement occupation in 1973, as activist’s protested alleged civil-rights violations and racism.
Giago, who argued that the owners of the Trading Post were victimized by that takeover, had a personal relationship with the creek and the Trading Post long before 1973. His father worked at the Trading Post and the family lived nearby when Giago was a child in the 1930s. Giago played in and around the Trading Post and along the creek.
The 81-year-old Lakota journalist wants something done – something that will last and have meaning. It would start with a museum at the massacre site, just across the highway from the cemetery where many are buried, telling the story and honoring the victims.
“I’d like to see a Native American Holocaust Museum built on the site Giago told ICTMN.
Czywczynski thinks Giago is the right man to make that happen. Giago’s has wide connections on the reservation, across South Dakota and far beyond, along with respect as an elder in the Native American community, Czywczynski said.
Tim Giago, is a renowned Lakota journalist, publisher and founder of the Lakota Times, Native Sun News and Indian Country Today.
Every December, hundreds of American Indian riders pay tribute to those who died in The Wounded Knee Massacre by tracing the path of their ancestors.
It is called Oomaka Tokatakiya, the Future Generations Ride, and it is an epic journey spanning nearly 300 miles of historic and sometimes hostile territory. It will take place this year as it has for the last quarter of a century, with some 300 riders and their horses departing in mid-December to trace the paths of their ancestors across the South Dakota landscape, and find in themselves a strength and power that will change their lives.
Our history books in school would tell us that it was the last armed conflict of the American Indian Wars. Today we know it as the Wounded Knee Massacre. On December 29, 1890, the Seventh Cavalry opened fire with Hotchkiss cannons on 350 Indians, mostly women and children. Followers of the peaceful Big Foot, the Miniconjou and Hunkpapa Lakota people were traveling in the dead of winter in an effort to reach Red Cloud in Pine Ridge, where they hoped to find a safe respite and avoid further conflict with the United States.
The soldiers of the Seventh Cavalry, numbering approximately 500, intercepted the fleeing people and made them camp near Wounded Knee Creek on the night of December 28. In the morning, they gave the order for all of the Lakota people to surrender their arms, which they did — except for one. A deaf man named Black Coyote refused. There was a struggle and a shot was fired. Within moments, the Hotchkiss guns, which encircled the camp, blazed down on the unarmed Lakota and the soldiers.
In less than an hour it was over. The Indians who were not killed by the guns were murdered by hand. The dead and dying were left on the ground as a blizzard closed in. Their frozen bodies would be buried days later in a mass grave when the blizzard finally passed.
Twenty Congressional Medals of Honor were given to members of the Seventh Cavalry who participated in the massacre. For the Lakota people, in many ways it was the end.
“I did not know then how much was ended,” Oglala Lakota medicine man Black Elk wrote decades later in his memoir, Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux.
“When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream … . [T]he nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.”
In 1986, almost a century after the tragic massacre, the scars remained heavy on the hearts and lives of the Lakota people. “It was a sad time in our lives; depression was strong,” recalls Alex White Plume, former tribal president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe of the Pine Ridge Reservation. “Our [traditional Lakota] way was not here.”
Oglala Sioux member Karen Ducheneaux recalls how that began to change. “Before the first ride in 1986, several people began having dreams about following the path taken by our ancestors in 1890 before their massacre at Wounded Knee. One of these people was Birgil Kills Straight, the organizer of the first Si Tanka Wokiksuye Ride.”
Nineteen riders, including White Plume and his younger brother Percy, and one woman, Vevina White Hawk, committed themselves to that vision. They retraced the journey of Big Foot and his band on horseback in the dead of winter and called it Si Tanka Wokiksuye, or the Big Foot Memorial Ride. “We rode the spirit trail to bring back all our ceremonies,” White Plume says.
The second year, the group of riders grew to include Ducheneaux and her family. “We were supposed to go on the first ride but couldn’t get our horses to Bridger [Montana],” she explains. “I was 16 years old the first year we went on the Big Foot Ride; my little brother was only 3 and had to ride in the wagon.”
From 1986 to 1989, the riders prepared for the Wounded Knee centennial. And then, in 1990, they undertook the Wiping the Tears of Seven Generations ride.
“The ride was extended to include the route Sitting Bull’s people took after his assassination in 1890,” Ducheneaux says. “The reason the ride was so important was because the Lakota usually do a ‘wiping of the tears ceremony’ a year after a loss. But after what happened at Wounded Knee, we were a broken people who were herded back onto our reservations virtually without protest.
What they did to our people was so unthinkable that we were too damaged to do the wiping of the tears after a year — and really, we remained in mourning for those people who died in that horrific way for 100 years. The ride in 1990 was an attempt to move forward from that time of mourning and healing and face the future as a recovered people.”
Today the annual ride is called Oomaka Tokatakiya — the Future Generations Ride. The young people who participate are now the sixth and seventh generations of Lakota since that dark time in American history, when massacre was considered the best way to deal with the “Indian problem.” The tribe believes that this is the generation upon whom its future
depends — the generation that elders have seen in visions, the generation that will restore the sacred hoop.
Ducheneaux and her brother have grown up on the ride, and her commitment to it has remained strong. “I went on four of the original Big Foot Rides, a wopila [giving thanks] ride, and seven of the Oomaka Tokatakiya rides. I was one of the organizers for the last six I went on.
“By the time I went on the Oomaka Tokatakiya ride, my little brother was 11. Because being on the ride had taught me so much, and given me the strength I had, I wanted to make that opportunity available for another generation the way it had been provided for me.”
The Future Generations Ride is about spiritual strength and physical sacrifice. It is about healing, honoring the ancestors, embracing one’s own power, coming together as a people. And beneath all of it, carrying both body and spirit, is the horse.
Breath steaming from their nostrils, thick winter coats shrugging the snow, these veterans of the journey lead the way across the frozen terrain in minus-20-degree weather, taking each step with purpose. They come in every color and in a variety of shapes, but the horses all possess heart and stamina.
The stuff of legend and folklore is real on this ride. The people trust their lives to their horses, and their horses carry them across sweeping plains and bristling interstates, through snowdrifts and settlements, sometimes as many as 35 miles in a day.
Large and heavy-boned, many of the equines have a strong quarter horse influence. Others are traditional Appaloosas. There are animals that, beneath their shaggy coats, move with the collected grace of the Spanish Barb. There are beloved family horses whose pedigrees may not be listed in any registry.
“As far as the horses, I always took quarter horses,” Ducheneaux says. “I like their disposition and their build, and that’s the kind my family raises. Some people took Arabians because they claimed they had better stamina. Those horses are amazing; they learn their strength just as the riders do. The first couple of days they are kind of played-out, but they hit their stride and just keep going.
“It’s a beautiful thing to suffer with a horse that you know well. You’re having such a hard time and you just keep thinking, This horse is doing all the work. A good horse is like a good dog: They will give their all for you; they will give their life for you. They are so selfless. I was lucky to have a few good horses in my life.”
Ducheneaux pauses. “It makes me cry to think about my horses and all they sacrificed to carry me to Wounded Knee, over and over.”
On December 15, 2014, the riders will depart again to make the epic two-week journey. They will gather at Sitting Bull Camp, near Bullhead, South Dakota, to ride nearly 300 miles on horseback to the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre.
What began as a small and determined band of American Indian people healing the wounds carried by their nations for a century has become a group of hundreds, devoted to their children and their future.
People from around the world will join them. Native communities will come out to greet them. Children will look up to the riders — some as young as 7 — and see in them positive role models. They will feel proud to be Lakota. They will feel the power of the Horse Nation.
The beginning of the American Civil War in 1861 led to the organization of military forces in Colorado Territory. In March 1862, the Coloradans defeated the Texas Confederate Army in the Battle of Glorieta Pass in New Mexico. Following the battle, the First Regiment of Colorado Volunteers returned to Colorado Territory under the command of Colonel John Chivington.
Chivington and Colorado territorial governor John Evans adopted a hard line against “Indians”, whom white settlers accused of stealing livestock.
Without any declaration of war, in April 1864 soldiers started attacking and destroying a number of Cheyenne camps, the largest of which included about 70 lodges, about 10% of the housing capacity of the entire Cheyenne nation.
Tensions peaked that summer, following the murder of a white family near Denver Colorado, a crime attributed at the time to raiding Cheyenne or Arapaho. Governor Evans, called on citizens to “kill and destroy” hostile natives and raised a new regiment, led by Chivington. Evans also ordered “friendly Indians” to seek out “places of safety,” such as U.S. forts.
The Cheyenne chief Black Kettle heeded this call. Known as a peacemaker, he and allied chiefs initiated talks with white authorities, the last of whom was a fort commander who told the Indians to remain in their camp at Sand Creek until the commander received further orders.
But Evans was intent on the “chastisement” of all the region’s Indians and he had a willing participantin Chivington, who hoped further military glory would vault him into Congress. For months, his new regiment had seen no action and become mockingly known as the “Bloodless Third.” Then, shortly before the unit’s 100-day enlistment ran out, Chivington led about 700 men on a night ride to Sand Creek.
At sunrise on Nov. 29th, while almost all of their warriors were elsewhere hunting bison, the 3rd Colorado regiment attacked an encampment of Arapaho and Cheyenne people at a bend of the river Sand Creek.
As a Cheyenne chief raised the Stars andStripes above his lodge, others in the village waved white flags. The troops replied by opening fire, killing some 200 Native Americans, most of them women, children and the elderly. Before departing, the troops burned the village and mutilated the dead, carrying off body parts as trophies, according to historical accounts.
Colonel John Chivington
“At daylight this morning attacked Cheyenne village of 130 lodges, from 900 to 1,000 warriors strong,” Chivington wrote his superior late on November 29th.
His men, he said, waged a furious battle against well-armed and entrenched foes, ending in a great victory: the deaths of several chiefs, “between 400 and 500 other Indians” and “almost an annihilation of the entire tribe.”
This news was greeted with acclaim, as were Chivington’s troops, who returned to Denver displaying scalps they’d cut from Indians (some of which became props in celebratory local plays). But this gruesome revelry was interrupted by the emergence of a very different storyline.
Its primary author was Capt. Silas Soule, a militant and abolitionist, like Chivington. Soule, however, was appalled by the attack on Sand Creek, which he saw as a betrayal of peaceful Indians. He refused to fire a shot or order his men into action, instead bearing witness to the massacre and recording it in chilling detail.
“Hundreds of women and children were coming towards us, and getting on their knees for mercy,” he wrote, only to be shot and “have their brains beat out by men professing to be civilized.” Indians didn’t fight from trenches, as Chivington claimed; they fled up the creek and desperately dug into its sand banks for protection. From there, some young men “defended themselves as well as they could,” with a few rifles and bows, until overwhelmed by carbines and howitzers. Others were chased down and killed as they fled across the Plains.
Soule estimated the Indian dead at 200, all but 60 of them women and children. “There was no organization among our troops, they were a perfect mob every man on his own hook.” Given this chaos, some of the dozen or so soldiers killed at Sand Creek were likely hit by friendly fire.
Soule sent his dispatch to a sympathetic major. A lieutenant at the scene sent a similar report. When these accounts reached Washington in early 1865, Congress and the military launched investigations. Chivington testified that it was impossible to tell peaceful from hostile natives, and insisted he’d battled warriors rather than slaughtering civilians. But a Congressional committee ruled that the colonel had “deliberately planned and executed a foul and dastardly massacre” and “surprised and murdered, in cold blood” Indians who “had every reason to believe that they were under U.S. protection.”
That authorities in Washington paid attention to distant Sand Creek was striking, particularly at a time when civil war still raged back East. Federal condemnation of a military atrocity against Indians was likewise extraordinary. In a treaty later that year, the U.S. government also promised reparations for “the gross and wanton outrages” perpetrated at Sand Creek.
Chivington escaped court-martial because he had already resigned from the military. But his once-promising career was over. He became a nomad and failed entrepreneur rather than a Congressman. Soule, his principal accuser, also paid for his role in the affair. Soon after testifying, he was shot dead on a Denver street by assailants believed to have been associates of Chivington.
Another casualty of Sand Creek was any remaining hope of peace on the Plains. Black Kettle, the Cheyenne chief who had raised a U.S. flag in a futile gesture of fellowship, survived the massacre, carrying his badly wounded wife from the field and straggling east across the wintry plains. The next year, in his continuing effort to make peace, he signed a treaty and resettled his band on reservation land in Oklahoma.
Black Kettle and his wife were killed Nov. 27, 1868, in yet another massacre, this one led by George Armstrong Custer, at a Cheyenne camp on the Washita River which was part of a major winter encampment of numerous tribal bands.
Many other Indians, meanwhile, had taken the Sand Creek massacre as final proof that peace with whites was impossible and promises of protection meant nothing.
Young Cheyenne warriors, called Dog Soldiers, joined other Plains tribesmen in launching raids that killed scores of settlers and paralyzed transport. As a result, the massacre at Sand Creek accomplished the opposite of what Chivington and his allies had sought. Rather than speed the removal of Indians and the opening of the Plains to whites, it united formerly divided tribes into a formidable obstacle to expansion.
Sand Creek and its aftermath also kept the nation at war long after the South’s surrender. Union soldiers, and generals such as Sherman and Sheridan, were redeployed west to subdue Plains Indians. This campaign took five times as long as the Civil War, until the infamous massacre at Wounded Knee, in 1890.
The Sand Creek Massacre will be remembered as one of the most deadly incidents in all of the American Indian Wars.
The American flag and the white flag flown by Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle at the time of Col. Chivington’s attack were intended to show the peaceful nature of the encampment. U.S. soldiers ignored these symbols.
My three children are Oglala Lakota. They grew up here on the Pine Ridge Reservation. If they hadn’t, maybe they wouldn’t have known about the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee. That’s because Wounded Knee, the most famous catastrophe in Native history, is rarely taught in U.S. schools. Sometimes I wonder if Americans know more about what’s happening in Hollywood than they do about what happened right here in South Dakota.
Our little house was two miles from the spot where Chief Big Foot and his band of 300 followers were captured by the U.S. Army and herded into nearby Wounded Knee. It was late December 1890 and the temperature was below zero. Big Foot was supposed to be leading his people to safety, but he had TB and was coughing blood in the snow. He had to be transported by travois. That slowed the caravan that was fleeing the soldiers. They were refugees on their own land, and Wounded Knee would be their final stop.
Eighty-three years later, in the winter of 1973, over 200 Lakotas and members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) seized the village of Wounded Knee to demand human and treaty rights. Hundreds of federal agents and U.S. soldiers surrounded the little village, armored personnel carriers patrolled the perimeter and fighter jets swooped overhead. For 71 days, our government carried out military operations against Indian people.
The takeover electrified Indian Country and caught the attention of the world.
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee had just come out. Soon, copies of the book were flying off the shelves. Indian and non-Indian people from across the country mobilized to support the action. I was a teenager then. I followed my activist parents to Wounded Knee. It changed our lives forever.
It’s hard to describe the horrific memories of 1890 that were still fresh in 1973. In those days, you could talk to Lakota elders who were just one generation removed from the “Indian wars,” when our government paid a bounty for the scalp of a “redskin.” So with all the publicity surrounding the Wounded Knee occupation, we thought the dirty little secret of American genocide was finally out of the bag. After that, we had hoped that school children would be learning about the dark side of Manifest Destiny. Especially the toll it took on Indian people.
But that didn’t happen.
It’s true that the 71-day occupation of Wounded Knee — probably the longest civil disorder in U.S. history since the Civil War — brought national attention to the oppression of Indian people. And it’s true that it pumped new energy and leadership into the tribal sovereignty movement. All that resulted in sweeping changes in federal Indian policy: the Indian Self-Determination Act, the Indian Child Welfare Act, and the Indian Freedom of Religion Act, the Indian Higher Education Act. And even the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.
Wounded Knee 1973 did not end the oppression, but it strengthened our will to resist it.
Regrettably, the U.S. government never has apologized for the massacre of those 300 civilians in 1890. Nor has the Pentagon recalled the more than 20 Congressional Medals of Honor awarded to the soldiers who participated.
But the Wounded Knee occupation inspired a national movement, one that is still growing today. Just last Sunday, 5,000 people in Minnesota protested the racist name of the NFL football team from Washington D.C.. Another example can be found in the grassroots movement of Lakotas who today are trying to stop the Keystone XL pipeline from crossing Native Lands. There are many other examples.
Three weeks into the 1973 occupation, the U.S. Justice Department barred the media from entering Wounded Knee to interview the occupiers. Suddenly, there were no journalists to provide a record — except from the government side. Because of the blackout, academics, pundits and federal agents today still argue about the truth of what happened in 1973 inside Wounded Knee. And more than 40 years later, some critics still belittle or try to negate the gains of the Indian movement. And no professional — someone trained to report conflict and to comment on history — has managed to give us an inside, eyewitness account.
In 1973 Kevin McKiernan was a young NPR reporter who didn’t think the media should be embedded on one side. He defied the news embargo, walked 10 miles overland at night, penetrated the cordon of agents and soldiers around Wounded Knee and made his way into the village. He stayed until the end, smuggling out reports and film. McKiernan went on to cover wars in Central America and, more recently, in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. Now he has a new film on the way called Wounded Knee: A Line in the Sand (shot in part by the legendary Haskell Wexler). McKiernan is a non-Indian. You can disagree with his conclusions.
But he was there.
After Wounded Knee, we broke free of the dependence on outside reporting. For years, members of the Oglala Lakota tribe and the American Indian Movement worked hard to build KILI Radio (90.1 FM).
In 1983, we became the first 100,000 watt Native American community-owned radio station in America. More than 30 years later, KILI Radio is still on the air.
Now that’s progress.
Mark Tilsen is the president and co-founder of Native American Natural Foods, maker of the Tanka Bar. The company is based on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
While Native American activists successfully lobbied the Obama administration to act against an NFL team accused of using a derogatory name, recent reports show the federal government is responding with its own – much more direct – insult.
Following publicized disputes over federal land grabs in states including Nevada, Texas, and Utah, the Department of the Interior is reportedly looking at Sioux tribal reservations in South Dakota as its next target.
According to a report by Global Research, the agency intends to transfer ownership of a significant area of Oglala and Lakota Sioux property into a Tribal National Park under the operation of the National Parks Service. Despite the name, however, those Native Americans being affected will have no control of or claim to the land being taken.
Congress is now reportedly considering a bill that would allow federal authorities to make an offer to both Native and non-Native American landowners for the property. If residents refuse the deal, the government can then declare eminent domain and simply take ownership of the land, the report states.
Compounding the issue is the fact that the average income of tribal residents in the area is just $8,000 per year and thousands of tribe members will be affected by the land-grab. Some residents will be forced to relocate, and many more others will lose their income from grazing allotments on the land – a result which will ultimately force any remaining independent cattle ranchers out of business. In addition to all this, Tribal members will lose their share of income from entrance fees collected at the adjacent North Gate of the Badlands National Park – a punitive measure which will further compound the existing economic depression on a reservation.
Some in the community feel this is just the beginning of a protracted battle between local and federal forces.
“There is a feeling of common cause between attached parties on this issue,” tribal rancher Bud May said, “namely tribes and other reservations. The bottom line is we’ll all be under dictatorial control if something is not done quick.”
Lory Storm, a Nebraska radio host who has been following recent developments at Pine Ridge describes the synergy now happening between what were previously strange bedfellows. Storm explains,
“The difference between this situation and the Bundy Ranch conﬂict? It will be the ﬁrst time in the history of our Country that the Cowboys and Indians pose a united front against a federal government that is used to winning battles by first dividing and then conquering.”
Already, many land owners are taking the position that they will not comply with the latest order from the government – leaving many to wonder whether this potential standoff will become the third ‘Wounded Knee’ incident involving a standoff between the Sioux Nation and the US Federal government.
On Feb. 24, 1976, a rancher in South Dakota was installing a fence on land situated along the edge of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation when he spotted a body at the bottom of a 30-foot embankment. The badly decomposed corpse, in jeans and a maroon ski jacket, lay with knees pushed up toward chest. A coroner later determined that the woman had been dead for more than two months. The back of her head was matted with blood, and there was a single bullet wound at the base of her skull. She had been shot at close range.
It would take investigators a week to identify the body as that of 30-year-old Anna Mae Pictou Aquash, a principal in the American Indian Movement. AIM was the country’s most visible, and radical, advocacy group for Native American civil rights. The traveling band of militants had forcibly taken over the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters in Washington to demand, among other things, the return of valuable federal land to indigenous tribes. “We’re the landlord of this country,” one slogan went. “And the rent is due.”
AIM was founded in Minneapolis in 1968, the same year the Black Panthers — the movement’s model — ambushed Oakland police officers and Cesar Chavez fasted to promote nonviolence. Its leaders included Dennis Banks and Russell Means, telegenic spokesmen in traditional braids, buckskin fringe and cowboy boots. They would publish memoirs, act in Hollywood films and address crowds on Ivy League campuses. Where Means was full of bluster and indignation (Andy Warhol painted his portrait), Banks was soulful and charismatic. The Los Angeles Times once called them “the two most famous Indians since Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.”
Aquash had been having an affair with Banks the year she disappeared. Although he was in a common-law marriage with someone else, Aquash was convinced that she was his true match. They met almost three years earlier at the siege of Wounded Knee, a 10-week armed standoff between residents of Pine Ridge who opposed the tribal government and agents from the National Guard, the U.S. Marshals Service and the F.B.I. (Wounded Knee was chosen because that was where more than 200 Indians were killed by the U.S. Cavalry in 1890.) When she heard about the revolt there, Aquash, a Mikmaq Indian from Canada, left her two young daughters with her sister in Boston and traveled to join AIM volunteers who had taken up the cause. “These white people think this country belongs to them,” Aquash wrote in a letter to her sister at the time. “The whole country changed with only a handful of raggedy-ass pilgrims that came over here in the 1500s. And it can take a handful of raggedy-ass Indians to do the same, and I intend to be one of those raggedy-ass Indians.” On her first night in South Dakota, Banks told her that newcomers were needed on kitchen duty. “Mr. Banks,” she replied, “I didn’t come here to wash dishes. I came here to fight.”
At the time of Aquash’s death, AIM was splintering and Banks was a fugitive. Prosecutors had filed criminal charges against many of the participants at Wounded Knee — by one count, more than 400 arrests and 275 indictments. Banks, already facing a 15-year prison sentence for unrelated charges of rioting and assault, claimed that he feared for his life. William Janklow, who was running for state attorney general, told a newspaper during his campaign, “The only way to deal with the Indian problem in South Dakota is to put a gun to AIM leaders’ heads and pull the trigger.”
For a time, Pine Ridge’s murder rate was the highest in the nation. So locals were not all that surprised when Anna Mae Aquash turned up dead: She was just one more soldier lost in the fight against a government that had, after all, dedicated itself for centuries to the subjugation of the country’s native peoples. But over the last decade, several teams of state and federal attorneys in South Dakota have established that her killing was in fact an inside job, orchestrated by AIM members who believed she was working as an F.B.I. informer.
To Aquash’s compatriots, watching the truth seep out has been unsettling. It’s easy, so many years on, to forget the tumult of the civil rights era: the blood in the streets, the palace revolutions. What to do when the search for answers reveals that several of your own were actually the culprits? What if, in the final unfolding of this morality play, the heroes turn out to have acted unheroically?
“You think you want the dirty details, but you don’t,” Aquash’s friend Margo Thunderbird told me recently. “The movement was the defining experience in our lives, but the only thing my daughter learned about Annie Mae — in an Indian school — was not the principles she fought for, but how she was killed by AIM. Once, I prayed at sun dance: ‘Show me who did this to her.’ Anna Mae came to me in a dream and said, ‘Leave me alone, Margo.’ ”
Between 1976 and 1999, four grand juries took up the case without producing any arrests. Nobody associated with AIM would talk about it under oath, and the investigation remained a black hole — until, in 2000, a woman named Darlene (Ka-Mook) Nichols was persuaded to help.
Nichols was Aquash’s friend, but also her rival, as Dennis Banks’s common-law wife. Just a few months before the murder, she learned of his affair with Aquash. That’s one of many reasons, Nichols said, that her motives for cooperating with investigators have been questioned. In the eyes of AIM loyalists and among residents of her native Pine Ridge, it amounts to heresy. “But more than anything, I just wanted to get to the bottom of it, to find out what happened,” Nichols told me recently. “So many people have tried so hard to make it go away.”
Nichols was 17 when she met Banks. It was 1972, and he brought an AIM squad to town to hold a series of rallies. The next year, she abandoned her plans for college and ran off with him. “He called and said he’d made arrangements for me to fly and meet him,” Nichols recalled. “I’d told him I had to break up with my boyfriend and finish high school first. From that point on, we were a couple.”
Banks and Nichols had four children together, but it was an unstable life. All around them were arraignments, car chases, shootouts with the police. “It was one thing after another,” she said. “At the time, I didn’t think about the consequences. I believed in the movement. That was my world.”
When Banks went into hiding in 1975, Nichols and Aquash joined him at various times as his entourage moved throughout the West for more than three months. In Los Angeles, Marlon Brando, an AIM sympathizer, lent Banks a motor home and $10,000 for food and gas. Also along for the ride was Leonard Peltier, who was wanted in connection with the murder of two F.B.I. agents on Pine Ridge. In November, the group was heading south through Oregon when a state trooper pulled over the R.V., which was full of guns and explosives, and ordered everybody out. Peltier took off on foot and was shot in the back, but he escaped into the woods. (He would later be captured, convicted and sentenced to life in prison, despite the efforts of celebrities and human rights activists who claimed that he didn’t receive a fair trial.) Banks stayed behind the wheel and sped away as officers shot at him.
When the gunshots stopped, the two women were taken to jail, where they shared a cell. Nichols said they got along, despite Aquash’s romantic involvement with Banks. “I was over it by now,” she told me. “I mean, why should I lose a friend because of Dennis? We never talked about him. We read a lot of magazines.”
But Aquash wasn’t as nonchalant. Though her affair with Banks was brief, she was devastated when, in early 1975, he ended it to remain with Nichols. According to “The Life and Death of Anna Mae Aquash,” by Johanna Brand, Aquash wrote a poem:
But the sun is up and you’re going?
My heart is filled with tears
please don’t go, I need you walking by my side. . . .
The road is long and weary
And I get so tired. . . .
Aquash was a powerful figure in AIM, but also something of an outsider. Having grown up in the Maritime tribes of Nova Scotia, she joined the American struggle knowing hardly a soul. She was tough and boyishly pretty. One photograph from that time shows Aquash digging a foxhole with a golf club.
Dennis Banks in the 1970s. CreditPhotograph by Michelle Vignes/The Bancroft Library/University of California, Berkeley.
It was not lost on Aquash that while women made up roughly half of the movement’s ranks, Banks, Means and a handful of men got all the attention. “We were doing what Indian women did for thousands of years, which was stand behind the men and prop them up,” says Margo Thunderbird, who worked with Aquash in St. Paul and California, writing speeches for AIM’s leaders. “We wanted to present an image, and the angry Indian man was better than angry Indian women. Anna Mae and I said to each other, ‘Do we want to be the ones who get in their way?’ The men were showtime.”
There was tension among the male leaders. Banks, an Ojibwa from Minnesota, needed the support of the Sioux tribes, who were naturally loyal to Means, a South Dakota native. His union with Nichols was regarded as an “alliance marriage,” according to Robert Warrior, a former director of the American Indian studies program at the University of Illinois and co-author of “Like a Hurricane,” a book about AIM’s early history. “A lot of people respected Dennis in the Sioux world, and that is hard for an Ojibwa to do,” Warrior says. “They’re old foes. The Ojibwa essentially drove the Sioux out of Minnesota 200 years ago and forced them west. The Sioux still carry that around.” Banks took to certain rituals, such as the Sioux sweat lodge and sun-dance ceremonies. “I became much more one of them rather than Ka-Mook becoming one of mine,” Banks told me.
Aquash’s friends say her affair with Banks brought particular resentment from a group of militant, mostly Sioux women who called themselves the Pie Patrol and viewed her as a threat to AIM’s stability. Jean Roach, a young AIM supporter at the time, described the Pie Patrol to me as the ones who got on other women’s cases for things like wearing a bikini top to the AIM office in Rapid City. “They didn’t like Anna Mae at all,” Roach said.
By this point, AIM had become a vortex of paranoia. “Different crews were ‘bad-jacketing’ each other, calling them pigs,” or collaborators with the feds, says Aquash’s friend Melvin Lee Houston. “Someone put a jacket on Anna Mae. I’m angry with my brothers and sisters for not stopping it.”
When the women were in jail together, Nichols realized that Aquash was terrified about being released. Aquash told her she was aware that some people thought she was a turncoat. Suspicions had arisen when she was quickly let go after an earlier arrest, while others who had been with her stood trial. In Brando’s motor home, Peltier had confessed to both women that he shot an F.B.I. agent, making a gun with his thumb and forefinger and telling them that the man “was begging for his life, but I shot him anyway.” If Aquash ever shared that with the authorities, it would make her a significant threat to Peltier and AIM. Aquash told Nichols that she feared for her life. Soon, the women were escorted by marshals to the back of a commercial airplane, flown to Wichita and then sent to separate jails — Nichols in Kansas and Aquash in South Dakota. Aquash was again swiftly released on bail.
“It was the last time I saw her,” Nichols said. A month later, Aquash was dead.
“For a long time, it was a given among Indians that the F.B.I. engineered Aquash’s murder as a way of scaring and destabilizing AIM,” says Paul DeMain, the editor of News From Indian Country, whose aggressive reporting on the case is often credited with spurring investigators’ interest in it. AIM considered itself at war with the federal government and its proxy, the F.B.I., whose Counterintelligence Program was devised to monitor and take down the radicals of the New Left that the bureau deemed “subversive,” including the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Weather Underground. AIM’s concerns weren’t entirely unfounded. A few months before Aquash was killed, one of Banks’s bodyguards, Douglas Durham, appeared on national TV to declare that he was actually a “paid F.B.I. operative” who’d been assigned to infiltrate AIM. Adding to the conspiracy theory was a hasty initial autopsy that somehow missed the bullet in Aquash’s head.
“The great obstacle with Anna Mae all along has been the disconnect of trust from the witnesses we needed,” says Rod Oswald, who became one of the case’s lead prosecutors. “It’s something they’ve passed down to their kids, almost like a legend: The F.B.I. killed her and covered it up, and therefore there was no way the federal government could bring justice to the Native American people.” Investigators needed a collaborator who could, like Nichols, approach AIM members up and down the chain of command.
Nichols was still incarcerated on Dec. 30, 1975, when she gave birth to a daughter, her second with Banks. They named her Tiopa Maza Win, or Iron Door Woman. Soon after, she was released and reunited with Banks, who had been found and arrested but was out on bail. California’s governor, Jerry Brown, granted him asylum, and the family settled in Davis.
“We tried to live as normal as possible,” Nichols said. She took classes at U.C. Davis. Banks became a chancellor at D-Q University, an Indian college, and a guest lecturer at Stanford. Their respite lasted until 1983, when George Deukmejian, elected to succeed Brown as governor, vowed to force Banks from the state. About an hour after Deukmejian was sworn in, Banks’s house was surrounded by the police. But he and his family were already gone, en route to the Onondaga Reservation in upstate New York. “The cops couldn’t arrest Dennis as long as he stayed on Indian land,” Nichols said. “He got a job at the smoke shop on the Interstate. The next year, he said he was tired of running. He finally turned himself in and spent a year in prison.”
In 1989, Nichols told Banks she was fed up with his womanizing and left him. She moved to Santa Fe and left AIM behind, until one day in 1999, when she received a newspaper clipping about the Aquash case in the mail from her mother. Some AIM members were claiming that one of several factions in the organization was responsible. “It started to make sense,” Nichols said. She began asking friends from Pine Ridge what they knew and learned that “for years, everybody had been hearing the stories,” she said.
The contours of the plot were the same in every version: Aquash left the federal courthouse in Pierre on Nov. 24, 1975, when she made bail and was released from jail. She didn’t show up for a court hearing the next day. According to friends, Aquash was desperate to see Banks and made her way to Denver, where she thought she would meet him.
She stayed at the home of Troy Lynn Yellow Wood, a sister-in-arms whose apartment functioned as a safe house for AIM members. “A lot of people used to come to my house, and probably some of them may have been wanted by the law, too,” Yellow Wood told me. “It wasn’t unusual.” Aquash slept there for more than a week, but Banks never showed up. She passed the time writing letters to her sister and looking after her host’s children.
One night in early December, a car pulled up to the safe house — then another, and then two more, until there were as many as a dozen visitors in the ground-floor apartment. Aquash left with three people in a red Pinto and was never heard from again.
Nichols was struck by the number of people Aquash apparently encountered in the hours before her disappearance. “They were mostly women, and people I knew well,” she told me. She decided to go to the F.B.I.
Before one meeting, she requested that Robert Ecoffey, who worked on Pine Ridge for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and had been the first Indian to be named a federal marshal, also be present. “Basically, I needed the emotional support,” she said. Although Nichols hadn’t spoken to Ecoffey since grade school, she knew he was working on the Aquash case. “We were on different sides of the fence always, but I trusted him,” she said. “He used to throw paper airplanes at me that said, ‘I love you.’ ” When Ecoffey saw that the witness who had asked for him was Nichols, she said, “he almost fell out of his chair.” Years later, she married him.
The F.B.I. asked Nichols if she would wear a wire, and she agreed. She was given the code name Maverick, and over the next year she interviewed about 10 witnesses and surreptitiously recorded several dozen hours of discussion about Aquash’s final days.
Most of the people she spoke with made for ambivalent witnesses, reluctant to cooperate with the government even if it meant solving the murder of one of their own. “I don’t hate Ka-Mook for wanting to know the answers,” Yellow Wood said, “but she should have come to us privately. Basically, we were left with a choice: You were either a co-conspirator or a traitor.”
Still, Yellow Wood was, in retrospect, mortified that she had watched idly as Aquash was led to her death. She says that she picked up her phone to call the police before Aquash left with her captors, but that another woman hung it up while she was on hold, and she let the matter go.
Eventually, Nichols broke the case open with a three-hour recording of Arlo Looking Cloud, a low-level AIM associate who had admitted to friends that he was involved. She picked him up from a Denver jail and in her car began asking him about the night of Aquash’s disappearance. “Arlo was very emotional when I would ask him certain questions,” Nichols later testified. “There were times when he became choked up.” She urged him to cooperate with the authorities, and eventually he confessed and took the stand against John Graham, another AIM member, naming him as the gunman. “It was getting kind of blue out,” Looking Cloud testified, recounting how they marched Aquash at dawn into grassland off South Dakota Highway 73 and put a pistol to her head. “She started praying. It was so quick.” The men were tried separately for the murder, Looking Cloud in 2004 and Graham in 2010. Both were convicted.
The case was far from solved, however. Prosecutors never believed that Looking Cloud and Graham acted alone. Both were minimally involved in the movement and didn’t even know Aquash. “We do feel pretty certain word came to them from high up in the organization,” says Oswald, the prosecutor. Several witnesses, including Looking Cloud, described a third abductor, Theda Nelson Clark, who drove them, along with Aquash, from Denver to the scene of the shooting in her red Pinto.
Clark, who was 50 in 1975, was a matriarch in AIM, revered but hardly beloved. “Aunt Theda was mean, bossy and obnoxious,” Yellow Wood, her niece, told me. Aquash was brought out with her hands tied. Looking Cloud said Clark handed Graham the gun.
But she was never charged. “I thought it was a slam dunk,” Oswald says, but other prosecutors were hesitant to try a woman who was in failing health and living in a nursing home. Clark died in October 2011 at 87.
And even Clark appeared to have acted at the behest of someone else. Another woman, a former girlfriend of Banks, admitted in court that she told Clark to ferry Aquash to South Dakota to be “dealt with” — instructions that she in turn was relaying from Thelma Rios, an AIM activist in Rapid City. While the government managed to extract a guilty plea from Rios for kidnapping — her five-year sentence was commuted, and she died of lung cancer in 2011 — she said she was passing down the order from yet two other women. She also acknowledged hearing two people say of Aquash: “The bitch should be offed.” The two names were redacted from Rios’s plea agreement but are widely believed to be those of Madonna Thunder Hawk and Lorelei DeCora. They, along with Rios and several other women, made up the Pie Patrol.
The events Rios described before a judge sounded like a game of telephone, with several layers of women employed to insulate the others while carrying out the hit. They all had close ties to AIM’s leaders: Rios was married to one of Banks’s deputies and bodyguards; Thunder Hawk and Russell Means were cousins; DeCora was Means’s sister-in-law. (Means died in 2012.) Prosecutors zeroed in on the Pie Patrol and learned that the three women held an “interrogation” of Aquash at a house in Rapid City in the hours before she was killed. Candy Hamilton, who was upstairs in the house at the time, told me, “I’d had an argument with Thelma and Lorelei earlier, because they felt Annie Mae was a snitch.”
But there was not enough evidence to charge Thunder Hawk or DeCora or compel them to cooperate, Oswald says. “And we still consider it extremely unlikely that anybody could pull off the murder of Dennis Banks’s girlfriend without the blessing of one of the men in charge.”
Prosecutors were willing to offer Thunder Hawk and DeCora immunity in exchange for testimony and corroborating evidence that implicated someone in charge. Both refused to discuss the case with investigators.
Thunder Hawk, who helped organize AIM’s occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1972, is still a prominent Indian activist. She serves as the tribal liaison to the Lakota People’s Law Project and is represented by the same speakers’ bureau as Angela Davis and Noam Chomsky. When I reached her at her home on the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota, she denied having played a role in Aquash’s abduction or death. “Baloney,” she said. “I never even tried to make sense of what happened to Anna Mae. They’re never going to solve this. When they called me, I just told them, ‘I do not talk to the feds.’ Click. I hung up. You can’t reason with a thug. They’re not people.”
Through her lawyer, DeCora also denied any involvement in Aquash’s murder.
Thunder Hawk went on to tell me that her only direct interaction with Aquash came at AIM’s legal-defense house in Rapid City. “People were concerned because she was bragging about how she went down to the F.B.I. office to tell them off,” Thunder Hawk said. “I didn’t see it as a big threat, but it had to be handled, her going back and forth like that. Because what if they tried to pin something on her? So I talked to her. And before I could even finish, she said, ‘I go where I want, and I have nothing to hide.’ ”
She added: “There were hundreds of Anna Maes, just throwing themselves at the men. And every time Dennis and these guys got a different woman, the girls would think they were first lady.”
In the spring of 2011, there was a break in the case, but it came from a different unsolved murder on Pine Ridge. The victim was Ray Robinson, a black civil rights volunteer from Alabama who disappeared in April 1973, not long after getting involved with AIM at Wounded Knee. His wife, Cheryl Buswell, told me from her home in Detroit that he called her when he got to South Dakota and said he planned to backpack into the village at night to avoid checkpoints, so the authorities would have no record of him. “I filed a missing-persons report but never heard from the F.B.I. Nobody from AIM has ever responded to my questions. It’s been festering, festering, festering.”
Oswald came across Robinson’s name while looking at the transcripts of an interview Nichols did with Banks in 2001. She had shown up at Banks’s house in Minnesota, saying she was there to see their daughter Tiopa and then luring him into a series of long reminiscences. At the time, investigators considered the interview a bust, because Nichols was so nervous and barely asked about Aquash. But Banks did discuss Robinson. He told Nichols that Robinson was shot by another AIM officer. He said he saw the corpse shortly afterward and puzzled over what do. Finally, Banks said, he instructed an underling to “bury him where no one will know.” He added that the underling was “gone for about five hours” and that Robinson had been buried “over by the creek.”
“I was floored,” Oswald says. “Banks is not only aware of Robinson’s killing, but where he was buried, and he acknowledges his own role in where to bury the body.” It also lent credibility to the theory that AIM’s leadership wasn’t averse to frontier justice.
Oswald located a witness, Richard Two Elk, who was in a bunker where, he said, Robinson provoked an altercation with AIM’s security team, brandishing a knife and promptly getting himself shot in the kneecap. To prosecutors hoping to solve the Robinson case itself, the story came with a host of impediments: Two Elk said he didn’t see who the gunman was, and the episode sounded more like an accidental killing than a shooting with intent to kill (and because the act occurred on federal land, the statute of limitations had expired for any charge short of first-degree murder). But when it dawned on Oswald that the reservation’s clinic was staffed by Madonna Thunder Hawk and Lorelei DeCora, he became hopeful about using this crime to force testimony in Aquash’s murder. He dug up another of Nichols’s transcripts, this one with Thunder Hawk, and found that she acknowledged seeing Robinson’s body at the clinic, where she said he bled to death because he had not been brought in right away.
“That didn’t prove intent to kill either, but the fact that these are the same women we’re pursuing in the Aquash case — I’ve successfully tried crimes in the past with much less evidence,” Oswald says. If he could squeeze the Pie Patrol on the matter of Robinson’s death, he reasoned, the women might now give up somebody above them on Aquash’s murder in exchange for immunity. “Because if we could flip a witness in each case, then I’m there,” he says. “We could solve the two cases off of each other.” Oswald also hoped to collect enough evidence, eventually, to approach Banks: “I’d say: ‘Look, Dennis, we know you didn’t kill Ray Robinson. I don’t care for the moment if you ordered the hit on Anna Mae. Just tell us where he is.’ And it would be a house of cards.”
Despite his optimism, Oswald was instructed at the end of 2011 to shelve the case. His supervisor, Brendan Johnson, the United States attorney for South Dakota, had apparently determined that the odds of successfully completing the investigation were low and closed it, pending new information. Oswald, who left his prosecutor’s job in 2012, feels that he was “this close to solving it” and told me that he hadn’t given up.
But most everyone else has. Richard Two Elk called it “idiot fuel” to think that the murders of Aquash and Robinson might someday be resolved. “I don’t know if you can ever retire from these cases, but they’re not going to change anything,” he told me. I couldn’t help thinking that he meant changing things in the larger sense. Pine Ridge is one of the poorest Indian reservations in the country, with a per capita income of about $4,000 and an unemployment rate of 80 to 90 percent. Then Two Elk got on the subject of his own family: a child addicted to drugs; a sister killed in a car crash (for which he blamed AIM); a daughter and a niece molested by his brother, who went to prison. Each story was sadder than the last.
“It’s just something that I had to eat,” he said, shaking his head. “And so my point is, I told Rod Oswald that Anna Mae’s daughters — maybe they can simply be thankful for what they’ve been able to achieve, because they found the killers, or some of them. That’s a lot more than what 99 percent of us get. When you hear about Ray Robinson, lots of Indians might have something just as bad. And so you think, Is it really fair he’s getting all the devotion?”
Aquash’s daughters are not at all satisfied with that. “The people who had my mother killed are still out there, calling themselves defenders of Indian rights and saying her death was a tragedy,” Denise Maloney, her older daughter, told me. She was 11 and her sister 9 the last time they saw their mother. “But I remember her gait, how her hip flicked when she walked. She smelled like Kool menthols.”
Dennis Banks lives at the end of a long reservation road on the shore of Leech Lake, Minn., in an A-frame house not far from his childhood home. In his driveway sits a dismantled tour bus painted with his name and a giant headdress. One morning in October, I found him in the living room, in fleece pants and rafting shoes. He was drinking tea. He was 76, barrel-chested and slim, and his hair was held in a ponytail by a fuzzy elastic band.
He put tobacco in a three-foot pipe, slowly took several puffs and then handed it to me. “It tends to put visitors at ease,” he said. He began talking about the business he runs with one of his sons — he has 20 children with seven women, and 89 grandchildren — tapping maple trees and harvesting wild rice. “These were trades I learned when I was 4 years old,” he said.
Accusations that he was involved in Aquash’s murder have swirled for years, Banks acknowledged. He has always denied them. “I only know what I read in the paper.” He said he was happy for the opportunity to think about her.
“We were in love,” he said. On the other hand, “Ka-Mook was very strong, and she was brave enough to come with me, but — —”
“My mom chose her own path to travel,” said their daughter Tiopa, who was changing the diaper on her 4-month-old. “She has to live with that.”
“When I found out what Ka-Mook did, I felt very alone,” Banks said. “Not so much anger, but ‘Is Dennis Banks the big Cracker Jack prize?’ ”
He talked about informers. “There was a lot going on that made the paranoia believable,” he said. “It became impossible to trust anybody.”
Even so, I asked, would he have advocated killing someone who he knew for certain was a traitor to AIM? (There has never been any evidence that Aquash was an F.B.I. informer.)
“I don’t know if I would participate in some sort of getting-rid-of-the-person,” he said. “But I would say, ‘Take care of this.’ Or, ‘Take the guy out, and I don’t want to see him again.’ ”
I brought up the Ray Robinson disappearance. Banks stared at me and said nothing while he opened the screen door. He wanted to show me a sweat lodge he built in his back yard, a low, stone igloo with tarps and blankets for a roof.
“The government asked me about that, and I told them I don’t know anything,” he said finally. “There’s a lot of misinformation.”
He turned toward his house, and we walked back inside. “However these people got put up to putting the bullet in Annie Mae, I already know all I need to,” he said. “The government set the stage for anybody in the movement to think that Annie Mae was a fed when the judge let her out of jail for the last time in Pierre.” He retrieved a fly swatter from the kitchen, began flicking at the air and went on: “There are no secrets and questions left. If there’s a burning house, no one gives an order to put out the fire. Someone just goes and does it. It was people who fell into an idea.”
Eric Konigsberg is a former reporter for The Times and the author of “Blood Relation.” He has written for The New Yorker, The Atlantic and New York.
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