Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Wounded Knee - READ THIS!

A great number of years ago I was a guest at Gary Thomas' rural South Dakota ranch(?) for the Buffalo County Bar Association Bean Feed and Beer Bust. This was a bit of a joke as the only lawyers in Buffalo County were a couple of young legal aid lawyers - Thomas and my friend Jim Margadant. The party was a mix of activist law types and a two or three young Indians. A good party - good food, interesting people, too much to drink and a good fist fight to cap it off. Years later I asked Jim what had become of one of the guys I had been talking to that day. He said, "He was killed. A lot of Indians just disappeared back then." Last night I watched a PBS special on the Wounded Knee Occupation. After it was over I emailed Jim and asked what stuck out in his memory of that awful time. This is his response:

Yes, I watched the PBS program too. It brought back many memories about those times and life on South Dakota's reservations during AIM days. It started with the Custer County Courthouse riots and ratcheted up with various actions and events through the Wounded Knee occupation. I think that the Native Americans that produced the PBS piece got it right, at least from my perspective and sympathies at the time.

I was a bit closer to some of the events because Gary Thomas, the legal services lawyer in the Pine Ridge office, was moved to my Ft. Thompson office after the Pine Ridge office was "closed." Turns out ol' Rowe knew a good bit about the caravan that formed to go out to Wounded Knee that night, what kind of ordinance was in the car trunks, names and particulars. It wasn't safe for him to stay on in Pine Ridge, so he got pulled out and sent off to my way-station. That's probably why the Wilson goons broke into the Pine Ridge office and trashed it after he hauled ass.

There's lots of stories, but only two strike me as worth retelling right now. The first involves the trashed Pine Ridge office. Along about late April/early May, Thomas and I decided (in good legal aid tradition) that our office would benefit from a good chunk of the library and office equipment that the legal aid program had been purchased for the Pine Ridge office. So on a bright sunny day we jumped in my old blue Chevy pickup and hit the trail for the big res.

We hit surveillance shortly after crossing Pine Ridge's east boundary on the road in from Martin -- can't think of the highway number and I'm too lazy to look at a map. The surveillance came in the form of a very obvious tail by an unmarked law enforcement car. It followed us along a ways, then suddenly accelerated around us and whipped on down the road to the Wounded Knee junction, where it turned off north. We were pleased. Obviously there was still enough going on in Wounded Knee that we were too inconsequential to deal with.

We pulled into Pine Ridge, went down the alley to the legal aid office, parked and let ourselves in. That's when we discovered the place had been trashed, or tossed might be more descriptive. There wasn't a thing on a shelf, or in a drawer. Books were every where. Thomas and I looked at each other and rapidly revised the shopping list. Piss on the better desk and copier; which legal treatises could we find and get carried out to the truck?

As I was stacking some law books to go, I heard a noise, looked up and saw two of the biggest tribal cops I'd ever laid eyes on standing just inside the doorway. I was not comforted by the way they were caressing and playing with their riot batons. I called Brother Thomas' attention to our visitors -- it was his office after all; shit, hopefully he knew them and hadn't pissed them off in tribal court.

Upshot was there was a quick conversation during which the cop with the stripes did most of the talking. Turns out it was not our program's office anymore; it was the property of the Tribe (i.e., Dickie Wilson and company); we were trespassing; and if we picked up another fucking book they were going to thump us. Thomas and I saw the impeccable logic of it all, said our good days and headed for the truck. We hit the highway and headed for the nearest reservation line. We also got a nice police escort off the reservation which ended with a one-finger salute as we crossed into state jurisdiction.

My other memory is of the Reign of Terror days that followed Wounded Knee. As you recall from the program, 60 some Indians were murdered on Pine Ridge after the occupation ended. I knew one of the victims, Byron DeSersa. He was a young, thin, iron muscled fellow from Pine Ridge. His dad had run a underground newsletter opposing the Wilson administration, and Byron was continuing the business. He was involved as a lay-advocate and a community organizer actively opposing the Wilson gang. The kid was sharp, fun to party with, and he was fearless.

One night in January 1976 (this is how his family members passed it along to us legal aids), Byron and his wife and kid were driving down around Wamblee were he was meeting some folks and checking some stuff out. Outside town a carload of Wilson Goons picked them up and then passed Byron's car shooting it full of holes. They also got Byron full of holes. He pulled his car off into the ditch and hurried his wife and kid off into the night on foot, but he was too shot up to get away. We were told the Goon car turned around and came back and there was more shooting.

I was gobsmacked when I heard this. We'd been at a house party three weeks earlier with Byron and his wife, everyone was pushing Byron to get back into school, get a law degree, all that altruistic bullshit. Now the Goons had got him.

The investigation was low priority, but the feds finally did arrest some of Wilson's boys for it. Two of them walked, two of the others were given a sweetheart deal and did 2 years of a 5 year sentence for manslaughter. As we had so often said in jest, and now in sorrow, "That's life on the res."

The PBS program could have been longer, but maybe a new generation just hearing this story would have been lost in too many details. This was bare boned and moved well. Lots of stuff happened during that year so long ago, so many names and places associated with what was going on -- seeing old Fools Crow again was neat, but there was only one reference to Crow Dog. There was a place back then on the Rosebud called "Crow Dog's Paradise" where no FBIs went. But that stuff all ramped up big time following Wounded Knee and led up to the shootings of the federal agents and the charges against Leonard Peltier. For tonight it was just better to remember the guys like poor Buddy LaMont and Byron DeSersa.

These events are still playing themselves out in real time in South Dakota. Anna Mae Pictou-Aquash was killed following Wounded Knee. Depending on the story-teller, she was either an AIM activist or a federal informant. At any rate, after all these years the feds finally made some cases, got the Canadians to extradite a fellow, and they've got two fellows in the local jail waiting to go on trial for her murder sometime this summer. Its a tough case for the Indian community because it looks like its going to play out that the AIM boys ordered her execution as a snitch -- which may, or may not have been the case.

And the Leonard Peltier case keeps popping to the top every 5 years or so. I predict that I will not live to see the definitive history of 1972 - 1977 in Indian County written.

-- Margadant


Masini said...

Great post, Gunnar. Thanks for rekindling my interest in this topic. I also watched the PBS show a while ago. I guess I will have some books to shop for on my next trip back to the US (do you have any titles for me I should be sure to grab?). I spent a few years growing up in rural S.D. and now have that mid-life interest in things like this. thanks!

Mimbres Man said...

Really interesting post Gunnar. I'll have to read more about that whole era. I was just a young teenager in New Mexico and that part of US History totally passed me by until I started working on the Navajo Indian Reservation in the 80's and 90's and I'd hear bits and pieces of the AIM period.