It was a cold 29th of December in the year 1890. When one thinks about the year, it was only 123 years ago. It was not that long ago when you consider that there is a woman in England who 3 years ago celebrated her 109th birthday. My grandfather was 98 when he died and that was in 1968. This means he was born in 1866 and was a young man of 24 when the Massacre at Wounded Knee took place. My grandfather and my mother were Cherokee, born in the Smokey Mountains of Tennessee. Their story: The “Trail Of Tears,” a forced death march of the Cherokees is a story for telling at another time.
We are in many ways a very young country. At least, we are young in terms of the arrival of the Pilgrims and the desecration of a very old land and its original people. The people who had farmed and hunted the land for hundreds upon hundreds of years, before the settlers came. People who worshiped the land had reverence for nature and the animals that served their needs. They took only what they needed and would have never polluted the skies or dirtied the waters.
And so, on that cold December day in 1890, 500 troops of the US 7th cavalry supported by Hotchkiss guns, guns which were lightweight, made for travel, allowing the Calvary to surround the encampment of the Miniconjou, Sioux ( Lakota) and Hunkpapa.
The army had orders to transport the Sioux by railroad to Omaha, Nebraska. The day before the Sioux had given up their flight from the troops and agreed to peacefully turn themselves in at the Pine Ridge Agency in South Dakota. They were the last of the Sioux to do that.
In the process of disarming the Sioux, a deaf Sioux by the name of Black Coyote could not hear the order to surrender his rifle. This set off a fight that left approximately 300 Lakota women, men and children dead. About 25 troops were killed; many believed to be the victims of friendly fire in the chaos. About 150 Lakota fled and the rest were left on the ground to die from hypothermia.
After this battle, the most Medals of Honor, the highest recognition for bravery were the most ever awarded to U.S. soldier of all wars in the United States… and to think it was all because a deaf Lakota could not hear the order to surrender his rifle.
In witness to how little we have learned, 83 years later February 27, 1973, the town of Wounded Knee was seized peacefully by followers of the American Indian Movement (AIM). The control of the town lasted for 71 days. There is disagreement as to whether the town was cordoned off as AIM claims, or if the blockade took place after the takeover. However, the reasons that AIM was there was to oppose Oglala tribal chairman Richard A.” Dick” Wilson. Wounded Knee was chosen for obvious reasons.
By the morning of February 28, the police had set up roadblocks, cordoned off the area and began arresting people trying to leave the town. The equipment brought by the military included fifteen armored personnel carriers, rifles, grenade launchers, flares and 133,000 rounds of ammunition. There were paramilitary personnel armed with automatic weapons, snipers, helicopters, armored personnel carriers equipped with .50 mm caliber machine guns.
One eyewitness, a journalist, chronicled…” sniper fire from federal helicopters”, “bullets dancing around in the dirt and “sounds of shooting all over town.” Throughout the conflict, Frank Clearwater, a Wounded Knee occupier, was shot in the head while asleep and died on April 25. Lawrence Lamont was shot in the heart and died April 26. U.S. Marshall Lloyd Grimm was paralyzed from the waist down, again by a gunshot wound.
AIM claims that the government tried starving out the occupants, and the occupiers smuggled food and medical supplies past roadblocks set up by Dick Wilson.
Now here comes what may be a surprise to the reader: I was an eyewitness to at least a part of the occupation and can certify that the military presence, the roadblocks, and the attempt to starve not just men, but women and children as well were real.
On a March night with a jeep loaded with peanut butter and bread and having informed the powers that be, that all I would be carrying was food. I took a back road (actually it wasn’t a road at all) into the town and having arrived and returned, counted 27 bullet holes in my jeep. I had dropped off my supplies and left the same way I came in. When I read about bullets dancing around in the dark and the dirt, I smiled, because some of those bullets were dancing behind, around and in front of me. You will never see my name associated with this movement, and I am not even sure that any of the occupants of that small town of Pine Ridge, South Dakota ever knew my name. That was the way I wanted it, and besides, I wanted out as quickly as possible. I do not want to prove any of this; most of it can be proven by history.
However, I will tell you that I often smile to think that some child ate and lived because of a peanut butter sandwich instead of a gun.