Military Lands Black Hawks At Wounded Knee Gravesite

I just got back from a three-day trip to Rapid City and the Lakota Sioux Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. On Saturday morning, I drove out to Wounded Knee to pay my respects with a friend who lives in Pine Ridge. Wounded Knee is the site of the 1890 massacre where 7th Cavalry soldiers killed as many as 300 innocent Indian men, women, and children, and of the 1973 American Indian Movement (AIM) standoff with federal agents. And now most recently, it is the site of a 2010 military blunder. Early Saturday afternoon, three Black Hawk military helicopters tried to land on the 1890 mass burial grave. Numerous blogs report these helicopters were affiliated with the 7th Cavalry, although that is unclear. What is clear is that while their intentions were educational and pure, they were also miscommunicated. A peaceful protest prevented their landing and many reservation residents remain justifiably outraged by the disprespectul choice of a landing site and the display of military force on sacred ground.

I was right there, but left moments before it happened with no clue of what was about to occur. I only wanted to feel the history and pay my respects, and did not stay long because the museum was closed and a crowd (the protesters, it turns out) was gathering by the current cemetery. My friend thought maybe it was a family gathering or a funeral, and out of respect stayed in the car. As we drove back towards the town of Pine Ridge, we saw three black helicopters flying extremely low to the ground. It was very confusing and a little troubling to see.

It turns out those helicopters were military Black Hawks, and just minutes after we saw them they attempted to land at the Wounded Knee burial ground. Protestors ran beneath two of the helicopters, which then flew away. In an Argus Leader story picked up nation-wide by the Associated Press, tribal president Theresa Two Bulls later said that the helicopters were bringing members of the Colorado National Guard to the reservation to learn about the Wounded Knee massacre and improve relations, an admirable purpose that was not properly communicated to area residents. That miscommunication reminds me of the fear many New Yorkers felt when Air Force One buzzed the Statute of Liberty last year. Even if it had been better disseminated, however, the presence of war machines at the massacre site would have remained highly inappropriate and disrespectful. The indigenous blog Censored News provides detail, and a video of the incident is below the fold:

The first helicopter landed a few feet from the mass grave. The Lakota men ran up to it, holding their staffs, yelling at the military to leave Wounded Knee, the elders did not want them there. As the other two helicopters began to descend, four women ran to get under the choppers, waving red banners and a United Nations flag. The helicopters came lower, the women did not budge. They yelled at the soldiers hanging out of the helicopters, “Leave, you are not wanted at Wounded Knee.” The three black helicopters flew away.

“Military transport coming to Wounded Knee? Why, to intimidate us? I came here to talk about my family, but now I am thinking, I am 80 years old, I pray every day. The Chairlady said to come here and talk about our families, but for people to make money off of this place, they shouldn’t do that. This is a place to pray, the military have no place here” said Stanley Looking Elk, an elder and former Tribal President.

Marie Not Help Him loudly questioned the people present, “Why are you doing this? I invited them here! My great grandfather Dewey Beard survived this. I wanted to tell our story,” saying she belongs to the Wounded Knee Survivor’s Association…

Olowan Martinez said, “The Tribe did not even tell us they were doing this, we found out last night, me and my children live right down the hill. The US military can go elsewhere to hear the story. Our ancestors at Wounded Knee were killed by the US military and my father, a Veteran of Wounded Knee 1973, lies buried there, they have no respect to come back to where they put the blood of our relatives on the ground.”

I am glad that the military wanted its soldiers to learn about the 1890 incident. That desire to improve relations is a good sign, but the way it was implemented is ironic proof of just how badly that education is needed. Why fly to sacred ground when you could fly to Rapid City, Pine Ridge, or any one of several nearby Nebraska airfields and drive the rest of the way? For the military, possibly even the 7th Cav, to bring in heavy war machines to the very ground where a previous 7th Cav had murdered hundreds of innocents was the height of insensitivity. To land by the burial ground itself was the height of disrespect and arrogance.

I'm not on the rez anymore, but from what I can tell online, tensions are running high. Russell Means, the legendary Sioux activist who led the 1973 standoff, said: “We the Lakotah People, do not want our massacred dead bodies of Men, Women and Children at the mass grave at Wounded Knee used for publicity by the United States Government nor their colonial corporation, the Oglala Sioux Tribal Government.” (In all fairness, when Means labels the tribal government a pawn of the U.S. government, it should be noted that he has come very close to winning the presidency several times, including against Two Bulls in 2008.) Several YouTube comments liken the U.S. landing at Wounded Knee to the Lakota landing in Arlington National Cemetery. And the Aboriginal News Group writes,

This domestic military action is a deliberate insult and an obvious message of ongoing colonialism, state-sponsored racism and apathetic Indigenous genocide to all Indigenous peoples across the Fourth World; to the whole of the Lakota/Dakota Nation; and to the Indigenous residents of Pine Ridge and Wounded Knee. The symbolism of dispatching the Seventh Cavalry to Wounded Knee in an attempt to land weapons of mass destruction on Aboriginal sacred ground tells us how little this government, and this particular administration, respects the people of Indian Country and our significant historical perspective as survivors of the racist Euro-settler xenophobic purges waged against the Indian in the Americas

A resolution is being presented to the Tribal Council today that lays out the history of Wounded Knee and would continue the tribe’s attempts to get 20 Medals of Honor from the 1890 massacre revoked. It would also “not allow the United States Military from this time forward to come anywhere near the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre Mass Grave in order to demonstrate Honor and Respect for the Lakota people buried there, and to ensure a peaceful, nonviolent, weapon-free zone for the Mass Gravesite area.” Whether this resolution passes or not, the base commander of wherever it is in Colorado those helicopters were from would do well to apologize, and the Pentagon should revoke those 20 medals. Too little too late, but at least it would be something. And on the personal level - I wish we'd turned that car around to find out what the helicopters were doing. I would've asked those gathered if they wouldn't've minded a white boy joining the protest.

Tags: military, race, Wounded Knee, American Indians, South Dakota (all tags)



RE: Military Lands Black Hawks At Wounded Knee Gravesite

Just to be clear in all this:


1.  I have some lineage to two differing nations of Native Americans...Chippewa (Metis) and Lakota (probably Yankton). 

2. I lived in SD, on a reservation, for 6 years.

I really understand the insult this incident brings to the communities, unintended or not.  It is a disrespect, period.


Unless the "Blackhawks" were loaded with rocket pods, they are not war machines any more than a Caterpillar payloader is a war machine.  They were also unarmed, meaning that even if they had loaded the Side-board self-defense MG's, they would NOT be authorized to carry ammo.  But even loading the MG's would be a big no-no.  So they were unarmed transports, not war machines.  And DEFINATELY NOT heavy war machines.  Why is this a big deal?  Heavy War machines ARE intimidating (I was just involved in a discussion about this).  An unarmed blackhawk is not intimidating next to a REAL Heavy War Machine.  And yes, there are civilian versions of the same airframe so they are not pure military.  Now, that said, I get the point...they REPRESENT the military, something not popular (understatement) with the Pine Ridge Community, invited or not.  A flashy entrance and POOR choice of landing spot is too much.  Humility would have been the better part of valour here.  Sigh.

Still, a pretty stupid move.  Were they US Military (ie Federal) helicopters, or SD NG?  It makes a BIG difference as I could see the SD State Govt. doing something this stupid, transporting the soliders of the 7th on SD NG helicopters.

I ask about the designation of the 7th as the source of the helicopters because all of its units are currently HQ'd in either Texas, Georgia, or South Korea.  It is a hell of a flight from those places to Wounded Knee and I wonder if maybe someone mistook the unit trying to land with the unit that was invited.  ( I can honestly see SD pilots laughing about how they pissed off the "locals" and embarrased the "feds", all innocently.)

by Hammer1001 2010-05-03 06:01PM | 0 recs
RE: Military Lands Black Hawks At Wounded Knee Gravesite

It was not the state government. In a press release, Two Bulls said it was the Colorado National Guard. A number of folks said they heard her say 7th Cavalry on KILI radio the night before. Most Indian blogs are referring to the 7th Cav. That's about all I know regarding the units involved. I was originally holding back on 7th referecnes until I saw people quoting KILI.

I think the term "war machine" is an appropriate one. A gun is a war machine, even if it's unloaded. Think of the Black Hawk as the gun, and the non-existent weapons as the bullets. It was an unloaded gun - perhaps harmless, but you nailed it when you talked about the symbolism, and I think that's huge here.

by Nathan Empsall 2010-05-03 06:21PM | 0 recs
RE: Military Lands Black Hawks At Wounded Knee Gravesite

Ok, so the Rapid City Journal just posted a story that says, "Oglala Sioux Tribe Police Chief Everett Little Whiteman said the helicopters, which were from a National Guard unit in Denver, Colo., were supposed to be met by a Lakota historian who was to explain the significance of the battlefield site." It's clearly not the SD NG, but this casts doubt on 7th Cav involvement. I've edited the post to reflect that.

by Nathan Empsall 2010-05-03 07:02PM | 0 recs
RE: Military Lands Black Hawks At Wounded Knee Gravesite

Yeah, I thought so.  I can see NG's making this kind of goof.  Not something to gloss over regardless, but at least it was NOT the 7th Cavalry landing on the grave.  Bad enough it happened, but if it HAD been the 7th, in this fashion,...oh Dear God.

As for the Blackhawks, they were completely unarmed...they do not have built in weapons.  Weapons have to be attached and are something of a pain to add.  They were "clean" or "slick" weapons.  Which makes them the equivalent of a flying bus, not a war machine.  But again, they were military and THAT is the problem,...just as much as if a miltary bus had tried parking on the grave. just makes me cringe thinking about the stupidity of this.

by Hammer1001 2010-05-03 11:06PM | 0 recs
RE: Military Lands Black Hawks At Wounded Knee Gravesite

Whether or not it was a war machine, I think the concern lies with the perception by the residents.  If I were in their shoes, I feel like my reaction would be the same whether or not the helicopter was heavily armed.


Anyway, not to dwell on that particular issue. 

I am glad that the military wanted its soldiers to learn about the 1890 incident. That desire to improve relations is a good sign, but the way it was implemented is ironic proof of just how badly that education is needed.

I started to think something similar as I read down your diary, then came to this particular excerpt.  I couldn't agree more.  Personally, I vouch that I had no previous knowledge of the Wounded Knee gravesite.  Its good knowledge to have.  

by Chuckie Corra 2010-05-04 01:24AM | 1 recs
zero excuse. zero

I totally understand why nobody is buying the official line. I know I don't.

There needs to be an indepentent investigation (obviously not the FBI). Mounties, maybe Scotland Yard, but nobody is going to trust the US Government, not on anything involving that land.

by Bob Brigham 2010-05-03 09:55PM | 0 recs
RE: zero excuse. zero

I didn't either at first, given that the museum was closed, but then I read about the upset women who was there to give the presentation, and that I think lends some credibility to the explanation. Doesn't make the landing site or method of transportation any better, though. Like you say, zero excuse.

by Nathan Empsall 2010-05-03 11:00PM | 0 recs
RE: zero excuse. zero

I just hate how much pain this is bringing to the surface for so many people. So much history, maybe even too much.

Great read, though.

by Bob Brigham 2010-05-04 12:05AM | 0 recs
Are we to understand the US government has not yet apologized for Wounded Knee?

If so, then it is time for President Obama to make a well-publicized trip to Wounded Knee to offer an apology on behalf of the government/military for this atrocity. And withdrawing any Medals of Honor given for massacring civilian Native Americans seems justified.


by MainStreet 2010-05-04 10:24AM | 1 recs
On the bright side

They didn't come swooping in playing Wagner's 'Flight of the Valkyries'

More seriously arguing that these were not 'war machines' because they didn't carry offensive weapons is like arguing that Custer's horses were not instruments of war because they, I guess, didn't have razors embedded in their hooves. A Blackhawk is designed to deliver armed soldiers to a battlefield just as a landing craft or an armored assault vehicle is, the presence or absence of something like a 20 MM or a door gun doesn't change that. And the same goes for the presence or absence of unit insignia from the 7th Cavalry, what is the argument supposed to be "No we are from an OTHER cavalry regiment, a one that (far as you know) WASN'T used to massacre Native Americans." I doubt many of the victims at Wounded Knee noticed or cared which guidon the soldiers were carrying during the massacre.

by Bruce Webb 2010-05-04 11:31AM | 1 recs
RE: On the bright side

The argument is more than just war machines, it is also HEAVY war machines.  I also served in the military, as one with a conscience, so the difference matters to me in particular.  Heavy war machines have as much of a psychological impact as a killing impact.  Had a Apache attack helicopter landed, it would have been trying to be a imposing presence.  A Blackhawk is best described as a flying bus, a transport.  If we are going to call that a war machine, then the Toyota Prius carrying soldiers is a war machine...and so is a shovel (designed for a use in war and built to be used in time of war).   I am not willing to go that far.  Military transport, sure (emphasis on MILITARY).  War machine...???

Blackhawks are also sold commercially as S-70's.  They do have a civilian transport function, which is also part of my basis for the hair-splitting.  For example, there is NO commercial version of the AH-64 Apache, which would qualify as a war machine, and a heavy one at that.

As for the Pine Ridge Lakota and the 7th, you are wrong.  Go talk to them, they have a strong cultural anger at the 7th Calvalry in particular.  Having the military disrespect them in this way is bad enough...but if it had been the 7th, it would have been a LOT worse.  Hard to describe it so like I said, go talk to the Pine Ridge Lakota about it.

by Hammer1001 2010-05-04 01:06PM | 0 recs
RE: On the bright side

I'm with Hammer1001 100% about the 7th vs. the CO NG. Bruce said it wouldn't have mattered in the 1800s what unit was attacking, and that might be true, but since the Indian Wars (including Wounded Knee) were led by a particular unit, Hammer is absolutely right about today - there is an impotant symbolism to that particular unit now, so thank God it was just a rumor that it was the 7th (which I will frontpage in a later post).

I have to side with Bruce about the "war machine" terminology, though. To me, there's not much of a difference between an Apache and a Black Hawk. A vet like you knows the difference, but industry knowledge and intellectual truths aside, when an uninformed random person sees a Black Hawk, unarmed or not, it's not a lot different than seeing an Apache, but it is a lot different than seeing a Prius. If the soldiers drove out on the normal roads to the public parking lot in a bus, it would have been much different. Maybe it shouldn't be different, but given community and lay understandings, it is, just as with the unit symbolism.

by Nathan Empsall 2010-05-04 02:49PM | 0 recs


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