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.