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Tim Giago: Closing a dark chapter at Pine Ridge

Ordinarily I do not respond to attacks upon my column unless the attacks are laced with untruths. A response to my column about the American Indian Movement and its involvement in the death of Anna Mae Pictou Aquash by Bill Means does deserve a response.

A member of AIM, Arlo Looking Cloud, was convicted as a participant in the death of Anna Mae. This is a fact. Most of the items in my column about events leading up to her death and after are well documented in the court records of the Looking Cloud trial. Anyone wishing to have access to those court documents will find them readily available.

John “Boy” Graham will eventually be extradited from Canada and he will stand trial for Anna Mae’s murder. Bill Means will then have the opportunity to defend AIM in a court of law and as he suggests, “AIM will stand before any court and compare our record with the FBI.” The trial will determine the righteousness of his comment.

Means also claims, “Over eighty Oglala tribal members were killed by the ‘goons’ between 1973 and 1976 and no one was ever charged and many of these deaths were not investigated. The only reason these people were killed is because they were identified as AIM members.” I have a lot of respect for Bill Means, but this statement is not true and is one of the main focal points of AIM’s distortion of the facts.

When I was the editor of the Indian Country Today, we published a list of every member of the Oglala Lakota tribe killed from 1973 to 1976. Only a couple of the deaths were questionable. Nearly every death was related to domestic violence, suicide, accidents or killings while the perpetrator was intoxicated. Every death was thoroughly investigated by the Oglala Tribal Police and the FBI. In most of the cases the killers were identified, tried and convicted. This information is also readily available to anyone interested in obtaining it.

Although undermanned and under funded, the Oglala Public Safety Commission has done an excellent job in their efforts to maintain law and order on the Pine Ridge Reservation since the occupation of Wounded Knee.

I have no axe to grind with any member of the American Indian Movement. And for the record, I have no envy or jealousy of Russell Means, Dennis Banks, Bill Means, or of Clyde or Vernon Bellecourt. Over the years I have worked with Vernon Bellecourt on the issue of using Indians as mascots. We have worked well together and have even become friends.

Many members of AIM have gone on to establish worthwhile social projects and business enterprises. And when the infighting within AIM became unbearable to some, they simply dropped out of the organization and moved on with their lives.

I believe that the occupation of Wounded Knee by AIM in 1973 was wrong. For some to call it the “Liberation of Wounded Knee” is patently ridiculous. An entire village, trading post and a church were completely destroyed. Nearly 30 families were left homeless. No one, not AIM or the tribal government, has made an effort to rebuild the homes that were destroyed and members of the Wounded Knee community have pleaded and begged for 34 years to get the help so that they can move home.

The occupation of Wounded Knee did nothing to elevate the lives of the people of the Pine Ridge Reservation. In fact, the violence and appearance of lawlessness had just the opposite effect. Many programs earmarked for the reservation were canceled and several businesses wishing to build on the reservation withdrew their applications. Seven years after the occupation the Pine Ridge Reservation earned the dubious distinction by the U. S. Census Bureau of being declared the “Poorest County in America.”

The trial of John “Boy” Graham will, in all likelihood, reveal many more moments in the history of AIM that will not be appealing. The trial will probably take place in the federal courthouse in Rapid City, SD in 2008.

I wrote articles questioning the leadership and the tactics of AIM 27 years ago and have written several articles since then. For my efforts my newspaper had its windows blasted out and an attempt was made to burn my building to the ground in 1982 and my life and that of my family was threatened. My articles questioned the continued violence and confrontations between the different factions on the Pine Ridge Reservation. It took the courage of Oglala tribal president Joe American Horse, standing up on the council floor to defend my newspaper, that finally brought the assaults upon the Lakota Times to an end.

As it was then and it is now, my only purpose in writing about AIM, the Oglala Sioux Tribal Government and the FBI in those days was in an effort to seek out truth and justice.

I hope that the trial of John “Boy” Graham will bring further closure to the family of Anna Mae Pictou Aquash, and that a dark chapter in the history of the Oglala Lakota Nation will come to an end.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the Class of 1991 and founder of The Lakota Times and Indian Country Today newspapers. He founded and was the first president of the Native American Journalists Association. He can be reached at najournalist@msn.com.

More Tim Giago:
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Tim Giago: Freedom of the press has a chance (10/31)
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