Stew Magnuson: Remember Raymond Yellow Thunder's life

The following opinion from Stew Magnuson appears in the latest issue of the Native Sun News. All content © Native Sun News.

Raymond Yellow Thunder. Courtesy photo

View from a Wasicu
Columnist for Native Sun News

The 40th anniversary of the day Raymond Yellow Thunder died in Gordon, Nebraska, is sometime in the middle of February.

It was February 12, 1972, when four white men grabbed Yellow Thunder, age 51, roughed him up a bit, stripped him from the waist down, tossed him in the trunk of a Ford when the temperature was about 22 degrees, then shoved him half naked into the American Legion Hall while a dance was under way.

He was spotted alive resting in the front of a used truck in the backlot of a car dealership the following day. He was found dead there eight days later. The exact day when he passed away will never be known.

As most know, his death sparked a large protest and brought the American Indian Movement to Pine Ridge for the first time. The organization’s presence there eventually led to the Wounded Knee occupation, and a prolonged dirty war between the movement, the tribal government and federal agents.

It was a watershed moment in the Native American rights movement.

But often in these cases, the victim becomes a symbol. The perpetrators become better known than the person they wronged. Yellow Thunder himself became a footnote in history books.

And so to mark the anniversary of his death, I would like to remember Raymond.

Raymond Yellow Thunder was born near Kyle on the Pine Ridge Reservation. He was a direct descendant of American Horse, a so-called progressive chief who believed strongly that education and hard work was the best way for the Lakota peoples to advance. Raymond’s parents, Andrew and Jennie felt the same, and they maintained a farm and a small herd of horses. His life was in many ways typical of that era.

His two brothers and four sisters were expected to do chores and attend school and the Episcopal church regularly. These were the days before buses, and the Yellow Thunder children made their way to the school on horseback.

Students who remembered him recalled that he was a rough and tumble boy, not a particularly dedicated student, but he had a knack for drawing. He didn’t advance to high school, but instead went to work on ranches and farms.

He may have been a rough and tumble boy and had some scraps in the schoolyard, but he grew up to become by all accounts a gentle and quiet man.

He married Dora Cutgrass at a young age, and the pair were a striking couple as they rode their horses on the reservation. Raymond was a cowboy, in the real sense of the word. He had a talent for ranch work, especially taming horses. It was said he could have made a good bronc rider if he had joined the rodeo circuit.

Unfortunately, Raymond began drinking. The marriage didn’t last. One of her cousins who knew the couple at the time said he was generous – perhaps to a fault. When he got a little money, he spent it on alcohol for his friends. The couple split after a few years. They did not have any children.

Raymond spent most of his adult life working on farms and ranches in Nebraska. He was a steady employee. He was so reliable that Harold Rucker, who employed Yellow Thunder for many years, was immediately alarmed when he wasn’t at the appointed spot in Gordon where he picked him up to take him back to the ranch on Sunday evenings.

He was what you might call today, a “binge drinker.” Basically, he worked hard all week, then went to town on the weekends and drank.

Does this sound familiar to anyone? White, Indian or otherwise, going into town to blow off steam on a Saturday night has been a tradition for ranch hands since ranches existed.

It was not a crime for a white ranch or farm worker to get ripped on a Saturday night in Sheridan County in those days. But it was for Native Americans. The defense attorneys for the perpetrators of the crime cynically tried to make hay out of Yellow Thunder’s numerous arrests for public drunkenness. (As if he had brought the terrible crime on himself somehow.)

Some folks get belligerent when drinking. Yellow Thunder was the opposite. He was mellow and friendly.

He did not drink every weekend. He would also make the rounds to visit his brothers and sisters in Gordon and on the reservation. He almost always arrived with a bag of groceries and little gifts for the nieces and nephews. He would delight the kids by drawing lifelike pictures of horses and other scenes.

If Raymond hadn’t died in the old truck 40 years ago, there is no reason to believe that he wouldn’t have lived to a ripe old age. His brother Russell passed away only a few years ago.

I asked his nephew, Dennis Yellow Thunder, if there was anything he wanted to share in this column. He only replied that “the Yellow Thunder family in Wakpamni Lake, wishes everyone well and that peace and unity will find their way into their hearts.”

It’s a nice way to remember the quiet, gentle man who was Raymond Yellow Thunder.

Stew Magnuson (stewmag@yahoo.com) is the author of The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder: And Other True Stories from the Nebraska-Pine Ridge Border Towns, which will soon be available in ebook format.

Join the Conversation