Stew Magnuson: Conference looks at Wounded Knee 1973

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

View from a Wasicu
By Stew Magnuson

On Feb. 27, 1973, American Indian Movement leaders and a few hundred Oglalas occupied the town of Wounded Knee, on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The 71-day protest and the siege conducted by the FBI, federal marshals and Oglalas loyal to then-tribal president Dick Wilson made international headlines.

The occupation began as a protest against the Wilson administration, but grew into something much more. For many, it became a statement about the ill treatment and broken treaties Native Americans had suffered for hundreds of years.

The symbolism of the site was not lost on the media: this was where Chief Big Foot and his band of Mniconjou Lakotas were slaughtered by the 7th Cavalry in 1890.

Next year is the 40th anniversary of the occupation, and I expect there will be even more frequent debates about the meaning and consequences of the incident as Feb. 27, 2013 grows closer.

The Center for Western Studies at Augustana College in Sioux Falls has put together an incredible program with a theme devoted to Wounded Knee for its 44th Annual Dakota Conference. The center has invited speakers who not only experienced the occupation within the confines of the hamlet, but speakers who opposed it outside its perimeter. Organizers of the April 27-28, 2012 program have invited everyone from one-time AIM leader Russell Means to Joseph Trimbach, the FBI agent in charge of containing the occupation.

Trimbach will be there with his son, John. They co-authored a book about AIM called “American Indian Mafia.” The title leaves no doubt about their views. They will be on a panel with Paul DeMain, publisher of News from Indian Country, and Denise Maloney, the daughter of Anna Mae Aquash, an AIM member who was married during the occupation and then years later brutally murdered by three rank-and-file AIM members.

Native Sun News columnist and academic Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, an ardent supporter of AIM, will speak, as will one of the attorneys responsible for prosecuting AIM leaders after the occupation, Judge David Gienapp. The judge is also a former assistant U.S. attorney. Former Sen. James Abourezk, who was a freshman senator representing South Dakota at the time of the incident, will share his memories during a lunchtime speech.

There will be a screening of a pro-AIM documentary about Dennis Banks entitled “A Good Day to Die” and several other short films about AIM. As a reporter, I am looking forward to the discussions on the role of the media during the occupation.

Many rank-and-file occupiers will participate in other panels. Also delivering a keynote speech will be Kevin McKiernan, who reported from inside the hamlet for National Public Radio.

While few of these speakers with opposing points of view will be on the same panels, I expect they will be attending each other’s talks. These aren’t shy people. I’m predicting some vigorous and probably heated discussions. The Wounded Knee Occupation may have been 40 years ago, but many of those involved are still around, and they have emotional stakes in how this incident is perceived and will be perceived long after we have all left this mortal coil.

As we all know, the wounds are still fresh. Take the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 as a harbinger. This incident still brings up raw emotions and much disagreement among historians and members of the public 12 decades later. I expect the occupation will also be talked about well into the future.

Last summer in this column, I wrote about the need for a comprehensive, well-written and well-balanced book about the occupation. It doesn’t exist at the moment, but maybe this conference will ignite some enterprising writer to take on this challenge (see this column).

As for me, I will be speaking at the Friday night dinner about The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder in Gordon and the Nebraska border town’s role in both Wounded Knee incidents. Readers of my book and this column know that I have taken a dim view of both sides of the Wounded Knee Occupation. I have little admiration for AIM leadership (I stress the word leadership here) or the overreaching FBI of that era.

So I expect to take some flak from both sides. Such is the fate for us hard-line centrists (I was recently called a “right-wing bigot” by an AIMster in Native Sun News’ letters to the editor page, which I found quite amusing).

But I can give as good as I get. I will be attending as both a speaker and a journalist. My chief question for those who participated in the occupation will be whether they know anything about the missing and presumed dead civil rights activist, Ray Robinson, who was last seen inside the village. Robinson’s widow, Cheryl, will be in attendance.

Aside from the Wounded Knee theme, the Dakota Conference will feature other presentations about the Great Plains, including Native American history and art, the settler communities, and politics and literature. I am particularly looking forward to Michael Lawson’s talk about his book “Dammed Indians Revisited,” the updated version of his story of the Pick-Sloan plan to dam the Missouri and how Washington railroaded the peoples who lived along its banks.

This will be a once-in-a-lifetime conference. And it certainly won’t be boring!

Stew Magnuson is the author of “The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder” and the recently released novel “The Song of Sarin,” a fictional account of the March 20, 1995 subway nerve gas attack in Tokyo. Both works are available wherever fine eBooks are sold. Contact him at stewmag@yahoo.com

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