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Kent: Signals crossed at Wounded Knee – again

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The only thing worse than poor communication is no communication at all; that’s what happened on the Pine Ridge Reservation May 1 at Wounded Knee – site of, perhaps, the greatest miscommunication and, unquestionably, one of the greatest tragedies in American history.

As the noon hour approached, so did three Colorado Army National Guard Black Hawk helicopters. Their destination: Wounded Knee.

Most local residents had heard about their arrival via the moccasin trail – which now includes the Internet and social networking sites like Facebook. Because of this piecemeal communication and due to the history of Wounded Knee, the Lakota people in the community were not pleased with the thought of military aircraft landing where 300 men, women and children had been massacred by U.S. cavalry forces in 1890.

Add to this the veritable military occupation of the area by federal forces in 1973 and the Wounded Knee community was livid.

I fully understand the seriousness of the history involved. Twenty-five years ago I sent a medal I’d received in the Marine Corps to the White House in protest of the Medals of Honor awarded to the 7th Cavalry after the massacre. And living nearby a rural “airport,” I’ve experienced unexplained helicopters buzzing by my house in the middle of the night (no, really).

Lakota tribal members – men and women, young and old – intercepted the Black Hawk helicopters as they attempted to land and forced the aircraft to vacate the area. It was a victory for the Lakota people at the site of their greatest defeat. Of course, the question remained: Why? What would prompt the U.S. military to send helicopters to the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre?

Explanations ran the gamut from the arrival of WMDs to uranium exploration. The rumors also included accusations that Oglala Sioux Tribe President Theresa Two Bulls had known about the helicopters’ arrival in advance.

It took a couple of days to learn the truth. During that time, tempers flared from the Pine Ridge Reservation halfway around the world. How dare the U.S. military show such disrespect by arriving via “warships” upon the graves of the Lakota dead. Or so the thought process went until the reality behind the chaos emerged with the start of the work week.

Apparently, Two Bulls had known about the helicopters’ planned arrival. She announced it on the reservation’s KILI radio station the day before and advised local council representatives. It seems no one was listening or no one heard; either because their radios weren’t tuned to KILI or due to in-house politics. I can’t say. But I can attest to the level of anger among those who were at Wounded Knee that morning as well as the many across the state – and the nation – who heard about the incident. I believe the word is rage.

Two Bulls had approved a Colorado National Guard request to visit Wounded Knee for educational purposes as “a site where military leadership had broken down and caused the massacre.” That admission, in itself, is a huge step toward recognition by non-Natives of the reality of what took place there. Lakota historians were to greet the Guard members and offer further insight into that extraordinary calamity.

The Guard may have some familiarity with Lakota history, but they’re not familiar with the Lakota culture. That’s why it was up to Two Bulls to mention the inappropriateness of landing helicopters near the mass grave site – not invite them to do so.

Two Bulls has admitted she made a mistake by not communicating better with everyone involved, but there still seems to be quite a bit of hostility among some community members toward the Guard. They’re seen as representatives of the federal government and the 7th Cavalry who “need to be taught a lesson.” They’re not. They’re members of a neighboring state’s volunteer military unit who asked to visit Wounded Knee in order to learn a lesson. That opportunity was lost by miscommunication within the tribe from the top down.

But anyone can make a mistake or do something inappropriate – regardless of color. Several years ago on a cold, winter day while my wife and I stopped at Wounded Knee to pay our respects as we have done many times, a young Lakota man approached me holding several dream catchers and asked if I’d like to buy one. I paused, said I’d speak to him at the bottom of the hill, and finished my prayer. I later advised the young man that the place to exchange money wasn’t at the mass grave of his ancestors.

It’s all about communication – and learning.

Jim Kent is a freelance writer and radio journalist who lives in Hot Springs, S.D. He can be heard regularly on South Dakota Public Radio, Nebraska Public Radio, National Native News Radio and Voice of America Radio. He can be reached at