OGLALA, S.D. - With communities already slowed by the tribal observance of Native American Day, a handful of Oglala Lakotas and a contingent of Leonard Peltier supporters gathered solemnly at the Harry Jumping Bull residence to "remember and to heal."
The gathering commemorated the 25-year anniversary of the deaths of Joe Stuntz, Jack Coler and Ronald Williams. FBI Agents Williams and Coler were slain during a gun battle in a nearby field. Stuntz, a Klamath from Washington, was killed in the same firefight.
After morning prayers at the residence, the group, by now 100 strong, walked the two miles to the Stuntz gravesite. There a ceremony of remembrance was held with gunfight participants Dino Butler and Norman Brown speaking. Also speaking was American Indian Movement leader Vernon Bellecourt.
Despite the mild weather, turnout for the June 26 event was low. A similar event five years ago drew several hundred people. No officials of the Oglala Sioux Tribal government were present in an official capacity.
Tribal Vice President Wilbur Between Lodges, who echoed the sentiments of many, said his memories about the event have always been complicated. "I have feelings that go on both sides. I regret the violence came to that, but, unfortunately, it seemed like it was always possible."
Asked about the small number of Oglala Lakota tribal members participating, local residents said that over the years the prevailing sentiment of most tribal members became to "just put the incident behind them."
"There's too many bad memories. Everybody was always angry and afraid. We don't want to go back to that," said an Oglala resident who asked not to be identified.
Marie Not Help Him, a resident of Oglala District, the community in which the gunfight took place, thinks that anger from injustices over the years made the Jumping Bull shootout, or something like it, inevitable. Border town racism, a pattern of harassment by the FBI against "traditional people," and a growing number of unsolved murders made some major conflict a certainty, said Not Help Him.
Oglala District councilman Paul Little said much of what people think about the murders will remain unsaid. "I was living in Arizona at the time of the shootout. When I got home, I asked my dad about what happened, but he just kept quiet. After awhile he said, 'Someday, I'll tell you about it, son,' but someday never came. I think his feelings went real deep about it."
Little's father, Wallace Little, was a supporter of the encampment on the Jumping Bull property and offered a gravesite in the Little family plot to bury Stuntz.
Little said most of the elders he's talked to in his district feel the same way. "Better not to say anything because there's too many bad memories. Not too many of them want to revisit those bad memories."
Ellen Moves Camp, a long-time traditionalist from the Eagle Nest District, was part of the encampment just below the Jumping Bull residence. "On the day it happened, we asked Joe (Stuntz) to come with us to Custer because we had a court date there. He said he just wanted to stay behind, wash his clothes and rest. He was such a nice boy. We asked him again, but he decided to stay. That was that.
"Nothing has changed, we're still here and we don't have much. But we know how to survive," said Moves Camp. "It's a shame. It doesn't seem like anybody really learned anything so, who knows, maybe something like it could happen again. I'd sure hate to see that."