After about 60 days of the siege of Wounded Knee we received word at Crow Dog Camp that the battle may be ending soon and that we should prepare to leave. All together the siege lasted 71 days, the longest such event involving American and Indigenous personnel. It wasn’t until several months later that we found out why.
Again, thanks to Watergate and the Nixon tapes, the truth slowly emerged. We found out that the FBI had used the incident as an opportunity to conduct a COINTELPRO rural insurgency exercise. They had conducted urban exercises but now they had the chance to practice a rural one. What this meant was they had the opportunity to test all of their counter intelligence systems and planning under actual conditions. So for 60 or so days the feds had no intention of bringing the situation to a resolution.
It helped answer a burning question that we had been raising since the beginning of the siege and that was – if this were a spontaneous incident, born out of the frustration and anger of the Lakota people over the occupation and terror campaign being conducted at Pine Ridge, how on earth did they wake up completely surrounded by federal police and military forces along with state, local and tribal police forces? John Mohawk had been the first to ask this question and not once did we ever get an answer from any significant source. Nor were we able to get the so-called mainstream press to raise this question.
Only when we understood that this was part of Nixon’s “we’ll get them later” strategy did we begin to see how everything had been manipulated and designed to end up in exactly this scenario. It wasn’t just about revenge for the BIA building but part of the fear and paranoia Nixon and others had of the rising civil rights, anti war and other pro democracy movements.
But the attempt to repress Indigenous movements and demands didn’t end there. It carried on in various guises for several decades including America’s refusal to endorse the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples or to release Leonard Peltier.
After we arrived home we had to report to Grand Council and our respective national councils on all that we had seen and been a part of while we were assisting the Lakota. I had the opportunity to recount my encounter with the elder at Rosebud and ask if we knew about this and what was our understanding of this piece of history.
For a few months no one seemed to remember this piece of history until we were having a discussion with Oneida elder Dennison Elijah. He listened intently and then said to us, “I think I remember something about this.”
He went on to tell us, “This happened at the time we were bringing the Great Peace to the other nations. As I remember it we encountered those people out past the Mississippi.”
“When we met them they were led by a man who carried a spear. So when our people began telling them about the Great Peace he held that spear out in front of him and our speaker laid each wampum string on it as he finished the words.”
“When they had finished the message that man shook his spear and threw the wampum on to the ground. He told our people, ‘This spear is what we believe in, not those words!’”
“So our speaker picked up the wampums and began reciting the message again. Again that man held his spear out and the wampums were placed on it. And once again, he did the same thing.”
“So our speaker tried for the third time to get them to hear the message and once again the same thing happened.”
“This time another of our people stepped forward and threw the black war wampum belt at that man’s feet and the battle was on.”
“That old man was right, the first time we lost that battle. So we made it look like we were leaving but we left some men behind because the reason we lost is that we didn’t know that land. You guys have been out there and you know how different it is.”
“The rest of our delegation came home to get more warriors and they went back out there. Because we had left those guys behind we now understood that land and this time we won the battle.”
“So our two nations sat down and made peace between us. They were clear that they wouldn’t come and sit under the Tree of Peace but they would sit close and wouldn’t break the peace. We said that was good enough for them, as long as peace had been made.”
“So because of that we became what you could call allies. That’s more than friends. It means you help and support each other.”
Finally, I understood what was meant by “our long standing relations”. Even though we didn’t completely know what was meant by that phrase it was still something we knew and understood from deep within ourselves as true. It was something that had become part of our genetic or blood memory.
A number of teachings and lessons emerged from this moment in history. One that stood out in my mind was how our delegation was carrying the black war wampum belt even though they were on a mission to extend the Great Peace. At first I saw the practicality of our people. That even though they were on an important and critical mission to bring about peace they recognized the necessity that they may encounter a situation that could lead to war and they were ready for it.
Secondly, they didn’t let one setback stop them from their primary mission. They went home and gathered up more warriors and returned to complete that mission. Accomplishing peace was of utmost importance. Peace wasn’t a onetime spontaneous event it was and is, a process that has to be worked at even under difficult situations and conditions.
Thirdly, it wasn’t about the conquest of a nation or a people. It was about the hard struggle that sometimes occurs when one is trying to achieve a higher end or goal. Because at the end of the second battle we made sure that nothing occurred that would extinguish their “fire”.
During earlier recitations of the Great Binding Law of Peace I had heard the phrase – “and each nation continued to have their own fire”. It was explained to me that what this meant is that each nation that chose to come and sit under the Tree of Peace maintained their own way of governance, their ceremonies, their ways. We asked only one thing of them, to promise to give up making war.
It also meant that we had to become their protector until the other nations in their region also accepted the Great Peace. We couldn’t leave them vulnerable to attack by those who were their enemies.
What is also inherent in this responsibility is the requirement that we would do what was needed to be done to bring peace to the whole region. This meant that we worked at finding the way and creating the mechanisms that would bring about a lasting peace amongst all nations as we expanded the Great Peace.
So, it’s no wonder that in 1948, the newly formed United Nations invited Haudenosaunee leaders to come to New York City to take part in the laying of the cornerstone for the new U.N. headquarters. Someone had done some deep research to find our history and had the ability to see how we were the original Peacemakers.
This is a profound legacy and inheritance we have been gifted with.