WOUNDED KNEE, S.D. - A handful of American Indians took over a church on
Feb. 27, 1973 to protest racism and corruption in the Oglala Sioux
government. A 71-day war resulted.
It wasn't meant to be a shootout; the intent was to protest events that
were crushing the people's pride and dignity on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
Traditional Oglala people claimed they were ignored and some said at the
time they were afraid to go into town (Pine Ridge village) for essential
items such as food.
That's when Severt Young Bear, Lakota elder, called in the American Indian
Movement: and traditional people and AIM members stood together in the
standoff that attracted the media and captured the hearts of supporters
Oglala Sioux Tribal President Dick Wilson was accused of authoritarian rule
on Pine Ridge, and of using Goon (Guardians of the Oglala Nation) squads to
keep order and to keep the traditional people and those who didn't support
his administration in line, the traditional elders said.
Two events - the violent deaths of an Oglala man in Gordon, Neb. and
another in Custer County, S.D. - brought thousands of protesters to the
area. Arrests were made and buildings burned. The demonstrations and the
occupation spilled over to the Pine Ridge Reservation, and the occupation
of Wounded Knee began.
Two American Indians were killed and many others wounded. Two law
enforcement officials were wounded.
A new documentary film, "A Tattoo on My Heart," presents the warriors'
point of view through actual film footage from the occupation and
contemporary interviews. The film tells their story and their feelings
about their stand against the most powerful military in the world - and how
they became heroes. Its world premiere was held on the occupation's 32nd
anniversary, bringing community residents and occupation veterans together
to experience the film and honor those who took a stand against tyranny and
Wilson and some of his supporters are portrayed as uncaring, sarcastic
fools in brief clips; one shows him commenting on the accusations against
him: "There have been a number of accusations made lately," he said,
smiling; a supporter seated next to him said sarcastically, "We are all
Wounded Knee, as the film points out, was chosen as the site to make a
stand with the knowledge that the Wilson administration and the federal
government planned to protect the tribal administration and adjacent BIA
buildings in Pine Ridge village. Machine gun nests were placed on top of
the BIA building on all four corners; and armored personnel carriers, the
FBI, federal marshals and the military were brought in to squelch any such
Anticipating this, the protestors instead went to where their ancestors had
died at the hands of the 7th U.S. Cavalry in 1890: Wounded Knee.
Rapid City, S.D. attorney Charles Abourezk wrote, directed and produced the
film; his partner, Brett Lawlor, was the executive producer. It took two
years and 50 edits to complete the project. Floyd Red Crow Westerman, a
veteran of AIM protests of the '70s, a songwriter, singer and Hollywood
actor, is the narrator.
How important was the occupation and standoff to those who were there? It
changed their lives, they said on film and in person, and they believe it
changed the lives of all American Indians.
"Wounded Knee is like a tattoo on your heart ... Nobody could take away the
stand that we made," Bill Means said on film.
Madonna Thunder Hawk, Cheyenne River Sioux tribal member, was a medic in
the AIM compound. She said she is proud when she sees her son's picture in
the film; at the time, he was 10 years old. She now has a grandson that
age. "My grandson knows who he is." And that, she said, is why the standoff
and occupation were organized and took place.
Those in the compound knew they couldn't win the war, but what they gained
was more important. Defending the pride, dignity and spirit of American
Indians across the country prompted the takeover, not a desire for war.
"If another Wounded Knee [happened], I would do it again," said Webster
Poor Bear on film. "Because the reasons we did that are so powerful, truth
is so powerful. Gandhi said [that] even if you are a minority of one, the
truth is still the truth. That's why I was at Wounded Knee.
"I didn't realize how deep that truth went or how broad. When you live like
that it's an honorable way to live ... I am honored and privileged to have
stood with them."
DVDs of the film are available at www.warriorsofwoundedknee.com.