“It was the freest most exhilarating time of our lives.”
This is not an overview story of the occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota occurring on that cold winter in 1973. Although that short period stands out as the singular most life-changing experience of my eventful 82 years, I will leave the telling of that important tale to the others that were in a better position to see and explain the bigger picture.
I will tell you instead of a little slice of time, which includes leaving one world in Southern California and entering another at Wounded Knee, South Dakota.
The end of this personal memoir is my clandestine exit of the then newly formed Independent Oglala Nation (I.O.N.), with a hand-picked cadre of the Lakota American Indian Movement as an escort, and our interception and capture by the U.S. federal forces.
My journey began when the phone rang in Escondido, California. I was watching the news and the stories spun of "renegade Indians" regarding the takeover in progress of Wounded Knee, South Dakota.
Brother Carter was saying to me on the phone, "Hey, brother, we are in a hell of a fight" and it sounded like it.
Carter's name was being heard more frequently on national media; such as in TIME magazine which reported on "the exploits of the newest activist in the ‘Nixon versus the rest of us’ era." I left southern California that day on a commercial flight to Denver.
The American Indian Movement (AIM) chapter there exchanged my California clothes for a winter coat and Levi's and my loafers for high-topped boots. The Denver AIM guys were saying good and strong words — offering both encouragement and information on the latest at Wounded Knee — during our brief encounter.
Then it was just me and the pilot in a small, light plane on a very low-altitude flight to South Dakota. We were staying under 1,000 feet to avoid detection, and I came to full alert when the pilot asked me to please help him watch for a couple of tall TV towers that did loom up just before and after passing near Scott's Bluff, Nebraska — where another bloody set-to between AIM and the local authorities had recently taken place. (In retrospect, the pilot, whose name I can’t recall ever hearing at that time, was on the record, an infiltrator for the FBI named Doug Durham.)
I flew into Rapid City. But I still had 40-50 miles to Pine Ridge. Upon my eventual arrival, the sandbag placements by the military at Pine Ridge were already noticeable at strategic points, including the roof of the BIA building.
On my first attempt to walk into Wounded Knee, I was turned back and forced to turn around by the military.
After I was forced to turn around on my initial attempt on the first day, that night was memorable in downtown Rapid City as the locals, both Indian and white, could talk of nothing else.
The following day was when I was able to get into Wounded Knee after hitching a ride partway with a small group of young men and women from the San Francisco Bay area and, SUCCESS!
I was now part of the chaotic scene inside Wounded Knee. That whole first day is kind of a montage of activity in my memory. Meeting Indians of all descriptions, some that later turned out to be lifelong friends and generally getting the lay of the land, literally as well as figuratively, is now only brief but still sharp pictures in my special memories album.
One of the earliest images engraved in memory is the silhouette of our youngest brother Craig, now a less svelte seventy-two, as he made his entrance into the busy activity of “downtown” Wounded Knee.
As brother Carter and I looked for Craig, we were afraid that we would miss him in the gloom. The search was made more difficult with only the light of flickering bonfires and distant headlights, plus great numbers of our brothers and sisters hurrying in all directions in the cold of the South Dakota winter.
I still look back and remember the pleasure and pride at being able to immediately recognize my brother's familiar walk as well as bearing. With us both coming in from California, Craig from mid-state and me from farther south — and with no previous knowledge of each other’s plans — we both arrived within a day of each other. At that moment we were three excited and happy brothers.
Not having been in the U.S. military service, I had not been under enemy fire (having a gun drawn and pointed or shot at you in a personal dispute doesn’t count) so I had some trepidation.
I wasn’t worried exactly, but more concerned and curious about myself. My concerns proved to be groundless. Firefights were as commonplace as nightfall and I found myself immediately caught up and too busy to think about anything other than the task at hand.
If using “commonplace” and “firefights” in the same sentence make it sound as though there was anything remotely casual about it, that is certainly not my intent. We were armed mostly with .22 caliber rifles along with shotguns and a few ancient ’30-’30s and one AK-47, our lone automatic weapon which incidentally became quite famous from a widely distributed picture of a warrior holding it victoriously overhead.
We encountered what has been called the heaviest firepower this side of Vietnam — with documented casings counted afterward — more than five hundred thousand rounds expended just from their side, in those busy days and cold nights.
One of my first experiences there was an all-night vigil before our positions could be realistically called bunkers, in a hillside foxhole with just brothers Craig and Carter. The most recent burst of fire had been very intense and, suddenly concerned about our gameplan, I turned to Carter and asked very seriously, “What is our fallback position?” To which he answered, ”there is none, this is it.”
When I turned and gave him a long look, he then said about no fallback position, “That sure sounds good, but it doesn’t wear worth a shit, does it?” and immediately all three of us are practically rolling around on the ground with laughter. Comic relief, of which there was plenty, as is our custom.
My education was ongoing. I learned to never be without your weapon if you were fortunate enough to have one. Also, I learned that even if you are freezing at night in the bunkers, by cutting a slit in an old army blanket, putting your head through and wearing it over your coat as a Pancho, you could stay plenty warm.
We learned that when their flares weren’t lighting up the sky, the tracer rounds were more discernible. I recall one night opening a door to step outside and seeing a ”tracer” that appeared as though it would hit me exactly between the eyes. Instinctively I jumped back indoors, but to my surprise and relief, the machine gun fire missed the whole house completely.
A not uncommon phenomenon for tracer fire, one of our Vietnam vets later told me, is that it often appears as though it is destined for you.
The area about a half-mile across and ringing Wounded Knee was soon blackened by the constant flares that lit up the night. It immediately became known only as the DMZ … or the demilitarized zone.
One morning, waking up to look across the DMZ to the surrounding hills, we were greeted by a bizarre sight, made so incongruous because of the setting.
Here we were, in the heartland of Native America, USA and there on the crest of each high point of land surrounding Wounded Knee, was perched a menacing U.S. armored personnel carrier (APC) and there they remained for the duration.
We were under siege, and most of that time no one was permitted to enter or leave Wounded Knee. That meant, Geneva Convention or no, that not only food became scarce, but things like insulin for diabetics, feminine hygiene supplies, baby food, and of course toilet paper (tp or treaty paper as it was often called), many of the things we take for granted we did without. We gained some relief with the advent of the pack trains. On mostly moonless nights and even otherwise, 12 or 15 volunteers of all description, mostly younger men but nearly as many women, using local guides, made the long, approximately 7-8 mile, overland walk to Manderson, a very small town with pro AIM sympathizers.
Once there, a waiting group of supporters, at their own peril, helped them load their backpacks with the most necessary items from a cache of supplies that were arriving daily from all over the country. Wisely, ammunition was not included. Warriors were sent out on special missions expressly for ammo. Then, the pack trains hazardously filed their return hike under the noses of the GOON squad and the federal forces with all their technology.
Not all of these unsung heroes and heroines made it back safely, but even so, there was never a shortage of volunteers. Without these pack trains, the hardships for many would have been much harder to bear.
In the following weeks, we become a united community. That account is yet to be written.
But later, shortly before AIM lay down their arms … It took some time for someone to stick their head down into the huge basement of the Trading Post to tell us that an intense firefight was going on.
A new friend from Milwaukee AIM, Herb, and I were running a poker game that had started casually enough, quarter-limit stuff, but escalated as the weeks ground on and as the belief seemed to solidify that we weren't going to live long enough to worry about money.
Some huge pots were casually won and lost but down in the basement we couldn't hear anything from outside. There had been an airdrop earlier and then this firefight that seemed to last for days. When this particular firefight started, it had been raging for some time when we finally received word and hurried to our respective posts. That battle we suffered several badly wounded warriors and a recent arrival, Frank Clearwater, sustained wounds that proved fatal.
We had the radio transmissions from their positions monitored as they did ours and some we captured on tape, including these orders that I recall. “Permission granted. Use that 69 grenade launcher. Flush those f_ _ king Indians out of there. They make better targets that way.”
It had been a late, cold and snowy winter and I remember that night when the snow started again, it completely covered the blackness of the surrounding half-mile of flare burned area, "the DMZ." I didn't know when I ran out of the trading post basement earlier, and into that intense 24-hour firefight but that was my last social event at Wounded Knee and very shortly I would be crawling through that newly fallen snow.
It was the next morning that Carter asked Craig and I to meet privately and that same night, I made my exit of Wounded Knee, Independent Oglala Nation,(ION) with an armed escort of 10 handpicked young Lakota warriors as escort. The ten men were chosen for different reasons. Some were needed at home, others had undisclosed missions, but all knew the terrain. I left the Independent Oglala Nation, of which I proudly, if however briefly, carried my new citizenship papers, a huge backpack with all of our most valuable possessions and most importantly, my own mission, which was primarily to unravel the problems impeding the aid to our warriors inside and our supporters outside.
We nearly made it.
After crawling for what seemed 20 miles with a 500-pound backpack (2 miles with a 50-pound backpack) on hands and knees to avoid the invisible, 3 feet above ground, electronic sensors and within a mile of avoiding detection and freedom, we were stumbled upon by a column of soldiers that were themselves trying to find their commander that we had just circled around.
No matter. Pinned down in a ravine, all eleven of us were captured by the U.S. Army.
The cross country trip to the Pine Ridge jail was memorable primarily by the stoic bravery of my Lakota companions. Hands cuffed behind us, made to stay face down on the steel bed of the army truck, banged and bumped bloody by the rough terrain, much to the mirth of the accompanying soldiers, not a complaint, not even a word was uttered.
It became to me, and I am sure to all of the others, a test of will. By the time we finally hit a blacktop road, the soldiers had stopped laughing. Forgotten was my chagrin at having been captured, I couldn’t have been prouder of my AIM brothers.
Finally arriving at the Pine Ridge jail, before having the plastic handcuffs cut off of our immensely swollen hands, I was isolated and laying face down on a steel bunk when Dick Wilson, the Oglala Tribal Chairman himself, entered my cell and picked my head up by the hair and peered into my face intently. Saying only one word. ”Name.”
When I replied, “Dwain Camp,” he must have believed me because after a long moment he slammed my face down and stalked out saying, ”That’s not Carter.”
We were stripped of all belongings and held with no pretense of due process. Treasured pipestone bestowed by our brother, Medicine Man and now Chief, Leonard Crowdog, that and my I.O.N. citizenship were two of my great losses.
Along with brother’s Carter and Craig’s cherished belongings, they were never to be recovered.
We were all detained and eventually booked on a variety of charges that were, after numerous court appearances, dropped for good.
The following years ... to be written.
Dwain Camp, ShongaSka, is an Elder of the Ponca Nation. He was raised on the "rez" at White Eagle, Oklahoma, and joined the struggle at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, with warriors of the American Indian Movement in 1973. From that time through the present he has worked on Native issues as an activist and was the former editor/publisher of the Ponca Nation newspaper. You can reach him at email@example.com.