On wounded knee
Russell Means, the Oglala Lakota Sioux protester, organizer and actor who led the American Indian Movement through an era of vivid, often violent protests in the 1970s, didn’t win much in the way of fundamental political and social change. AIM had too much chaos and infighting for that. He didn’t lead a life of exemplary activism: too many courtroom battles and bar brawls, too many guns. When he died Monday, at age 72, few could look back at his turbulent living and showmanship and setbacks and render any verdict but: Mixed.
Even those who dismiss Means as an opportunist and sellout, who demean his authenticity and scorn his political stunts, have to acknowledge Wounded Knee.
Wounded Knee, the 1973 siege, came long after Wounded Knee, the 1890 massacre, which ended organized American Indian resistance to white rule. Between both battles was a long period of erasure, in which Indians came to be seen as functionally extinct, living on celluloid and in history books, perhaps, as place names and car models, but not in the larger public consciousness.
But the Indians never went away, as Means helped — stunningly to prove. The movement’s notoriety, starting with an occupation a few years earlier at Alcatraz, exploded at Wounded Knee, where a confrontation over tribal corruption at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota turned into a 71-day siege. U.S. marshals turned it into a war zone. It prompted a cultural awakening, led by a young former drifter from California who had gotten to know his Lakota roots from summer visits to relatives at Pine Ridge.
In the years since, Pine Ridge and other reservations have not escaped plagues of poverty and alcohol. Governmental neglect remains a scandal. But there are more Indians today than in 1890, and many tribes are richer, thanks to lucrative ironies like gambling and tobacco. Indians have revived much traditional knowledge and pride and are still fighting injustice. In the Black Hills, where the government evicted the Indians and carved presidential faces on a sacred mountainside, the Sioux and other Indians make drums and jewelry and teach tourists: We are still here.
The country is still good at ignoring Indians, but for a time Means and the American Indian Movement punctured that invisibility. By raising hell for 71 days in one of the most remote corners of the continent, on behalf of an abused and forgotten people, he and his allies captured the attention of the world. “It was pretty much all over 3 1/2 years after Alcatraz,” wrote Paul Chaat Smith, an American Indian writer and associate curator at the National Museum of the American Indian, “when exhausted, hungry rebels signed an agreement that ended the Wounded Knee occupation. There were other actions and protests, but none came close to capturing the imagination of the Indian world or challenging American power.”