The first reports out of Wounded Knee, S. Dak., suggested that history had been hijacked by a band of revisionists armed with a time machine.
The tiny junction settlement (pop. 40) is the site of the infamous massacre of some 300 old men, women and children of the Sioux nation by the U.S. Cavalry in the winter of 1890. It was overrun one night last week by roughly 200 armed members of the American Indian Movement (AIM), a militant group best known for its week-long occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington last November. Thus a drama began to unwind at Wounded Knee, deep in an area where there is open tension between mostly impoverished Indians and whites.
Death. The protesters set up headquarters in a Roman Catholic church and ransacked a trading post. They took eleven hostages, all Indian residents of Wounded Knee, which lies inside the Oglala Sioux Pine Ridge Reservation, a 1½ million-acre stretch of honey-colored hills. The Indians put up roadblocks around Wounded Knee in the early hours of the takeover before a contingent of U.S. marshals in turquoise jumpsuits formed a cordon about the area. Some of the people curious and foolhardy enough to wander near the stronghold were met by spurts of gunfire from the hefty Sioux arsenal. AIM Leader Russell Means, an Oglala Sioux who comes from Cleveland, announced to newsmen: "We've got the whole Wounded Knee valley, and we definitely are going to hold it until death do us part."
Two days later, while rental cars full of reporters and film crews swooshed back and forth in the dust, a helicopter arrived with Senators George McGovern and James Abourezk of South Dakota, accompanied by aides to Senators J. William Fulbright and Edward Kennedy. Shortly before their appearance, the hostages, including one man with a serious heart condition, had been told that they were free to go. All were unharmed and remainedapparently by choicein Wounded Knee. The two Senators then met at length with AIM spokesmen to discuss grievances.
They demanded an immediate investigation of the sluggish BIA and of past Indian treaties with the U.S. Government. The protesters also made a large point of calling for the ouster of the Pine Ridge tribal council president, Dick Wilson. In large part, the takeover reflected civil strifea power struggle between two competing Indian factions. Facing off at Wounded Knee were moderates, led by Wilson, and the AIM activists, mostly Indians from outside the reservation, led by Russell Means.
Over the past year, AIM supporters have gone into a number of communities in South Dakota and Nebraska, seeking to investigate charges of discrimination against Indians. In early 1972, AIM forced an investigation into the seemingly casual killing in Gordon, Neb., of a 51-year-old Sioux, Raymond Yellow Thunder, by a group of whites. (The whites are now out on bond.) Negotiating in several other communities, AIM won some promises of improved conditions and at least the beginning of a dialogue with usually unfriendly whites. On the other hand, a month ago, in Custer, S. Dak., AIM'S tough tactics left a violent trailthe local Chamber of Commerce gutted by fire and at least 37 Indians arrested. This kind of periodic outburst infuriates many Indians, who condemn the use of violence. One obvious reason: possible gains may be canceled out in the backlash from an angry white majority.