Bury my life at Wounded Knee

The marginalization of American Indians may be getting a boost from globalization

By Julie Winokur

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Photo courtesy of South Dakota State Historical Society

Wounded Knee Memorial


You know Native Americans have been marginalized when a search for AIM on the Web turns up Asian Internet Marketing and the Association for Interactive Media, instead of the American Indian Movement. Or when you ask someone in her twenties who Leonard Peltier is and she wonders whether he's in some alterna-rock band. Or when the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation's tribal council is under siege, and the FBI has been invited in by Native Americans to clean things up.

In Pine Ridge, a South Dakota reservation that has witnessed some of America's most bloody episodes with Native Americans, a hundred protesters occupied the tribal council headquarters for 20 months, starting in January 2000. Despite the fact that a sovereign government was under siege, there was a virtual news blackout. Perhaps since it didn't bleed, it doesn't lead on the six o'clock news. Or maybe people just don't care about Native Americans unless there's a casino involved. If the citizens of Connecticut decided to take over the state capitol, you can be sure that the media would be swarming over it while the rest of the nation tuned in to watch. Such a provocative move might warrant the intervention of the FBI, the Justice Department and the National Guard.

On January 16, 2000, a group calling itself the Grass Roots Oglala Lakota Oyate entered the tribal council headquarters and declared a takeover. They met no resistance as they seized financial records and installed their own tokalas, or scouts, for security. The group demanded the tribal council treasurer's resignation and a full FBI investigation into mismanagement of funds. As the days progressed, they added to their goals a complete overhaul of the tribal government, with a return to more traditional leadership.

The tribal council had been accused of embezzling millions of dollars from the tribe's General Fund, and the insurgents demanded the resignation of the treasurer as well as a complete forensic audit. "One councilman spent $126,000 in one month, even though there's a $500 cap for borrowing," says Floyd Hand, one of the leaders of the Grass Roots movement. "The tribal council has ignored court orders. They don't honor the tribal constitution. Enough is enough."

The tribal council is the only federally recognized form of government on the reservation, and if this non-violent takeover succeededf, it could have sparked a chain reaction on other reservations, many of which are notorious for their councils' corruption and mismanagement. That's a threatening concept for the federal government, which seems content to let the Indians screw each other over as long they don't cause problems off the reservations.

The BIA's Robert Ecoffey, who insists the problems are an "internal matter," was forced to appoint an independent CPA, Jaime Arobba, to audit the tribe's General Fund. Arobba, who has done audits for every tribe in the Midwest as well as many around the country, explains, "The biggest problem is that no one has taken the time to develop policies and procedures for the General Fund, so it risks turning into a big slush fund." Council members have been able to make personal loans with no system of checks and balances, let alone a tracking method for collection.

There is unanimous agreement among the people on the reservation that corruption is robbing them poor. But there isn't consensus over whether the occupation itself was a smart move. On a reservation where there is 75 percent unemployment, many people are angry that paychecks are being held up because the tribal council is paralyzed. Others say that the only impact of the takeover has been more infighting.


"These people [who staged the takeover] don't speak for me," says Cecilia Fire Thunder. The whole concept of a "grass roots" movement is thoroughly White, she says. The term "grass roots" was invented by alienated city folk desperately in search of some identity and a connection to the earth, she insists.

" That doesn't apply to us. We have a culture, we have a land, we have a language. What we're talking here is internal oppression. There's a right time and a right place for everything," she says about the takeover, "and this isn't it."

Other observers agree with Fire Thunder. Clearly there's a leadership problem in Pine Ridge's movement, says Clyde Bellecourt, national director of AIM. "If the reservation's people were really behind the takeover there would be two thousand protesters at the Red Cloud building (seat of the tribal council), not just a hundred."

But when millions of dollars in public funds go unaccounted for and large sums of federal disaster relief from last year's tornado seem to have been swept up in the cyclone and scattered without a trace, one could argue that drastic measures were in order.

A little history to put it all in context: In 1934, the Indian Reorganization Act established the groundwork for tribal constitutions and democratic governments, moving away from traditional forms of governance. While this law had many positive effects, it also landed large federal handouts in tribal council hands without any system of accountability. The formula has led to widespread corruption, nepotism, political payoffs, and has contributed to the reservation's crushing poverty.

Today, Pine Ridge lies in the poorest county in America, with an average family income of only $3,700 per year. The life expectancy is a mere 48 years for men, 25 years below the national average, and the infant mortality rate is the highest in the country. Bad health, disease, drugs, and alcohol have ravaged the Oglala Sioux, like so many other tribes. Their culture has been diluted by television, their language is gradually dying out, and most of the young people have succumbed to that most insidious vice – apathy.

In that regard, pacifism might be doing today's Lakota a disservice. Though the takeover at Pine Ridge has been peaceful, some of the protesters inside the Red Cloud building, like Harvey Whitewoman, think the events at Pine Ridge would have to turn violent before the rest of the country takes note. Clyde Bellecourt of AIM agrees. "I would have made a major public move," he says, "like a protest in Washington or violence, if necessary." Bellecourt says his organization has stayed on the sidelines so far because the affair is an internal matter.

On the other hand, nobody wants a return to the hyper-politicized 70s, when the Lakota established themselves as a bellwether for the rest of the tribes in asserting their sovereignty. During those tumultuous times, tribal council president Dick Wilson and his GOON Squad (GOON stood for Guardians of the Oglala Nation) were so out of control that Pine Ridge had the highest per capita murder rate in the country.

"In those days, people were being killed, women were being raped, there were drive-by shootings," says Clyde Bellecourt, who helped stage a 71-day AIM occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973. AIM also raised an international outcry over the abuses being waged against Native Americans by staging a two-year occupation of Alcatraz Island and the 1975 siege at Oglala, which resulted in the murder of two FBI agents and one Indian. In fact, AIM was perceived as such a threat to national security that it had the dubious distinction of making Number 3 on J. Edgar Hoover's hit list. On the reservations, offenses against the Indians were a matter of life and death, with violence begetting violence.

The situation is also a matter of life and death today, with the big difference being that the Lakota are dying slow, anemic deaths ... from poverty, poor nutrition, diabetes, liver damage, kidney failure. Then, as now, the Sioux have a lot of rage, but little recourse. The takeover is a desperate gasp for air, a plea for a return to traditional values and accountability from their leadership.

When President Clinton gave his State of the Union speech in January 2000 it was the first time the name Pine Ridge had passed presidential lips in that context in anyone's recollection. It would be laughable, if it weren't so pathetic, that at the very moment Clinton was pledging his commitment to help the Lakota, their tribal council was under siege and no one in the federal government seemed to give a hoot. While Clinton talked about investment opportunities on the reservation, the tribal treasurer was only a horsehair away from a public lynching, and the tribal president was fending off impeachment proceedings.

Sovereignty, democracy, representative government – these have all turned to folly for the Native Americans. So while a group of Lakota peacefully bided their time in the Red Cloud building, an ice age could come and go before anybody takes note.

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