30 May 2002 Edition

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The American Indian Movement: Struggling for justice

"If the Nazis had won World War II, would the Jews and Gypsies have served as the mascots for the University of Munich as the American Indian tribes, for example the Seminoles, have done in US Colleges?" Noam Chomsky asks in his book Rogue States.

The winners and losers regard the legacy of war quite differently. The history of the 'redskins', the 'braves', the 'bears', the 'savages' and their squaws, the race that a Harvard research team 'established' had smaller brains than the white man, founded a whole Hollywood industry of cowboys and Indians.

The Chicago Bears, Buffalo Bills, Washington Redkins - a whole culture based on the subjugation of the Indians. But the real war it symbolises is still going on - it's the genocide of the indigenous all across the Americas and Australasia.

"So it never happens again" adorns the Holocaust Museum in Houston, Texas. "Our genocide is still going on," says Lawrence Sampson, a member of the American Indian Movement, "and it's still being celebrated."

"Not everyone knows that the great US annual festival of Thanksgiving commemorates the slaughter of 300 Indians in 1607 at Mystic, Connecticut, as the invaders, mostly English, Bible in hand, fought their way against the 'savage natives' and took their land and raped their women. At Thanksgiving, people eat turkey - it commemorates a "turkey shoot" like the more recent turkey shoot in Iraq.

"Even the word 'indian' founds the convenient myth that the American Indians crossed over from Asia via the Bering Straits and migrated on foot down the west Coast of the Americas, for which convenient construct there is not the slightest evidence. 'Indeos' means 'with God'.

"But the myth helps sell the belief that a great Italian benefactor, Columbus, discovered America, though in reality Columbus was a merchant, a slave trader, a rapist and discovered nowhere that Indians hadn't lived for centuries before him. He never set foot on US land. It was important to believe that if Columbus was new to America, so were the Indians a 'few centuries before him'."

Lawrence Sampson was visiting Ireland for a few weeks, drawn to Ireland by parallels with the Celts, who at one time populated Europe, and also by what he sees as the successes of Irish republicans. He is a spokesperson for the American Indian Movement (AIM).

The American Indian Movement (AIM) was formed at the end of the '60s, a modern day traditional warrior society. It was one of the outcomes of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war, where American Indians had fought with the US Army only "to come back to your people and to find that you have no rights whatever", Lawrence says. Lawrence himself fought with the US Army in the Iraq war.

The objective of AIM is to build awareness of the ongoing decimation of the Indian peoples and to advance the goal of a united front of indigenous peoples around the world, the peoples who have been driven from and robbed of their lands and livelihoods. His scope is global: from Palestine, Sri Lanka, and Australasia to the indigenous Indian populations in South, Central and North America, peoples who are being driven in their thousands from their native lands because corporate business covets their resources.

"The American Indians' lands held 40% of US natural resources of coal, uranium, gold and other minerals," he says. "Down the centuries, they put us into reservations, they relocated us to the towns and into the ghettos where we had no means of survival, they took away our language, our culture and spirituality. They took our children away from parents and native culture." Lawrence himself was one of these children, taken to a boarding school in Houston Texas, from which he ran away when he was 14.

"They forced the children to study in boarding schools, to forget their culture and language. The schools were run by Baptists, Catholics, all different Christian churches. The people lost a sense of who they were, lost their traditions and values. They forgot their roots or their relationship with the earth. Alcoholism, abuse, fighting, the degeneration of people, lost of their purpose, culture and their community, herded into the ghettos of urban America. And today's suicide rate amongst American Indians bears this out.

"They put us into reservations, imposed puppet governments that 'sold out' our native lands through squalid deals with large development companies. Those who opposed were treated with appalling brutality and cruelty, to discourage the rest from their protest."

Lawrence Sampson is coming back to Ireland in a month to run a course in American Indian Studies.

Wounded Knee

At Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge reservation in 1973, a few hundred Oglalas, bolstered by the leaders of the American Indian Movement (AIM) and hundreds more supporters, took over the tiny hamlet in open protest of the intolerable: Pine Ridge's deplorable living conditions, federal transgressions against tribal treaty rights and Indian lands, and tribal government corruption and intimidation against traditional people. The site the tribal elders chose for this symbolic confrontation sparked fears of a repeat of the atrocities of 1890, when Chief Big Foot and his band of more than 200 starving Minneconjou Sioux were massacred by the Seventh Cavalry in the middle of winter.

The always tense and sometimes deadly 71-day standoff between the occupiers and a conglomeration of tribal police, FBI agents, US Marshals, and US military advisors ultimately ended in the surrender of the protesters. The event itself, however, focused attention on the crippling problems Native Americans faced, not just on Pine Ridge, but across the United States.

The takeover of Wounded Knee began on 27 February 1973. Beforehand, hundreds of traditional Oglalas, led by the Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization (OSCRO) and Pedro Bissonette, met with AIM leaders. They were seeking to enlist the national movement's help to make a last-ditch stand against the intensifying police actions that had been instituted by federally-backed tribal chairman Richard "Dick" Wilson and the associated "Guardians of the Oglala Nation," (This private police force of largely mixed-blood Oglalas was named the 'GOON squad'.) Wilson had been accused of spreading the tribe's federally-allocated resources to his friends and family in Pine Ridge Village while ignoring traditional Oglalas who lived in the reservation's outlying areas.

The 1973 takeover of Wounded Knee, which was initially a gesture of protest, quickly turned into the largest armed conflict in the United States since the Civil War.

Over the next 71 days, the lives of the occupiers would be forever altered. When the protesters issued a public ultimatum declaring the creation of an Independent Oglala Nation, they called for federal hearings on the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, an investigation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), and the removal of Wilson as tribal chair. At the same time, the Wounded Knee compound was being surrounded by a heavily-armed contingent of federal and tribal authorities.

The Wounded Knee comrades, severely outmanned and outgunned, endured the full military brunt of what had become a makeshift federal army: barricades of paramilitary personnel armed with automatic weapons, snipers, helicopters, armoured personnel carriers equipped with .50-caliber machine guns, and more than 130,000 rounds of ammunition. After several weeks of failed negotiations, short-lived ceasefires, furious firefights, the demoralising death of Oglala local Buddy Lamont, and with federal authorities threatening an all-out military assault, the hungry and exhausted protesters surrendered on 8 May 1973. Despite the occupation's many exchanges of intense gunfire, incredibly only two of the occupiers, Lamont and Frank Clearwater, a Cherokee, lost their lives.

To say the years following Wounded Knee were tumultuous for the people of Pine Ridge is an understatement. Federal court trials effectively immobilised AIM's leadership and placed a stranglehold on the organisation's dwindling resources. Violence against the movement's Pine Ridge supporters erupted as the reservation's pro-government forces allegedly began to settle the score.

From May 1973 through the end of Wilson's time as tribal chairman in 1976, 60 people reportedly died - many under mysterious circumstances - in a period best remembered for its lawlessness. Among the most notable victims were Oglala leader Pedro Bissonette, killed in a shootout with BIA police in October 1973; and Anna Mae Pictou Aquash, a young Micmac woman and AIM activist found murdered near Wanblee in February 1976.

On 12 April 1973, the 45th day of the occupation, Pictou Aquash and a young man, Noo-ge-shik, were married in a traditional ceremony inside the compound. It was the first marriage conducted under the banner of the "Independent Oglala Nation," and offered a determined gesture of normalcy in an otherwise tense situation. The still unresolved circumstances of her death continue to trouble the residents of Pine Ridge.

Today, the Pine Ridge Reservation encompasses the two poorest counties in the United States. It possesses no viable industry. Nearly four out of every five adult Oglalas are unemployed, and many residents live in dilapidated housing without electricity or indoor plumbing. The tribal government is the largest employer on a reservation whose geographic isolation causes many to move away in search of work.

Estimates reveal that close to half of all Pine Ridge residents - including a growing number of teenagers - battle alcoholism. The Pine Ridge population's insufficient diet, heavy drinking combined with smoking, and a general lack of health care, has produced a near epidemic rate of adult onset diabetes. Considering the severity of the problems Oglalas face, it is no surprise that a recent study by Harvard University found that the people of Pine Ridge die younger than any other group in the United States. Research showed the average life expectancy to be about 56 years for men, 66 years for women.

Leonard Peltier

Leonard Peltier was among those who occupied Pine Ridge. On 26 June 1975, two young FBI agents (unknown to anyone at Pine Ridge), drove off the main highway in cars that no one could identify, and came directly into an AIM encampment known as Tent City on the Jumping Bull property on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Their own radio transmissions acknowledged that they thought they were in pursuit of Native American Jimmy Eagle, who was suspected of stealing a pair of used cowboy boots. With tensions high, a firefight ensued and the two agents and one Native were killed.

There has been no government investigation of Native American Joe Stuntz Killsright's death to this day. However, when FBI agents are killed, the government feels compelled to resolve their deaths, and it appears, at any cost.

Of over 20 participants, the government chose four people and set out to apprehend and take them to trial. Those named were Dino Butler, Bob Robideau, Jimmy Eagle and Leonard Peltier. Robideau and Butler were apprehended, and with two in hand, the government decided to go to trial without Eagle or Peltier.

Almost as quickly as the case was presented, acquittals were rendered by the jurors. Robideau and Butler were both found not guilty by reason of self defence. The jury saw it as an invasion by a hostile, armed paramilitary force on sovereign Pine Ridge Reservation land.

The government then dropped the charges against Jimmy Eagle and set about applying its full prosecutive weight towards Leonard Peltier, who had traveled to Canada just prior to the Robideau/Butler trial.

The US government managed to secure Peltier's extradition in controversial circumstances and the subsequent trial venue was changed at the last minute from Cedar Rapids (site of the acquittals), to Fargo, North Dakota. The judge was also changed at the last minute. Evidence that was admissible in the Cedar Rapids trial was not admissible in the North Dakota court. Leonard Peltier was convicted on two counts of first degree murder, one each for the two agents. He has been in federal prison since 1976 and there he remains, despite hopes that he might be pardoned by Bill Clinton at the end of his presidency.


The story of Alcatraz, the island military prison in San Francisco Bay, is the story of the American Indians. The first American Indian to be sent there was Pauite Tom in 1873. His stay was short. He was shot two days later.

In 1894, 19 Hopi 'Hostiles' were imprisoned for a unique set of crimes. The record states that "they wouldn't farm as the government had instructed them and they opposed the forced education by the government in boarding schools".

They were sentenced to be "held in confinement until they shall have recognised the error of their evil ways and shall evince a desire to cease interferences with the plans of the government for the civilisation and education of its Indian wards".

Employing a Federal law that should a federal institution fall into disuse, it should revert to its previous owners, when Alcatraz prison was closed in 1969, Indians from many separate tribes, led by Richard Oakes, a Mohawk and a group many of whom came from the ghettos of San Francisco, occupied the island.

In their proclamation on behalf of 'Indians of all Tribes', they declared that they would use the island as a centre for Native American Studies, where they would educate in the skills and knowledge to improve the lives and spirits of all Indian people. They would start an American Indian Spiritual Centre, which would train young people in healing rituals, music and dance, and an Indian Centre of Ecology to train and support young people in research and practice to restore their lands and waters to their natural state, and restore fish and animal life to the area.

They also proclaimed they would take over the prison buildings for a museum which would present some of the things that American Indians had given to civilisation and also show what the white man had given to the Indians in return for the land and life he took. This was "disease, alcohol, poverty, cultural decimation, and show the noble and tragic events of Indian history, including broken treaties, the documentary the Trail of Tears, the Massacre of Wounded Knee and the victory over Yellow-hair Custer and his army".

The occupation of Alcatraz lasted for 19 months, but was in the end broken by infiltration by federal agents, who provoked conflicts and the tragic death of Oakes' daughter. Since then, Acts of Congress have begun to rectify the loss of all rights down the centuries of American Indians. The process has begun, though it is long and hard," as Lawrence says, "and it must become a global struggle for all the indigenous people under attack by those who determine to take away their rights because they covet their resources."

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