As we continue to celebrate the 50th anniversary year of the Wounded Knee Occupation of 1973, it is imperative the historical record is clear: in contrast to most news reporting and photographic documentation of the 71-day event – the call to Wounded Knee was answered by many Indigenous warrior women.
In those days, on most reservations, treaties were ignored, economic development was merely non-existent outside of polluting, extractive industries like uranium mining and logging, and tribal leadership was held by those who enforced their own agendas, or that of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), retaliating against anyone who questioned or voiced opposition. Such were conditions that led to the Wounded Knee Occupation, where some 200 male and female members of the Oglala Lakota Nation and the American Indian Movement (AIM) occupied the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota – from Feb 27, 1973 to May 8, 1973.
In the years leading up to the occupation, members of the Oglala Lakota Nation had endured years of hardship due to leadership’s misuse of government funding. For months before the siege, the Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization (OSCRO) conducted community meetings in secret to address the graft, corruption, and to protect themselves from violent intimidation tactics used by tribal chairman, Richard “Dickey” Wilson. Self-proclaimed Guardians of the Oglala Nation (GOON Squad), carried out his orders on anyone who dared hold him accountable for crimes against his people. Though this time period was known locally as the Reign of Terror, few outside the region were aware of the situation. That was about to change.
On February 27, 1973, at a tribal council meeting with yet another attempt to impeach Wilson, tensions, anger, and grief spilled onto the street. Oglala members, chiefs, and AIM leaders sprang into action and headed to Wounded Knee, on the Pine Ridge reservation. The occupation was beginning.
Back then, there was no Internet, social media, no immediate access to online news sources – throughout Indian Country, few households even had a telephone. But historically, with tribal ties of traditional culture and relationship, Indian Country is said to be a small world, especially in times of crises. Word went throughout the familial, social, and ceremonial networks of Indian Country, asking for support. For many years, news media focused on male leadership that emerged during the occupation. But, as has always been the way of Indigenous societies, sisters, mothers, matriarchs, and women warriors from diverse tribal nations living in cities hundreds of miles apart, also answered the call. This is the story of three such women.
Eighteen-year-old Lavetta Yeahquo, a Kiowa from Western Oklahoma, was apartment-sitting for friends in Minneapolis with her partner that February. He had gone to the Indian Center, on Franklin Street, and got word that help was needed at Pine Ridge.
“He came back and said, ’Start packing…we need to go to South Dakota,’ so I did. I was kind of glad to be moving on. I was ready to do something,” Yeahquo said. “That was my whole purpose for joining AIM.”
Yeahquo, who had been living a partying lifestyle, had previously met AIM members at an event in Lawrence, Kansas.
“I was just partying, I wasn’t going to school. I figured if I join AIM, it may keep me sober. In my mind I was thinking, okay, this is the ancestors coming back to me now,” Yeahquo said. “This is time…we’re really going to do something for The People, because that was my heart. That was my heart when I joined AIM. I wanted to be involved in something concerning our Indian people.”
The couple packed their belongings and returned to the Twin Cities’ Indian Center where they met their ride, heading first to Rapid City, SD. Meanwhile, on the West Coast, a young Hopi woman struggling to find her purpose was about to meet her destiny.
Like Yeahquo, in the early 70s, young Stephanie Autumn was struggling, bouncing between the foster care system as a teenager due to her mother’s bouts with addiction, and occasional visits with her Hopi relatives after her father’s death when she was only seven. Autumn ties her first inkling of racial injustice to the same period of her childhood as the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., saying that the realization of racial injustice in the U.S. struck her like nothing else in her life had.
“And I just carried that. And being in foster homes, and you know…I had this sense of racial injustice, I think, because of never fitting in,” she explained. “In foster homes, I was always too brown. And then with my relatives…I always felt like I wasn’t enough. It propelled me to be self-reliant, in finding that connection…I was always reaching out.”
At 18, having graduated high school, Autumn found herself in California’s San Fernando Valley. With silversmithing skills taught her by a beloved Hopi uncle, she was able to find work at a place she remembers only as “Whole Earth,” meet other Hopi people, and become connected with the broader LA Native community. In those days many actions were happening across Indian Country with the two-year occupation of Alcatraz Island that ended in 1971, the Trail of Broken Treaties caravan to Washington, DC in 1972, and others. She remembered LA’s vibrant Indian Center and a land takeover at Chumash. As all young people, she was looking for her purpose, which was about to become more evident.
“When Wounded Knee happened, there was just no question…I just knew, I never looked back,” she explained. “When a group of young Indigenous people were leaving from Simi Valley and other convergence points, someone said if I was going to go, hop in the car…I said okay. I was 18, and turned 19, inside Wounded Knee.”
Yeahquo, too, marked her last year as a teenager in a profoundly different way than most 19 year-olds. Describing herself in those days as shy and quiet, she remembers leaving Rapid City, part of a large caravan to a meeting at Pine Ridge in Calico Hall with AIM leadership, local women, traditional elders, and a designated security team. An all day discussion centered on the controversial Wilson administration and unsuccessful efforts to redress grievances. By evening a decision was made.
“We began caravanning back towards Wounded Knee, it was nighttime in Pine Ridge…you could see sandbags…you could see…snipers on top of the buildings and different types of police and law enforcements from all over. We drove on through, not making a sound, no kind of noise, no honking horns, and we just went on into Wounded Knee that night,” Yeahquo remembered. “Somebody in the car said, ‘Look back!’ I looked back and as far as I could see…all I could see for…as far as I could see was nothing but headlights…it was so awesome. And it’s stayed with me all those years.”
Just as vividly, Yeahquo recalls arriving at Wounded Knee after dark, becoming a little overwhelmed at seeing the large numbers of Native people arriving, and staying inside the car while her partner got out to gather information, before heading with others to the nearby Catholic Church. The church building would be where both young women from distant regions of Indian Country would find sisterhood and strong role models, like Madonna Thunder Hawk, among the large numbers of local Lakota women.
Thunder Hawk, 33 years-old and a mother, was more familiar with AIM protest actions, having taken part in the occupation of Alcatraz Island, and in 1971 and ‘72, two occupations of Mount Rushmore. As a Lakota with relatives at Pine Ridge, she felt the pain of family members being neglected and abused.
She was there for family, people she knew and loved. But she also had some insight as to why Indigenous Peoples from all tribal nations would travel so far to support of a potentially volatile action in such a remote place, knowing it would likely result in a standoff with law enforcement, as at Wounded Knee, and even later protests like the one at Standing Rock, ND, against the Dakota Access Pipeline, surrounded by endless ranks of multi-county, multi-state, and federal law enforcement, National Guard, and even U.S. military.
“… back in those days, the Red Power Movement meant we were unique, because we were land based, most of us. And even though we had people in the urban areas, we still knew where they were from. We were a movement of families. We weren’t separate,” she explained. “It wasn’t young people over here, and elders over here, and children over there. We were a movement of families because we were land based and we were Indigenous. It was a responsibility, you know, doing this for our issues, and land and water, and Mother Earth…if you had the time and the dedication and you felt the responsibility, you jumped right in it whether you were a man or woman, young, or old.”
And jump right in, they had to….all three women. Stephanie Autumn talks of being assigned to the security shack and one day preparing for negotiations between Oglalas inside Wounded Knee and federal representatives of Nixon’s administration. Turns out, the negotiators for the Oglalas, all, were women – something she will always remember, a profound example of matriarchy she had not seen before.
“I was sitting on the step and Ellen Moves Camp, Geraldine Janis, Gladys Bissonette…and Cheyenne Nichols…liaisons drove them in, and then, they walked the rest of the way. Those women, the way they carried themselves, the way they spoke, the way they were. Then, I thought they were elders, but actually they were probably like 38 or something. Because I was so young, I said I wanted to grow up and be like those elders,” Autumn recalled. “Seeing them, and listening to their words about standing and dying for the land…so the people might live. I had never heard those words before, with conviction, truth.”
After Wounded Knee, Autumn became involved in work with Native prisoners, tribal youth programs and now, living near Minneapolis, serves as Executive Director of the American Indian Prison Project. She said those 71 days, specifically the hours she spent in the presence of those four Lakota matriarchs, influenced every part of her life.
As did Autumn, Yeahquo describes a sense of freedom she’d never felt prior to Wounded Knee. Once she and partner Myron Buffalo decided to stay and make a stand, she found herself the only female inside the church building and a bunker dubbed “Hawkeye,” with Buffalo, some Oklahoma Kiowa relatives, and brothers from other Nations. She said, having been raised with a bunch of guys, she didn’t mind being the only woman. She now carries mostly good memories from those days. But, in the years following Wounded Knee, other memories grew to be overwhelming with grief, depression, and anxiety, especially the killings, by snipers, of two Native men with whom she had become family; a Cherokee man named Frank Clearwater and a local Lakota, Buddy Lamont.
Morning, April 17, 1973. Gunfire erupted into the small church, where Yeahquo defines their small, shared areas, as bunkers. Yeahquo recounts dropping, then crawling, into a separate, even smaller bunker, constructed especially for her by male Hawkeye counterparts. She did not witness either death. However, her tone in recalling the account given her by a Kiowa relative who was there, even now, is somber and contemplative. She reflected on how she had always heeded the constant warning to never sit in front of the window where snipers had sighted a bead – the window in which Clearwater had arisen, from sleep, to help retrieve air-dropped food supplies – giving a sniper the clean head shot that ultimately killed him eight days later on April 25th, 1973.
“It could have been any one of us,” she recollected, adding that agents and law enforcement continued to take potshots at medics carrying Clearwater to a safe zone for medical aid.
Throughout the 71-day siege, Wounded Knee defenders made relatives of one another, as is the way throughout Indigenous cultures. Yeahquo’s partner Buffalo and Lamont, took one another for brothers.
“Buddy Lamont gave me and my ex…he and my ex took each other as brothers…and he gave us a necklace. He told us, ‘Whatever you do, wherever you go, do not lose this,’ and we never lost it. It’s still with us. My oldest son still has that.”
Next day, on April 26, 1973 Vietnam veteran Buddy Lamont died instantly from a government sniper’s fire, like bunker mate, Clearwater. Under those memories of loss which led her to bitterness, she struggled through four decades of alcoholism and finally, to a diagnosis of PTSD.
“I had to go all the way down, down on my face, just the clothes on my back. I became homeless. I lived that lifestyle, even though I had children…I had pain in my heart, in my mind,” she said. “I was finally at a place where I was alone, by myself. I needed somebody to talk to.”
She said every day was a memory of Wounded Knee, what her relatives called, her “Indian War.” She eventually went to counseling and Creator for help with recovery. Since 2008, she has been sober and active in Oklahoma where she provides insight and spiritual advice to a couple of activist groups that still identify with AIM. She made peace with the trauma that negatively affected her life prior to Wounded Knee, as well as the trauma of losing close friends during the siege and nearly losing her own children after. She made a commitment to recovery and continues to do so each new day.
All three women are examples of bravery, love for Indigenous Peoples and cultures, and a profound commitment to something beyond themselves.
Inside the siege at Wounded Knee, Thunder Hawk was one of only three medics. She saw the physical trauma of the bodies treated for gunshot wounds and understands the emotional and spiritual trauma resulting from the deaths of fellow activists. Noting that in contrast to what news coverage reported, inside Wounded Knee, women outnumbered the men. At times, depending on who was able to sneak in and out of the siege zone, most were local women. She described her role there as one of community building, helping to coordinate food distribution, daily meetings for updates on the on-going negotiations and camp happenings, security, and giving reports as one of three medics.
Thunder Hawk said too, that being a little older than the other two women, and coming from the Dakotas, reservation land where they understood that government policy, based in a colonial worldview of domination – not Lakota people – applied boundaries upon all aspects of Lakota life and ways of thinking and being. That understanding, commitment, extended family, and thinking in terms of what is best for the whole, was the strength of the movement back then, she said.
“We were doing what we could do as an individual. In my extended family there was my mother, her full sister Theodora Means, the Means brothers…we were raised like brothers and sisters. That’s Indian society, that’s how we do. It was explained like, this extended family…it’s just how we do, you know. So we had an obligation, and it was always about your family and community,” she said. “People can analyze everything to death in this modern day, this colonized thinking. But you were responsible for what you did, it reflected on your family and your community.” She said commitment was an individual responsibility. “You did what you could do. So I was part of a core group of AIM people that traveled from community to community, reservation to reservation. We never went anywhere without being invited because there were so many invites. People wanted us everywhere. We were constantly on the move.”
But the occupation of Wounded Knee, like protest actions before and since, was no social gathering. It came after much suffering and many efforts to appropriately address deplorable injustices, hardships and conditions. Such actions are those of a people with nothing left to lose; many paid the ultimate price. At the first occupation of Wounded Knee in 1890, more than 400 women, children and elders were brutally shot, tortured, and are now buried in a mass grave, known as the Wounded Knee Massacre. Native blood was shed again in 1973 with the killing by government forces of Clearwater, and Lamont, and the wounding of several others.
For the 71-day occupation, Native warriors joined the act of defiance that reaffirmed Indigenous identity and solidarity across Turtle Island, many of whom in the following 50 years have passed on to the spirit world.
“What happened in Wounded Knee…everybody that was there in the beginning and during that time, has their own individual story. It was not a big, choreographed, planned, or a strategized move to go sit in a hole. Wounded Knee is in a hole, there’s hills all around. Strategically, it’s no place to make a stand. But, we had no choice, we were under fire,” Thunder Hawk recalled.
She emphasized that the American Indian Movement was, and is, a movement of families and communities.
“If someone over in Texas, or Minnesota, or in Oregon, wanted to have a structured organization with officers, cards, or whatever…have at it. That’s your community, that’s what you want. But, here in the Dakotas, we didn’t have time for that. We were on the move constantly, so that was just stuff that got in our way. So, again, it was all about individual choices,” she explained. “But what I learned from the American Indian Movement was commitment, and at the time, literally, we were on the move and it was about what the community wanted. That’s why we were invited to go all over the place.”
Thunder Hawk, now 83, in demand for speaking about Wounded Knee history and Indigenous issues, continues to travel where she is invited. In 2018, with her daughter Marcella, her travels across Indian Country and their work in Native communities and resistance movements are documented in the acclaimed, Peabody-nominated film, “Warrior Woman,” co-directed by Christina D. King and Dr. Beth Castle. Yeahquo, Autumn, and Thunder Hawk have met on occasion as part of the Warrior Women Project to educate the public about their Wounded Knee experiences and Indigenous issues globally.
“Yeah, I travel a lot. But another thing I learned from the American Indian Movement was, what are you in it for? If you’re in it for change, then where does change start? It starts at home,” which is now on her reservation in South Dakota, she said. Working on issues around the Black Hills has always been a focal point of movement people.
All three women agreed with what some Natives claim – in frustration – that the same fights continue today. However, none says they are surprised at that.
“The issues haven’t changed, just the words. We don’t say AIM or The Movement that much anymore, because times change and the issues evolve. But the issues are exactly the same.
Young people are on the move now, in the Black Hills. We climbed Mount Rushmore twice in the 70s, they hauled us off to jail. So, the issues don’t change – because we are Indigenous. We are of the Land. It’s never going to change for us, there is no light at the end of the tunnel. If people don’t understand that, just get out of the way. Because we know.”
She drove home the point that the strength of Native people is in connecting for family, the past and the future.
“My grandchildren are active now, I have great-granddaughters up and coming, because that’s the strength of our people. That’s what our ancestors did. That’s why we’re here. And those people who ask, ‘Why are you still fighting?’ Their ancestors stood and fought and died so that they could stand there and be critical. You can be as American as you want…have at it. But get out of my way.”
Wounded Knee shaped the lives of all three women. Reciprocally, every woman there has influenced the lives of today’s Indigenous female activists, organizers, and protectors of the sacred water, land, and family. There is much more to do in today’s political atmosphere where corporate polluters press their life-threatening agendas at the expense of humans, and each and every form of life on Mother Earth. We must remove the boundaries that have created mental, emotional, and spiritual blinders in order to fully understand the effects of colonialism. It takes commitment, understanding, and remembering…being confident in who we are.
“There’s a whole bunch of things that happened before Wounded Knee and a whole bunch of things that happened after. Wounded Knee just happened to catch the world’s attention,” Thunder Hawk concluded. “Things moved on, things were happening all the time. My concern is with our own people, I don’t care what the rest of society knows or wants to know. I concern myself with my own people, wherever that is, from one coast to the other. We are the Indigenous. We are the Land. We are The People. We will fight as long as we are here.”
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Wounded Knee Occupation, where members of the Oglala Lakota Nation and the American Indian Movement (AIM) occupied the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota for 71 days from Feb 27, 1973 – May 8, 1973. In the years leading up to the occupation, members of the Oglala Lakota Nation had endured years of hardship at the hands of the tribal council and chairman’s misuse of government funding that resulted in even more economic and social hardship for the people. For months before the siege, community meetings were conducted led by the Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization (OSCRO) in secret to address the graft, corruption, and to protect themselves from the violent intimidation tactics used by the tribal chairman Richard “Dickey” Wilson. His orders were carried out on anyone who dared hold him accountable for his crimes against his people by the self-proclaimed Guardians of the Oglala Nation (GOON Squad.) This time period became known as the Reign of Terror. Click here to read more.