The red winds blew
Publication Date: Wednesday Jan 1, 1997

The red winds blew

Book chronicles American Indian activism 25 years ago

"Like a Hurricane: the Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee," by Paul Chaat Smith and Robert Allen Warrior; The New Press; 344 pp.; $25

Longtime Bay Area residents may remember when a group of American Indians camped out at Alcatraz Island in the Bay in 1969, occupying it for more than a year and issuing demands to the federal government. Others may remember when a group of armed Indians occupied Wounded Knee in 1973, the site of the 1890 massacre on the Pine Ridge Sioux reservation in South Dakota, and exchanged gunfire nightly with federal agents.

What exactly was going on?

The brief period, spanning only four or five years, was to American Indians what the civil rights movement was to blacks and what the 1960s counterculture was to white college students, write Robert Warrior and Paul Smith in "Like a Hurricane."

Warrior is a Stanford professor of English and an Osage, while Smith is a Comanche writer and lecturer.

Their book chronicles the rebirth of Native American activism, which caught the imagination of non-Native Americans at the time, especially through books like Dee Brown's "Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee."

The old stereotypes of Indians were thrown out, at least for non-Indians, and nothing would be the same anymore.

Unfortunately for Indians, not much has changed despite that dramatic burst of angry activism 25 years ago.

While other books have been angry polemics about all the injustices that Indians have suffered, all the broken treaties, and the poverty and suffering that have afflicted American Indians since the end of the plains wars in the 1880s, "Like a Hurricane" is coolly dispassionate.

Warrior and Smith report what happened at the three major incidents that marked the high point of Indian activism: Alcatraz, Wounded Knee, and the occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Building in Washington, D.C., in 1972.

Sometimes history can be funny, too. The occupation of the BIA building in Washington was a spur-of-the-moment thing, hardly a well-thought-out campaign, which is also similar to how the Alcatraz occupation started. The latter was to be a symbolic statement that would last a day or two; instead, it lasted a year and a half and riveted attention on Indian issues.

The Trail of Broken Treaties was an American Indian motorcade across the country to Washington in November 1972 and was a classic case of bad planning and poor logistics by the Indian movement.

The Indians wanted to go to Washington and talk to federal officials about the current state of Indian affairs in the country, but everything went wrong.

To begin with, the Native Americans planned their symbolic journey to arrive in the nation's capital during the week of the 1972 presidential election, when every politician in town was out campaigning.

The other major gaff was that the person responsible for securing lodging for the hundreds of demonstrators at area churches dropped the ball and didn't plan anything. The participants had nowhere to stay. So where did they go? To the BIA building. As one of them said at the time, "Where the hell are we going to go? We're going down to our building. We're going down to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. We own that son of a bitch."

The result was a disaster, from all perspectives. A place to stay turned into an occupation. Successful negotiations to leave were sabotaged by government police who hadn't got the word and stormed the building. Blood was spilled. The fight was on.

The occupation of the BIA building lasted a week. It cost the government $66,000 in cash to pay the hundreds of Indians gas money to leave.

Before they left, the Indians trashed the building, causing $2.2 million in damages. Files were destroyed or stolen, along with Indian artifacts.

Warrior and Smith write: "The BIA takeover was less a revolution than a conference planner's nightmare. It was a case of incompetent planning and appalling manners, a trifling event of no consequence; yet it somehow captured the essence of the BIA's failure to work with and for Indian tribes."

They add, ironically: "It was the most important act of Indian resistance since the defeat of Custer at Little Big Horn, yet after all the vows of victory or death, everyone agreed to leave in exchange for gas money home."

What happened next in South Dakota was different. It was also ennobling, inspiring and, finally, tragic.

The American Indian Movement, or AIM, had won publicity and a reputation for fearless confrontations after the BIA takeover, and the AIM leaders headed to the plains to demonstrate against racist beatings and killings of Indians by whites.

The Pine Ridge Sioux reservation was, and is, one of the poorest places in the country. There are high rates of unemployment and alcoholism, of violence and despair.

The tribal leadership on Pine Ridge--tribal president Dick Wilson and his armed thugs--feared AIM and turned the tribal headquarters into an armed fortress, aided by government machine guns. It was a case of a corrupt tribal leadership being challenged by older "traditionals," who asked the fiery young men from AIM to come out and help them. It was a war waiting to happen.

Warrior and Smith set the stage: "Since nearly destroying the BIA in Washington four months earlier, AIM seemed less a political organization than a force of nature. It had become a kind of prairie hurricane, wreaking havoc on one place until seemingly defeated and spent, only to inexplicably reappear weeks later somewhere else."

It was the Oglala Sioux tribal elders, not the AIM, who picked Wounded Knee, a small village on the reservation which had a store, a church and several residences.

Wounded Knee was also the site of the December 1890 massacre of almost 300 Sioux by U.S. troops, with most of the dead being women and children.

The siege of Wounded Knee immediately captured national and international media attention. On April 1, 1973, four weeks after the occupation and siege began, a Harris Poll showed that 93 percent of Americans were following the news stories about the occupation, and 51 percent said they supported the Indians.

In late April, Buddy Lamont was killed. Lamont was one of the Wounded Knee Indians who were enduring nightly gunfire from government agents, often provoked not by the Wounded Knee Indians but by Wilson's "goons" or ranchers letting off rounds at the government agents to provoke them into firing at the Wounded Knee occupiers, the authors explain.

The Wounded Knee occupation lasted two months and ended in arrests and trials. Dick Wilson stayed in power, and his men continued to beat up anyone critical of him.

Like so much else in history involving American Indians, despite the injustices, not much changed.

AIM died in a series of arrests and court cases that lasted much of the 1970s.

It was a hurricane, and it blew itself out.

"Like a Hurricane" tells the story effectively, factually, and sadly.

--Don Kazak

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