|THE WIPING OF THE TEARS
25 YEARS AFTER THE ERA OF A.I.M. MILITANCY ON PINE RIDGE
| by Jon Lurie (8/1/00)
Reprinted from The Circle
Twenty-five years after a shootout
that resulted in the deaths of federal agents and an American Indian Movement member,
former AIM combatants
and supporters return to the Pine Ridge Reservation
seeking to release spirits,
bad memories, and their long -imprisoned comrade ...
|[A member of the American Indian Movement blocks the road at Wounded Knee in 1973, the beginning of an era that would see Native Americans taking up arms for social beliefs.]|
|Two days of ceremonies were held at various sites around the reservation June 26 and 27, exactly two and a half decades after the firefight on the property of Harry and Cecelia Jumping Bull that took the lives of agents Ronald Williams and Jack Coler, and AIM member Joseph Stuntz. The deaths marked the final chapter of the era of American Indian Movement militancy on Pine Ridge that began two years earlier with the siege of Wounded Knee. A Wiping of the Tears ceremony—a Lakota ritual meant to release the spirits of the dead and heal the grieving, was held on the Jumping Bull’s land. Honored were the memories of the two agents, AIM member Anna Mae Aquash, and Joe Stuntz. The agents’ families declined an invitation to attend. “This is a day of reconciliation,” said Bruce Ellison, a Rapid City, S.D. attorney who has represented AIM members for over 25 years. “But in order to move forward, we must make sure this never happens again. The question must be asked, ‘Why were the people of this reservation so afraid that they would muster their rusted .22s to protect themselves?’”|
|[Bruce Ellison, an attorney who has represented AIM for twenty-five years, speaks with a reporter about the events that happened on the Jumping Bull land when two FBI agents and one Native man, were shot and killed.]|
|The events of June 26, 1975, often referred to as Incident at Oglala after the title of a Robert Redford documentary on the subject, were precipitated by an FBI/U.S. Military secret operation some have described as war games. Those who lived through those times (1972–1976) on Pine Ridge and saw their friends and family members harassed, beaten and murdered, refer to it as “the reign of terror.” Norman Brown, Navajo, was 15 at the time of the shoot-out. He said things happened so fast that he and fellow AIM members “didn’t have time to think. I just grabbed my gun and started shooting. I stood up that day because it was my duty to stand up for my people.” While Brown expressed remorse for the agents’ deaths, he isn’t ready to shake hands with the FBI. He accused them of continuing to perpetrate a campaign of misinformation designed to mislead the public about (the FBI’s) role in the Pine Ridge terror. “The government has investigated Waco and Ruby Ridge. Why haven’t they come to our families here on Pine Ridge and investigated what happened here? I don’t understand why they haven’t opened an investigation on Incident at Oglala,” Brown said.|
|[Norman Brown was an AIM combatant and only sixteen years old at the time of the shootings. ]|
|“All we wanted when we came here 25 years ago was peace. Peace to live our way of life, peace to enjoy economic self-sufficiency, peace to worship as we choose to worship. It didn’t happen. But this is a new century, and all we want is for it to be a peaceful century for Indian people,” Brown told reporters near the graves of Aquash and Stuntz on a prairie hillside down the road from the Jumping Bull property. “In those days, it was terrifying to live here when you were sympathetic to AIM,” said Dan Merrival, a member of the Oglala Nation and AIM supporter. “I just want to let the past be in the past. What I want people to understand, though, is that AIM really is peaceful people. We will fight for the protection of our loved ones and our way of life. Without AIM, we wouldn’t have what we still have left.” Starting in 1972, the FBI armed civilians aligned with tribal president Dick Wilson, know as GOONs (Guardians of the Oglala Nation), with military assault weapons. GOONs tended to be mixed-bloods who felt little connection with traditional Lakota ways and little sympathy for traditional Lakota people. They are largely held responsible on Pine Ridge today for the assassinations of over 60 AIM members and sympathizers. The feds saw a threat to their alliance with Wilson—a man who signed away one-third of the uranium-rich reservation to the federal government—in the AIM members who had returned to the reservation after the takeovers of Alcatraz Island and BIA Headquarters in Washington, D.C.
According to a 1973 FBI document, the government was concerned that AIM would shift their emphasis from advocacy of Native pride to the “prevention of resources exploitation.” Some former GOONs have taken to the sweat lodge and the pipe, a sign, said Merrival, that AIM prevailed in their mission to restore Native pride. Six thousand documents relating to federal operations on the Pine Ridge Reservation remain classified for what the FBI calls reasons of national security. On Feb. 28, 1973, after a group of AIM members and traditional Dakota people took over the community of Wounded Knee to protest the violent repression, U.S.-sponsored terror mushroomed into a full-scale military operation. Most of the protesters went into Wounded Knee believing the stand would last one or two days. But the village was encircled by GOONs, federal troops, and U.S. marshals armed with tanks, machine guns and armored personnel carriers. A 71-day shooting war ensued, in which two AIM protesters were killed. Hundreds of Wounded Knee-related charges were eventually dropped because the judiciary found that the military was improperly deployed on an Indian reservation, said Ellison. Ellison arguably knows more about FBI operations on Pine Ridge than anyone outside the Bureau. He’s armed with over 12,000 FBI documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
|“I do feel for the families of the agents because I know first-hand what it is like to lose a loved one. I have lost many loved ones due to senseless violent acts. If I had known what was going on that day, and I could have stopped it, I would have.”
|The Jumping Bull property.|
|“What’s clear is that the FBI has been lying from the beginning. They have acted in a way that shocks the conscience. I was brought up to believe people had a right to stand up and say this is wrong. Our government had no business arming a paramilitary effort to stop a protest,” Ellison said. FBI documents confirm military training maneuvers, or “war games,” having taken place on the Pine Ridge Reservation during the 1970s. “They were flying in fresh troops for a week at a time, then sending them out again. The Oglala people were their training targets,” Ellison said. After Wounded Knee, many AIM members left Pine Ridge to live quieter lives or to continue the struggle for Native rights in other areas. This left the traditional population virtually helpless against the continuing reign of terror. Some AIM members, at the request of tribal elders, remained on Pine Ridge to help protect the people. An AIM camp was established on the Jumping Bull property because of a rash of shootings in the Oglala District that had paralyzed the population. Two of these AIM members, Leonard Peltier and Anna Mae Aquash, would pay dearly for their service. On June 26, 1975, FBI agents Williams and Coler drove onto the Jumping Bull property. Concerned with the safety of the women and children in the camp, AIM members took up rifles. A firefight ensued. The agents shot Joseph Stuntz, a 24-year-old Coeur D’Alene Indian, fatally in the head. The agents were wounded by bullet fire and eventually shot dead at close range.
Leonard Peltier, a Lakota/Anishinabe AIM member, was convicted to two life sentences for the agents’ murders. The judge refused to allow evidence of the federal reign of terror on the reservation, forcing the jury to view the events in a vacuum. Two other AIM members were tried previously on the same charges and were acquitted. The jury in that trial was permitted to hear evidence of FBI terror, and decided the AIM members had acted in self-defense. Peltier’s attorneys and writers/producers such as Peter Matthiessen and Robert Redford have documented reams of evidence of FBI and judicial misconduct in the case. The federal government has admitted in open court that it (in the words of prosecutor Lynn Crooks) “doesn’t know who shot the agents.” There is no physical evidence connecting Peltier to the crime. Still, Peltier remains in prison. Pleas from Amnesty International, the National Council of Churches, Nelson Mandela, current and former government officials, and the petition signatures of millions worldwide have failed to gain his release—even though he has been eligible for parole for several years. His most recent parole denial occurred June 9. Peltier has refused to admit to killing the agents. A lack of a confession and/or expression of remorse is often cited as the pretext for keeping him behind bars. In a letter written from his cell at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas, Peltier addressed his “friends and supporters” at the 25-year memorial gathering. “I do feel for the families of the agents because I know first-hand what it is like to lose a loved one. I have lost many loved ones due to senseless violent acts. If I had known what was going on that day, and I could have stopped it, I would have.”
Ellison said the FBI is intent on keeping Peltier locked up because he is an uncompromising symbol of Native Resistance. “If they release Peltier, it will open a whole can of worms. They have a lot to hide. They utilized the criminal justice system for political purposes.” Even though aging and fraught with health difficulties, Peltier is far from being a beaten man. With the help of his defense committee, Peltier speaks to the world through a web site, a quarterly newspaper, his paintings, a book and several full-time coordinators. He regularly meets with reporters and dignitaries from around the globe. His message is one of love and anger; he loves his people and will not let the world forget what was done to them. “[The FBI] continues to deny that any Indian people were killed as a result of their direct input with the terrorist squad, the GOONs. The fact is that they do not think of Indian people as human beings. Whenever you deny that such atrocities happen, and we know they did happen, it only means they don’t consider the people who died to be human. Hitler’s regime felt the same about the Jews,” Peltier wrote. Anna Mae Aquash, a 30-year-old Micmac AIM member from Nova Scotia, was found dead along a Pine Ridge road on Feb. 24, 1975. Claiming to be unable to identify the body, the FBI removed her hands and sent them to Washington the day she was found. Five days later, after a Nebraska coroner concluded she had died of exposure, the FBI ordered her burial. She was identified only as Jane Doe.
On March 8, 1975, fearing the dead woman was his friend Anna Mae, Bruce Ellison demanded an exhumation. A coroner from St. Paul performed a second autopsy and concluded that Aquash had been executed by a bullet shot at point-blank range from a .38 handgun to the back of her head. The case of Anna Mae Aquash is only one of 64 unsolved and/or uninvestigated deaths on Pine Ridge that occurred between 1973 and 1976, according to a list released in May by the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee. The Rapid City branch of the FBI claims there are only six unsolved murders in South Dakota dating back to 1973. At a youth awareness concert at Oglala’s Loneman School gymnasium June 27, Micmac singer Donna Augustine, who lives [near] the same Nova Scotia reservation where Anna Mae spent most of here life, said she still sees the AIM martyr in dreams.
“We don’t know who killed Anna Mae. But whoever did is going to have to face the Creator one day—and he’ll have to face Anna Mae, and answer her when she asks, ‘Why did you take my life?’” Augustine said. The investigation into Aquash’s murder has been picked up and dropped by various agencies and individuals over the years. Such investigations have usually resulted in the public smearing of AIM leaders, who have been subject to many subsequent high-profile accusations. There has never been an indictment in the case. AIM activist Vernon Bellecourt was the target of the most recent effort to pin the crime on the American Indian Movement. At a June 26 memorial service for Aquash, Bellecourt threw the accusation right back. “The FBI and their collaborators were on the periphery of Anna Mae’s death. They ran a reign of terror that caused the untimely death of a number of our brothers and sisters. We are convinced that until we can revisit the whole FBI involvement on Pine Ridge, life here for the people will remain a struggle for survival,” Bellecourt said. Last year Bellecourt and his brother, AIM founder Clyde Bellecourt, were accused by author Ward Churchill and former AIM leader Russell Means of having given the order to kill Aquash because, said Means, they were convinced she was a government snitch. The FBI has never admitted any wrongdoing on the Pine Ridge Reservation. A quarter century of bureau propaganda has placed all blame for the violence on the American Indian Movement.
On several occasions, the FBI has run paid advertisements in papers such as the Washington Post, New York Times, and Indian Country Today, which advocate keeping Peltier in prison for the rest of his life. They have also established a web site devoted to the federal viewpoint of Leonard Peltier. Some have accused the FBI of working with unscrupulous/uninformed journalists in a deliberate campaign to spread misinformation about the Peltier case (see accompanying article). Peltier’s attorneys and others have also accused the FBI of tampering with witnesses, evidence, judges and other government officials. June 26, FBI Director Louis Freeh was quoted on national media, reminding the public about the agents’ deaths and encouraging President Clinton not to grant clemency in the Peltier case.
“The FBI cannot forget this cold-blooded crime, nor should the American people. I was a new Special Agent, still in training school, when this horrific crime was enacted,” Freeh said. Of the Peltier case, which is considered by many legal observers to be one of the most controversial in the United States today, Freeh said, “The evidence was unarguable and conclusive.” In response, the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee has challenged Freeh to a live, nationally televised debate. In a letter to Freeh dated July 5, 2000, the LPDC said the time has come to finally resolve the case of Leonard Peltier. “Clearly we both feel passionately enough about the situation to find it necessary to voice our concerns publicly. However, many have pointed out that there continues to be no common ground between us. Let us begin to communicate in a positive dialogue,” the letter states. Freeh hasn’t responded to the challenge.
“Many of us didn’t want to come back here,” said Jean Day, a Winnebago who was a 24-year-old AIM supporter when she witnessed the 1975 shoot-out. Day said several of the former combatants made the decision to travel to Oglala at the last minute. Returning to the Jumping Bull’s property turned out to have been the right thing to do, Day said. “We went down in the valley and said a prayer at the place where the agents were killed. On the way down we were quiet and somber. On the way up we were laughing and teasing. A weight had been lifted. It felt good.”
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|Paha Sapa Chronology | Oglala Concert for Peltier Jun 27 | Letter from Leonard Peltier | Laframbois Island Struggle | Indian Humor | Wounded Knee 1973-1998 | Declaration of Continuing Independence | Wiping of Tears: Incident At Oglala-25th Reunion | Anonymous Account | Pine Ridge Reign of Terror | Drums for Peace: Fool Soldiers | The New AIM: Laframbois Island | Links|