Dogs were treated better than Native Americans in Nebraska towns bordering the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, said American Indian Movement leader and activist Russell Means sometime before the 71-day siege of Wounded Knee that began Feb. 27, 1973, a little more than a month after a Unity Conference held in Scottsbluff, Nebraska.
Means, 72, who died Oct. 22 of complications from throat cancer, had also led a group of 200 Native Americans to Gordon, Nebraska, a year earlier following the death of Raymond Yellow Thunder. The 51-year-old Oglala Sioux had been abducted and beaten by two white men in Gordon and then paraded, half-naked, around an American Legion dance, stuffed into the trunk of a car and later abandoned at a Laundromat. His body was found and police arrested brothers Leslie and Melvin Hare, but released them without bail. AIM's call for justice was heeded and the brothers were tried and convicted and served prison time for the murder.
Throughout 1972, tension mounted with the election of Dick Wilson as President of the Pine Ridge Reservation. Wilson, an outspoken opponent of AIM, hired a private army called the Guardians of the Oglala Nation, or GOONS. The group was linked to beatings, acts of terror and even the death of AIM supporters. A riot on the steps of the Custer County (South Dakota) Court House resulted in several injuries and a lot of property damage.
Following the Scottsbluff event, AIM turned its caravan of some 200 cars toward the Pine Ridge with an initial plan of going to town and removing the corrupt Bureau of Indian Affairs officials from office, Means and others said. The movement started on a Sunday night after dark and the Associated Press Bureau in Omaha received a tip that something was going to happen. AP editor, Ed Howard, called me (I was working as a reporter in Scottsbluff) and asked me to confirm the report. I checked with law enforcement in South Dakota who said they had seen movement toward Wounded Knee, the small hamlet that had been the site of a massacre of some 300 members of Chief Big Foot's party in 1890 at what some incorrectly called the Battle of Wounded Knee.
Moments later I received a telephone call from Leroy Casados in Alliance -- one of the attendees at the Scottsbluff Unity Conference -- asking me to join him and several others as they drove his van to South Dakota. I declined the offer, but let the AP know that the siege had begun. I opted to head to the area by light of the next day and convinced a pilot friend to fly me and a TV reporter and cameraman to Gordon where we could rent a car for the drive into Wounded Knee on the Bigfoot Trail.
AIM leaders had scrapped the Pine Ridge plans because, as one said later, "they had the place completely fortified and had Federal Marshals and BIA pigs all around it, and sand-bags on top, machine guns, and fortifications all over the town. So in order to avoid that kind of pitched battle, we decided to come to Wounded Knee, because of its historic significance to our people, naturally, and the fact that it lies right in the heart of the Pine Ridge Reservation."
The trip from Gordon to Wounded Knee was uneventful. When we got to a spot on the Big Foot asphalt where we knew we could see Wounded Knee over the edge of the road, we stopped our car and got out to take pictures. We were confronted by heavily armed federal marshals who told us to leave the area immediately for our own protection. Staring down the barrel of what I later learned was a military assault rifle I complied and returned to Gordon.
Still wanting a look at the hamlet, I asked the fixed base operator at the Gordon Airport to fly me over Wounded Knee in a Piper usually used for aerial tracking and hunting of coyotes. He obliged and I began taking photos with my 35 mm camera. When I noticed puffs of white smoke, I asked the pilot what they were.
"They're shooting at us," was his unusually calm reply. I don't recall asking who "they" were, and I still don't know if it was the government or the Native Americans doing the shooting. He landed the plane at the Pine Ridge Airport as he noticed bigger aircraft coming from Denver with national TV crews sent to cover the event. He said he wouldn't charge me for my flight if I helped him convince some of the newcomers to take a dangerous and -- I'm guessing "costly" -- flight over the area. It wasn't hard because I was still shaking when the first taker approached.
The government shut down the airspace about an hour later and I set out to find a telephone to file a story. No cell phones or laptops in those days.
NEXT WEEK: What happened and what did it mean?
EDITOR'S NOTE: Native American activist Russell Means died Oct. 22 at his home near Porcupine, South Dakota. The 72-year-old was no stranger to Nebraskans and once said he thought it would be safer to be a dog in a Nebraska community that bordered the Indian reservation than to be a Native American. Capitol Correspondent J.L. Schmidt met Means 39 years ago and often reported on incidents involving the flamboyant spokesman for the American Indian Movement. Schmidt takes a look at Means' involvement and what it meant to the Native American culture.