Incident at Oglala

Resistance Stories of the Lakota People

by Debbie Lang

Revolutionary Worker #1040, January 30, 2000

In the spring of 1973, hundreds of Indian people and their supporters occupied the village of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. They demanded an end to the U.S.-government-backed murder and intimidation of American Indian Movement (AIM) supporters and traditionals on the reservation. And they demanded that treaties signed by the U.S. be honored that gave the Lakota people (also known as the Sioux) the right to self-rule and to the land surrounding the Black Hills.

Federal authorities surrounded them with an army of over 300--which included the U.S. Army, FBI, Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) agents, U.S. Marshals and state police. The Indians refused to back down. They used weapons to defend themselves and held off the government forces for 73 days. The courage and militancy of the fighters at Wounded Knee grabbed the attention of people all over the world and helped build powerful support for the struggle of Native peoples. Wounded Knee--the site of the massacre of 300 Sioux men, women and children in 1890--became a symbol of renewed Indian struggle and resistance.

After this siege, the U.S. government unleashed an intense, murderous repression against the people of Pine Ridge. They wanted to eliminate AIM's influence and terrorize the traditional people in order to carry out their plans to steal Lakota land, which is rich in uranium, coal and oil. Traditionals were those members of the Lakota people who generally took a hostile stance toward the U.S.-government-backed authorities and tried, as much as possible, to uphold the traditional ways and beliefs of their people.

When the people of Pine Ridge came under such murderous attack, the word went out that they needed support. AIM members came to the reservation from all over the U.S. Many of them were not Lakota, but members of other Indian peoples. It was as part of this AIM operation that Leonard Peltier came onto the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1975.

On July 26, 1975, in an FBI raid on the AIM camp at Oglala, two FBI agents and one AIM activist were killed. In 1977 Peltier was framed-up for the murder of the agents and railroaded into prison--where he has now spent 23 hard years. He is respected around the world as a voice for Native people and an inspiring political prisoner who refuses to be broken.

November 1999 was Leonard Peltier Freedom Month. Thousands of people traveled to Washington, DC to demand freedom for Leonard Peltier--including people who took part in the Wounded Knee occupation and the Pine Ridge struggle. This article is based on conversations RW reporter Debbie Lang had with these veteran fighters.

In the spring of 1975 the beatings and murders escalated as the government stepped up its campaign to crush AIM's influence on the reservation and intimidate the Lakota people. The Lakota elders called on AIM to bring people in to help defend the people. Leonard Peltier is one of the Indian people who answered that call, arriving on Pine Ridge with a crew of activists from the Pacific Northwest. AIM set up a number of encampments on the reservation.

Leonard Peltier was at the camp on the property of Cecelia and Harry Jumping Bull in the village of Oglala. Rosaline Jumping Bull spoke about Leonard Peltier: "In April of 1975 Leonard came to our home. I lived in the government housing. One night he came there and he said, `We're here to help you.' But he wasn't there to fight anybody. He was there to kind of watch over us. `Cause we can't even go to town. The GOONS are there. We'd get beat up. A lot of people got killed. He said `Rosie, we're here to help you guys. The elders asked us to come.' So I said, `Well, come on in.' And that's how I know Leonard. If you know him, if you live with him, he's really a good person. He don't like drinking. He don't like drugs. He really had respect for children and the elders. He always washed and cleaned grandma and grandpa's house.... I believe in Leonard. I don't think Leonard didn't even kill these guys. They should arrest the right people--their own people maybe--the ones that were there shooting at us trying to kill all of us."

Jean Roche and her younger brother lived at the AIM camp in Oglala. She told me: "I was 14 and my little brother was 11. My mom was friends with Peltier. My mom used to help out people coming through and they'd stay at the house and that's how we met Leonard. He was camping out in Oglala. And I happened to be a teenager, getting in trouble. So she was like go stay down there for a while. The media portrayed us after the shoot-out as 16 well trained guerrillas. I mean pul-leeze, you know? They used the media against us to develop this image of savages, militants. But they didn't know us. And that way they justified what they did to Peltier--`They're just a bunch of Indians, they're all militants, let's put this guy in prison.'...

"We were there for a spiritual camp. What we used to do there on a daily basis is help out people who needed help. We used to have sweat lodges every day. A sweat lodge is a purification ceremony. You go in there and you pray. It's what we consider the womb of our Mother Earth, and you go in there and you purify yourself. If people had ceremonies the guys would go there and do security because anybody towards a traditional view were also targeted.... It was really a reign of terror. In that time it was more or less the law of the gun. People that were known to be sympathetic towards the American Indian Movement or associated were targeted. Sixty-five people were killed with no investigations on the murders during that time. At that time, too, the FBI had a program of COINTELPRO (Counter-Intelligence Program) and Peltier was already a target. Anybody that was in AIM was a target."

AIM member Carter Camp told me: "As long as that encampment where Leonard Peltier and the other brothers and sisters were encamped protected that community, that gave heart to all the rest of the reservation to fight and stand up and demand their rights and freedom. The FBI wanted to get rid of that encampment. They wanted to get rid of Leonard Peltier and Dino Butler and Bob Robideau and all the warriors that were there."

The Shoot-Out at Oglala

"In those days, when it was AIM and GOON days, the Pine Ridge GOONs would never come to Oglala because they knew that my brothers were there. And if you come out to Oglala and if you raise hell with those Oglalas, we're going to raise hell right back. You come to Oglala and you start shooting at us, we're going to start shooting back. Because we're tired of dying. We're tired of being your victims. That's the kind of family I come from. We just got sick and tired of being sick and tired and seeing our relatives being killed. When you have had too much pain in your life you face pain and fear and you say. `No more, hey? No more!"'

Arlette Loud Hawk, resident of Oglala

On June 25, 1975, the day before the FBI raid on the AIM camp at Oglala, tribal chairman Dick Wilson secretly signed one eighth of the Pine Ridge Reservation over to the U.S. government. The evidence suggests that the government assault on the AIM compound on June 26 was an attempt to provoke a confrontation with AIM that would justify a paramilitary invasion of the reservation. People told me there was a massive buildup of government forces before the shoot-out began. Russell Loud Hawk said: "The Feds, they planned that they were gonna kill all of them. They were wrong. AIM started fighting back. I remember that day. It started June 26. Eleven o'clock they started the firefight. All of a sudden policemen, FBIs, sheriffs, even National Guard were all around there."

At 11 o'clock two FBI agents named Coler and Williams pulled their car into the encampment, jumped out and began shooting inside. The government claimed that they were sent to find a boy accused of stealing a pair of cowboy boots! They made no attempt to take cover--as if they were expecting immediate backup. When AIM shot back at them, Williams made a radio call asking someone to "get to high ground" and "provide covering fire"--which shows he knew other agents were waiting nearby. Two more police vehicles pulled into the compound--but AIM members shot out their tires from about 200 yards away. The cops retreated, leaving Coler and Williams isolated.

In a remote rural area of South Dakota, less than 15 minutes after the shooting started law enforcement roadblocks were up and helicopters were already in the air. Police forces were pre-positioned in what was clearly a planned attack on the AIM camp. At least 200 heavily armed law enforcement agents continued shooting inside the camp from a long range for hours. Arlette Loud Hawk told me her memories of that day: "There was just thousands of gunfire going on. Me and my mom and my sisters, we just stood back and watched it. We just assumed they're all dead. And I said no, that can't happen. If they're all dead you almost killed my whole entire family. That just can't happen. So for some hours we went through sheer terror, wondering if my dad was alive, wondering if my brothers were alive."

The Escape

"All they ever do is bring up two FBIs got killed, two FBIs got killed. They forget that an Indian man got killed as well. Joe Stuntz died that day. But it seemed like nobody cared about that. But we cared about that because he was a human being."

Arlette Loud Hawk

FBI agents Coler and Williams were shot. AIM members pulled their car back into the compound so they could monitor law enforcement movements on its radio. They heard that hundreds of agents had them surrounded and decided to leave two men behind to distract their attackers while the rest attempted to escape from the camp. One of the AIM members who covered their escape was Joe Stuntz. He was shot in the back of the head at long range by the government forces.

Jean Roche told me how they escaped: "We tried to walk out of the area through the creeks and the woods but they were already surrounded. So we ended up turning around going back. We ran into Leonard and them. Leonard says, `I don't want to get you kids in this trouble. So what you guys need to do is just go up there and put your hands up and turn yourself in.' I told my little brother, `I'm going with these guys.' I made my little brother go up because he was only 11. So he went up on the top of the hill--you could just see the top. And then we heard a bunch of gunshots. They had shot at him! We didn't know what happened to him. But we knew Joe Stuntz had already been killed.

"From there we went through the woods, hid in the trees and eventually went through a culvert. We could see FBI driving by. We had to wait for this airplane to refuel 'cause it kept circling and circling looking for us. Finally after maybe two or three hours it finally had to go refuel. Then we made our run, which was like maybe a mile to the tree line. And right in between, there was just nothing--there was no trees, there was just grass. When we were running up they started shooting at us. The bullets came really close--really, really close. A couple times I froze. I threw myself on the ground and just laid there and I peeked up and everybody was saying, `Come on!' So I jumped up and I ran again. I think that if we didn't have the Creator behind us we'd be dead--because we said a prayer before we did this. The bullets were so close that we thought that one of us had to be shot. But luckily we never got shot.

"We made it to the top of the tree line and were just watching. You could see cars and cars and cars--FBI agents, U.S. Marshals, BIA police, SWAT teams. I mean you name it, they were there. We could see them trying to crawl up. Since we were above them we had more of a vantage point. Then all of a sudden two local guys come up on horseback. And they're, "Hey, what's going on?'--you know, real nonchalant like. If it wasn't for them we would have all been killed 'cause we didn't know our way in the hills. They showed us how to get out. We were in the hills about two or three days hiding out. Different people helped us out. There was only maybe a dozen of us. Most of us were under 18. What we were doing at the camp was preparing for the Sun Dance, which is a big ceremony for the Lakota people we have during the summer. It's real spiritual. People go there and pray. They sacrifice for their people, that's what basically the Sun Dance is, so that the whole people as a community can become stronger. Anyway, then we went down to the Sun Dance and we just kind of mingled with the people."

Carter Camp said: "The government thought they had 'em trapped on a hill. So all these soldiers and all the FBI agents surrounded that hill. It took them two or three hours to finally assault the top of that hill and when they got up there, there was no one up there...Two FBI agents are dead and that's a big deal to the FBI, you know? It was all right that they had killed over 100 AIM people but these two FBI agents drove 'em crazy. So the oppression on the reservation really got bad. Things was really dangerous. People were getting killed right and left. And they brought all these different agencies in to comb the reservation for us."

The FBI Invasion

"A few days before the shoot-out at my grandparents' house we had their 50th wedding anniversary. And they got all these beautiful gifts from different people. They were lucky they weren't there the day of the shoot-out. They went into town early that morning. The FBI came and shot up their house. And it was just a terrible ordeal for them because they were elderly and they got their home messed up. The FBI came and took their whole life away from them and they were together for 50 years there. To this day there's no house there. The government never repaid them for that. Not only did they take their house but they took also their life and their livelihood because they were ranchers."

Fedelia Cross, survivor of the shoot-out,
niece of Cecelia and Harry Jumping Bull

The U.S. Civil Rights Commission called what happened after the shoot-out a "full-scale military-type invasion." Within a few days the FBI brought in nine Armored Personnel Carriers (APCs), several Huey military helicopters and other military vehicles, explosives, tracking dogs and at least 200 agents in military fatigues with automatic weapons. They were joined by U.S. Marshals, BIA police, GOONs and white vigilante ranchers with the patriotic "Civil Liberties Organization." These vigilantes were supplied with a spotter plane, a helicopter, a chemical-warfare team, a special team of snipers, and four SWAT teams. The FBI swept down in raids and ransacked houses without warrants, destroyed property, raided spiritual camps and arrested many people on false charges.

Arlette Loud Hawk described what happened one night: "When my dad finally returned, he took us over to the government housing. It was best to just stay with a large group of people to live and to survive to see the next morning. We knew that they might come shooting so we were all in the basement. Even my grandma and my mom, they were all downstairs. It was like a ghost town outside. Even the dogs didn't bark. Nobody had lights on. All the families were in the basements."

Arlette's father Russell went outside to monitor the movement of the government forces. She told me: "My mom said, `Arlette, you'd better go and be with your dad because if the GOONs or somebody find your dad alone they're going to kill him. And if you're with him maybe they won't kill him. My niece Talana came running downstairs and she said, `Grandma! Grandma! There's fire coming down the hill!' My mom said go--so I went upstairs.

"Me and my niece were standing there. On the reservation we have a real high hill, it's like at the horizon and it starts coming down. The headlights were like fire coming down those hills. My dad got on the C.B. right away and he started asking, `What's coming?' I heard them say, `Seventy-five jeeps, those army jeeps with the stars on them. There's four men to each jeep, they all have guns and they're coming your way.' My niece was real young. She said, `Grandpa, grandpa, are they coming to kill us?' My dad just turned around and he said, `Takoja, as long as I am alive nobody's not gonna kill nobody.' He said, `Take her back downstairs.' So I took my niece downstairs. My mom wanted to know what was going on. I said, `Mom, the United States Army is coming now.' And me too, I asked, `Mom, are they gonna kill us?' She said, `If they want to, they can come and massacre all of us. Just recently in the Vietnam War they had the My Lai massacre. And in 1890 they had the Wounded Knee massacre. Who's to say they're not coming to kill us?' My mom gave me hard facts. That's when reality slapped me in the face."

Despite the massive repression, the government forces could not find the people who had escaped--they were hidden by supporters on the reservation. A grand jury was eventually called but people refused to testify. For months afterward, the FBI pressured people to identify who was in the AIM camp.

Edgar Bear Runner was then 25 years old, had just been elected to the tribal government. He told me this story: "We were preparing to have Thanksgiving dinner. There was a loud knock on the door and my mother went to answer it. As she opened it somebody pushed the door hard, banged her in the forehead and knocked her back against the wall. I jumped up. I was holding one of my children. It was just that quick they stormed the house. There was 15 of them. All of them had a weapon in their hand drawn on me for my arrest, supposedly for interstate flight to avoid prosecution.... They wanted me to furnish all the names of people that I knew that were in Oglala on June 26, 1975. The FBI wanted me to cooperate with them. They were saying that `Things would be better for me.' That I `could see a better future.' They needed help nailing the murderers of the two agents and they were asking for my employment to serve as an informant. But I refused to cooperate with the FBI and as a result they're on record now calling me an uncooperative hostile Indian. And I feel really good that they call me hostile because why do I need to cooperate with lawless individuals who have disregard for our basic human rights and our community, who intimidate people and wrongly imprison people? There was no way that I could associate myself with people of such character."

Three AIM members were ultimately arrested and charged with the murders of Coler and Williams--Dino Butler, Bob Robideau and Leonard Peltier.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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