no thanksgiving at our house
Hot Springs, South Dakota is a small town located in the southernmost tip of the Black Hills. Wesley BadHeartBull started the sixth grade at Hot Springs Junior High School; he died just outside of town at the hands of a couple of cowboys — stabbed to death because he had the audacity to ask for drink at the bar. He was 22 years old.
Wesley's murder was not the first Native American murder I had heard about. It was just the first one that had happened to my friend and classmate.
I was in that sixth grade class with Wesley BadHeartBull. Wes and I grew up together. We partied with the rest of the kids in town, drove recklessly on back country roads together like the other kids, and sat out for endless nights under the Black Hills sky counting stars and talking about our futures.
Wes always reminded me that I had a better chance of getting out of Hot Springs than he did. He told me about family members who had tried to move to Denver or some other faraway place, and how the white people didn't want them there, either.
"Everyone who stays here dies here hard," I remember him say. He would tell me old Lakota oral traditions about the Pahasapa (Black Hills) and how Wakan Tonka, their Great Spirit, came to them from the caves in the Hills.
"They gave us the land in a treaty, and we got Pine Ridge and Rosebud in the Badlands instead," he said. He explained that the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1869 had returned much of the land that had been stolen from his people, but when the Custer expedition found gold near Lead and Deadwood, in the northern Hills, the deal was off.
Wesley's brutal murder torched an angry group of AIM members and supporters to gather at the Custer County Courthouse and demand justice for the murder of Wesley Bad Heart Bull. Instead, Wesley's mother, along with 80 other protesters, was charged with inciting to riot. Mrs. BadHeartBull was imprisoned for the crime of demanding justice for her son's murder.
The American Indian Movement (AIM) had been in the area since the savage beating death of Leonard YellowThunder just a few months before Wesley's murder. AIM came to the Pine Ridge Reservation to organize members of the Lakota Sioux tribe to stand up against the "justice" that had exonerated Yellow Feather's murderers, and to fight the corrupt tribal government run by Dick Wilson and his "goons." Dick Wilson, a native American, had already prohibited members of A.I.M. to attend the reservations' public meetings and had become the "go between" of the tribe. He made sure his goons had FBI rifles and learned how to make molotov cocktails; he was paid well for feeding them on whiskey and empty promises. The Lakota people called these traitors "standing goons," and learned later they would remain on the res carrying out the dirty work that the feds first brought to the Lakota people.
Wilson hired many of the tribe whose ancestors would have referred to as "stand around the fort indians." The name comes from the days back when the cavalry at Fort Laramie promised land and food, gifts and trinkets, in exchange for turning in the leaders of the Lakota people so they could go to the promised beautiful land. That touted "beautiful" place would be called a "reservation" and would be a special haven for them. The first "Wounded Knee Massacre" happened September 29, 1890 were slaughtered on that land -- that safe and beautiful promise. The 19th century goons were killed right along with the rest of their people in trade for their shame.
After Mrs. Bad Heart Bull was arrested and the group bonded out of Custer county jail, about 200 members of the crowd pushed on to Wounded Knee and began an action protesting white man's "justice." Many of the supporters who were white knew they would be needed on the outside; so we left to organize ways to keep supplies running into the war zone. (Only whites would be able to get through the blockades that police and Feds were already setting up.)
Wounded Knee started on February 27, 1973. Those who remained as one for justice held up in a church as the FBI and the National Guard surrounded the building. During the 71 day takeover, one Lakota man was killed and several more injured in the random sniper attacks on the camp.
One FBI agent was also killed. An innocent man was charged with his murder. Leonard Peltier is being held in prison today for a murder he did not commit; railroaded into a conviction. Peltier now serves a life sentence in a South Dakota, white run prison. He is held as a political prisoner because of his membership in AIM.
The violence escalated within the tribe when Wilson's goons began "taking care of" anyone thought to be an A.I.M. sympathizer. Houses were burned, tribal members were found murdered, children were injured. BIA armed goons.
I have no pride in my American citizenship at the Thanksgiving season. I will always remember how the sixth grade teacher made Wesley BadHeartBull stand up and repeat his name loudly so that all of the class could hear, how she snickered and laughed before she told him to sit down.
I awaken from nightmares after finding the body of a young Lakota man in the canyon near my house. In my nightmare I keep running and running, screaming the word "murder!" but no one hears me. They are too involved in their lives and they ssshhhhush me.
That day, I did run home to tell mother. I remember wondering if his family had missed him, and who would break the news to his mother. I asked a teacher a week later why we hadn't heard anything about his death in the papers or on the news and was told, "Oh he's just another dead Indian. You won't hear anything about it dear." I was nine years old. The boy I found couldn't have been much older than I was.
When AIM took Wounded Knee, I quickly returned to Denver to help. We were to make sure that the warriors in that church had enough supplies to stand out the bout with the FBI. After the takeover, when Wilson's goons continued to terrorize anyone on the reservation who had supported members of AIM, I was sending support to the families whose homes were being destroyed; their lives shattered by the sound of glass and the smell of gasoline as it burned through the rag stuffed in a bottle. Windows on the reservation are very special. Most houses have boards across these portals -- not only because of the price and luxury of glass, but to keep the eye from wandering outside and finding a view of only tarpaper shacks, broken down cars, and empty promises.
Yellow Thunder Camp was set up in Victoria Crek Canyon outside of Rapid City in April of 1981. The camp was set up to make a political statement about the white man's offer; an attempt to keep the treaty of Fort Laramie in name only and not in spirit. The promise of "enough money for every man in the tribe to buy a car" was as hypocritical as the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), who said they were trying to help the Lakota find dignity.
Fearing a riot in his district, a judge granted the presence of the camp when Means pled their right to inhabit the land as a freeedom of religion isssue. It was later overturned, but not until suspicious fires destroyed the cook tent and other areas of the encampment.
I spent one Thanksgiving holiday in the camp sharing food and spirit and smoke with the Lakota people who had become my comrades. I was very cold living outdoors that week, but not as cold as my brothres and sisters are treated every day in the beautiful "Black Hills" PAHASAPA PAHASAPA.
I do not celebrate Thanksgiving. I celebrate the coming of the day when the Black Hills, the sacred Pahasapa, are returned to their rightful owners.
I will celebrate the day when Robert Redford, Ted Turner, Marlon Brando, and Kevin Costner don't just make movies about the struggles of the Lakota nation or try to build casinos in their name. I await the day when these famous "stand around the fort indians" disguised as actors and benefactors begin to use their political and economic power to change the way the people of the Lakota nation have been and are being treated.
Our brothers and sisters still at Pine Ridge and Rosebud have to live and survive throughout the hundred years and thousands of broken and shattered promises. We hurl promises just as loudly and deadly as the gasoline rag in a bottle. Our promises and our silence continue shattering the homes of those who try to make changes from within the tribe.
These actors, these philanthropes, these famous white skinned men of privilege could do much more to peak public awareness of the continuing poverty and struggle at Pine Ridge reservation. These famous men who told stories and made movies about Wounded Knee could use their money for more than attempting to set up casinos in Deadwood. Those dedicated "activists" could speak in loud voice to demand that the courts overturn the conviction of Leonard Peltier, a political prisoner for the alleged murder of an FBI agent.
We must never forget the second historical slaughter of Lakota pride at the Wounded Knee takeover in the nineteen seventies, shall never forget the slaughter at Wounded Knee in the eighteen nineties.
Thanksgiving? I will celebrate when the Fort Laramie Treaty is enforced and Leonard Peltier lives as a free man.
By the way, did you know that November is
National American Indian Heritage Month?