Remembering Wounded Knee 1890 & 1973: an Interview With Bill Means

Image Source: “The opening of the fight at Wounded Knee,” engraved illustration by Frederic Remington – Public Domain

There are very few people on the face of this earth who understand the historical details of the United States multi century ethnic cleansing of Native Americans the way Bill Means does. And his quiet, calm clear articulation of the ongoing genocide of his people is most compelling. He knows like a minimalist painter or a master haiku poet what details are needed and necessary to tell the story so that it will not be easily forgotten, and can be passed on, by word of mouth, dance and the drum.

Bill is a friend of mine, and a close friend of the coauthor of this piece, Miguel Gavilan Molina. Together, with Bill, we covered the republican convention in 2008 in Minneapolis, where the republicans actually had a platform that mentioned the environment, but not the fact within a very short distance from where the convention was being held, was the sight of several massacres of Native Americans. And no reporters mentioned it either. Nobody brought it up around that convention except for Bill. You will learn about it and much more in the following interview, which aired on Flashpoints/Pacifica radio on the actual anniversary of the original massacre..

So just a little more about Bill. He is a Vietnam Combat Veteran and Veteran of Wounded Knee (1973), Bill Means was a founder of the International Indian Treaty Council and former Board President. He has worked with the United Nations and is an expert on US & Indian Treaty relations. He also has been on the Grand Governing Council of the American Indian Movement since 1972 and has served Native people on many different levels assisting people by coordinating legal defense work for over 500 Wounded Knee federal indictments and employing over 14,000 when he was the Executive Director of American Indian /O.I.C.

Dennis Bernstein: Bill, it is good to have you back.  How are you doing?

Bill Means: I’m honored to be with the people of  the Bay Area in general.  It’s always good to go back to one of the founding communities of the Red Nation Movement and the continuation of the Indian struggle through the years.

Dennis Bernstein: Well, we missed you.  I missed you at Alcatraz this year.  But you know, the work continues, and we’re always working together no matter where we are.  And of course, that’s why it’s good to have you back.  I’d like to start with a bit of a history lesson.  Tell us about the original slaughter at Wounded Knee.  What happened?  How did that come about? Today is the Anniversary of that bloody American Slaughter.

Bill Means:  Well, it was on this day.  Which now, of course, we call National Day of Mourning.  December 29th in 1890.  This is when the 7th Cavalry, out of revenge for the Battle of Greasy Grass, known as the Battle of Little Bighorn, in which we did a sensitivity training session for Lieutenant Colonel Custer, who you might recall was defeated there on the plains of Montana.

Well, as a revenge for that, the 7th Cavalry was assigned to Pine Ridge Reservation.  That time, the reservation, as you know, was created in 1889.  And so, we’d been on the reservation approximately a year or so when the 7th Cavalry sent there, of course, to quell any type of uprising and to watch the Indian people.  Didn’t have a police force at that time.  We had the Army who occupied our territory.

And so, this is a bitter cold, like it is now here in South Dakota.  And it was at that time that the—during the daytime, the Indian people from another reservation in the north, Cheyenne River, and also the land of Sitting Bull, what’s known as 48s, are the Hunkpapa people as we say in our language, which is now on the border of North Dakota, South Dakota.  They travel all the way from the border of North Dakota to the border of South Dakota.  I’m trying to give you a kind of a geographic picture.  Because at the time, there was no state.

So, at this time, the cavalry ordered all the Indians that were coming into Pine Ridge—which Wounded Knee is probably, I’d say, cross country maybe 18, 20 miles from Pine Ridge.  They intercepted the group who had traveled through the winter and through the storm and through the snow to this place called Wounded Knee Creek, which is actually seven miles south of where I come from, Porcupine, South Dakota.

And right in that area of the reservation, there was a roundup of Indian people.  And eventually, when they rounded it up, they started to disarm the Indian people.  And of course, they said someone fired a gunshot.  And so, they had already set up in the nighttime when they surrounded the Indians.  The night before, they set up Hotchkiss guns, which are automatic firing weapons, similar to I’d say like, a 50-caliber.  Or at least a 7.62 like was used in Vietnam.  But it’s—it rotates several barrels at a time or one after the other are shooting.  So, that was a new weapon at that time they wanted to try out on the Indian people.  And so, they did that.

When they heard a gunshot, it gave them an excuse to start firing with no warning, nothing.  No kind of a—they just had set up for that evening for the massacre the night before.  And so, they started firing.  And the end result was over 300 men, women, and children were slaughtered on the plains there in the storm—well, it stormed the next day.  And so, therefore, they made a mass grave, which still stands there today.  It’s a reminder to our people who travel there each and every day of the type of policy we had to deal with in the United States.

And only, I would say, in 1862, you have to remember—which was what, 28 years before—they had hanged the largest mass hanging in the history of the whole hemisphere took place in Mankato, Minnesota, on December 26th, 1862.  So, United States had a very, very strong history of slaughtering our defenseless people.  Or in this case, a Mankato hanging death in a public square.  All simultaneously 38 Indian people.  And later, they found two more and hanged them.  So, 38 plus two as they’re known as.  So, we also have a ride to commemorate those people that went from [inaudible] Dakota nation to Mankato to help with the war that was going on for the white people taking over our land along the Minnesota River Valley.

So, we had two massacres within, you know, 30 years there.  A constant battle besides with the United States Army.  So, this is the time for federal policy that was to kill every Indian possible.  So, this is where the resistance has taken place and has been in effect ever since that time.  The resistance, I mean, our willingness to fight for our right to self-determination.

Dennis Bernstein:  Let’s fast forward the film to Wounded Knee 1973.  You, Bill, had come back for—from Vietnam.  And there you were once again on the front lines fighting for the rights of your people.  Actually, that—you were supposed to be fighting for other people to have those rights.  And here you are, a trained soldier ready for battle.  What happened in ’73 that led to the flare-up and the creation of the American Indian Movement, co-founding you and your brothers and Leonard Peltier and the modern history of resistance?

Bill Means: Well, what happened was in 1968, the American Indian Movement formed to fight against racism.  To fight against the stereotypical images of Indian people.  To fight for the right for us to be Indian.  To be recognized as who we were.  Not to be part of the assimilation, acculturation, tactics, and policies of the United States, especially on reservations.  So, this is a backdrop to resist all those.

And of course, this is the time of the ‘60s, as you remember.  ’68—late ‘60s, ‘70s.  When their status quo in America was unacceptable.  There were all kinds of movements.  The Martin Luther struggle, the struggle of Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, the—Cesar Chavez.  You know, and the Indian people.  And so, we were all fighting for our recognition and our human rights at that time. To be recognized as humans and not as second-class citizens.  To not only demand our rights but document the atrocities that were still happening.  Whether it was through the welfare system, the education system.  They wouldn’t allow us to be who we were.  They wanted us to be docile Indians who listened to every word of Christianity and the American way of life.

And so, this is what we are already resisting.  And then came along the Wounded Knee because we were fighting for our treaty rights in the Black Hills.  Which is a treaty that was signed in 1868.  And it was a treaty that told that—where our nation was born.  In the Black Hills, the sacred Black Hills, where we were—our creation story takes place there.  And so, we had this history buoyed up through the years.

And so, we were resisting the tactics of the Bureau of Indian Affairs to control our everyday life on the reservation.  We had tribal politics.  You know, the—shall we say, puppet governments of the United States created in 1934 through the Indian Reorganization Act.  They created this puppet government to act as a voice of our people to the United States government.  Well, in the process, they became corrupted by the policies of the U.S., so we stood in resistance of not only our treaty but also the corruption of the tribal government and how they were working together with the United States to destroy our education systems, to destroy our house, to destroy everything that could be imagined.  And control by the United States government through the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

So, that’s what happened there.  And we had an uprising.  We said no more.  We’re not taking this racism in education.  We’re not taking this racism in law enforcement.  We’re going to stand our ground at Wounded Knee.  And we were advised to do that by our chiefs.  They said if we go to Wounded Knee, we won’t be alone because we’ll have our ancestors there in that mass grave to be there with us to guide us spiritually while we’re there and fight for our treaty rights.

So, that’s what happened.  We were there for 71 days.  We had about three people wounded, as well as one officer was wounded.  And we had—oh, excuse me.  Three people killed.  And so, that was the history of the 71 days.  We withstood the onslaught of the—every law enforcement agency.  Border patrol, U.S. Marshals, FBI, BIA, police.  All these law enforcement agencies came to Wounded Knee.  And so, we withstood their onslaught for 71 days, and then we had a peaceful surrender.

Dennis Bernstein:  right.  And you were accompanied by the extraordinary and courageous defense attorney, William Kunstler.  And there are some amazing stories and information that comes out of that.  Now, Leonard Peltier is still in jail because of that uprising, right?  Because the government could not stand to let somebody like Peltier be with his people.  And this was really about destroying—them putting Leonard in jail is about trying to destroy the movement, right?

Bill Means:  Of course.  Yeah, that was the tactics they used of breaking down people’s doors.  Kind of what we call the reign of terror right after Wounded Knee.  They said, we don’t need warrants.  We’re looking for guns, we’re looking for fugitives.  Therefore, we don’t need a warrant.  So, they’d just break people’s doors down, haul them out.  And of course, Peltier and others, including in almost every community of the reservation, we had people who resisted this.  Organized to protect our people.  And Peltier was with a group over at Oglala that was doing exactly that.  To protect the elders and the people that were still living on the outskirts of Pine Ridge and were living in their community of Oglala and were set upon by the FBI agents.

And so, once again, we had to resist an attack, you know, without any type of warning, without any type of, shall we say, due process.  You know, there’s supposed to be a legal way to do things with search warrants and all that.  They just came in with guns blazing and that was it.  And so, Peltier and others resisted, and his co-defendants were found guilty.  But you know the history of the FBI.  They brag about how they always get their man.  They left out sentences, whether he’s guilty or not.  And so, for I believe it’s 44 or 45 years now, Peltier’s been in prison.  Locked up for his crime, when we’ve had various cases—I mean, issues on legal issues that were tried in courts of appeals throughout the system.  So much that we ran out of court options.  But we still have the option of humanitarian release or a release from—you know, based on the fact of—

Dennis Bernstein:  Health.

Bill Means: —with Peltier being in so long that he could be eligible for parole at some point.  Or at least a pardon.  Or at least humanitarian release.  So, these are things we’re still fighting for on behalf of Peltier.  Because he’s one of the longest-serving federal prisoners in the system in the United States.

Dennis Bernstein: It’s horrible.  Listen, let me bring in a friend of yours, I think.  Joining the conversation now is our good friend, Miguel Gavilan Molina, senior producer on this show, Flashpoints.  We’re speaking with Bill Means, co-founder of the American Indian Movement and of the International Indian Treaty Council.  This is the anniversary of the slaughter—the original slaughter at Wounded Knee.  So, we were talking about that.  And then the birth of the American Indian Movement in ’73.  I’m Dennis Bernstein, and welcome, Miguel.

Miguel Molina:  It’s good to be on.  And of course, it’s always good to hear your voice, Bill.  You know, in reflecting on all of that, you know, we’re not talking about like, ancient history.  Something that happened five or a thousand years ago.  It’s something that, you know, happened 131 years ago.  You know, the locomotive, the Industrial Age had begun.  And here is, you know, again, U.S. policy, you know, towards Native populations.  Here we are today.  It’s 2000—you know, 2021.  We’re looking at the upcoming year and the midterm elections.

But recently, this administration—the Biden administration, did something that no one expected.  For me, it came out of left field.  But that was the appointment of a Native American to the Department of the Interior.  Something which was historical and major.  The significance it has, you know, towards Native communities and Native nations.  But here we are, Bill, looking at this upcoming year.  We just survived two years of an invisible germ warfare, as I call it.  You know, the pandemic.  And it really ravaged reservations and Native communities throughout the country.  A lot of times, the last served.  You know, the last to be reached out to.  And as we look again, we just saw in this administration the passage of major bills.  You know, to rebuild the infrastructure.  To bring broadband, to bring services, to help new businesses, to you know, revitalize the economy.

I wonder—I wonder, Bill, if some of that is going to trinkle down to the reservations.  Some of the reservations in this country are, you know, just unbelievable.  You know, third world conditions or worse.  Do you see a hope that maybe some of the money will finally reach the Native communities and not be centralized in the urban centers where the vote—or you know, massive—and the votes are, you know, big blocks of potential voters?  The reservations are out—you know, sometimes out in nowhere lands, as they call them.  Do you see some kind of financial resources finally reaching those communities?

Bill Means:  Yes, I do.  Matter of fact, I think the Biden administration has done a better job of say, than most administra—certainly, the last administration in sharing their resources.  You know, in all these areas of the various bills that have been passed, there are, shall we say, appropriations that are designated for Indian people.  Unfortunately, a lot of them go to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.  So, what we’re trying to do is reform that process.  Because the Indian—Bureau of Indian Affairs collects 75% in administrative costs to run the BIA.  So, by the time it gets to the reservation, there’s only 25%.  So, you can see it’s highly diminished.

But within the Biden administration, we have something called the Contracting Act.  It’s a public law.  What is it?  Anyway, it’s a law for contracting by tribe directly so that we don’t have to necessarily go through the BIA to get the money for healthcare, for the land operations, for the welfare system.  So, we’re starting to receive more of those funds for housing.  So, all these things are, like you said, third world conditions on reservation because people think we get a lot of money appropriated.  But it’s all used up in administrative costs.  It’s something that’s, what you might say, the hidden story of the whole Bureau of Indian Affairs and their lack of any type of expertise in how to get the funds to Indian people more directly.

So, here we are with the new reforms of the Biden administration, having Secretary Haaland and others, very high position within the administration to ensure that there’s a change in this policy so that we get more of the funds directly so that we can use them directly on the reservation.

Let me give you an example of the healthcare system, which has a big appropriation.  However, the majority of that money not only goes to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, it goes to what they call “contract care.”  And so, instead of taking care of the people at the local reservation hospital, they send them—like us here, we’re 200 miles from the nearest big hospital.  So, I’ll give you an example.  My wife had a broken wrist.  And so, they wouldn’t allow her—because they have a contract with the big hospital in Rapid City, they wouldn’t allow her to have a cast put on at the local hospital.  Imagine that.  So, I had to drive her 200 miles one way, 400 miles round trip to get a cast put on.  And that’s the type of services.

We get everything—people are gouging the United States government through these—a lot of times because it’s so far, they have to fly them out.  It’s a matter of life and death.  So, they fly them in these small plane ambulances.  Or they take them on the ground.  Well, a lot of people are dying on these planes or on the ground just to get to the hospital because they have to, according to a contract that the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the United States government has with the big hospitals in the cities.  There’s only two cities in South Dakota that receive, that’s the city of Rapid City and the city of Sioux Falls.  The majority of our patients are flown to those hospitals or taken via ambulance.

That’s just one example of how the money is misused by the greater communities.  So, now we have big, huge hospitals being built in these big cities.  They’re not very big either.  You know, 100,000 people.  But nevertheless, those monies should be spent—we have brand-new hospitals, both Pine Ridge and Rosebud.  The rooms are empty.  Whoever heard of that on this day of Covid to have empty rooms in a hospital?  Why?  Because they tell you you have to be sent out to one of those big cities in order to receive the care for Covid or other things if you’re hospitalized.  So, these are, shall we say, the gross violations of human rights that take place on a daily basis because of the bureaucracy.

Miguel Molina:   There’s been a lot of rumors about hey, maybe it’s time to return  public federal lands in the United States—back to the Indian nations.  You know, those—particularly, national parks.  Like Yosemite. Yellowstone, back to its Native people.  Returning the bison, you know, back to those lands.  Do you see that maybe happening in this administration or somewhere in the near future under the new Native American Secretary of Interior?

Bill Means:  Yes, I do.  We presently have an initiative going with the U.S. Forest Service in our sacred Black Hills, like I said.  That’s where we—our creation story comes from the Black Hills.  So, it’s a very sacred area.  We’re now doing what they call a process of co-management.  We’re trying to initiate this process or enlarge it.  Because there’s several tribes that co-manage federal lands, as you said.  And the U.S. Forest Service governs up to four to six million acres of our federal land.  Black Hills, which is basically a forest, but also is inhabited by various landowners.  It’s leased out to various cattlemen, to other industries.

Right now, of course, we’re fighting the mining industries, the extractive industries who are surrounding the Black Hills like a bunch of vultures.  And they don’t give permits.  Except on federal land, they have to go through the feds.  So, we’re able to use some of our laws that have been passed to protect our sacred objects and our graves.  We’ve been able to use those to put the mining companies on hold for a while.  Whereas the state of South Dakota on deeded land, they can come in and issue permits, which they’re trying to do all over the Black Hills.  And of course, we have to fight them in state court.  And we tried to get it moved to federal court as much as possible.  But this is just some of the complications.

But the overall answer to that question is yes.  We’re very involved in trying to do this co-management to allow for us to manage some of our own property.  We always say, you know, the only thing between us and that land in the Black Hills and all the mining companies, the only thing preventing us from getting that land is the rightful owners.  Which is us.  And so, that is beginning to ring through the community’s ear because we get more tourists, you might say.  Well, we call—they may come from South Dakota, but they’re more educated.  They’re not brought up in that redneck society of ruling class, where the ranchers and the farmers run the whole system.  Now, we have cities getting bigger, and so, we’re getting more open-minded people.  And yes, people are thinking about returning those lands in the Black Hills.

Dennis Bernstein:  Bill, you’ve guided members of the United Nations touring the United States like it’s a third world not too long ago.  You’ve been on the police review commissions.  You’ve been in this—you’ve done this battle so many different ways.  You did it on revolutionary lines with the American Indian Movement.  We’re just about out of time.  But tell us about where this goes for you.  Are you—do you feel daunted?  Are you inspired?  What’s next for you?

Bill Means: I’m very inspired by the young people coming up.  Just to give you an example, the other day I had a meeting with a young Stanford graduate who’s from our reservation who’s going to medical school.  But she’s putting it off for maybe a year or two so that she could join the fight against the pollution of our water by mining companies in the Black Hills.  We’re getting—all these young people are becoming involved in their own areas.  Well-educated.  I mean, with all the degrees that you could think of.  And it’s very, very inspiring to see them organizing and becoming part of other organizations, tribal organizations, inter-tribal organizations, working with non-Indians in the Black Hills that want to keep the water clean.

All these things are going on, and I’m very inspired because our work is beginning to compound the interests every day from our young people to get involved.  To save what little we have left.  To understand the meaning of treaties.  And us as a nation of people that we’re rebuilding our nation.  We’re not rebuilding a tribe.  We’re rebuilding our nations.  And that’s why these young people are beginning to take that idea and run with it.  So, I’m very inspired.

Dennis Bernstein: Well, we’re inspired, Bill, every time we spend this time with you. And it’s been pretty amazing over the years to travel with you and AIM leaders where all this is happening, and to witness it together.

Bill Means:  Thank you very much.