History was written here in 1973, when Dennis Banks and Russell Means led the American Indian Move ment’s armed seizure of Wounded Knee, this tiny hamlet in the heart of South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Sioux reservation.
Hundreds of federal agents descended, encircling at least as many militant Indians holed up in houses and a church. The standoff lasted 71 days. Bullets flew, helicopters buzzed overhead, roads were blockaded and the hills swarmed with journalists from all over the world, chronicling the drama of a 20th-Century Indian uprising against the U.S. government.
When it was over, a federal marshal had been permanently paralyzed and two young Indians were dead. Otherwise, not much was accomplished--certainly not for Pine Ridge residents, who remain among the poorest people in the nation.
But Means and Banks had become the two most famous Indians since Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse wiped out Custer nearly a century earlier. Their pictures had been in newspapers from Tokyo to Berlin, they were the darlings of practically anybody who had ever marched against the Vietnam War, condemned Richard Nixon or boycotted a California grape. Even Marlon Brando knew who they were.
Their trial on 10 felony counts each, as widely publicized as the occupation itself, lasted eight months before a federal judge threw the case out on grounds of prosecutorial misconduct.
From there, destiny divided them.
While one busily set about becoming the world’s most flamboyant Indian, the other went on the run for more than a decade, just trying to stay out of jail on a riot conviction stemming from an incident predating Wounded Knee.
But now, for the first time in 13 years, Dennis Banks and Russell Means are both back where it all began, living about 30 miles apart on the Pine Ridge reservation.
While one now enthusiastically plots the capture of some 120 million reservation prairie dogs, the other wants to help Ronald Reagan topple the Marxist Sandinista regime of Nicaragua.
Looking at the pair today, it’s hard to envision them willingly occupying even the same room for more than an hour, much less an entire village for 2 1/2 months.
For Russell Means, now 46, life took on exciting new flavor at Wounded Knee.
He has seen himself as a global figure ever since, spokesman not only for AIM but for all oppressed, indigenous peoples of the world. He travels constantly, strident, defiant, volatile and more opinionated than ever, lecturing to whoever will listen about the assorted evils of capitalism, Marxism, the white man, and whatever new cause may have captured his fancy. Occasionally, he tempers his militancy with just enough quick, cynical wit to make even his critics smile. He is at his best when the TV cameras are rolling.
Former California boy, one-time public accountant, ex-ballroom dance instructor and past fashion plate given to three-piece suits and French cuffs, Means threw away his ties after Wounded Knee and became a Hollywood vision of the forever resplendent Indian. Wherever he goes nowadays, he is invariably bedecked in enough turquoise, silver, beadwork, cowhide and snakeskin to make even other Indians turn and stare. His braids are always elaborately dressed in long leather-fringe bindings. Designer jeans and pleated pants are his most conspicuous concession to the white world of fashion.
Never conventional in his selection of friends and causes, Means has courted Libya’s besieged pariah Moammar Kadafi and the Nation of Islam’s loose-tongued brother Louis Farrakhan. Two years ago, he ran for vice president on a ticket with pornographer Larry Flynt, whose very sanity has occasionally been called into question. Now he is assiduously wooing the Unification Church’s Moonies, so called in honor of their spiritual leader, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, who just spent a year in prison for tax fraud.
On a more personal level, Means has also, along the way: been stabbed a couple of times, shot at once; served a year in prison for rioting (in a nearby white town with the nerve to name itself Custer in the heart of Sioux country); been acquitted on a barroom murder charge, and acquired a legendary reputation for womanizing.
Although he is rarely there, Means lives with his fourth wife and a baby son (his eighth child) in Porcupine, seven miles from Wounded Knee. It is a small, modest home, three rooms, dominated by the largest color console TV money can buy, an extensive clutter of Means’ body-building equipment, and pictures of him. Everywhere.
Much of Means’ personal memorabilia testifies to his continuing penchant for occupations and demonstrations. In one of his lighter moments, he once publicly urinated atop Mt. Rushmore in protest of the white man’s desecration of Sioux holy lands.
Five years ago, in a more serious mood, he led a band of Indians into Black Hills National Forest, claimed 800 acres as a Sioux religious site, set up tepees, named the camp Yellow Thunder and announced plans to build at least 80 permanent structures there. The U.S. Forest Service is still fighting it. Meantime, while the tedious legal battles go on, Means has long since turned his attentions to other, more interesting matters, leaving a single, ardent young Mohawk admirer from Pennsylvania, who calls himself “just Wolf Slayer,” to stand guard.
Currently, Means is embarked on what he regards as possibly the most critical mission of his career--and one so controversial that other AIM leaders, who may have been irked or embarrassed at Means in the past, are, this time, practically disowning him.
Means wants to save the Miskito Indians of eastern Nicaragua from what he insists is “an extermination order” issued by Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista government.
He knows this to be true, because, says Means, he recently spent several harrowing weeks in the Nicaraguan jungles with the Miskitos, where he only narrowly escaped death himself in the Sandinistas’ bombing of Indian villages.
“The Sandinistas are worse than (former dictator) Somoza, worse than (Cambodian mass killer) Pol Pot!” he declares. “The difference is, they got (a ruling directorate of) nine Pol Pots down there!”
For Dennis Banks, 55, life mainly became a political football after Wounded Knee.
Fleeing a conviction for the same ’73 Custer riot involving Means, Banks found refuge in California for nearly nine years, where he taught at Deganowidah-Quetzalcoatl University (a small Indian school in Davis), protected by Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., who refused to extradite him.
George Deukmejian, however, was of a different mind, obliging Banks to flee again in 1983, to the Onondaga Indian reservation in New York, where he remained for 18 months.
Exhausted by the perpetual uncertainty, Banks finally surrendered to South Dakota authorities in 1984, served 14 months in prison and was paroled last fall, when he returned to Pine Ridge.
And his legal problems aren’t over yet: Thanks to a recent Supreme Court ruling that he had not been denied a speedy trial, Banks could conceivably be tried once again on a weapons possession charge now 11 years old. “I’m not thinking about it, unless it happens,” he sighs, more exasperated than bitter, “but sometimes I’m surprised they don’t try to charge me with the Crucifixion too.”
Today, Banks is employed part time as an alcoholism counselor at Loneman School in the village of Oglala. A Chippewa married to a 32-year-old Pine Ridge Sioux, he lives in a small, flimsy trailer overflowing with children, neighbors, books, and a collection of historic Indian artifacts, carefully displayed in glass cases.
Striking in a rugged, rawboned, somber-faced way, vaguely reminiscent of Charles Bronson, he drives around the reservation in a pickup truck full of prairie dog traps, dressed with none of Means’ regard for glamour in baggy jeans, sweat shirts and tennis shoes, his long hair pulled carelessly back in a ponytail.
He is quiet, reserved, thoughtful, polite and--especially in comparison to the ever-emotional, temperamental Means--sometimes hard to read.
His face, for instance, gives away nothing, neither pride, amusement nor weary disgrace, as he looks an awed stranger straight in the eye and matter-of-factly corrects the mistaken notion that he is father of 15 children.
“Why, no,” he says pleasantly, “I have 17.” (By five wives.)
Nor does Banks share Means’ enthusiasm for the limelight.
He isn’t interested in talking about global oppression, Russell Means, the old days at Wounded Knee or any of his famous friends who tried in vain to persuade Deukmejian not to extradite him.
Instead, Banks now spends his days worrying about unemployment, alcoholism, trash collection, prairie dog infestation and a dozen other strictly provincial problems plaguing Pine Ridge (home of about 18,000 Oglala Sioux and, with a land area of about 5,000 square miles, the nation’s second largest reservation, after the Navajos’ in Arizona).
He is especially obsessed with bringing jobs to the reservation, where unemployment is about 90%.
“I decided when I came back, that my destiny was here--that I could best help by staying out of politics altogether, and working at the local level instead, with business and industry, trying to bring jobs here, and, hopefully, halt the alcohol and drug use.” (Former hard drinkers, both Banks and Means are now teetotalers, though neither refers to himself as an alcoholic.)
“But don’t write about me,” Banks repeatedly adds, insistently. “The story here is what the people are doing, a community trying to help itself.”
In some respects, Banks seems almost too modest, too selfless, too community-minded to be true. Certainly, the Dennis Banks of 1986 is a far cry from the Banks of ’73, who once confronted a phalanx of FBI agents armed with automatic weapons, proclaimed Wounded Knee a “sovereign nation” and threatened all-out war if they attempted to “invade.”
The same intense energy remains, but now Banks directs it at other, lesser enemies. For instance, the Dennis Banks of today can work himself into a state of genuine excitement at the very thought of a prairie dog.
Standing on a gentle bluff, gazing at the miles of rolling grasslands, his eyes shine with the satisfied light of a man beholding a virtual gold mine, as he enthusiastically rattles off his collection of prairie dog data. According to Banks’ calculations, there are at least 120 million prairie dogs out there, steadily ravaging about 350,000 reservation acres--"that’s if you figure five prairie dogs a hole, around 70 holes per acre.”
A natural disaster, to be sure. Except Banks has just made an amazing discovery: Mink farmers, he announces happily, feed prairie dogs to their colonies.
“I called a guy in Minnesota the other day, and he told me he feeds 20,000 minks a day , and he said he’d take all the prairie dogs we can send him--at 12 cents a pound !” Banks grins, every time he says it.
“So, if you figure every prairie dog weighs, on an average, four pounds . . . that’s maybe 45 cents each, then multiply that times all the prairie dogs . . . and,” he pauses, savoring the triumph at hand, “you come up with at least $4 million!”
All that remains is to capture them. Banks plans to mobilize an army of reservation schoolchildren in what some locals are already smilingly calling “The Dennis Banks Prairie Dog Wars.”
Russell Means formally launched his anti-Sandinista crusade last December, when he called a press conference to announce that he intended to take “100 North American warriors” to Nicaragua to help the besieged Miskitos in their fight against “genocide.” According to Means, “white liberals” in the United States were sorely misguided in their notion that the Sandinistas were only relocating Miskito, Suma and Rama Indians from their ancestral lands in the government’s war against U.S.-backed contra rebels.
“They’re being systematically slaughtered, just because they’re Indians,” Means insisted.
“One hundred warriors, ha!” snorted Means’ brother, Bill, 37, head of AIM’s International Treaty Council. “Russ’d be lucky if he could find even five. This is just another one of his sensationalist, publicity-seeking stunts.” Which gives you an idea of the uproar Means’ latest escapade has set off within AIM, traditionally pro-Sandinista.
As it turned out, brother Bill was right. No war party ever materialized. Means himself, however, dropped out of sight for nearly two mysterious months. It was a time of high drama. Rumors abounded. Means was in Nicaragua, he was in Costa Rica, he had gone to Libya. He was dead, he was critically wounded, he was just living it up in San Jose with a new girlfriend, waiting for the wicked South Dakota winter to pass.
Meantime, Means’ harried office manager in Rapid City, a white, fast-fading idealist from New York who had been providing her services to AIM almost free, didn’t know where he was.
Nor did Means’ lawyer, left to his own devices at a particularly critical juncture in the Yellow Thunder proceedings. Even Means’ wife said she didn’t know where he was, but was “worried sick.” Means’ landlord didn’t care--he evicted Means from his office for nearly two months’ back rent, which was the last straw for the office manager, who packed up and quit.
(The cadre of white groupies surrounding Means has thinned rapidly in the last few years. Now he has only one left, an eccentric, silvery-haired woman, maybe 55, who came from South Carolina years ago and lives in her car--unless Means is out of town, when she is usually permitted to serve as his house sitter.)
When Means finally did reappear, he called another press conference to say he and three others had been on a “fact-finding mission” to Nicaragua. His worst fears had been confirmed. He described the horrors he had seen. No deaths, but much devastation, some injuries. He himself had suffered a minor shrapnel wound in the hip, he said, shrugging it off. Unfortunately, film documenting his trip had been overexposed during a customs check, he explained. But Means’ descriptions were vivid enough.
Telling how he slipped in and out of Nicaragua with Miskito warriors in motor-powered dugout canoes, he said, sounding awed still, “And now I know the power of prayer, because, when we were escaping, we only had enough gas left for about eight hours--but it lasted for 22! It was a miracle .”
He then went to Washington to offer the Reagan Administration his support in its bid for $100 million more in anti-Sandinista aid.
It was quite a sight, watching Russell Means, the American Indian whose greatest moment of glory had been achieved in a genuine shoot-out with the U.S. government 13 years before, now arrayed mainly in turquoise and snakeskin, strolling with elaborate, lazy ease into the office of Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, where he leaned forward and, in the chummy tones of a co-conspirator, lapsed into the gruff, tough jargon of a back-room poker player, and said: “Let’s deal.”
Abrams stared, blinking, and attempted a smile.
What Means wanted, he announced, was “an immediate airlift of guns, munitions and medical supplies” to the besieged Miskitos. Boots, too. And, in an aid package separate from the contras. The Miskitos, Means warned, wanted autonomy, not political affiliations.
In exchange, the Administration would get Russell Means’ eyewitness testimony that the Sandinistas are worse than Pol Pot.
Means clearly expected Abrams to jump at the chance to recruit such an eminent figure into the Administration’s campaign to bring down the Ortega regime.
Abrams did not jump.
Instead, after listening for around 15 minutes, a bemused, almost fascinated expression on his face, Abrams politely excused himself. Means, looking confused and flustered, was left with a couple of shrugging Abrams aides who explained, essentially, that, although the Administration naturally welcomed all the anti-Sandinista support it could find, it was tough enough just getting more aid out of Congress for acknowledged contra leaders, much less for a fringe group of rebel Miskitos operating on their own.
Means’ mood was not improved when one of them lamely suggested that he take his case directly to the American people through the media. Means had already tried that. He had called the leading local newspaper, plus all the major network TV talk shows, trying to get himself booked. But, like the State Department, nobody had been interested.
It wasn’t until later, back in his hotel room, that the scorching rage set in.
“It (the Abrams meeting) was like being thrown a bone! It was an insult! And we got nothing ! No guns, no medicine, not even the boots !” Means, pacing the floor, was almost screaming. He has a terrible temper. “It was the old BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) treatment. To the white man, Indians have always been expendable.”
Compounding his evil frame of mind, Means had just learned that Vernon Bellecourt, a co-founder of AIM along with Banks in 1968, had publicly called for Means’ official expulsion from the movement (technically, an impossibility, since AIM is little more than a concept with no centralized national structure, policies or membership rolls).
Adding to Means’ aggravations, his brother Bill was telling reporters: “Russ is speaking for a small, radical fringe group of Miskito rebels (led by Brooklyn Rivera). I’ve been to Nicaragua several times, and it’s our firm belief that the majority of Miskitos want to defend the Ortega government, against any form of foreign aggression . . . and what they see is U.S.-backed contras blowing up hospitals, villages, kids.”
Only Dennis Banks came to Means’ defense, as he usually does, however mildly. “Well, Russ isn’t calling for aid to the contras , he’s only trying to help the Miskitos. . . . I can’t see that it hurts any . . . to have two points of view.”
As for Means’ arrogant, aggressive style, Banks only chuckles softly, then hedges: “Well, I think Russell has the, uh, potential to be a great leader. . . . And, who knows, maybe he’s still growing, maybe he’s just in his infancy.” For whatever reasons, Banks cannot bring himself to crack down on Russell Means, especially in public.
Means himself reacts to criticism from his Indian brothers with the same uncompromising defiance and withering sarcasm he applies to whites and everybody else. Over the years, he has threatened to quit AIM so often that even he has lost count.
“The thing is, Dennis and I have matured--but all these other so-called AIM leaders who are criticizing me now, including Bill Means, are immature. They’re just trying to make names for themselves, get some publicity. But,” he finishes, with considerable satisfaction, “they’re just footnotes, and that’s all they’ll ever be.”
Dennis Banks’ work is cut out for him, if he is serious about making the problems of the Pine Ridge reservation his career. Nearly everyone here is both alcoholic and unemployed, lingering images at every turn:
Near Wounded Knee, two young Indians in their 20s stand at the side of the highway, not far from a sign commemorating the 1890 massacre of 267 Sioux men, women and children by the U.S. Cavalry, the last great blood bath of the U.S.-Indian Wars.
It is freezing, threatening snow, but they don’t seem to care. They are hitchhikers but occasionally forget their purpose, only staring vacantly at the passing cars. Like so many others on this reservation, they are too drunk to really care.
“I quit one time. For two months, almost,” mumbled one proudly. Then, with a worried frown, he drained his pint of Four Roses and flung it over his shoulder, into the growing heap of bottles and beer cans at the base of the historic monument to Wounded Knee.
In Pine Ridge, the reservation’s largest village, a weary-eyed young mother of four, only beginning to show the ravages of poverty and time, wipes the chocolate remains of a Hostess Cupcake from her youngest child’s face and explains that “Lester and me, we don’t get married--nobody here does--because then they (the government) would cut down our benefits, and we barely get by on what we got now.”
Neither she nor Lester has ever had a job, “because,” she shrugs, “there aren’t any.” Like nearly everyone else here, they accept perpetual unemployment, with its aimless days and empty future, as the way of life. They relieve the monotony whenever they can, she adds listlessly, by trading away part of their monthly food allotment from the government to bootleggers for whiskey or beer. (Though it is illegal to sell alcohol on the reservation, bootleggers operate openly, protected by their overwhelming public popularity.)
Homes in reservation villages are primarily flimsy, run-down government units, surrounded by weeds and trash. Here, adults idle away the days drinking, then, with the apathy characteristic of an alcoholic population, simply toss the cans into the yard.
Some houses are nearly buried beneath heaps of debris. Others are now unfit for human habitation, plundered by the occupants themselves, who rip out toilets, sinks, even windows and doors to sell for liquor money. “It’s tragic,” said a Mormon missionary. “I’ve even seen them sell their kids’ clothes.”
Away from the villages, as in a Third World nation, residents rarely have electricity and must often walk miles for water. Functioning sewage systems are a rarity everywhere.
Those residents who do try to keep their homes neat are perpetually exasperated by the squalor all around them. “Pampers are the worst invention of this century,” hissed one angry Sioux, a BIA employee, “because they’re not bio-degradable, you know that? So they’ll just blow around these hills forever. Pretty soon the Lakota nation is gonna be nothing but a sea of Pampers!”
And, from another resident, a schoolteacher “sick of listening to all the romantic rhetoric” about Indians and their respect for the environment: “Hell, last night I saw a TV ad that shows an Indian chief looking at a polluted creek, with a single tear trickling down his cheek. I told my wife, ‘They should just bring him out here, I can make him bawl !’ ”
Nearly everyone at Pine Ridge lives on welfare, supplemented by free food through a government commodities program. Average annual income is about $2,800 (contrasted with a national reservation average of about $7,000) and, according to the last U.S. census, the single poorest county in America (Shannon) is here.
A major reason for reservation poverty is that most Sioux--by tradition hunters, not farmers or ranchers--lease out their lands to whites, for as little as $3 an acre per year.
Only a handful of industries have been established at Pine Ridge over the years; none has succeeded. Almost the only other available jobs are provided by the tribal council, the BIA and the Indian Health Service--and it is commonly acknowledged that these are dispensed mainly on the basis of nepotism.
Otherwise, there is no trace of organized human activity. No movie theaters, no public swimming pools, no recreational facilities of any kind, no motels, craft shops, cafes, stores, not even a single traffic light or neon sign. Nor is there a public transportation system, although few people have cars.
In addition, only three ambulances serve the entire reservation the largest high school has been partially closed down, condemned by building inspectors, and villages have no fire engines. (“Here, we fight fires the old-fashioned way,” says Banks bitterly. “People line up with buckets.”)
The single, overpriced combination department-grocery store in Pine Ridge is run by a white man.
Meantime, alcoholism is slowly destroying the population.
Anywhere from 80% to 95% of the reservation is alcoholic, according to most estimates. Average life expectancy here is 47, local authorities say. After heart disease, one of the leading causes of death is cirrhosis of the liver (average age, 45), followed by assorted other alcohol-related diseases, accidents, violence and suicides.
Fetal alcohol syndrome--which produces babies both retarded and deformed--is increasing at such an alarming rate that Geraldine Janis, a Sioux social worker, cynically says: “People still sit around crying about how it’s all the white man’s fault for bringing us firewater. Well, five generations later, we better start taking some responsibility ourselves--because we’re committing self-genocide, breeding a new generation of idiots. If it keeps up at this rate, 50 years from now there won’t be a Sioux on this reservation who can think straight, even if he is sober.”
The problem naturally extends to the children. Many begin drinking in grade school--beer or cheap wine, if they can get it, otherwise gasoline, often mixed with orange juice in a concoction Pine Ridge kids call “Montana gin.”
Others commonly amuse themselves my inhaling assorted materials such as glue, gasoline and Lysol. Here they call it “huffing.”
Recently, Pine Ridge recorded its youngest death from cirrhosis of the liver. He was 23.
In the face of all this, Dennis Banks remains the optimist.
As with his war on prairie dogs, Banks turns almost effervescent discussing his first major victory on the job front. He is concentrating first on Oglala which, with a population of 1,700--and a potential work force of at least 600--currently has only 67 employed residents.
But Banks recently persuaded Honeywell Inc. to open a small computer-assembly operation there--"which means jobs for at least 33 people by the end of the year!” Here is a man for whom there are no small victories. With just that one contract, Banks beams, local employment was increased by nearly 50%.
“And this is only the beginning,” he declares. “We’re not only gonna match those 67 jobs, we’re gonna top ‘em! We’re gonna demonstrate that Indians not only want to work, but will. Why, we got people here who’d work all day just for a tank of gas or a bag of groceries! And, if we succeed in Oglala, it’s going to be easy to attract other industries to the reservation. Our goal is full employment, first in Oglala, then the whole reservation.”
Banks describes other, even smaller successes with the same contagious elation.
Trading partly on personal friendships, he recently convinced a San Francisco boutique owner, plus a couple of other small clothing operations, to send piecework orders to the reservation, work enough by midsummer for about 20 local seamstresses.
In another coup, Llama Loft of Valley Ford, Calif., has agreed to send llama fleece to Pine Ridge for cleaning. (Maybe eight more jobs.) “But,” exclaims Banks, practically breathless now, “I thought, why should we just clean it, when we can learn to spin it too? They pay around $1 an ounce, spun. So I bought a couple of spinning wheels and some books, and several women are learning right now!”
Banks has also just lured a small logging operation to the reservation--15 jobs more: “And it’s really going good! But I discovered, first day, we gotta get away from that minimum wage thing ($3.35 per hour), because, when I told the guys that’s what they’d get paid, they cut 15 logs. So, the second day, I said, we’ll pay $1 a log--and they cut 100!”
Banks is even looking overseas, hoping to establish a working relationship between Loneman Industries (an adjunct of the school where he teaches) and a cable manufacturing firm in Taiwan.
In his spare time, Dennis Banks worries about Pine Ridge trash. Attempting to organize garbage-collection squads at the village level, he is calling on all those with cars to pitch in. Once a week, he leads the Oglala brigade, winding through village streets, stowing bags of garbage into the back of his own relatively new van. Here, however, the people themselves are not strictly to blame, Banks adds, because trash collection, the responsibility of the tribal council, is disorganized and intermittent. “Sometimes they don’t come for three to four weeks--the trucks break down, whatever,” he says disgustedly.
As for alcoholism, however, here is one sad war that may never be won--especially, as Banks says, “so long as there are no jobs, only poverty, nothing for people to wake up to.”
Remarkably enough, despite the extent of the problem, there is not a single alcoholism treatment facility on the reservation. Last year, only 200 people were sent to hospitals, mostly in Iowa or Nebraska, through an Indian Health Service program.
More important, not many Indians are lining up to seek help. Alcoholics Anonymous is such an insignificant presence here that it’s not even listed in the phone book. Meetings are few and far between and sparsely attended, if at all.
The nearest legal source of alcohol is Whiteclay, Neb., population 150, two miles off the reservation. More beer, it is said, was sold there last year than in the entire city of Omaha.
Those who sell Indians alcohol have their rationale ready: “I farmed for years and never got nowhere. I got eat out by bugs, drought, the government telling me to tear up my crop, until I finally got fed up,” said the proprietor of one small beer parlor. “This is the first time in my life I’ve been able to buy a decent home. And if I don’t sell it to ‘em, somebody else will.” He made about $150,000 last year, he added.
Not incidentally, a stranger quickly learns why Pine Ridge is sometimes called the “Mississippi of Indians.” It is encircled by small white communities where the racism is breathtakingly intense. Around here, people don’t wait to be asked; they tell you straightaway that Indians are dirty, lazy and mean (with the obligatory, “There are a few good ones, of course”).
Hostility runs especially high in the small town of Gordon, Neb., where an Indian named Raymond Yellow Thunder was murdered 15 years ago by two whites, who received only light sentences. In retaliation, Russell Means led several hundred angry young Sioux on a raiding party and lectured town officials at gunpoint while the national media looked on.
Angry, humiliated townsfolk still sneeringly refer to AIM as “Asses in Moccasins.” (And Russell Means still grins happily at the memory of how “every able-bodied man in that damned town got in his car and ran!”)
“When I first came here, seven years ago, I was all for the Indian,” declared Sammy Lisilo, a fairly typical housewife. “But no more. They have the attitude that we owe them something. They’re lazy and they don’t know how to take care of anything we do give them. Just look at those houses they’ve wrecked. And my taxes built them.”
Although surrounding towns like Gordon thrive on Indian trade, none seems willing to do much for Indians in return. Since this is cattle country, the tribal council wants to build a slaughterhouse on the reservation, but, according to tribal officer Carl Janis, “we can’t find a single bank around here to lend us the damned money ($157,000).”
Likewise, those few Indians who do want to work their own land rather than lease it to whites invariably have trouble getting bank credit to buy cattle and equipment.
But, now, as in 1973, Dennis Banks divides blame for most reservation problems between a corrupt, apathetic tribal council and an equally ineffective BIA--which has created a population all too resigned to the government dole.
Banks is fully as disgusted with the BIA as Russell Means is, but he quietly disagrees with Means’ burning ambition to see the agency run off the reservation.
“They have to be here; there has to be an agency to talk to Congress. The BIA should in fact be a lobbying effort for us. But they’re not, because they’re ingrained right into the Interior Department. And it’s a direct conflict of interest. That’s one of the things we wanted, back then, at Wounded Knee, for the BIA to be elevated to Cabinet status.”
(BIA Supt. Michael Fairbanks is, not surprisingly, instantly on the defensive when asked why this reservation is such a sorry place, lacking even enough fire engines for public protection. He promptly blames it on Washington. Not enough money, plain and simple--"And with Gramm-Rudman it’s gonna be even worse.” And, as Fairbanks sees it, his role is to administer what money he does get for Pine Ridge--about $27.5 million in 1985--not to lobby Washington for more.)
For Dennis Banks today, the hardest question of all is: What difference did it make, the occupation of Wounded Knee?
“Maybe we opened up some eyes, opened some doors,” he sighs, searching for the bright side. “And it was at least an educational process here. Fifteen years ago, there was no newspaper here, no radio station. . . . And, uh, now there’s more community control over education. In ’73 there was none.”
With that, he gives up and, for the next four hours, turns into a radio-show host.
Banks’ program on the reservation station, KILI, is aired once a week. He divides his time between the microphone and the back room, where he teaches interested high school students what he knows about broadcast journalism. (“You’d be surprised, how much I’ve learned about journalism, just hanging around with you guys (media) for all these years,” he says wryly.)
The program itself is primarily a blend of Lakota cultural offerings, laced with a steady dose of sermonizing on drug abuse by Floyd Brings Plenty, 24, one of Banks’ young proteges. The rest of the show combines white country music with popular Indian vocalists.
Banks plays a lot of Willie Nelson tunes. Nelson, a personal friend, has been talking about staging an Indian fund-raising concert in Los Angeles this summer called “Cowboys for Indians,” Banks says. Among other superstars who may participate--Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson.
And, Banks hopes, maybe Buddy Red Bow, a 36-year-old Oglala Sioux from Pine Ridge, will be invited to perform too.
Red Bow, who sounds to some like the best of Jennings and Cash combined, is immensely popular on this reservation and with Dennis Banks, too. He often concludes his show with one of his personal favorites among Red Bow’s many haunting Indian ballads. Called “Ben Black Elk” it goes, in part:
Why it seems like yesterday that I heard Ben Black Elk say: “These here Black Hills are our land, stolen by the white man.
If you wanted to be so fair, on Mt. Rushmore, why isn’t the Indian there?
Sitting Bull, Spotted Tail, Red Cloud--they’d all be so proud . . . “
Shrine of democracy, land of the free.
But not for you, or for me.
Some Pine Ridge Indians, especially younger ones, admire Russell Means. They see in him the romantic, macho AIM militant, unafraid to confront authority, a figure to admire.
Some, mostly older, Pine Ridge residents despise him. The division still runs deep here, between those who applauded the early militancy of AIM and those who were horrified by it. While some defend AIM for at least reviving Indian pride, others blame the showdown at Wounded Knee for, among other things, frightening away industry and tourism.
“The national press never comes around this reservation unless Russell Means is up to some flamboyant new stunt, and it’s annoying, because Means doesn’t represent other Indians,” fumes Tim Giago, editor of the Lakota Times (the nation’s only self-supporting Indian newspaper).
“More Indians are dying of alcoholism right here at Pine Ridge than are being killed in Nicaragua,” Giago declares, “so why doesn’t Means devote some of his energy to lobbying Congress for money for alcoholism facilities here, instead of guns for the Miskitos?”
Other locals simply shake their heads and smile gently, even fondly, at the strutting peacock in their midst.
“I really think it’s a case of a good boy gone bad,” chuckled one wizened old lady on the Pine Ridge reservation, who has known Means for years. “He just never got over all that fuss, everybody treating him like a hero. It went to his head. Sometimes I think Russell’s biggest problem is that he didn’t get shot or at least seriously injured at Wounded Knee.”
Most commonly, though, now that Banks is back, residents simply make the obvious comparison. “I admire what Russ is trying to do,” said Celine Fast Horse, “but I just wish he’d be a little more like Dennis, work harder to help us out here.”
Means, naturally, considers this grossly unfair. “By my so-called gallivanting off to Nicaragua, I’m trying to change the European world view that Indians are expendable; I’m trying to get them to accept that Indian people are worth allying with,” he bristles defensively, sitting in his home at Porcupine. “If the United States government can be persuaded to stop its anti-Indian policies in Nicaragua, then it could reflect in more respect, self-determination in this country too.”
Furthermore, Means would like a little more credit for the personal sacrifices he’s made in behalf of his people. “Sure,” he says, momentarily the martyr, “I’ve hung around with all kinds of freaks for years, in search of friends for the Indian people--no matter what the cost to my own integrity or image.”
As for Larry Flynt, “I just wanted a forum to air Indian issues, but then I saw what an egomaniac he was. I watched him give away hundreds of thousands of dollars to all kinds of freaks. . . . Once I saw him just hand (black comedian) Dick Gregory a whole fistful of money.” Irritably, Means says that all he got out of Flynt for his trouble was $35,000.
What’s more, Means continues hotly, he has been active on the reservation (which he routinely refers to as “a concentration camp”). He takes credit for “founding” the reservation’s AIM-operated radio station four years ago, and he calls himself an “active adviser” in plans now under way to build a private health clinic in Porcupine.
And, not least, Means reminds, he has been interested enough in local problems to run for tribal council president twice. He was narrowly defeated in ’74 by the anti-AIM candidate, and he was disqualified in 1984 as a felon.
Which still galls him. Had he been permitted to run, “the people would have elected me overwhelmingly.” And the first thing he would have done is run the “Bureau of Idiots Anonymous” off the reservation. In fact, Means would like to run all government agencies--federal, state and local--off the reservation. As he sees it, they are the source of every single local problem, from Pampers blowing across the prairies to the high school dropout rate (five out of six).
But Means is so indignant at so much, he seldom tracks in any organized fashion, digressing constantly instead, touching on a dozen different issues at once, fully dealing with none. An unending explosion of assorted emotions, he is railing one minute about the racist department store in Rapid City that once refused to sell him a refrigerator on credit; in the next breath, he is laughing at Dennis Banks’ prairie dog war.
“What I don’t get about Dennis,” Means giggles, “is how come he always wants to get on the shitty end of the stick? Why send the prairie dogs there ? Why doesn’t he just start a mink farm here?” (Banks’ answer: “With what money?”)
Next, Means’ mind is on reservation poverty--at least partly. “The full-bloods, the poor people, are forced by economics and BIA policies to lease out their land, so they’re dirt-poor, or they sell it to the tribe, or to one of the 1/16th or 1/32nd Indians out here--you know, the ones that, if you lined them up, they look just like whites, based on pigmentation and hair loss. . . . They’re bald-headed and red-haired, and sunburned. . . .”
Means was sneering, sarcastic again. Just thinking about the ridiculous way whites look does it to him every time.
“The problem with Indian policy in this country is that we get the right of self-administration of someone else’s policies, not ours! And that leads to the dependency status we’ve so come to know and love--we’ve become a people afraid to take a step on our own unless we have the safety net of the United States government.” He was working himself into another steamy harangue.
Not everybody, of course, likes his ideas, Means concedes, smugly describing Indians who vehemently opposed him in both his bids for the tribal presidency.
“Sure, some of the white Indians, the ones who ranch and look white and act white and think white, were saying that what I really wanted to do was get us into a war,” he said, voice lilting with mockery. “They thought all I was gonna do was have a big shoot-out with the United States government: ‘God damn! There goes Russell Means again!’ ” He especially enjoys himself when he’s discussing his own notoriety.
Means isn’t all that fond of blacks, either. He thinks that most of them, in fact, are just whites in disguise, same values, same alienation from nature.
“Blacks have lost their identity with Africa. It’s sad, but the African was culturally emasculated right away. . . . They’ve been taught to emulate the white man. It’s like Chief Dan George said in ‘Little Big Man': ‘Oh, the black white man, he’s just as crazy.’ ”
(He especially doesn’t like Jesse Jackson, who declined Means’ “challenge” to come to Pine Ridge during his presidential campaign. “We got less than half a million voters in the whole state, and only a few thousand here, so what did he care?” Means sulks.)
But, for all his talk of race and color, asking Means about his own Indian bloodlines is a risky venture. He turns instantly sullen, refusing to answer, launching instead into a contradictory tirade about “the absurdity” of Indians being made to register based on their bloodlines. It reminds him of Hitler, he seethes. “All these colonial tactics are designed and perfected in the ivory towers in Washington, D.C., that’s the sickening thing.”
(According to family members, however, Means is far from a “full-blood” Oglala himself. One of four brothers, Means was raised in Vallejo and San Leandro, Calif. His father, a Vallejo shipyard welder, was part Oglala, part Irish, and his mother was from a neighboring tribe, the Yankton Sioux.)
Not surprisingly, Means also blames the white man for Indian alcoholism. But not because whites brought them the liquor. “Alcoholism is a direct result of the steady diet of starch and sugar and junk food forced on Indians by the United States of America government! More than 50% of the drinking problem on this reservation is caused by physiological need alone , the craving for sugar ! Just look at all the cakes, cookies, soda pop people load their shopping carts with! If you are an Indian, chances are you’re a problem drinker when you’re born, before you ever taste a drop !” He finished almost shrieking. Having a discussion with Russell Means is an ordeal in intensity.
“So, if you want to help the Indian people, number one, you convince them not to buy white bread--or anything white. White has proven to Indian people to be a death color.”
Means’ wife, Gloria, 35, who was standing at the stove in white slacks, cooking white rice, looked over and giggled, but he only glared, seeing nothing funny. A pretty, sweet-tempered Navajo, she quickly turned back to her work. She shops at Banana Republic and leaves the Indian finery mostly to Means.
Before sitting down to dinner, Means took a small bowl of salad and, standing at the front door, delivered a lengthy chant in what sounded like fluent Lakota, although his detractors laughingly say he can’t speak more than a few words of the language--and even family members say he speaks only enough Lakota “to get by.”
Means threw the salad out the door when he was finished, but wouldn’t explain the significance of the ceremony. White people, he said sourly, “couldn’t understand it.”
“It’s called spirit food, it’s a way of giving thanks,” Gloria Means offered, by way of quick apology, casting Means a timid glance.
Since Means hasn’t held a regular job since Wounded Knee, he supports himself and his family primarily through lecture fees (“Just say I’m cheap,” he growls, too proud to name his price in print) and through donations from people like Larry Flynt.
But ask him how he makes ends meet, and, giving way to a moment of exaggerated nobility, Means will say, in a voice suddenly husky with emotion: “I live on what my people give me.Just the other day, for instance, an old man, an elder, came up and pressed some change into my hand, a few nickels and quarters. It was all he had.”
Why did he take it then?
“That’s the way white people always think!” Means exploded, startling his wife, who dropped a glass of milk into her dinner plate. She had cooked enchiladas. “Whites have always lived on the wrong end of the spectrum, just the opposite from Indians. Always thinking about nothing but money! It would have insulted him if I had refused!”
With that, Means called it a night. He was leaving the next day for the Navajo reservation, where he is “actively involved in the relocation issue of the Navajos and Hopis.”
He was also going to Rapid City to see about getting himself another office.
There is nothing much to see at Wounded Knee today. A few houses, a church, a gas station, a small, overgrown cemetery where one of the victims of the 1973 occupation is buried. At the gas station, a quiet, middle-aged Sioux named Ben Rollin looks out his window, at the charred remains of a building, half hidden by a big shade tree in a grassy meadow, and remembers how it was, 13 years ago.
“Federal agents had their bunkers in the hills all around here,” said Rollin, his arm moving in a sweeping arc across the peaceful valley where so much final, bloody Sioux history had been written. Then, pointing at a small nearby shed, “and you can still see some bullet holes in that wall over there.” He spoke in a tired monotone.
“Yep, it was real exciting around here, all right. At the time, most of us thought it would come to something, you know? Attract some industry, bring more tourists, at least. For a while, there was even some talk of building a motel here, maybe with a cafe and even a little arts-and-crafts shop where the local women could sell some of their beadwork.”
Rollin stared for a few seconds at the isolation still about him, looking faintly puzzled. “But, when it was all over, I don’t know why, nothing ever happened.”