Journalist and author Stew Magnuson’s new book Wounded Knee 1973: Still Bleeding finds virtually every survivor of that 71-day occupation on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in S.D. sullied in some way.
The book by this Omaha native, who did a Peace Corps stint before a freelance correspondent career, explains how what began as a symbolic stand protesting historic wrongs to native peoples ended up a deadly siege. Its American Indian Movement organizers became heroes to some and criminals to others.
As the site of an 1890 atrocity committed by U.S. 7th Calvary troops against the Lakota Sioux, Wounded Knee was a powerful stage to send a message. But when the peaceful occupation turned violent confrontation between activists and authorities the symbology got lost amid the resulting deaths, injuries, property damage, theft and bitter feelings. The ensuing trials uncovered misdeeds on both sides but fell short of satisfying truth or justice.
Magnuson describes how everyone involved has very different interpretations of events that spring in 1973.
“Everyone’s got a piece of the puzzle and a legitimate point of view, but there’s a lot of b.s.,” he says. “There’s the possibility some very nefarious things happened inside there.”
A key figure in the occupation was the late AIM leader Russell Means, whom Magnuson says was “an endlessly fascinating character. All the world was a stage to him. He kept that angry young man persona up to the very end.”
Magnuson discovered how far apart the factions can be at an Augustana College (S.D) .conference last April that gathered AIM leaders and opponents together. His 2008 book The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder and its look at border town problems got him invited as a presenter. He also went as a journalist.
“It was everything I thought it was going to be. Lots of fireworks, a lot of people yelling at each other and accusing each other of being liars. I’d never covered anything like that.”
He’s covered a lot too. Racial strife, cultures clashing.
He was visiting here between jobs in 1999 when he came upon a story that led him to Pine Ridge. He read about a recent riot in the border town of Whiteclay, Neb. and plans by AIM leaders to march there and by the state patrol to respond.
“This had all the elements of things I’d been covering,” says Magnuson. “I’d been told by some newspaper they didn’t think I could be a reporter in my own country, so I kind of took umbrage at that and called the Christian Science Monitor about covering this unfolding story.”
He got the assignment.
“A couple years later I decided to look more into Whiteclay and stumbled across the Yellow Thunder story.”
The Oglala Sioux was killed by a group of whites in a 1972 racially motivated attack in Gordon, Neb. That event and the trial that followed galvanized AIM and its Wounded Knee occupation the next year. Coming to the story three decades later, Magnuson saw the makings of a book.
“I just threw myself into the project. I went and worked in a salmon cannery in Alaska for the summer to raise money to go up to Sheridan County (Neb.) and live there as long as I could to do the research.”
His Yellow Thunder Book won high praise. When the Augustana conference came around he saw an opportunity for a piece of long form journalism or a short book timed with the 40th anniversary of the Wounded Knee occupation. He found a publisher in Now and Then Reader.
He says a comprehensive account of what happened still needs writing. In his book virtually every occupation figure has a self-serving ax to grind. An exception is Adrienne Fritze. As a child she was held captive with her family. She went to Augustana hoping for reconciliation and an apology. She got neither.
“There’s some people who want a kind of truth telling commission. Well, we really don’t have a mechanism for that in America. The main mystery that needs to be resolved is what happened to (civil rights activist) Ray Robinson. It’s very well established he was inside the occupied village and has not been seen since. He has a family asking about where he is. His widow was at the conference.”
He says “the bigger historical questions of what did the occupation mean and what were its implications” are matters “people will be debating for decades to come. Did it raise awareness to the very real grievances, like the abuse of border schools and terrible, destructive government policies that AIM wanted to bring attention to? I would argue yes it did. But it brought years of violence afterwards, It stopped the progression of the reservation. It was kind of devastating for Pine Ridge.”
He says if anyone’s to write the full story they need to hurry, “A lot of these participants are not going to be with us a whole lot longer.”
Meanwhile, Magnuson, whose day job is managing editor of National Defense Magazine based in Washington D.C., hopes to finish a book on Highway 83. His backroads adventures on it as a boy and young man sparked his wanderlust life.
He will sign copies of his Wounded Knee book starting at 12:30 p.m. on April 28 at The Bookworm.
He muses on Native American issues on his “View from a Washichu” (white guy) blog, www.stewmagnuson.blogspot.com.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.