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Unsung Spirits

Though history overlooked their roles at Wounded Knee, the Native American women who took part can never forget the siege. In their own ways, they continue the struggle for Indian rights.

October 14, 1998|DUANE NORIYUKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WOUNDED KNEE, S.D. — Ribbons representing the four directions dance on a timeless September wind above the graves. Madonna Thunder Hawk scratches the hard, dry ground with the toe of her right shoe. She prefers coming here as seasons change, she says, when time's passage is evident in the leaves and air.

Thunder Hawk does not return to the memorial to remember those who died here and those buried in this small cemetery. She comes here for herself, to awaken what is buried within. Wounded Knee is a place of death--the 1890 massacre of more than 200 Sioux by the 7th Cavalry, the 71-day siege in 1973 by the American Indian Movement in which two more were killed. Yet, to Thunder Hawk, it is a symbol of life, of seasons and time and people moving forward.

"Our people are survivors, you know? This is just another page in the ongoing history of our people," she says. "The struggle never ends. With each changing of the season, we're still here."

It has been 25 years since Thunder Hawk, 58, walked upon these hills through darkness and steep ravines--avoiding roadblocks and arrest, her backpack heavy with ammunition for the AIM cause. She remembers how the dull light of a paper-thin moon shimmered off patches of snow. The faint glow of lights on the right was from the town of Pine Ridge, she was told. The lights to the left were of Denby, and the lights in the center would lead her to Wounded Knee.

She was one of a small group hiking 12 miles in from Porcupine. Among those with her was Lorelei DeCora, then still a teenager, who, three years earlier at age 16, became one of the youngest members of the AIM board of directors.

They were distant relatives, but it wasn't until they became involved in AIM, a civil rights movement born in 1968, that they drew close. The two of them traveled together, protested together, were arrested together. And just as the sky was turning pale one winter morning in 1973, they walked together down into this valley and into the siege that would change their lives.

The conflict started as a result of turmoil between two factions on the Pine Ridge reservation. AIM had been called in by a group of traditional Oglala elders who said they were under attack by Richard Wilson, the elected tribal chairman, and his "goon squad."

It was a conflict that came to symbolize the disparity between those adhering to traditional Indian cultures and those living nontraditional lives. But when the shooting started and federal agents became involved, the conflict pitted AIM against the U.S. government. And as negotiations took place, the issues shifted to the rights of American Indians.

It was a conflict that came to mean different things at different times to different people.

Women Moved to the Forefront

About half of those involved in the occupation were women, Thunder Hawk says. And after Wounded Knee, when many of the male leaders, including her cousin Russell Means, whom she grew up with and considers a brother, were arrested or on the run, women took on greater responsibilities in the movement. Thunder Hawk and DeCora helped form Women of All Red Nations when it became dangerous to declare affiliation with AIM.

They fought to save the sacred Black Hills from developers and did a water study on Pine Ridge that indicated dangerous levels of radiation, eventually resulting in a new water system. Thunder Hawk, who earned a bachelor's degree in human services, started a group home / survival school in Rapid City during the Wounded Knee trials. It was primarily for children from out of town whose relatives had been indicted. Eventually, she took in runaways and others with nowhere to go, and the school was moved to Pine Ridge, where she also helped start an independent radio station.

DeCora, 44, earned a bachelor's degree in nursing. She helped establish the Porcupine Clinic. Both remain activists on their home reservations, Thunder Hawk at Cheyenne River in South Dakota, DeCora at the Winnebago reservation in Nebraska.

They are typical, they say, of many women who worked before, during and after the siege of Wounded Knee to secure treaty rights, improve living conditions and renew native cultures that over the years were systematically stripped away by the dominant U.S. society.

Thunder Hawk turns and looks up from the weeds and the small scratch in the dirt next to her feet. Her gaze shifts to the east. What Wounded Knee taught her, she says, is how to look at place and time. The struggle is represented by this land beneath her and, like the wind, is timeless.

"I knew after Wounded Knee what our ancestors meant when they talked about the seven generations. You have to think and plan for seven generations ahead," she says. "This is it for us. Right here." Again, she scratches the ground.

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