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WOSTER: Wounded Knee can still teach us

Terry Woster

Forty years ago today began the occupation of Wounded Knee, a modest community in a valley on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

I worked for the wire service then. Our Minneapolis bureau received a tip about the takeover from someone who traveled with American Indian Movement members and supporters in a caravan that left a community hall near Oglala, traveled to Pine Ridge, turned left at the main intersection just east of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building and drove along U.S. Highway 18 to the junction with the Big Foot Trail. From there, the caravan drove north until it topped a high ridge and dropped down a long slope into Wounded Knee.

Authorities, both federal and tribal, were aware of the caravan. The BIA building at the Pine Ridge intersection had numerous law enforcement officers, who were anticipating that the AIM-led group would try to take over that building. Such an occupation had happened in the BIA building in Washington, D.C., the previous year. Instead, the caravan went to Wounded Knee.

Our tipster said the occupiers had a series of demands against the BIA and against the government of tribal Chairman Richard Wilson. Those demands would be revealed in due course, and the village would be held until the demands were met.

For a reporter, the event was a oncein-a-lifetime assignment. That sounds callous, I'm sure, because huge issues were involved, people's rights and lives and futures were being affected, and in a few instances, people were dying or being seriously wounded in exchanges of gunfire. But history was being made each day. That's something a reporter doesn't like to miss.

The reporters flocked in during the early hours and days of the occupation. The New York Times was there, CBS, NBC, ABC, Reuters, Chicago Tribune, Time, Newsweek and all manner of other major national and international publications with big-heat reporters.

As the stalemate went on and on, the number of news outlets willing to invest major resources in the story dwindled. For much of the last several weeks of the story, the regular reporters on scene represented The Associated Press, United Press International and The New York Times.

We sent several dispatches each day from the area. For a good part of the 71 days, we were allowed through federal roadblocks on the Big Foot Trail and went into Wounded Knee during daylight hours to do interviews and make pictures. For the last while, the roadblocks were closed to reporters, and we did our reporting from the outside, talking with feds and tribal leaders and townspeople and others -- Oglala and not -- who were in the area.

As with most such stories, most of the people we interviewed and included in stories were those -- on both sides -- who were willing to speak out. Many voices were not heard, some because they declined, many because reporters didn't seek them out.

I can't recall if it was Jim Quinn from UPI or Mo Waldron from the Times who said one evening as we sat in a place called the Food Bowl in Rushville, Neb., after dinner, "We're only being kept here in case there's bloodshed, you know."

I believe the leaders of our respective organizations saw important news in the standoff in terms of Native American rights and the federal trust responsibilities. Those bosses also saw the bloodshed potential, and the symbolism of an armed clash between Lakota people and the federal government at Wounded Knee, site of the Dec. 29, 1890, massacre of Big Foot's band of men, women and children.

On many nights during the standoff, those in the federal bunkers and those in the village exchanged gunfire. Two people in the village died during those exchanges, and a federal marshal was paralyzed by a gunshot.

As a news reporter, I went to Wounded Knee in 1993 for the 20th observance of the occupation. I'm no longer a reporter, and I didn't go this year. I hope others did, and I hope they mark the 40th anniversary with words of remembrance, both of 1973 and of 1890.

We learn from history, and it is never too late to learn.