Woster: A story that must come from the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota

With tensions running high on the reservation, it did not take much of a misunderstanding for one side or the other to retaliate, often in physical ways.

Terry Woster
Terry Woster

When someone mentions the Wounded Knee occupation in 1973, my first memory is of campfire coffee I shared beside a small tent a few miles from the village.

Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in western South Dakota is where soldiers massacred Lakota men, women and children in 1890. It is where, from Feb. 27 to May 8, 1973, a group led by the American Indian Movement held off U.S. marshals and FBI agents.

During the 71 days of the stalemate, the two sides negotiated over treaty rights, tribal government organization and traditional native leadership, among other thorny topics. Before the standoff had ended, gunfire exchanges had killed two of the village occupiers and paralyzed a member of Marshal’s Service.

I reported on those events and countless other significant moments during the 71 days. Yet my first memory after half a century is of stout coffee made from grounds boiled in water in a massive, black-metal pot hung over an open wood fire on the prairie. The folks who lived in the tent had moved from their homes in Wounded Knee early in the standoff. They made the best coffee I ever tasted, and even without a home, they shared willingly.

I stopped at their tent most mornings for coffee and conversation about what had happened overnight. Federal public-information specialists — for the Interior Department, Bureau of Indian Affairs and Justice Department — held regular briefings. So did AIM leaders. I went with other news reporters to those events. I also checked in regularly with some of the local people, to see if what they were hearing and seeing matched what the others were telling me.


I learned early on that most of the local folks were cautious about talking openly to reporters. With tensions running high on the reservation, it did not take much of a misunderstanding for one side or the other to retaliate, often in physical ways.

I remember one afternoon when a group of Lakota women pushed a reporter down in a pool of muddy water outside the BIA building and yelled that she and the other reporters did not belong on their land. The reporter looked frightened and embarrassed as she struggled to her feet. I felt that way, too, though no one had pushed me.

News reporters grow accustomed to dropping into any situation and feeling like they belong there, like the value of their work should be obvious to all. But I came to understand on that assignment that in the Land of Red Cloud, as the highway sign says, I was an outsider. The Oglala people didn’t know me. They didn’t know any of the horde of reporters who hit the reservation early in the occupation. They had no reason to trust us.

Over the years after 1973, I developed a handful of trusting relationships with people on the Pine Ridge and other South Dakota reservations. It took time. It took returning again and again, even if big news was not happening. It took learning how to tell good stories as well as bad. And it took listening. I still hadn’t gotten it down pat — not anywhere close — by the time I retired from full-time reporting 35 years after Wounded Knee.

Back in 1973, Russell Means said, “If you don’t take a close look at what’s happening at Wounded Knee, then you don’t know what your country is all about, and you don’t deserve it.’’

“People across the world didn’t even know we still existed,” Gilbert said. “They thought John Wayne killed us all.”

Because I covered the occupation as a young reporter, I was asked recently by a couple of news people if I would talk about it — give interviews, in other words. I was flattered they remembered me, but I didn’t do the interviews. I think the story — what happened in 1973, what has happened since and both the 1890 massacre and the 1973 standoff — continues to impact relations between Indians and non-Indians. The story should be told. I am not the one to tell it.

The story belongs to the Indian people, to the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people and to members of every other tribal nation. It is their story to tell.

They can tell it if we will listen.

Opinion by Terry Woster
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