[Photo: Native American rancher, Raymond Yellow Thunder, in 1972 was attacked by racists, stripped from the waste down, and forced into an American Legion bar where people made fun of him, forced him to dance, and put cigarettes out on him. Raymond was then taken out back, beaten nearly to his death, and stuffed into the trunk of a car where he died. Before AIM became involved, two of the white murderers of Raymond Yellow Thunder, Melvin and Leslie Hare, were charged with assault and battery and released without even needing to pay bail.]
Currently, there are roughly 5.2 million Native Americans in the United States. From the beginnings of European colonization they have suffered genocide and theft of land. On the small tracts of land left to Native Americans they suffer 70% unemployment. One out of every four Native Americans is officially living in poverty. 29.9% of Native Americans have no health insurance. Many Native Americans on reservations still lack running water and electricity. Native Americans are three times more likely to be homeless than are non-Natives. Life expectancy for Native Americans in South Dakota is 65.99 years while it is 80.79 years for whites in the same state. Native American infant mortality is nearly double what it is for whites, with Native American infants 1.7 times more likely to die than white infants in their first year of life.
Poverty and neglect is common on reservations. For instance, on the Pine Ridge Reservation of South Dakota median income is $2,600 to $3,400 a year, unemployment is 83-85%, 97% of people are below the federal poverty line, housing is of poor quality and scarce, and there is a lack of commercial infrastructure, technology, and industry to provide any income. Life expectancy on the reservation is 48 years for men and 54 years for women. Radioactive contamination from uranium mining is blamed for an epidemic of cancers and miscarriages on the reservation.
Native Americans are also subjected to environmental racism and, as a result, suffer increased cancers and other problems inflicted on their economy, health, and environment. For instance, in 1997 the Clinton / Gore administration abandoned 1993 rules directed at controlling paper mill dioxin pollutants. That dioxin is being dumped into rivers where contaminated fish are eaten by Native American residents of reservations. Radiation is also a problem. For instance, Navajo, Ogallala Lakota, Nez Perce, Hopi, South Piute, Spokane, Western Shoshone, Yakima, Colville, Coeur d’Alene, Kalispell, Umatilla, Klickitat, and Cherokee reservation lands and waters have all been horribly contaminated by uranium tailings and other nuclear wastes. For example, radioactive waste was disposed of across the ground on Cherokee land, supposedly as fertilizer.
In 1973, when traditional Indians of the Pine Ridge Reservation and the American Indian Movement (AIM) occupied the town of Wounded Knee, all of these conditions existed, and much worse. Native American women suffered rampant forced sterilization by the government. Native children were sent to boarding schools where they suffered many injustices, including beatings for speaking their native languages. In addition to being subjected to continued genocide, Native Americans were among those being drafted and commanded to carry out the American War in Vietnam. Violence against Natives in the United States, including rape and murder, was so prevalent in some areas that Natives avoided even driving through certain towns. In addition, in the movies, the hero John Wayne murdered Indians while racist stereotypes prevailed. While the struggle for the rights of Native Americans is far from complete, the heroic struggles of AIM members and allies helped remedy some of these problems.
Today AIM has been splintered and nearly destroyed through a combination of FBI sponsored death squad murders, police violence, FBI violence, frame-ups, infiltration, disruption, and a tactic known as “snitch jacketing”, where FBI infiltrators create animosity, distrust, and violence by accusing loyal members of being FBI. From that violence, and still existing infiltrators, the FBI has done much to destroy the unity and reputation of AIM. Before considering such accusations, one must become familiar with AIM’s accomplishments and the murderous enemy they were up against.
One of AIM’s first big successes was in exposing the U.S. government’s genocidal policy of forced sterilization. Documentation of the policy was discovered and exposed by AIM when they occupied and trashed the Washington headquarters of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) for a week in 1972. The sterilizations were carried out with federal funding by the Indian Health Service (IHS) through coercion or without the knowledge or consent of the victims. As documents revealed, this forced sterilization program was carried out by the IHS under the leadership of the BIA.
Sterilizations would be carried out without consent while performing other procedures, like appendectomies, or, in other cases, women would be falsely convinced of the need for hysterectomies. In other cases, coercion was used, with healthcare professionals demanding sterilizations in return for future health care needs or keeping their children. Women were lied to in other ways as well, like being convinced that hysterectomies were reversible. Full blooded Indians were particularly targeted.
A 1974 study found that 42% of Native American women of child bearing age had been sterilized. And, not surprisingly, the Bureau of Census Reports documented a steep decline in Native American births between 1960 and 1980.
Native American women were not the only victims. Similar government programs have been uncovered that targeted Blacks, Latinas, and the poor in a number of states, including 20,000 women who were sterilized in the state of California. The United States carried out similar programs internationally. For instance, the Peace Corps carried out sterilizations of Quechua Indian women in Bolivia without their knowledge or consent. In Peru, the brutal U.S. backed government of Alberto Fujimori carried out 300,000 forced sterilizations of Quechua women between 1996 and 2000.
In 1975 the U.S. Congress, for the first time, passed laws making the use of federal funds in carrying out forced sterilizations and forced abortions illegal. In 1976, the U.S. government, through the General Accounting Office, admitted to a policy of forced sterilization directed at Native American women. In 1988, the U.S. government, for the first time, adopted the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide which prohibits “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, such as…imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group…”
Many people think that eugenics fell out of favor in the United States after Adolf Hitler’s infamous go at it, but the practice was alive and well in the United States up until at least the mid-1970s. AIM’s exposure of these crimes, found out through occupying enemy territory at BIA headquarters in 1972, was a first step towards the apparent elimination of the policy in the United States.
In 1972, Native American rancher, Raymond Yellow Thunder, was attacked by racists, stripped from the waste down, and forced into an American Legion bar where people made fun of him, forced him to dance, and put cigarettes out on him. Raymond was then taken out back, beaten nearly to his death, and stuffed into the trunk of a car where he died. Before AIM became involved, two of the white murderers of Raymond Yellow Thunder, Melvin and Leslie Hare, were charged with assault and battery and released without bail.
This was par for the course in South Dakota where, despite murderous violence against Native Americans being common, no white had ever been convicted for murdering a Native American in South Dakota’s entire history. Whites faced the same impunity for their racist terror against Native Americans in South Dakota as occurred against Blacks in the South. In South Dakota, racists freely kept signs up on their bars, stores and restaurants saying, “No Dogs or Indians Allowed”. The capitalist state was allowing the same kind of racist terror as had occurred in the south under the semi-fascist rule of KKK death squads working with local police, courts, and the Democrat Party.
Protesting for justice for Raymond Yellow Thunder, 4,000 Native Americans marched on the town of Porcupine and took it over for four days. After AIM protests, criminal charges were upped from the meaningless charges of “assault and battery” to three people being charged with second-degree manslaughter and a fourth charged with false imprisonment. The Hare brothers were convicted and sentenced to a year in prison. For the first time in South Dakota’s history, whites did time for murdering a Native American.
While a year’s sentence is obviously insufficient for kidnapping, torture, and murder, this punishment by the U.S. government marked the end of a 200 year open season on the lives of Native Americans. The last time there had been any justice for the murder of Native Americans in South Dakota was in 1876 when warriors of the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho nations, led by Crazy Horse, defeated Custer’s forces at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Custer was killed along with 267 of the Indian murdering soldiers under his command. Custer and his forces were involved in an ongoing genocide against Native Americans. This included Custer’s attack on a Cheyenne village on the Washita River on November 27, 1868 where Custer’s forces slaughtered 100 Cheyenne men, women, and children, burned their village, and slaughtered 800 horses. At the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Custer had it coming.
Part of the reason Crazy Horse brought a unified force of Native Americans together against the U.S. military was the fact that he could see what was coming for the future of Plains Indians as a stream of devastated Native American refugees flowed into the Dakotas from Minnesota. In Minnesota it was open season on Native Americans. Mass murder included the hanging of 38 Native Americans in Mankato, Minnesota on December 26, 1862. It was the biggest mass hanging in U.S. history. Abraham Lincoln actually gave it his official OK.
This author grew-up in Minnesota. I was taught in elementary school that there had only been one hanging in Minnesota’s history, the hanging of a woman, and it was botched. Minnesota patriotism was instilled in us as we were taught that this was why Minnesotans got upset with the death penalty early on and abolished it. As usual, America’s propagandistic history treated Native Americans as non-people, and by the way it was written, the Mankato mass hanging of 38 people never happened.
In 1973, of all places, a town named Custer, South Dakota became the next horrific ground zero in the struggle against racist murder. The incident started at Buffalo Gap, South Dakota when a 22 year-old Native American, Wesley Bad Heart Bull, tried to order a drink at a bar. For this “crime”, the whites in the bar dragged him out and beat him. One person involved, a white businessman named Darold Schmidt, said, “I’m going to kill an Indian” before he stabbed and killed Wesley Bad Heart Bull. Despite witnesses to this premeditated murder, Schmidt was charged with second degree manslaughter and released on a $5000 bond.
Wesley’s mother, Sarah Bad Heart Bull, called in AIM. A court hearing on the case was being held in Custer and AIM brought 200 people. All but four of the people supporting Wesley were denied entrance to the court by cops in full riot gear. Cops attacked protesters, Native Americans fought back, grabbing the swinging night sticks from the cops and giving back what the cops had attempted to deliver. Fed up with the racist police violence and lack of justice, people ran to a gas station where they got gasoline to make Molotov cocktails. With these they burned down the courthouse, chamber of commerce, and two police cars causing $2 million dollars in damage.
Darold Schmidt pleaded guilty to Second Degree Involuntary Manslaughter and served one day in jail. For trying to enter the courthouse, Sarah Bad Heart Bull, was struck by police in the face with a baton and she served a five month sentence on a charge of assaulting an officer. AIM leaders Dennis Banks and Russell Means were convicted on charges of inciting a riot. In reality, it was a brutal and racist system that incited that riot.
It was the audacious action in Custer, combined with festering anger over a multitude of injustices that helped serve as an inspiration for the next action, the 73 day armed occupation of the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota.
Today, as the propaganda campaign has intensified against everything done by AIM, including Wounded Knee, it is important to review the gains Native American people made, in large part as a result of the sacrifices made at Wounded Knee. Wounded Knee woke many Native Americans up to a struggle for their own survival, woke the majority of Americans to the continued existence of Native Americans as an oppressed people who deserved support, and put the U.S. government in a position of desiring those sorts of situations to go away, granted, partly through the brutal repression that took place, but also through granting concessions.
- Pride and heartbreak in anniversary of occupation (rapidcityjournal.com)
- House Republicans strip LGBT, Native American protections from Violence Against Women Act (rawstory.com)
- South Dakota leads nation in Native American poverty rate (rapidcityjournal.com)