Always Take First Hand Accounts With a Grain of Salt

3 minute read

One of the many books I picked up today at the library was We Are Still Here: A Photographic History of The American Indian Movement, a good looking large glossy text produced by the Minnesota Historical Society Press which included photographs by Dick Bancroft and text by Laura Waterman Wittstock. Both Bancroft and Wittstock had interactions with AIM during the height of the Red Power period; Bancroft as a sympathetic photographer and Wittstock as a journalist. Yet in both of their introductions to the text, they argue that the death of Raymond Yellow Thunder was the major contributing factor that lead to the occupation of Wounded Knee. Here’s how Bancroft describes it:

One thing leading to Wounded Knee was the death of Raymond Yellow Thunder, which happened in Nebraska, just over the border from Pine Ridge. Very tiny liquor stores were selling enormous quantities of beer and spirits to Indians from the reservation, and race relations were just terrible. Four white men seized Yellow Thunder from the street, stripped him of his pants, beat him, made him dance at a VFW hall, and left him badly hurt. He died of injuries and exposure.

Bancroft correctly provides the basics of the Yellow Thunder incident but he gets off track when he writes:

AIM came in as a result of that incident, and then there was a strategy session about what to do next. AIM always said during that period that it never went anywhere unless it was invited. The traditional leaders had contacted Russell Means. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back and everybody converged. And they got into Pine Ridge and then they decided, “What are we going to do?” Well, the most famous site on the reservation is Wounded Knee.

Here’s Wittstock:

…The blowup and occupation of Wounded Knee, which began shortly after the murder of…Raymond Yellow Thunder. He died of his wounds alone sometime between February 12 and 20.…This was the immediate issues that led to the Wounded Knee occupation on February 27, 1973.

Both Wittstock and Bancroft are completely off base in arguing that Yellow Thunder’s death was the immediate cause of Wounded Knee, primarily because Yellow Thunder died in February 1972 not 1973, a full year before the occupation. AIM did show up to Pine Ridge in the wake of Yellow Thunder’s death and lead a protest which shut down Gordon, Nebraska for three days and lead to the District Attorney filing charges against the four attackers and leading the town to form a commission to look at race issues in the area. The Yellow Thunder protest was a major victory for AIM and the success was probably in the back of the minds of those who invited AIM back to Pine Ridge in February 1973 after the failed impeachment of Dick Wilson, which was the prevailing reason for the Wounded Knee occupation.

If I was generous I’d say Bancroft and Wittstock are confusing Raymond Yellow Thunder’s death with that of Wesley Bad Heart Bull, who died in a bar fight in Buffalo Gap, South Dakota and whose attacker also received a lesser charge than AIM and Oglalas had hoped for. However both have the details of Yellow Thunder’s death and neither even remotely mentions the protest/riot at the Custer County Courthouse that saw a small building burned to the ground. Bad Heat Bull’s death along with protests in Rapid City in the period prior to Wounded Knee highlight the racial tensions surrounding Pine Ridge but political corruption rather than race relations led to Wounded Knee. Amazingly a quick glance at the chapter on Wounded Knee, written by Wittstock, notes Wilson impeachment as the issue behind the occupation.

Bancroft and Wittstock’s confusion about the period generously characterizes histories of the period, as evidenced by the general belief that Leonard Peltier was charged and convicted for his role in the Wounded Knee occupation when Peltier actually spent most of the occupation in a Wisconsin jail.