Bill Means on Wounded Knee
I Wanna Wear That Uniform
Bill Means: I was in a bunker in Vietnam and I was serving the United States Army Airborne, and they passed out a military newspaper known as ‘The Stars and Stripes.’ And in that newspaper was a story, a picture actually, of my brother Russell standing on a statue of Chief Massasoit near Plymouth, Massachusetts. They were protesting Thanksgiving. And it said under the picture, gave his name and the fact that they were announcing a national day of mourning for American Indians because we had nothing to be thankful for in terms of government policy and other issues of social concern for our people. And so it was pretty amazing … I kinda felt like “Wow. I’m really missing something,” you know. And unfortunately I was in Vietnam and [there was] really nothin’ I could do at that time other than finish my time and survive. So [it] made me aware of a new movement that was taking place.
There had always been this underlying treatment of Indian people, whether it be in the courts, in social services, in education, whether it be by the Bureau of Indian Affairs being the trustee of our land and our resources; all these issues were daily issues that Indian people dealt with. For example, when I first went to boarding school in South Dakota, this would have been in 1958 or so, my mother took us to this border town. These are towns bordering on the reservation areas. And she was buying us school clothes. And as we were standing in line these white people kept going in front of my mother and getting waited on, and more or less pushing her to the side. Well, finally I seen her getting one of her … her moods, she kind of stiffened her neck and got that look of sternness on her face and went up to the cashier and said, “My money is as good here as anyone else’s.” I think I was in sixth grade or seventh grade at the time. And that’s my first real experience of racism with my mother.
And so then, through grade school, high school, especially in athletics, when you go to some of these towns that had very high racist feelings against Indians, they would say things, call us Redskins, “Go back to the Reservation,” you know, holler from the crowd. And you experienced that throughout life, it was kind of a daily occurrence. And then when you see somebody that’s standing up against it …
My college career was interrupted by service in Vietnam, where I got my political education. I began to see more and more this whole idea of colonialism and how it works. [T]he idea of creating conflict, and what it means to the indigenous people, what it means to the people that live in another land the United States is occupying with their military, and how so dedicated people are to a movement, to face the most powerful military in the world with a grassroots movement of people willing to give their lives for their country, for their movement to free Vietnam. And as a soldier I started to understand that and see that I myself played the role of the cavalry. But you know what, you’re in a combat situation; you either go to prison or you try to survive every day. And I didn’t really think of myself as going to prison. And so I surrounded myself with people that wanted to live as much as I did and survive to come back and then become a part of the movement.
I began to read these books. For example, one was called Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown. I read that in college, a professor gave it to me, and I began to see history from a different perspective, and then when I was in Vietnam to recall those incidents that I had studied about. First, you know, comes the cavalry. Then comes the church, acting as intelligence for the cavalry. You know, Who’s coming to church? Who’s refusing to be baptized? These are the dissidents. These are the people that we need to put onto the reservation and confine them. So the idea of basically confining people… destroying their economy, their way of life, [so that] they become dependent on the United States government.
Same thing happened in Vietnam. They had what they called strategic hamlets, where we as soldiers would take people out of villages, remove them to a strategic hamlet. Reservation. They would be guarded. Eventually, as colonialism progresses, you even have your own people — in our case Indian police — who guard their own people with weapons to keep them in line. And if they don’t stay in line, you go to federal court, and you go to federal prison. So all these things correlated with what I was doing in Vietnam and actually what the cavalry had done to our people: Confine them, destroy their economy, Christianize them, destroy our language and culture, and then create your own police of your own people. So that you become a dissident or you become a militant or you become a revolutionary if you’re talking about preserving your own language, if you’re talking about having Indian curriculum in the schools, if you’re talking about having self-determination and government programming, if you’re talking about training your own teachers. These are the types of things that people were looked upon as negative both by the church and by the government officials.
When I came back from Vietnam I still had five months to serve, and I was in a place called Fort Louis, Washington. And part of our training was riot control because of the civil rights movement [and] the anti-war movement, so they would train us how to clear the crowds, how to fight protesters, how to arrest them. And so these Indian people had occupied a military base that had been abandoned in Seattle, Washington. So one night they wake us up out of bed — this is at Fort Louis which is only maybe fifty miles south of Seattle — and they came in and said, “We’re on alert. We’re on alert!” Which in military terms, you know what to do. You grab your rucksack and your weapon and your helmet and your gear, and you go outside and you get ready to move out to somewhere.
So they load us on trucks and they took us to McChord Air Force Base, which is near Fort Louis. And we were sitting on the runway with all our gear on, rifles and bayonets, and a sergeant comes walking by and I said, “Hey, Sarge, what’s the deal? What’s going on? Protests?” He says, “Some Indian people have taken over a military base that’s abandoned in Seattle and we might have to go get them outta there.” I said, “Hey, Sarge, man, I’m not going over there. I just came back from the war in Vietnam and I’m not gonna start killing my own people.” So he looked at me and said, “Stand up.” So then all these guys started cheering, primarily black guys, saying, “Yeah, Chief. I don’t wanna serve over there either. What’s going on?” They start asking questions. So they got me out of there, and they took me to stockade, which is a military jail on Fort Louis. But they didn’t put me inside, just had me kinda sittin’ in what they called the bullpen where you’re waiting.
So I sat there, that was the middle of the night, ’til the next morning and somebody had found out about it. Pretty soon there was a protest outside of some anti-war people who found out somehow, I don’t know how, that I was in there. They were protesting that they had arrested an Indian for not wanting to fight against his own people. And, boy, they immediately took me out of there through the back door. Just took me back to my barracks and said, “You work around here. Don’t leave here. You’re confined.” Which to me was better than jail. I didn’t understand the whole scope of things at the time, but it was kind of a rude awakening of being on a military side and then have to face your own people. And fortunately I didn’t have to do that in the end. And I wasn’t charged and sent to prison, which I could have been, especially at war time. And so it worked out. But it was for me as an individual a major turning point in my life when I decided to stand up for my own people at that moment and say I couldn’t participate.
When I first saw that picture in ‘The Stars and Stripes’ as a soldier, and you hear about the anti-war movement and you see the evils of war, human bodies torn apart, women and children killed, napalm, you start asking yourself, “Why? Why does this happen?” And then, of course, me being an American Indian, I had a personal reflection of me being the cavalry, and so all these things built up in me to where, when I did see that picture, I felt this is a way to pay back my people. This is a way for me to become involved in something positive to save our culture, to save our way of life, to fight for our land.
And the treaties had always been something that old people talked about, not the young people. But here was these brash, young, long-haired Indian men wearing bead work, of all things, and chokers and ribbon shirts, and just so proud to be Indian. That’s the way I felt. Because many times when you’re homogenized in the military, people would come up and see your brown skin and they’d say, “Oh, you’re a Hawaiian.” Or, “You’re,” you know, “Mexican.” And so this was a way that there was no compromise on who you were because you were identified as an Indian. Wearing braids, wearing bead work, ribbon shirts, just, I think, the initial identity and initial pride of being an Indian, it came out all of a sudden when you saw these AIM (American Indian Movement) people. You say, “I wanna wear that uniform. I don’t want nobody to mistake me for a Mexican or for an Italian or Hawaiian anymore. I want them to say, ‘There goes an American Indian.'” And I think that’s what really was attractive and really inspiring about AIM as a young person.
I rediscovered what that means when I went to Latin America. To say the word ‘Indio’ to someone in Latin America, even today, is somewhat derogatory. It used to be way more derogatory. But as people are taking on the Indian identity, that’s no longer true. And that used to be true here in America, because colonialism almost succeeded and assimilation and acculturation, the boarding schools, they almost wiped us out. But because of AIM, that culture and that identity … we began to bring out the drum when we went to protest. We didn’t just march, we had our drum, and our songs were a prominent part of the movement. And the elders began to teach us.
And even at Wounded Knee, 1973, probably one of our greatest events we had was the reestablishment of the Sun Dance, one of the seven sacred ceremonies of Lakota. Never been danced in that manner, of four days, for almost one hundred years. And we as AIM were a part of that history to reestablish our culture. All these Indian elders came down to support and teach us the meaning of being Indian, not just wearing the beads and the long hair, but what is the real essence of being an Indian. It’s our culture. It’s identity. It’s our relationship to the Creator, to Mother Earth. I think that’s the greatest contribution of AIM to the young people, to reestablish our identity and our culture.
One of AIM’s first international organizing efforts was what we called “A Trail of Broken Treaties,” in 1972. We all went to Washington in a caravan of cars, maybe 150, 200 cars. Beautiful sight at night to see all these cars. And as we were going we would stop in these different towns, you know, and stay overnight. The churches would help us in terms of support for food, and they’d have public forums and we’d speak about Indian issues. We developed this twenty-point solution paper, which is something I as a young person admired about AIM because not only did they protest against the issues that were affecting Indian people, but they always had a solution as part of the answer to the protest. Like, “Well, what is it you want?” “Well, we have this document.” So that’s what we did in going to Washington, and we built all this national support for Indian people along the way.
And we started to get press in Washington, and then we took over the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) building because government officials weren’t cooperating. And one of the BIA employees even brought us a memo that showed the government had, uh, should we say, very specifically told their employees not to meet with us, etcetera. Well, out of that the United States government brought in this Christian priest who was a tribal chairman at Rosebud, South Dakota, not too far from where I’m from, adjacent to Pine Ridge. His name was Webster Two Hawk. And he came in, and he had a collar on, and he was speaking as a national president of what they called the National Tribal Chairman’s Association. He came in and held a press conference in Washington, D.C., while we were occupying the building and said we were outside agitators, we were urban Indians, we didn’t reflect the true issues of Indian people, and we were not the good Indians.
Indian people who were aligned with the policies of the United States government were many times pushed to the front to condemn AIM as criminals, ex-convicts, outside agitators, urban Indians, and not the good Indians, not the Indians that truly represented Indian life. These were the people that received the funding. These were the people that were promoted by media and government officials. And so they created this image of AIM as militants, revolutionaries — if you will, antigovernment — basically saying that we did not represent Indian people, that we represented a small faction, a fringe element of Indian people. During those times there was a civil rights movement, there was an anti-war movement, so these were tactics that were used throughout society, be they white anti-war organizations, be they Chicano, Hispanic, Brown Berets, the SDS, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, uh, be they people at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. I mean, people who were against government policies … we were all branded as non-representative of America.
But AIM represented primarily the area of treaty rights as the foundation of our legal relationship with the United States. There’s no other people in America, no other minorities have land or a legal and political relationship through treaties that Indian people have. And so as Indian movements, primarily AIM, National Indian Youth Council, the west coast fishing rights people, other organizations … all these people represented the conscience of America because we brought the truth about history, about treaty rights, about land, about resources and how the capitalist system has to always put indigenous people aside, or put them out of sight, out of mind, so that they can grab the resources and the land that’s needed for this big, should we say, multi-national — how did Eisenhower put it? — the military-industrial complex. So I think those things about indigenous people, the land and the resources, are what drives America. And we brought out the truth of the history, that … how did America get this land? How did America get these resources? It was through the violation of Indian rights, through the violation of Indian treaties. And they started this principle, which is, America had always been known as a place of democracy, but yet, is it only in America that if you steal something and hold onto it long enough, it becomes yours?
These are questions we asked America. We said, “Why is it that we are at the bottom of every social measurement in America?” Be it education level, lifespan of young males, numbers of Indian people in prison, we could go on and on. Housing conditions, whether we had electricity or not, you know. And so all these things were coming during the late ’60s, early ’70s, and the anti-war and the Civil Rights Movement were bringing these social conditions of minority people to the forefront. AIM and Indian people, we always represented the conscience of America, the very foundation of what America was built on, and I think that was something that American politicians and certainly government officials refused to recognize.
I think Wounded Knee was a major turning point in history of U.S./American Indian relations because it brought out the issue of treaties so very clearly, especially in court. Even the federal court had to recognize the issue of treaties, as to whether or not they even had jurisdiction on a reservation. A treaty is not taken lightly because in the Constitution itself, Article Six, it says treaty law is the supreme law of the land.
I remember as clear as day those first organizing meetings when we weren’t even thinking of going into Wounded Knee. It was the elders and the chiefs and headsmen that decided that’s where we were going, is Wounded Knee. They said, “We won’t be alone there. The spirits of our ancestors are there from 1890,” the massacre. And they said, “We’re gonna stand on our treaties, we’re gonna stand on our legal foundation.” This is what the chiefs and the old people kept saying, that our enemy is not the Goons or the BIA police. Our enemy is the United States of America and what they’ve done to our people. We have to stand on this treaty to give value, to give truth, to give a foundation to our struggle at Wounded Knee.
And so that, I think, was the turning point, that treaties were brought out to help all Indian people. 371 treaties have been signed by the United States and proclaimed by the president, so it became a national movement of treaty recognition, of sovereignty, of self-determination. These are words that came out of the treaty struggle. Nobody talked about that before because the BIA was always our caretaker, our Great White Father. They always had ultimate authority. Once Wounded Knee came, tribal government said, “BIA, you sit over here. We’re gonna take some action on our own, be it in education, be it in land development, be it in all the social services.” Tribes began to take on more authority, began to stand up.
I was constantly afraid of being arrested or going to prison or even, in Wounded Knee, of being killed. I thought, “Man, I survived Vietnam, and now I’m gonna get killed on my own land, my own reservation.” They promoted this image that we had weapons, because, see, the store at Wounded Knee was selling firearms and ammunition without a federal license, but they didn’t care. But that came out in the press, and they were reporting Indians with guns, shootings taking place. And there was collaboration between the FBI and what became know as the Goons, or as they say in Central America, the death squads, people who really are not law enforcement officials but are used by law enforcement to terrorize communities. And so here was young men and women who were basically under the influence of the FBI and the BIA police to perpetrate crimes against their own people.
And so through that idea of militancy, shooting between BIA police and occupiers of Wounded Knee, the authorities say, “We gotta have more help.” Because of the legal relationship of Indians to the United States government, state officials don’t have jurisdiction on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Therefore you have to go into the Major Crimes Acts, the basis of federal jurisdiction. And so they start charging us with these major crimes, using firearms, so you had the Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms agency, FBI, U.S. Marshals, Border Patrol, and eventually the 82nd Airborne observers came in there. So all this response was primarily based on the fact that there was guns that were taken out of the Wounded Knee Trading Post and that shots were exchanged between BIA police and the occupiers at Wounded Knee, or AIM. And therefore outside agencies had to be called in to put down this civil disturbance. And with the media in there showing weapons, you know, on the news every night, it just compounded and started to … like a snowball rolling down a hill.
Pretty soon we had all these federal officers from different agencies surrounding us. They had armored personnel carriers, they had military equipment like Huey helicopters, things that I had seen used in Vietnam. And it was amazing the transformation, how this thing expanded into this military stand-off. So when they came with their APCs and all their federal agents, we had no choice. If we don’t want to be killed like the last Wounded Knee in 1890, we were gonna go down fighting at least. And so we took the position you either negotiate with us or kill us.
Other movements started bringing in weapons and ammunition to help us, and so it expanded on both sides. But from our perspective primarily on a defensive perspective. We never carried out any operations against the military while we were in Wounded Knee. We could have because a lot of us were Vietnam veterans, a lot of us were veterans from the street. We had nothin’ to lose. We were young people, we had no families at the time to worry about back home. We were ex-military, very, very experienced in weapons, very experienced in military tactics. So we were not afraid of these Marshals and FBI from a military perspective. We were very afraid from a legal perspective, of going to prison, going to jail, being on trial, and how we would eventually wind up after the action.
There was over five hundred people arrested. And for myself I was charged with, I think, six different felonies. And so we established the Wounded Knee Legal Defense Offense Committee, and attorneys volunteered throughout American law schools. A lot of the people had experience in these types of issues, the Civil Rights Movement, what it took down South when they had the Freedom Rides … a lot of those same attorneys and young attorneys offered their services free of charge. And so our job as AIM people, once the stand-off was over, was to start organizing community support, organizing witnesses for defendants, organizing evidence, trying to seek out evidence for the trials, trying to get experts in things like treaty law, getting translators for witnesses who spoke primarily Lakota. And some of our people got involved in going out and interviewing neighborhood people as to how they know this witness, etcetera … so a tremendous amount of organization had to go into this. Meetings constantly, traveling constantly, and at the same time raising money, which you have to have to make all these things go, you know. And so these are the things that we rolled up our sleeves and got into, the basic idea of providing a good defense for all our five hundred defendants.
The leadership trial was the epitome of the Wounded Knee struggle in that it was on the news daily. Important issues that were discussed in the courtroom — treaty rights, firearms, whatever the issues of the day were in the court — were on the national news for almost a year. At the time I know the leadership trial was the longest criminal trial in history of the United States jurisprudence. And so it was, uh, should we say, a media circus as well. And in the American Indian Movement we got to be good at being able to use the media. The media didn’t intimidate us; we knew that we had to use that as one of the tools. So we began to do a certain amount of, you might call, street theater to get our point across.
For example, when the elders came to the trials as witnesses on the issues of treaty rights, they came in their full traditional dress: headdress with feathers and buckskin, braids on. And so it was like … the media loved it. Here was these Indians protesting, now they’re on trial, and they’re dressed like real Indians. There’s feathers, there’s drums, there’s beads. And so the media became, shall we say, inspired by that. They would organize our daily press conferences around having certain props in the room, having the drum. They always loved to have the drum there, you know. Every time you saw something about Wounded Knee on the news they’d always open up with this drum going. And so we used some of the stereotypes of our people to our advantage, to get the message out.
And so if the media wanted to cover us, they had to see the drum. If they wanted to cover us they had to talk to these elders dressed in traditional costume. They were articulate people, maybe even speaking their own language to a translator to show that our people were still following our traditional language and culture. And we also had well-known, nationally prominent attorneys. So here were these Indians and these well-qualified, nationally prominent attorneys takin’ on the United States government, and that itself was a story for the media to really wrap their hands around. So all these things were what made the leadership trials very, you might say, flamboyant. They were a hit with America.
Here was where we came to know people like your father, lawyers who were able to not only deal with the criminal charges, but to bring in the issue of putting the government on trial, rather than just a defendant on trial. Who is the real perpetrator of the crime here? Is it someone who’s protecting their rights? Or is it government policy? Or is it police brutality? And it takes skillful people, and you realize an important part of the struggle is to be able to transfer that protest into a defense for a client and to use the issue of the protest as a way of putting the government officials and the police on trial as opposed to only a client. To expose what they do to juries. It takes special kind of people to do that, special kind of experience.
And that’s where I began to realize how the legal community, men and women lawyers, play such an important role in a democracy, or in a true democracy. To have your day in court but to be well-represented and what that meant, because many public defenders are really dedicated, but a lot of them are only interested in making a deal. Doing their job everyday, get it done as soon as possible, “Let’s negotiate.” But a real public defender says “Negotiation’s out of the question. We’re going to trial. If you wanna put my client in jail, you’re gonna have to prove it, and you’re gonna have to work hard to prove it. You’re gonna have to answer ten trial motions even before we get to trial.” And so this is the type of legal defense that was developed and I came to realize was part of the movement, a very integral part of the movement.
It’s important to remember AIM and Wounded Knee because it was a turning point in the history of the U.S. government-Indian relations in many ways and the fact of the prominence now of treaty rights. And the issues of sovereignty and self-determination are based on treaties. because when Indian people stand on their treaty rights, they’re basically telling America that we are nations of people. We’re not tribes, we’re not movements, we’re not labor unions, we’re not non-profit organizations. We’re nations. That’s what Wounded Knee brought to the American Indian and to the American public, was the federal relationship, political and legal relationship that exists, unlike any other minority in America.
Secondly, and probably more importantly, was the issue of Indian pride, that now Indian people were proud to be American Indian. That, along with the movement in education. We now have established an Indian college movement where about thirty-five Indian colleges have been established. We have Indian Studies programs in the universities across America. We have Indian language in elementary, immersion programs for people that are relearning the language of our people. And so all these developments … I think AIM, we can’t say we’re responsible, but we certainly contributed to the idea that Indian people have the right to self-determination and sovereignty.
All extended interviews were provided by the filmmakers and edited by Andrew Lutsky.