From Wounded Knee to Comm Ave
William Means will lead a tree blessing and speak today
By Vicky Waltz
22 Apr 2009
A merciless wind blew across the frozen South Dakota prairie as soldiers surrounded the town of Wounded Knee. Huddled in a storefront, William Means peeked out a window and tried to calm his racing heart. Flashbacks to the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee, when the U.S. 7th Cavalry slaughtered more than 300 of Means’ Lakota ancestors, haunted him. Is it happening again? He couldn’t help but wonder.
On February 27, 1973, Means and 200 other members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) seized Wounded Knee to protest treatment of the American Indian. The standoff lasted 71 days, left two American Indians dead, and focused the nation’s attention on crippling problems facing American Indians — from the South Dakota grasslands to the Arizona deserts.
“We organized ourselves as a community,” Means recalls. “At Wounded Knee, people were married and babies were born. We made a sweat lodge where our people could pray in our own way and in our own language. The Elders came every day to represent us in our negotiations, and we talked about treaties and human rights. It was probably one of the greatest feelings of liberation I’ve ever felt.”
More than 35 years later, Means is still fighting for the rights of the American Indian — and for indigenous cultures worldwide. Founder and president of the International Indian Treaty Council, he is also the cofounder of the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations.
Means will speak tonight at 7 p.m. at the George Sherman Union and earlier in the day, at 1 p.m., will lead the BU community in a tree blessing behind Marsh Plaza.
BU Today: How did you become involved in the American Indian Movement?
Means: My journey to political activism began in South Vietnam, when I was a soldier. In 1968, I read about AIM, and I realized that there was an active and organized movement of Indian people fighting for treaty rights, civil rights, and human rights. As a U.S. soldier, I felt I was almost becoming the cavalry, as opposed to maintaining my Indian identity, and I realized that a lot of military tactics and policies used in Vietnam were the same that Americans had used against Indians in the last century. When I returned from Vietnam, I learned that AIM had taken over Mount Rushmore to draw attention to the treaty rights that state the Black Hills still belong to the Lakota Nation. Thus began my AIM experience.
What led up to the incident at Wounded Knee?
Shortly after President Nixon defeated George McGovern in the 1972 election, AIM members took part in a march across Washington, D.C., called the Trail of Broken Treaties, which culminated in our taking over the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), where we presented the president with a list of demands. We demanded the restoration of treaty-making, a review of treaty commitments and violations, and federal protection for offenses against Indians, among other things. Negotiations between the White House administrators and AIM members resulted in an agreement that included a pledge to deal with economic, social, and educational grievances of American Indians. For almost three months we were inside Wounded Knee to protest poor conditions on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The goals outlined by AIM leaders included support for the reformation of tribal government and congressional investigations into conditions on all reservations and the corruption of the BIA.
What was your role at Wounded Knee?
I was a community organizer, but I wasn’t in any leadership role. My brother, Russell Means, was one of AIM’s leaders. But after the occupation ended, more than 500 of our people were charged with various federal charges, and I spent the following year gathering expert testimonies, finding witnesses, and getting lawyers.
What happened after Wounded Knee?
We decided to challenge the international community and the United Nations specifically on issues that affect indigenous peoples. In June of 1974, 4,000 Indian delegates from throughout the hemisphere gathered to form the International Indian Treaty Council. It was one of the largest Indian gatherings in recent memory. We set up two mandates: establish an office in New York City so we could work with the United Nations on a daily basis, and use our treaties, in particular the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, as a basis for our legal standing. So what started as a small band of Indians defending their land in 1973 at Wounded Knee developed into a worldwide movement of 400 million indigenous peoples, culminating on September 13, 2007, when the United Nations General Assembly passed the Declaration of Rights of Indigenous People.
What is the most important issue facing American Indians today?
Treaty rights. Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution states that treaty law shall be supreme. Treaties are not signed between cities and states. They are signed between nations. That is why Indians have a special legal and political relationship with the U.S. government that no other minority has. People need to understand that Indian people are a nation within a nation. People get the idea that we’re getting something for nothing, when in fact we gave America everything we had. Through these treaties we ceded millions and millions of acres for the meager services we now get on reservations. We have had to overcome a tremendous amount of stereotypes and racist and biased education just to let people know that we do indeed have legal standing in this country and that our cultures are alive and well.
What are the biggest issues facing indigenous cultures worldwide?
Many of the world’s greatest natural resources are on our land. That means that our land and resources are under constant attack by multinational corporations seeking oil, gold, timber, and hydroelectric power. The companies that exploit and mine coal on Navajo land in Arizona are the same companies that mine uranium and coal in Australia and New Zealand. We have a phrase in our Lakota language: mitakuye oyasin, which in English means “we are all related.” Now that governments around the world have determined that global warming is indeed a threat to humanity, they’re beginning to embrace this principle of mitakuye oyasin.
Where are indigenous cultures most oppressed?
Almost every area of the world. Latin America, Africa, and Asia are probably worst. And, of course, the American Indian is horribly oppressed. In some areas of the world, indigenous people aren’t even recognized under the law. Because they’re considered citizens of the country in which they reside, they have no rights to their native land. For example, in Mexico, if you leave your village of origin, which may be a 100 percent Indian community, you lose your identity as an Indian. You become a Mexican.
What can individuals do to improve conditions for indigenous cultures?
Education is the most important thing. You have to understand the indigenous people who live or who once inhabited the area where you live. You have to know their history. And you have to become active in your community. This activism can take many forms. Join the Sierra Club. Work against industries polluting our Earth. Make your relatives and friends aware of environmental challenges threatening humanity.
What strides have been made in eradicating human rights violations?
The most profound advance occurred in 2007, when the United Nations passed the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. The declaration emphasizes the rights of indigenous peoples to maintain and strengthen their institutions, cultures, and traditions and prohibits discrimination against indigenous peoples; 143 countries voted in favor, 11 abstained, and 4 voted against: the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. This isn’t surprising, because they are all countries that have significant numbers of indigenous people. But two weeks ago, Australia, under new leadership, adopted the declaration.
Do you think the United States will adopt the declaration?
I think that we have an excellent chance under President Obama. We now have more Indian people appointed to higher positions than ever in the history of the United States. We have two people on the White House staff.
What have we learned from Wounded Knee 36 years later?
When people organize from a grassroots community level, they can bring about tremendous change.
Has life on the Pine Ridge Reservation improved since you were a child?
Oh, yes. We have a larger hospital. We have schools controlled by the communities in which the schools exist, rather than by the BIA or the Church. Even the Catholic schools are made up of community boards that reflect our values. We still have many of the same conditions: high dropout rates, abuse of chemicals, obesity, and diabetes. But services are more available, and education has improved. We now teach languages and the history of our people, and we no longer have to follow the state’s mandated guidelines. The tribal government has also become more politically powerful.
As part of BU’s observance of Earth Week, Means will lead the BU community in a tree blessing today, April 22, at 1 p.m. behind Marsh Plaza, and will speak tonight in the Conference Auditorium at the George Sherman Union, 775 Commonwealth Ave., from 7 to 9 p.m. A reception precedes his lecture at 6 p.m. in the GSU’s Back Court. The School of Theology and the BU Environmental Student Organization are cosponsors. For more information, contact Maggie Keelan at 617-353-8972 or firstname.lastname@example.org.