May 21, 2009

Bottom line in Wounded Knee

Continuing the discussion of Wounded Knee, the fifth episode of PBS's We Shall Remain series:

Correspondent Melvin Martin weighs in with his thoughts on the occupation:Wounded Knee:  The Bottom Line

By Melvin Martin

During the siege at Wounded Knee (aka WKII), I was a 20-year old soldier assigned to a field rocket artillery unit in West Germany. My main motivation for serving in the U.S. Army as an enlistee (from 1971-1974) was that I was raised to thoroughly believe that military service was a mandatory duty for all of the able-bodied males in my family. My maternal grandfather was in the 101st Airborne Division for three years in Europe until the fall of Nazi Germany. My father served in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War as a radio operator on B-29 reconnaissance flights over North Korea where he and his crew members took enemy fire on numerous occasions. Several uncles and older cousins also joined the Navy and the Marines in both conflicts.

As a child all of my playthings were a wide assortment of toy pistols, rifles, knives, bayonets, grenades and combat field accessories. The only game the neighborhood kids and I played with any seriousness (and for up to 12 hours as day at times) was “Army.” All of my heroes, real and cinematic, were the courageous men who fought in World War II, in both Europe and the Pacific, and especially those warriors who maintained a lone outpost against an enemy of superior numbers, firepower, and monstrously evil intent.

As a troop who had completed training and had been in the Army for about a year and a half when WKII began in February of 1973, and had first-hand knowledge of the sheer lethality of the arms and logistics that the government agents employed, I was totally amazed at how a group of poorly armed and outfitted militants could take such a stand for 71 days. On this point alone, as an ex-soldier, I will always salute AIM and their associates for their bravery at “the Knee.”

But as an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe of Pine Ridge Agency (and one who has been considered an elder for the past six years), the sole bottom line regarding WKII is this: did the overall quality of life improve for our people after the takeover?

My answer to this question is an unequivocal NO!

In 1974, before leaving for college on the GI Bill, I took a few photos of the "downtown" Pine Ridge area. I came back in 2004 and aside from a Pizza Hut and a "Taco John's," the scenery was absolutely unchanged. These photos are a powerful metaphor to me of the extreme dysfunction of the tribe and especially of the tribal leadership. These photos tell me, every time I look at them, that we as a tribe--that we as a people--have been disastrously stuck in time.

There were a few notable changes I observed in 2004--there were more unemployed, more high school drop-outs, more Chicano-oriented Oglala gangbangers, more “Chicano-acting” ex-felons, more alcoholics, more paint sniffers, more unwed teen mothers, more packs of roving dogs (some wild), more filth, more garbage, more graffiti, more physical decay of the infrastructure and private residences, and much more sheer poverty than ever before.

There were more illiterate people, more obese people, more sick people, more crippled people, more homeless people, more mentally broken people and much, much more of the same old fat-butted leaches, slithering parasites and blood-sucking giant gnats on parade in late model cars, trucks and SUVs--bloated to the bursting point via the riches of years and years of privately accumulated wealth uncontrollably tapped from the excesses of government largesse. They waddled slowly about the “rez” with heavy, stretch-marked guts that had been shaped and formed, and hanging just inches from mid-point at the tops of their chubby thighs--from decades of unbridled nepotism, favoritism, sweetheart deals, hush money, and a myriad of graft.

The full-blooded traditional people were noticeably a lot less in number and the majority of the Oglala youth were of mixed racial identities, mainly Hispanic, white and African-American--and the lowest of low end rap was their lingua franca.

People still burned their garbage in 55-gallon drums in their backyards (or front yards) and the air was thicker with smoke and smellier than ever before.

What I saw was what I saw--and the proof was definitely in the pudding--nothing much had changed since 1973 and most aspects of life for the Oglala people had simply deteriorated horribly.

Whatever AIM had set out to do at WKII, aside from their declared objectives of an affirmation of treaty rights, an investigation into BIA corruption, and the displacement of the regime-in-power then, it was all too obvious to me that hardly anything of substance had been accomplished. If AIM and their supporters had but just one goal, to improve the lot of the Oglala people, they had failed miserably.
Comment:  Good point, Melvin. The Indians in Wounded Knee mainly talked about their symbolic achievement. But is that the best measure of success? If the choice was abstract symbolism or tangible prosperity, I think most people would opt for the latter.

So Wounded Knee II made Indians proud but didn't revitalize any treaties, get Dick Wilson removed, or improve Sioux lives. I guess Indian pride is priceless, or we'd be calling the occupation a failure.

For more on the subject, see Debate in Wounded Knee and Review of Wounded Knee.

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