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The Fourth Estate at Wounded Knee in 1973

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Newspapers from across the nation and the world found the occupation of Wounded Knee in February 1973 a very hot ticket. Reporters came, they saw, and then they wrote about it. Some saw only one side of the story while others retained their objectivity. But have no doubts that the fourth estate was well represented at Wounded Knee.

Bill Kovach, then the National Correspondent for the New York Times was there. I came to know Kovach while he was the Curator of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard. Kovach went on to become the editor of the Atlanta Constitution, but he resigned from that newspaper rather than compromise his integrity as a fair and impartial editor.

When I was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, Kovach told me that Wounded Knee made a deep and abiding impression on him. "I came away from the experience with a profound sense of disappointment and sadness; disappointment that the American Indian Movement could find no other way to express their frustration than the destructive occupation of the community and the Trading Post. Sadness for those trapped in the cycle of despair of the Pine Ridge Reservation and the fact that the American people could sit quietly by and watch yet another episode unfold of the sorry story of its national government's lack of will, interest or plan for some true justice in its relationship with the American Indians," he said.

Most of the visiting press found rooms at motels in the border towns surrounding the Pine Ridge Reservation and others commuted the 90 plus miles from Rapid City, S.D. Lucky ones, like Kovach, John Kifner of the New York Times, and Jimmy Doyle, then with the Boston Globe, found space at Velma's Hotel in Pine Ridge Village. I say "found space" because all of the rooms were occupied and Kovach and other reporters paid good money to sleep on the floor in the lobby of the hotel.

Kovach had rented a car from Hertz in Rapid City. He knew that if he told the car rental agency that he was going to the Pine Ridge Reservation they would not have rented him a car so he told them he was doing a travel piece on Mount Rushmore. He drove the car, filled with other reporters, in and out of Wounded Knee for about a week. Joe Trimbach, the FBI Agent in Charge, allowed Kovach and the other reporters to enter the village.

One freezing day as he drove across the bridge at Wounded Knee, the rental car hit a patch of ice and skidded off of the bridge landing on its top in the dry creek bed. No one was hurt. Kovach asked AIM leader Russell Means to keep an eye on the car until he could get a tow truck there. Means said, "Sure, I promise. Don't worry about it." The next day when Kovach got back with the wrecker only the burned out skeleton of the car remained. "It had been stripped of everything including the motor," Kovach said.
As he was sorrowfully looking at the remains of his rental car, Russell Means approached. Kovach said, "I thought you were going to keep an eye on my car." Means replied, "Oh, I forgot." Kovach pondered the frightening prospect of being forever banned from ever renting another car from Hertz.

When Kovach got back to his New York office he was reminded of what he always knew about newspaper reporters: They are among some of the wittiest and funniest people and anyone who has ever worked in the newsroom knows that. I recall the raucous times I spent with my reporters at Indian Country Today and The Lakota Times. Our newsroom was often filled with laughter. And heaven forbid that you screwed up because you were sure to make the in-house page we called "Little Notes" in our paper. The New York Times' newsroom is no exception and has its own in-house publication it calls, "Times Talk." The week Bill Kovach drove his car off of the bridge at Wounded Knee; he made the front page of Times Talk.

There was a picture of the rental car, burned black and lying on its top and the bold headline read, "Bury My Hertz at Wounded Knee." It took a long time for Kovach to live that one down.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the Class of 1991. He can be reached at editor@nsweekly.com.