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Who Were the Real Victims of Wounded Knee 1973?

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By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji)
© 2009 Native American Journalists Foundation, Inc.

March 2, 2009

In nearly every confrontation there are villains and victims. Oftentimes in order to justify a villainous act, the villains paint the victims as the villains. And if they repeat the lie often enough, especially to an ignorant, gullible and compliant press, the lie then becomes fact.

This is what happened in late February in 1973 at a peaceful village called Wounded Knee. If you have been misled by books such as "In the Spirit of Crazy Horse" or "The Unquiet Grave," pause and think about this: Who were the victims and who were the villains?

What crimes against humanity were committed by the owners of the Wounded Knee Trading Post, Clive and Agnes Gildersleeve? What did the nearly 60 people residing at Wounded Knee and Wounded Knee proper do to deserve the pillaging and destruction of their homes?

In the index of Peter Matthiessen's book, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, you will not even find the name "Gildersleeve" even though they were the owners of the Wounded Knee Trading Post, a store that was looted by the occupiers and eventually burned to the ground. Instead, in his book and in the book by Steve Hendricks, The Unquiet Grave, you will read about a "white man" and a woman often referred to as a "white woman," although Agnes Gildersleeve was an Ojibwa woman, who "ripped off" the local Lakota people. This apparently justifies the attacks upon them and the destruction of their business.

Did either of these authors even know Clive or Agnes? Did they get all of their information about them from the occupiers? Did they do any research on the Gildersleeves before they colored them as villains? I think not.

There have surely been white store owners on Indian reservations that did "rip off" Indian customers and it is easy to suggest that since some store owners did this therefore the Gildersleeves were probably also guilty. Not true.

Neither Matthiessen nor Hendricks knew the Gildersleeves and it is apparent by their books that they had no intention of ever finding out who the Gildersleeves were. Instead they listened to the occupiers and looters of Wounded Knee who were trying to justify their actions in 1973 by vilifying the owners of the Trading Post.

Although I was a small boy when I lived at Wounded Knee where my father worked as a clerk and butcher at the Trading Post, I remember the Gildersleeves. They had a daughter my age named Joan. We spent many warm summer days playing on the sidewalks of Wounded Knee Village. The Village was called Brennan back in those days named after a former Bureau of Indian Affairs Superintendent.

Joan had a tricycle with a running board behind the back wheels and I used to place one foot on the running board while Joan guided it and we would coast on the sidewalk near the Trading Post. Clive and Agnes would call to us in the late afternoon and give us a candy treat.

My father, Tim Giago, Sr., always remembered how kind the Gildersleeves were to him and to the local Lakota customers. He was a Lakota speaker and he was popular amongst the local Lakota because he always had a joke or a story to tell them.

The Gildersleeves ran the Wounded Knee Trading Post from the 1930s to the time it was destroyed in 1973. If they were the "rip offs" described by members of the American Indian Movement and the authors and press that later joined in their vilification, would they have stayed in business all of those years?

Joan Gildersleeve went on the $64,000 Question television show and won. She became a local celebrity after that.

The Gildersleeves were accused of "exploitation of the mass grave site at Wounded Knee" where the victims of the 1890 massacre lie buried, but please let the accusers explain to me why they say this. The Wounded Knee Trading Post was a grocery and arts and crafts store that served the entire Wounded Knee District. People living around Manderson and Wounded Knee often purchased meat, groceries and traded at the Post. Local craftsmen and artists often sold their wares to the Gildersleeves who in turn sold them to the tourists that often visited Wounded Knee especially after the book "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" was published.

For those who think they have read the final word on Wounded Knee they should read the book Wounded Knee 1973 by Stanley Lyman, former BIA Superintendent at Pine Ridge and American Indian Mafia by Joe Trimbach, former FBI Agent in Charge during the occupation of Wounded Knee. They will see another side of the story.

Clive and Agnes Gildersleeve and the 60 people made homeless by the occupation are still the victims and not the villains of Wounded Knee. Last week marked the 36th anniversary of the occupation and let me remind you that the Gildersleeves lost everything and the other inhabitants of Wounded Knee made homeless by the occupation have never seen their homes rebuilt. Who were the real victims of Wounded Knee 1973?

(Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was the founder and publisher of Indian Country Today, the Lakota Times, and the Lakota Journal. He can be reached at najournalist@msn.com)