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Wounded Knee was Burned to the Ground; Not Liberated

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There are posters floating about and advertisements asking residents of the Pine Ridge Reservation to celebrate the "Liberation" of Wounded Knee in February of 1973.

This action causes many of us old timers to scratch our heads in wonderment and ask ourselves, what is it that was liberated?

Were the nearly 35 residents of Wounded Knee who saw their homes seized, looted and eventually burned to the ground liberated? There homes have never been rebuilt and many of them had to move into already overcrowded homes with relatives. Thirty eight years after the occupation of their hometown by the American Indian Movement they have had to find other homes in other places.

Was the Wounded Knee Trading Post liberated? The Post was also thoroughly looted and eventually burned to the ground. Clive and Agnes Gildersleeve, the elderly couple who owned the Trading Post since about 1932, were taken as hostages, knocked around and terrified by the occupiers. In order to justify their criminal actions the leaders of AIM vilified Clive and Agnes.

They painted them as white trading post owners who ripped off the local Indians for years. Agnes Gildersleeve just happened to be an Ojibwe Indian, but that bit of information was swept under the rug. It would have been easy for me, as it turned out to be easy for other star struck innocents, to believe this propaganda, had I had not lived at Wounded Knee in the mid-nineteen thirties where my father, Tim, worked as a clerk and butcher for the Gildersleeves at the Wounded Knee Trading Post.

My father always spoke highly of the Gildersleeves and he found them to be honest people who worked very hard seven-days-a-week to keep the trading post and grocery store open for the customers of Wounded Knee and the surrounding communities. When the Post was burned to the ground in 1973 it left the local residents without a grocery store for miles. They had to travel to Pine Ridge Village or Martin or Gordon to get their groceries. It created a terrific hardship on them. Is this the liberation they are celebrating?

I would ask local residents of Pine Ridge and all of the tourists that might visit the reservation in the near future to take a drive to Wounded Knee and see all of the burned out homes and the burned out Trading Post and ask themselves if this horror signifies liberation.

Liberation means to set a path to freedom and the only freedom experienced by the residents and store owners of Wounded Knee was the loss of everything they owned. They were freed of all their possessions by thieves. The store was never rebuilt and the looted and damaged homes were never rebuilt. Is that liberation? I am sure AIM can come up with a hundred reasons why this destruction was necessary. I can't think of one. The innocent people of Wounded Knee never did anything to AIM to deserve this treatment at their hands. They just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The occupation of Wounded Knee was a serious blunder by the American Indian Movement. From the day they set foot in Wounded Knee and took the first hostages they set themselves on a path of violence that did not end until Anna Mae Pictou Aquash was violently raped and murdered near Wanblee two years later.

Two of the "liberators" of Wounded Knee, Arlo Looking Cloud and John "Boy" Graham are now looking out between the bars of federal and state prisons. They will be spending the rest of their lives as prisoners who took orders from someone more powerful than they to end the life of an innocent Mi'kmag woman from Nova Scotia because it was rumored she was an FBI informant. In order to cover this heinous crime AIM leaders spread the propaganda that Anna Mae was a victim of the FBI and when the truth finally came out, the woman they hailed as a heroine went to her grave without a single leader of AIM in sight.

There are many rumors of bodies still buried in the ashes of Wounded Knee and it behooves the government of the Oglala Sioux Tribe stop celebrating long enough to find those bodies if indeed, they do exist. Perhaps the Tribe should hold a service to honor the real victims of Wounded Knee and choose not to honor the criminals who brought about the destruction of this historic village.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the editor and publisher of Native Sun News. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1990. His weekly column won the H. L. Mencken Award in 1985. He was the first Native American ever inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame. He can be reached at editor@nsweekly.com