Last year I attended the funeral of my cousin and classmate Everett "Budger" Brewer on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Like so many citizens of the reservation, Budger was labeled as a Goon by the members of the American Indian Movement although, again like so many, his feelings were pretty neutral.
But that is the way it was in 1973. If you weren't for AIM you were a Goon because the organization allowed no room for neutrality. This is the way it was during the 1970s and I recall wearing both labels at one time. While hosting a television show for KEVN-TV in Rapid City I had members of AIM on my weekly show and I was labeled as a member of AIM. Shortly thereafter I had people from the office of the President of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, Dick Wilson, on my show and I was labeled as a Goon.
Budger Brewer went on to build the first cable television system on the Pine Ridge Reservation. When I lived at Pine Ridge in the 1970s we renewed our friendship and often had a cup of coffee and conversation at my newspaper The Lakota Times. Budger said something that I have heard many times over the years. He said, "When I first heard about AIM and the things they were doing in Minneapolis, you know things like following the police around at night to make sure they weren't harassing Indians, I had a lot of respect for them."
I have heard that same comment from my fellow Lakota many times over the years. I am led to believe that it was when AIM invaded the sovereign nation of the Pine Ridge Reservation at Wounded Knee and turned on their fellow Indian brothers and sisters that many Lakota backed away from them. And when they occupied the Fairchild Plant on the Navajo Nation causing that company to close the plant costing the Navajo people nearly 400 badly needed jobs, that further caused disillusionment.
Some members of AIM also have the tendency to say outlandish things with no regard for the truth. Still on the Internet is a letter by Leonard Peltier attacking me that is filled with untruths, but it will be there forever. Peltier said that when I ran for the vice presidency of the Oglala Sioux Tribe in 1983 that I barely received a few votes. The truth is I was the top vote getter in the primary election against current OST President John Steele (he was the incumbent vice president in 1983) and I lost to him in the General Election by only 90 votes out of the several thousand that were cast. That information was readily available if it was the truth Peltier was seeking.
There were only about 21 Lakota that occupied Wounded Knee. The rest were Indians from other tribes or non-Indians. When the occupation ended most of them left the reservation and scattered in all directions many ending up in jail or prison.
It has bothered me for many years that the mainstream media labeled too many people of Pine Ridge as Goons. Those so-called Goons lived and died on the reservation they loved. They stayed and helped to rebuild the bridge between AIM and themselves. They were carpenters, plumbers, electricians, teachers, school superintendents, members of the tribal council, tribal presidents, social workers, alcohol and drug counselors, and business owners, but most of all they were decent human beings given an unfair label by the MSM simply because it was colorful.
One day several years ago as I was working at my newspaper Indian Country Today, I got a call from a member of the Dick Wilson family. When I answered the call I was told that Dick was at the Rapid City Regional Hospital and was near death. The caller said Dick wanted to see me.
I rushed to the hospital. His family was gathered around him. Dick saw me and motioned me to come closer. He was very weak and near death and he spoke so softly that I had to lean down very close in order to hear him. He said, "Tim, when you write about me in your newspaper just say that everything I did in my life was for my people. I did what I thought was right."
Dick Wilson died that day and I wrote his final words to me in his obituary. He was caught in a time and place in history that will forever disparage him, but I have never met a friend of his or a member of his family that did not defend him and did not continue to love him.
When the true story of the occupation of Wounded Knee is finally told, there will be villains and heroes on both sides of the spectrum. There will be some good and some bad that comes from it, and I hope that the Lakota attribute of forgiveness helps to heal the wounds that have haunted the people of the Pine Ridge Reservation for far too many years.
(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 and founder of The Lakota Times and Indian Country Today newspapers. He founded and was the first president of the Native American Journalists Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)