Greetings from the Cheyenne River Nation! Over the past couple weeks, you may have seen some of the news about our recent celebration of Wounded Knee Liberation Day’s 50th anniversary. The full weekend included a number of activities — including a ceremony, educational panels, the annual Four Directions Walk, and Warrior Women Project’s interactive exhibit on the women leaders of the American Indian Movement (AIM). Today, I urge you to watch our video narrated by my daughter, Marcella, featuring some of the weekend’s highlights.
Click above to watch: My relative and AIM compatriot Bill Means of the Oglala Nation addresses the many who attended this year’s Four Directions March in commemoration of Wounded Knee Liberation Day.
If you’ve been reading our emails, you’re already aware that what happened in the village of Wounded Knee a half century ago will live on forever. When law enforcement converged on the Pine Ridge Reservation and put us under a months-long siege, they unwittingly gave us an unparalleled media platform. We became a fixture on nightly news broadcasts, and suddenly our movement to win justice and promote the sovereignty of Native nations inspired solidarity across the world.
Today, that movement has only gained momentum, thanks to allies like you and new generations of Native leaders like Marcella, my granddaughter DeCora Hawk, Chase Iron Eyes, Chase’s daughter Tokata, and many more. And new forms of media now give us increased control of our own message. We have the agency and visibility to build alliances and resistance efforts and the means to amplify our concerns.
Your support is so critical to making sure Indigenous communities struggle less and thrive more. As far as we’ve come, too many Native People remain on the frontlines of the environmental justice battle. From mining and pipelines to cultural appropriation, we’re reminded every day that racism is real. So, as always, my deep appreciation and gratitude to you for all that you do to move us forward.
Wopila tanka — thank you for your friendship! Madonna Thunder Hawk Cheyenne River Organizer The Lakota People’s Law Project
How a UC Berkeley professor taught with remains suspected to be Native American
Mary Hudetz, ProPublica and Graham Lee Brewer and Alex Mierjeski, ProPublica and Ash Ngu, ProPublica
Sun, March 5, 2023 at 9:00 AM CST
This article was published in partnership with ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive ProPublica’s biggest stories as soon as they’re published.
For decades, famed professor Tim White used a vast collection of human remains — bones sorted by body part and stored in wooden bins — to teach his anthropology students at the University of California, Berkeley.
White, a world-renowned expert on human evolution, said the collection was passed down through generations of anthropology professors before he started teaching with it in the late 1970s. It came with no records, he said. Most were not labeled at all or said only “lab.”
But that simple description masked a dark history, UC Berkeley administrators recently acknowledged.
UC Berkeley conducted an analysis of the collection after White reported its contents in response to a university systemwide order in 2020 to search for human remains. Administrators disclosed to state officials in May that the analysis found the collection includes the remains of at least 95 people excavated from gravesites — many of them likely Native Americans from California, according to previously unreported documents obtained by ProPublica and NBC News.
The university’s disclosure was particularly painful because it involved a professor who many Indigenous people already viewed as a primary antagonist, according to interviews with tribal members.
UC Berkeley has long angered tribal nations with its handling of thousands of ancestral remains amassed during the university’s century-long campaign of excavating Indigenous burial grounds.
UC Berkeley has been slow to do so. The university estimates that it still holds the remains of 9,000 Indigenous people in the campus’ Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology — more than any other U.S. institution bound by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, according to a ProPublica analysis of federal data.
That tally does not include the remains that White reported and relinquished in 2020.
For decades, White served as an expert adviser in the university’s repatriation decisions, sitting on committees that weighed whether to grant or deny tribes’ requests, according to a review of hundreds of pages of federal testimony and internal university documents.
White said the collection did not need to be reported under NAGPRA because there is no way to determine the origin of the bones — and therefore the law does not apply.
The collection has exposed deep rifts at UC Berkeley, pitting a prominent professor who said he’s done nothing wrong against university administrators who have apologized to tribes for not sharing information about the remains sooner.
For tribes the episode follows a familiar pattern of UC Berkeley’s delays and failures to be transparent with them.
“This is a major moral, ethical and potentially legal violation,” said Laura Miranda, a member of the Pechanga Band of Indians and chair of the California Native American Heritage Commission. She made her comments at a July hearing held by the commission, which oversees the university system’s handling of Indigenous remains.
UC Berkeley officials declined interview requests, saying “tribes have asked us not to.” In a statement, the university said White was no longer involved in repatriation decisions. There is now a moratorium on using ancestral remains for teaching or research purposes, according to the statement. The Hearst Museum is currently closed to the public so that staff can prioritize repatriation.
The university also acknowledged that, in the past, UC Berkeley had “mishandled its repatriation responsibilities.”
“The campus privileged some kinds of scientific and scholarly evidence over tribal interests and evidence provided by tribes,” the university said in the statement.
In an interview with ProPublica and NBC News, White said he’s been villainized for strictly adhering to the federal law, which he said requires balancing scientific proof with other evidence.
In the years immediately after Congress passed NAGPRA, UC Berkeley relied on White’s expertise as curator of the museum’s skeletal collection to challenge Indigenous people’s repatriation requests, according to testimony before a federal advisory committee.
Some tribal members accused him of demanding too high a burden of scientific proof for repatriations and discounting knowledge passed down through the generations. In the 1990s, he made headlines for fighting to use Native American remains as teaching tools, arguing that students should not be deprived of the opportunity to learn from them. He later sued to block the UC system from returning two sets of remains estimated to date from 9,000 years ago, saying they were too old to be linked to any living descendants.
NAGPRA does not require definitive scientific proof for repatriation, only that institutions report human remains that could potentially be Native American and consult with the affected tribal nations, said Sherry Hutt, an attorney who is a former program manager of the federal National NAGPRA Program. “It’s not a scientific standard. It’s a legal standard,” she said.
White often had the backing of university administrators in disputes over remains, but not anymore. At the July hearing before the California Native American Heritage Commission, UC Berkeley administrators cited an analysis by another anthropologist at the school, Sabrina Agarwal, that determined thousands of the bones in the collection were excavated from gravesites.
Given UC Berkeley’s legacy of raiding Native American graves, it is likely the collection White taught with contains the remains of Native Americans from what is currently California, said Linda Rugg, associate vice chancellor for research at the university.
“I want to apologize for the pain that we caused by holding on to this collection,” Rugg said at the hearing. “When we found out about it, we were dismayed ourselves.” A university spokesperson said staff and administrators are consulting with several tribes on next steps. Federal officials confirmed UC Berkeley has contacted them requesting guidance.
White, who retired last spring but is still a professor emeritus, said administrators knew about the collection, which was used to teach hundreds of students over the years. “It is very disappointing to find the Berkeley employees are making false allegations and misrepresentations,” he said.
Behind UC Berkeley’s reckoning is the century-long saga about a powerful, progressive institution that is finally confronting its past. Isaac Bojorquez, chairman of the KaKoon Ta Ruk Band of Ohlone-Costanoan Indians of the Big Sur Rancheria, called for accountability for the newly reported remains, but also for UC Berkeley’s decadeslong delays and denials of other tribes’ repatriation requests.
“We want our ancestors,” he said. “They should have never been disturbed in the first place.”
A painful history
With no documentation for the origin of his teaching collection, White surmised in a report to university officials in 2020 that it dated back to UC Berkeley’s early days and the university’s first anthropology professor, Alfred Louis Kroeber.
Kroeber, who joined the faculty in 1901, became a world-renowned scholar for his research on Native Americans in California, encouraging the excavations of Indigenous gravesites during his four-decade tenure.
His name recently was stripped from Berkeley’s anthropology building, in part for housing an Indigenous man found in the Sierra Foothills as a living exhibit at what would later become the Hearst Museum. Described as the last living member of his band of Yahi Indians, the man — whom Kroeber called “Ishi” — was studied and made to craft arrows and greet visitors for nearly five years, until his death in 1916.
The Hearst Museum continued for decades to voraciously collect Native American remains and funerary objects, trying to assemble a collection to rival the British Museum and Harvard University, said historian Tony Platt, a distinguished affiliated scholar at UC Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Law and Society. “To be a great university you’ve got to acquire stuff, you’ve got to hoard massive amounts of things,” Platt said.
The vast majority of UC Berkeley’s collection of remains came from sacred ancestral sites in California, according to ProPublica’s analysis of federal data. The collection included ancestors of the Ohlone, the tribe whose land was seized by the federal government to fund public universities, including UC Berkeley.
The university eventually amassed the remains of about 11,600 Native Americans, stored in the basement beneath its gymnasium swimming pool and in other campus buildings. But Platt said that number is likely an undercount because museum records often counted multiple remains excavated from the same gravesite as one person.
In the early 1970s, Native American activists’ long-standing resistance to the grave robbing started gaining momentum amid protests that stealing from Native Americans’ burial sites in the name of science was a human rights violation.
By then, the teaching collection that anthropology professors used had grown to thousands of bones and teeth that White said in his report to university administrators had been commingled with others donated by amateur gravediggers, dentists, anatomists, physicians, law enforcement and biological supply companies.
The remains were unceremoniously sorted by body part so students could study them. A jumble of teeth. A drawer of clavicles. Separate bins for skulls. For decades, anthropologists added to the collection, used it in their classes and then passed it along to the professors who came after them, White said.
It was this collection that White started teaching with when he joined UC Berkeley’s anthropology faculty in 1977.
UC Berkeley hired White, then 27, soon after he had obtained his Ph.D. in biological anthropology from the University of Michigan. He already was collaborating with a team to analyze “Lucy,” a 3.2-million-year-old human ancestor.
White published articles in prestigious journals and co-authored a textbook, “Human Osteology,” that boasted of UC Berkeley’s collection of human remains and called ancient skeletons “ambassadors from the past.”
Congress passed NAGPRA in 1990, recognizing that human remains of any ancestry “must at all times be treated with dignity and respect.” As UC Berkeley prepared to comply with the new law, the campus museum appointed White curator of biological anthropology, overseeing the university’s collection of human remains.
Almost as soon as tribes started making claims to ancestral remains under NAGPRA, Indigenous people accused White of undermining their efforts to rebury their ancestors, according to a review of hundreds of pages of testimony before a federal review committee tasked with mediating NAGPRA disputes.
Since NAGPRA only applied to federally recognized tribal nations, many tribes in California were not entitled to seek repatriation. (Of the 183 tribes in the state, 68 still lack federal recognition, according to the Native American Heritage Commission.) UC Berkeley’s collection of remains included those of thousands of people designated as unavailable for repatriation because they came from tribes lacking federal recognition.
Recourse under the law was limited, leaving tribal nations to file formal challenges with the federal NAGPRA Review Committee, an advisory group whose members represent tribal, scientific and museum organizations. It can only offer recommendations in response to disputes.
In the first challenge following the passage of the law, in February 1993 the Hui Mālama I Nā Kūpuna O Hawai’i Nei, a Native Hawaiian organization, took a dispute over repatriation of two ancestral remains before the federal committee. The remains had been donated to UC Berkeley in 1935, at which time a museum curator classified them as Polynesian. White disagreed.
Addressing the committee, White introduced himself as “the individual who is responsible for the skeletal collections at Berkeley.” He argued the remains might not be Native Hawaiian and could belong to victims of shipwrecks, drownings or crimes. They should be preserved for study, he added, making an analogy to UC Berkeley’s library book collection, where historians access volumes for years as their understanding evolves.
Edward Halealoha Ayau, then the Native Hawaiian organization’s executive director, pounded his fists on the table in outrage. “We do not have cultural sensitivity to books. We did not descend from books,” he said, according to a transcript of the meeting.
Ancestral remains are not research material, Ayau said, they are people with whom he shares a connection — a perspective that is central to Native Hawaiian culture.
White recently said that his analogy comparing human remains to books was taken out of context. “Both hold information,” he said. “I was obviously speaking metaphorically.”
Instead of recommending that both ancestors’ remains be repatriated directly to the Hui Mālama, the committee advised UC Berkeley to return one of them and send the other to the Bishop Museum in Honolulu for analysis, Ayau said. There, researchers finally agreed that the remains were Native Hawaiian — but only after conducting a scientific analysis over Ayau’s objections.
“I just started crying,” Ayau, who now chairs the federal NAGPRA Review Committee, recalled in a recent interview. “We failed to prevent one more form of desecration.”
The Bishop Museum declined to comment on its role in the 1993 repatriation, saying it happened too long ago for anyone to have knowledge of it.
For Ayau, the experience left him with a sense of loss over the treatment of his ancestors.
“To have someone disturb them is really bad,” he said. “But then to have them steal them and then fight you to get them back is beyond horrific.”
‘Berkeley should be ashamed’
White’s fight to use a set of Native American remains he had borrowed from the Hearst Museum for teaching purposes made headlines in the 1990s after he clashed with then-museum director Rosemary Joyce. She said when she was hired in 1994, it was common practice for White and other museum curators with keys to borrow ancestral remains and belongings without documenting what they’d taken.
“Just leaving aside NAGPRA, as a museum anthropologist, that’s an unacceptable thing,” she told ProPublica and NBC News. “When materials are not in the physical control of the staff of the museum, you need legal documentation.”
She changed the locks on the museum’s storage space. Heeding requests from tribes, she tried to recall a museum collection of Native American remains that White kept on loan in his lab and used for teaching. White refused to return them.
The vice provost for research of the UC system sent Jay Stowsky, then the system’s director of research policy, to mediate the dispute between White and Joyce. Stowsky agreed with Joyce, calling the lack of controls at the museum “terrible.” He said human remains were “just sort of thrown into boxes” with a label on them. “Berkeley should be ashamed of itself on so many levels,” Stowsky, now a senior academic administrator at UC Berkeley, said in a recent interview.
White filed a whistleblower complaint with the university in 1997 accusing the museum, under Joyce’s leadership, of seeking an unnecessary extension to NAGPRA’s reporting deadline. (Campus investigators found no improper activity, according to White.)
Joyce said she was simply trying to account for all the remains that would need to be reported under NAGPRA. “It’s really kind of insane to have to say, I did the thing that the law said I should do,” she told ProPublica and NBC News. Joyce said the complaints were found to be “meritless.”
White then filed an internal grievance against Joyce with the school’s Academic Senate, alleging that by asking him to relinquish the human remains she had infringed on his “academic privileges.”
The university brokered a deal: White could keep ancestral remains provided museum staff and tribes could access them to conduct inventory and report them under NAGPRA.
Joyce said the arrangement was untenable and she felt unsupported by the university’s leadership. White continued to teach with the remains.
A decade after NAGPRA
Myra Masiel-Zamora, now an archaeologist for the Pechanga Band of Indians, enrolled in White’s osteology class more than 20 years ago when she was 18 and a first-year student. But, she said, she withdrew from the course after a teaching assistant told her the human remains belonged to Native Americans.
“That was the first time I really truly learned that an institution could and can — and is — using real Native American ancestors as teaching tools,” she said. “I was really upset.”
Concern over institutions’ handling of Indigenous remains extended beyond the classroom.
Troubled by the slow pace of repatriations under NAGPRA, California lawmakers passed their own version of the law in 2001, aiming to close loopholes in the federal statute and allow tribes to claim remains regardless of whether they have federal recognition. But the state failed to fund an oversight committee established by the bill.
In 2007, without consulting tribes or offering public explanation, UC Berkeley abruptly fired museum employees who were responsible for NAGPRA compliance, and named White and others to a newly formed campus repatriation committee, according to tribal leaders.
That upset tribal members, who brought their concerns about the new committee to state senators. The firings “eliminated the only staff at the university that would stand up to Mr. Tim White and his offensive remarks regarding Native American tribes and our ancestral remains,” Reno Franklin, then a council member and now the chairman of the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians, said during a 2008 state legislative hearing.
In emails sent to ProPublica and NBC News, White sought to discredit the testimony by Franklin and others at the hearing by saying that it had been the result of a decadeslong effort by the university to use him as a scapegoat for its failures. White said he only held an advisory role and did not make final repatriation decisions.
Meanwhile, White’s career was skyrocketing after he led a team that discovered and excavated a 4.4-million-year-old hominid unearthed in Ethiopia. It was deemed the scientific breakthrough of the year in 2009 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and cemented his reputation in the field. It also landed him, along with the likes of Barack Obama and Steve Jobs, on Time magazine’s 2010 list of the world’s 100 most influential people.
Two years later, White and two other professors sued to block the repatriation of two 9,000-year-old skeletons to the Kumeyaay, 12 tribes whose homelands straddle the U.S.-Mexico border near San Diego. White and the other professors wanted to study the remains, which had been unearthed in 1976 from the grounds of the chancellor’s house on the University of California, San Diego, campus.
They argued that there wasn’t enough evidence to support the Kumeyaay’s ancestral connection to the remains, and that the UC system had failed to prove that the remains could legally be considered “Native American.” Based on the professors’ interpretation of the law, human remains had to have a cultural or biological link to a present-day tribe to be considered Native American.
They said that not allowing them to study the remains violated their rights as researchers. An appeals court ruled against the professors, citing the Kumeyaay’s sovereign immunity, meaning they couldn’t be sued.
As tribes’ frustration with the lack of progress on repatriations grew, UC Berkeley convened a “tribal forum” in 2017. In the private gathering, tribal leaders and others expressed anger that university staff, including White, had resisted their requests to repatriate and that the university was requiring an excessive amount of proof to reclaim ancestors, according to an internal university report.
The following year, UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ disbanded the campus’ NAGPRA committee that White had served on, records show. The university established a new one that did not include him.
Meanwhile, Berkeley prepared for its biggest repatriation to date: the return of more than 1,400 ancestors to the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, a small tribe whose ancestors’ remains were excavated from burial grounds along California’s coast and Channel Islands. According to the school’s NAGPRA inventory records, many of the remains had been taken by an archaeologist in 1901 whose expeditions were funded by Phoebe Apperson Hearst, wife of mining magnate George Hearst and namesake of UC Berkeley’s anthropology museum.
UC Berkeley held on to the Chumash remains and loaned some to White for research projects, before returning them to the tribe in the summer of 2018.
When the repatriation day finally came, Nakia Zavalla and other tribal members drove 300 miles to campus and entered a backroom of the anthropology building where UC Berkeley stored their ancestors.
“Going into that facility for the first time was horrifying. Literally shelves of human remains,” said Zavalla, the tribe’s cultural director. “And you pull them out, and there’s ancestors mixed all together, sometimes just all femur bones, a tray full of skulls.”
Zavalla said tribal members had to bring their own cardboard boxes to carry their ancestors home for burial — a complaint other tribal nations have made in dealing with the university. UC Berkeley officials said they were unaware of Zavalla’s “disturbing account” but have changed their policies to ensure they provide assistance “as requested by Tribes.”
Zavalla said the visit highlighted how the university had deprived the tribe of more than ancestral remains, she said. The university housed recordings and items that ethnographers and anthropologists had previously collected from Chumash elders.
For Zavalla, the information could have benefited her and other tribal members’ efforts to revitalize the Santa Ynez Chumash’s language and traditions — which government policies once sought to eradicate. But the information was not freely shared, she said: “They stole those items.”
‘They need to go home’
California state lawmakers passed a bill in 2018 to expand the Native American Heritage Commission’s oversight of repatriation policies and compliance committees within the UC system. The legislation called for an audit of all UC campuses’ compliance with NAGPRA.
The following year, UC Berkeley finally barred the use of Native American remains for teaching or research, according to the university.
The state auditor’s office announced the results of its review in 2020, singling out UC Berkeley for making onerous demands of tribes claiming remains.
The auditor also noted that UC Berkeley had identified 180 missing artifacts or human remains. In a statement, UC Berkeley said staff had searched for the missing remains and artifacts, some of which had been lost for more than a century.
Soon after the audit, the UC president’s office called for all campuses to search departments that historically studied human remains for any that had not been previously reported.
In August 2020, White reported the contents of the collection he taught with to university administrators.
White told ProPublica and NBC News that given the lack of documentation, it would be impossible to determine if they were Native American, much less say which tribe they should be returned to.
“There’s nobody on this planet who can sit down and tell you what the cultural affiliation of this lower jaw is, or that lower jaw is. Nobody can do that,” he said.
The Native American Heritage Commission, or NAHC, is continuing to press UC Berkeley for answers and accountability for its handling of the collection White reported.
Bojorquez, the tribal chairman and an NAHC commissioner, said it was “mind-blowing” that Berkeley still has not provided any documentation on the origins of the collection.
The university should have consulted tribes sooner, he said, to ensure the remains were handled respectfully and to help speed the repatriation process. “So much happened to these ancestors,” he said — they should not be in a box or on a shelf.
“They need to go home,” he said.
Separate from the teaching collection that White reported in 2020, he also notified administrators that he’d discovered remains with museum labels stashed in gray bins in a teaching laboratory. They later were identified as the partial remains of six ancestors of the Santa Ynez Chumash that were supposed to have been repatriated in 2018.
When UC Berkeley finally informed the Chumash six months later, it felt like a “blow to the chest,” said Zavalla, the tribe’s cultural director. Zavalla and other tribal staff members drove to Berkeley to retrieve the remains.
“I felt lied to,” she said. “They did not give us all of the ancestors, and they didn’t do their due diligence.”
The discovery of the missing remains outraged Sam Cohen, an attorney for the tribe, who called for probes into whether UC Berkeley or White had violated policies or laws.
“He is considered untouchable, I think, by Berkeley because he’s so famous in human evolution,” Cohen said of White. “He basically wasn’t going to voluntarily comply with anything until he was forced.”
White said he was unsure how the remains ended up in the teaching laboratory. He suggested they may have been mistakenly placed in his lab during a move years ago while he was overseas. He provided ProPublica and NBC News with a copy of an email from an investigator with UC Berkeley’s Office of Risk and Compliance Services, which said the office found no violation on his part regarding the Chumash remains. UC Berkeley declined to comment on the outcome of the investigation, calling it a personnel matter.
“I have accounted for everything that happened in granular detail,” White said in an interview.
Chancellor Christ apologized to the tribe in December in a letter and acknowledged: “We do understand that, given our history, it is difficult for tribes to have confidence in our university and Professor White.”
The apology was little consolation, Cohen said, especially since it came with yet another painful acknowledgement. University records show there are still more unreturned Chumash ancestors. So far, they have yet to be found.
Christ assured the Chumash that the university was committed to returning all Native American ancestors to all tribes. UC Berkeley officials estimate it will be at least a decade before that happens.
On the 47th anniversary of Leonard Peltier’s arrest in 1975, I wrote to you about this seminal American Indian Movement (AIM) activist’s fight for freedom. Today, I’m happy to say it’s time to take action! Please send your demand to President Joe Biden and tell him it’s long past time to free America’s oldest and most important political prisoner!
Please click, sign, send, and share. Let’s act together to free Leonard Peltier!
Of Lakota and Ojibwe lineage and an Indian boarding school survivor, Leonard was accused of participating in the killing of FBI agents and convicted on false evidence. It’s unconscionable that he’s been left to rot in a federal penitentiary for nearly half a century. (Of course, Leonard refused to give up hope. He’s stayed active and on-message, even running for Vice President of the United States from his prison cell.)
Over the past year, we’ve been working in solidarity with the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee to amplify their call for Leonard’s freedom. Those who have also asked for Leonard’s release include: the prosecutor who put him behind bars; Nobel Peace Prize winners Bishop Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and Rigoberta Menchú; a former U.S. District Court judge; Sens. Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT); Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ); and the 14th Dalai Lama.
This weekend, as our people celebrate the 50th anniversary of our standoff with oppressive colonial forces at Wounded Knee, it’s an appropriate time to send our message of solidarity with Leonard to the president, loud and clear. Leonard exemplifies our strength and resilience, and he’s never been afraid to stand up for Indigenous rights. His voice and courage helped pave the way for our ongoing resistance. This good man deserves our respect, and he deserves his liberty. Please tell President Biden to free Leonard Peltier today.
Wopila tanka — thank you for your compassion and solidarity. Chase Iron Eyes Co-Director and Lead Counsel The Lakota People’s Law Project
On March 10, 1973, more than a week after American Indian Movement activists occupied the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, Oglala Sioux tribal members and AIM members march to to the cemetery where ancestors were buried following the 1890 massacre at the site. Third in line is Carter Camp, Ponca, one of the AIM leaders. (AP Photo/FILE)
WOUNDED KNEE, South Dakota — Madonna Thunder Hawk remembers the firefights.
As a medic during the occupation of Wounded Knee in early 1973, Thunder Hawk was stationed each night in a frontline bunker in the combat zone between Native activists and government agents.
“I would crawl out there every night, and we’d just be out there in case anybody got hit,” said Thunder Hawk, Oohenumpa band of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, one of four women assigned to the bunkers.
Memories of the Wounded Knee occupation — one in a string of protests from 1969 to 1973 that pushed the American Indian Movement to the forefront of Native activism — still run deep within people like Thunder Hawk who were there.
Madonna Thunder Hawk, 83, shown here in early February 2023, was one of the four women medics during the occupation of Wounded Knee, which started on Feb. 27, 1973 and ended May 8, 1973. She wears her “Never underestimate an old woman” shirt proudly. (Photo by Kalle Benallie/ICT)
Thunder Hawk, now 83, is careful about what she says today about AIM and the occupation, but she can’t forget that tribal elders in 1973 had been raised by grandparents who still remembered the 1890 slaughter of hundreds of Lakota people at Wounded Knee by U.S. soldiers.
“That’s how close we are to our history,” she told ICT recently. “So anything that goes on, anything we do, even today with the land-back issue, all of that is just a continuation. It’s nothing new.”
Other feelings linger, too, over the tensions that emerged in Lakota communities after Wounded Knee and the virtual destruction of the small community. Many still don’t want to talk about it.
But the legacy of activism lives on among those who have followed in their footsteps, including the new generations of Native people who turned out at Standing Rock beginning in 2016 for the pipeline protests.
“For me, it’s important to acknowledge the generation before us — to acknowledge their risk,” said Nick Tilsen, founder of NDN Collective and a leader in the Standing Rock protests, whose parents were AIM activists.
“It’s important for us to honor them. It’s important for us to thank them.”
Akim D. Reinhardt, who wrote the book, “Ruling Pine Ridge: Oglala Lakota Politics from the IRA to Wounded Knee,” said the AIM protests had powerful social and cultural impacts.
“Collectively, they helped establish a sense of the permanence of Red Power in much the way that Black Power had for African-Americans, a permanent legacy,” said Reinhardt, a history professor at Towson University in Towson, Maryland.
“It was the cultural legacy that racism isn’t okay and people don’t need to be quiet and accept it anymore. That it’s okay to be proud of who you are.”
A series of events is planned in South Dakota to recognize the 50th anniversary of the occupation of Wounded Knee, starting on Friday, Feb. 24, in Rapid City, and building to a 50th anniversary pow wow on Sunday, Feb. 26, in Porcupine, South Dakota, and a Four Direction Walk and Ride on the actual anniversary, on Monday, Feb. 27.
The women of Wounded Knee will also be honored on Saturday, Feb. 25, in Porcupine, and another pow wow is set for Saturday in Rapid City. The documentary film, “From Wounded Knee to Standing Rock,” will be shown on Sunday, Feb. 26, in Kyle, South Dakota.
‘Thunderbolt’ of protest
The occupation began on the night of Feb. 27, 1973, when a group of warriors led by Oklahoma AIM leader Carter Camp, Ponca, moved into the small town of Wounded Knee. They took over the trading post and established a base of operations along with AIM leaders Russell Means, Oglala Lakota; Dennis Banks, Ojibwe; and Clyde Bellecourt, White Earth Nation.
Within days, hundreds of activists had joined them for what became a 71-day standoff with the U.S. government and other law enforcement.
American Indian Movement members and other activists are shown during the occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, which lasted 71 days – from Feb. 27 to May 8, 1973. The sign over the door reads in part, “Independent Oglala Nation.” (Photo via Creative Commons)
It was the fourth protest in as many years for AIM. The organization formed in the late 1960s and drew international attention with the occupation of Alcatraz from 1969-1971. In 1972, the Trail of Broken Treaties brought a cross-country caravan of hundreds of Indigenous activists to Washington, D.C., where they occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters for six days.
Then, on Feb. 6, 1973, AIM members and others gathered at the courthouse in Custer County, South Dakota, to protest the murder of Wesley Bad Heart Bull, Oglala Lakota, and the lenient sentences given to some perpetrators against Native Americans. When they were denied access into the courthouse, the protest turned violent, with the burning of the Chamber of Commerce Building and damage to other buildings and vehicles.
Three weeks later, AIM leaders took over Wounded Knee.
“It had been waiting to happen for generations,” said Kevin McKiernan, who covered the Wounded Knee occupation as a journalist in his late 20s and who later directed the 2019 documentary film, “From Wounded Knee to Standing Rock.”
“If you look at it as a storm, the storm had been building through abuse, land theft, genocide, religious intoleration, for generations and generations,” he said. “The storm built up, and built up and built up. The American Indian Movement was simply the thunderbolt.”
The takeover at Wounded Knee grew out of a dispute with Oglala Sioux tribal leader Richard Wilson but also put a spotlight on demands that the U.S. government uphold its treaty obligations to the Lakota people.
By March 8, the occupation leaders had declared the Wounded Knee territory to be the Independent Oglala Nation, granting citizenship papers to those who wanted them and demanding recognition as a sovereign nation.
American Indian Movement leaders observe with a ceremonial peace pipe as the U.S. Department of Justice begins to remove government forces from around Wounded Knee, South Dakota, with a ceremonial peace pipe smoking shown here on March 10, 1973. Shown are, starting with the fourth person from the right, AIM leaders Clyde Bellecourt, Dennis Banks, Russell Means and Carter Camp. (AP Photo/FILE)
The stand-off was often violent, and supplies became scarce within the occupied territory as the U.S. government worked to cut off support for those behind the lines. Discussions were ongoing throughout much of the occupation, with several government officials working with AIM leaders to try and resolve the issues.
The siege finally ended on May 8 with an agreement to disarm and to further discuss the treaty obligations. By then, at least three people had been killed and more than a dozen wounded, according to reports.
Two Native men died: Frank Clearwater, identified as Cherokee and Apache, who was shot on April 17, 1973, and died eight days later; and Lawrence “Buddy” LaMont, Oglala, who was shot and killed on April 26, 1973.
Another man, Black activist Ray Robinson, who had been working with the Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization, went missing during the siege.The FBI confirmed in 2014 that he had died at Wounded Knee, but his body was never recovered. A U.S. marshal was also shot and paralyzed, but died many years later.
Camp was later convicted of abducting and beating four postal inspectors during the occupation, and served three years in federal prison. Banks and Means were indicted on charges related to the events, but their cases were dismissed by a federal court for prosecutorial misconduct.
Today, the Wounded Knee National Historic Landmark identifies the site of the 1890 massacre, most of which is now under joint ownership of the Oglala Sioux and Cheyenne River Sioux.
The purchase, from a descendant of the original owners of the trading post, included a covenant requiring the land to be preserved as a sacred site and memorial without commercial development.
And though internal tensions emerged in the AIM organization in the years after the Wounded Knee occupation, AIM continues to operate throughout the U.S. in tribal communities and urban areas.
In recent years, members participated in the Standing Rock protests and have persisted in pushing for the release from prison of former AIM leader Leonard Peltier, who was convicted of first-degree murder despite inconsistencies in the evidence in the deaths of two FBI agents during a shootout in 1975 on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
A new generation
Tilsen, now president and chief executive of NDN Collective, an Indigenous-led organization centered around building Indigenous power, traces the roots of his activism to Wounded Knee.
His parents, JoAnn Tall and Mark Tilsen, met at Wounded Knee, and he praises the women of the movement who sustained the traditional matriarchal system during the occupation.
“I grew up in the American Indian Movement,” said Tilsen, a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation. “It wasn’t a question about what you were fighting for. You were raised up in it. In fact, if you didn’t fight, you weren’t going to live.”
NDN Collective founder and CEO Nick Tilsen at the NDN Collective headquarters in Rapid City, South Dakota. (Photo by Kalle Benallie/ICT)
Tilsen credits AIM, and those who weren’t part of the movement, for most of the rights Indigenous people have today, including Indian gaming, tribal colleges, the Indian Self-Determination and Education Act and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.
He said the movement showed the world that tribes were sovereign nations and their treaties were being violated. And when AIM and spiritual leaders such as Henry Crow Dog, Leonard Crow Dog and Matthew King joined the fight, it became intergenerational.
“It became a spiritual revolution,” he said. “It also became a fight that was about human rights. It became a fight that was about where Indigenous people aren’t just within the political system of America, but within the broader context of the system, of the world.”
Tilsen appreciates that his parents were willing to participate in an armed revolution to achieve one of their dreams of establishing KILI radio station, known as the “Voice of the Lakota Nation,” which began operating in 1983 as the first Indigenous-owned radio station in the United States.
They wanted to communicate and organize with the people as well as create transparency in tribal government, he said.
His own organization, NDN Collective, is based on what the American Indian Movement achieved, he said.
“It’s why NDN has the balanced approach that it does,” Tilsen said. “We defend, develop and decolonize.”
The Dakota Access Pipeline protest in 2016 came to be a defining moment for him and his brother. They had wondered, he said, what would be their Wounded Knee?
But though Standing Rock grew from the Wounded Knee occupation, it also had its differences, he said.
“What made it so powerful and what made it different was that you actually had grassroots organizers and revolutionaries and official tribal governments coming together, too,” Tilsen said. “I think that Standing Rock in particular actually reached way further than Wounded Knee because of how the issue was framed around ‘water is life.’”
AIM is the catalyst that started it all, however, he said. He wants the 50th anniversary of Wounded Knee to be a time to reflect on what still needs to be learned about the movement and to know more about the people who weren’t in the spotlight at the time.
“[It] created the pressure,” he said. “It held the mirror up to the United States government in a very powerful way.”
Alex Fire Thunder, deputy director of the Lakota Language Consortium, said the occupation of Wounded Knee and other activism helped revitalize Indigenous language and culture. His mother was too young to have participated in the occupation but he said she remembered visits from AIM members in the community.
“The whole point of AIM, the American Indian Movement, was to bring back a sense of pride in our culture,” Fire Thunder, Oglala Lakota, told ICT.
“A huge aspect of our culture and essence of our whole cultural identity is in the language,” he said. “A lot of language programs, educational programs, and the element of language in education itself and the whole status of the language, improved as a result of the awareness of the value of culture and the sense of pride that our people had.”
Fire Thunder, who now teaches the Lakota language, said he owes a debt of gratitude to AIM and the warriors at Wounded Knee.
“I show respect to anybody and everybody that stands up for our way of life, our culture, our language, our spiritual ways, our philosophies and worldviews,” he said. “ We’ve been oppressed, we’ve been silenced…
“We’ve been pushed aside and overlooked, I guess invisible to the mainstream American society,” he said. “And so, I like to pay respect and acknowledge anybody and everybody that stands up for our people in that way.”
For Thunder Hawk, the issues became her lifelong work rather than momentary activism.
She joined AIM in 1968 and participated in the occupation at Alcatraz, the BIA headquarters, the Custer County Courthouse and Wounded Knee, as well as the Standing Rock pipeline protest in 2016.
She said work being done today by a new generation is a continuation of the work her ancestors did.
“That’s why we were successful in Indian Country, because we were a movement of families,” she said. “It wasn’t just an age group, a bunch of young people carrying on.”
She hopes her legacy will live on, that her great-great-grandchildren will see not just a photo of her but know what she sounded like and the person she seemed to be.
Frank Star Comes Out, shown here in February 2023, is president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. (Photo by Kalle Benallie/ICT)
It’s something that she can’t have when she looks at a photo of her paternal great-grandparents.
“Hopefully that’s what my descendants will see, you know?” she said. “And with the technology nowadays, they can press a button, maybe, and it’ll come up.”
Frank Star Comes Out, the current president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, also believes it’s time for the previous generation’s work to be recognized.
He will be at the 50th anniversary events and will speak at the Wounded Knee site. He is aware of the irony that he now leads a government created through the Indian Reorganization Act and opposed by AIM.
But he has family members who were strong supporters of AIM, including his mother and father. He said it’s important to fight for his people who survived genocide.
“That’s why I support AIM, not only on a family level,” he said. “I have a lot of pride in who I am as a Lakota … Times [have] changed. Now I’m using my leadership to help our people rise, to give them a voice. And I believe that’s important for Indian Country.”
Stewart Huntington contributed to this report.
Our stories are worth telling. Our stories are worth sharing. Our stories are worth your support. Contribute $5 or $10 today to help ICT carry out its critical mission. Sign up for ICT’s free newsletter.
Kalle Benallie, Navajo, is a reporter-producer at ICT’s Phoenix bureau. Follow her on Twitter: @kallebenallie or email her at email@example.com. Benallie was once the opening act for a Cirque Du Soleil show in Las Vegas.
A couple weeks ago, you heard from my daughter, Tokata, about some of our allyship work with our Nüümü and Newe (Paiute and Shoshone) relatives in California. At that time, she mentioned I was also on the ground in Nevada, visiting the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony (RSIC) to help develop media and outreach strategies for their frontline effort to protect the sacred PeeHee Mu’Huh (Thacker Pass) from an enormous, toxic lithium mining operation.
I sat down with Reno-Sparks Indian Colony Chairman Arland D. Melendez to talk about mining’s threats to his ancestral homelands.
As you know, we Lakota understand what it looks like on the frontlines of Big Extraction. Not only did we inspire the world with our resistance to the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL) at Standing Rock, but now we also face the same dangers as RSIC to our water and sacred lands because of lithium and gold mining in the Black Hills. At every turn, corporate interests show zero regard for our wellbeing and feel no obligation to gain our permission when their projects will rip up sacred burial grounds and deplete or poison our water.
This is why it’s critical that we continue to travel to Nüümü and Newe homelands, help strategize with their leadership about resistance approaches, and help amplify their message through media support. On that note, we’ve just completed a separate video for use by RSIC’s Tribal Historic Preservation office. Our plan going forward is to keep listening to our valued relatives at every turn and keep producing content that can help them win justice.
Wopila tanka — my deepest gratitude for helping us lend needed support! Chase Iron Eyes Co-Director and Lead Counsel The Lakota People’s Law Project
P.S. Lakota Law’s movement-building and legal savvy will be essential to the success of the Nüümü and Newe peoples’ effort to protect Thacker Pass. Please help fund our travel, media, and logistical expenses so we can assist our relatives at the highest level as they fight to safeguard their water, defend their sacred lands, and preserve their way of life.
Anpetu Wašte. As the Supreme Court considers whether to gut the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), two Native legislators in South Dakota are doing everything they can to preserve that critical law’s protections for our children at the state level. Predictably, though, it’s been a tough go. Just a week ago, the legislature failed to pass House Bills 1229 and 1168, both authored by Rep. Peri Pourier (from my home district of Oglala Lakota).
SB 1229 would have provided a set of instructions for placing any child, once removed from their home, within their community. SB 1168 would have increased the requirements for the state’s Department of Social Services (DSS) to keep Native children with their families and tribes. Those losses are hard to swallow, but I am happy to say that — thanks to another powerful, Native woman, State Sen. Red Dawn Foster — hope remains.
We’re extremely grateful to Sen. Red Dawn Foster (left) and Rep. Peri Pourier for their excellent work in the state legislature on behalf of our Lakota children.
On Feb.15, South Dakota’s Senate Health and Human Services Committee will hold a hearing on SB 191, a bill championed by Sen. Foster which would establish a task force to address the welfare of Indian children in South Dakota. It would require the DSS to act in culturally responsive and socially supportive ways in cases of removal involving Native American children and make every effort to keep them with other relatives.
We’re rooting for a better outcome this time! We also remain hopeful that the High Court will uphold all or a significant part of ICWA, but can we rely on justices who have already rolled back our civil rights in astonishing ways over the past year? The smart move is to ensure ICWA’s mandates using all available methods, and that’s why these efforts by Sen. Foster and Rep. Pourier matter. They’re valiantly fighting an uphill — but essential — battle.
As you know, it’s important that we augment their work in the Capitol with on-the-ground organizing in our communities to provide Indigenous-led programming centered around healing and restoration of family services. It’s our obligation to be well informed on all the issues that affect our children, and we must lead from the grassroots on their behalf. Our young ones deserve to be supported by the Oyate (people) and enveloped in their cultural identity through kinship care.
Please stay with us as we work to make that happen. With these rulings, it’s time to raise another battle cry for our children. We offer gratitude to Rep. Pourier and Sen. Foster, and we pledge to keep working hard, every day, with the same goal of a better future for the next generations.
Wopila tanka — thank you for standing with us! DeCora Hawk Field Organizer The Lakota People’s Law Project
As my colleague, Chase Iron Eyes, wrote to you earlier this week, February is a month of significant anniversaries here in Lakota Country. He told you about the 47th anniversary of the arrest of American Indian Movement (AIM) activist Leonard Peltier. Next comes a four-day celebration centered on the 50th anniversary of our AIM occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973 — an historic event that occurred a few years prior to Leonard’s unjust arrest.
Here’s what happened: 50 years ago, the American Indian Movement was called to action by the communities of the Oglala Lakota territory on the Pine Ridge Reservation of South Dakota. That call resulted in a 71-day occupation of the town of Wounded Knee by AIM — and I was there, every step of the way. The resulting conflict with government agents, well chronicled in print and other media like the documentary “From Wounded Knee to Standing Rock,” is the stuff of legend. The occupation wasn’t without significant cost, but it also brought massive attention to our struggles as Native people.
Our gratitude to the Warrior Women Project, which is helping to organize and hosting a full calendar of events on their site.
From my perspective, it’s critical that we use part of the event to highlight the matriarchs who reached out to AIM in 1973. Fortunately, the Warrior Women Project has archival interviews of many of us, and we’ll take time during the four days to celebrate and honor the Wounded Knee veterans who are still here. The full event agenda also includes art and cultural celebrations, ceremonies, and a myriad of learning opportunities about the people and history of this movement.
We celebrate this moment in history with an eye toward our future. It’s important that we AIM elders take this opportunity to pass on our legacy to the younger generations. The standoff happened on the Pine Ridge Reservation, right down the road from where I live now at Cheyenne River. We must tell this story so it resonates with the communities and families on tribal nations in South Dakota today. As Chase mentioned, our Lakota Law staff is helping to organize numerous aspects of the event, including planned livestreams. We’ll let you know more about when and how to view those as we get a little closer, so please stay tuned!
Wopila tanka — my gratitude, always, for your solidarity. Madonna Thunder Hawk Cheyenne River Organizer The Lakota People’s Law Project
As you may know, I’ve been involved in the landback movement for quite some time. Several years ago, I began helping lead the effort to return the Black Hills to the Lakota People. Protecting our water and returning our most sacred lands to Native stewardship — and defending them from degradation at the hands of mining and pipelines — is of paramount importance to me. I hope the same holds true for anyone who cares about the future of Unci Maka, our Grandmother Earth.
This movement extends far beyond the boundaries of Lakota Country. Recently, a friend of mine shared an important opportunity to return land to Native care in what we now call California. Because it’s critical that we act in solidarity with one another whenever possible, today I share this effort with you. I’ll describe things below, and I also hope you’ll visit the Owens Valley Indian Water Commission (OVIWC) website to learn more.
Click the pic to watch OVIWC’s video about Three Creeks.
Located just east of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in Central California, Payahuunadü — known in English as Owen’s Valley and translated as “land of the flowing water” — is part of the traditional homelands of the Nüümü (Paiute) and Newe (Shoshone) Native nations. They have now joined forces under OVIWC, a three-tribe consortium with an opportunity to acquire Three Creeks, a lush and beautiful five-acre property within Payahuunadü.
The tribes intend to utilize this oasis as a haven for cultural resurgence involving food sovereignty initiatives, ceremonial healing, revitalization of kinship, and art and education to address traumas caused by displacement. Those goals also go hand in hand with a desire to preserve and protect this sacred space amid aggressive attempts by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP) to control the area’s water.
Over the past five years, 50 percent of Los Angeles’s water supply has come from Payahuunadü. The DWP has been taking and exporting its water since 1913 and owns 95 percent of the valley floor — while tribes share ownership of one third of one percent. This injustice must be addressed, and with an additional foothold in the area, the Nüümü and Newe Peoples will be better equipped to defend their homelands as a whole.
My dad, Chase, is also on his way to Nüümü and Newe lands in present-day Nevada to meet this week with the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and other Native leaders involved in the battle to protect PeeHee Mu’Huh (Thacker Pass) from lithium mining. You’ll hear more about that soon! Our family thanks you for joining us in showing solidarity with all Indigenous nations seeking to defend and return sacred lands.
Wopila tanka — thank you for your solidarity! Tokata Iron Eyes Organizer and Spokesperson The Lakota People’s Law Project
Today marks a shameful anniversary. It’s now been 47 years since our Lakota and Ojibwe relative, Leonard Peltier, was arrested after taking part in the 1975 American Indian Movement (AIM) standoff at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Wrongly convicted on false testimony for killing FBI agents, Leonard is now 78 years old and suffering with various health ailments in a federal penitentiary in Florida.
The good news is, the world has never forgotten Leonard, who during his lengthy incarceration has run for both President and Vice President of the United States. Today, “Rise Up for Peltier” events are happening in cities across the globe — including Paris, Rome, and Berlin. As part of this day of solidarity, our friends at the Red Nation Movement are also asking people to assist Leonard through their social media channels by sharing content and raising awareness.
Turtle Mountain’s Leonard Peltier, imprisoned in Florida, 1993. (Photo credit: Kevin McKiernan)
As Carol Gokee, co-director of the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee, wrote to you via our Lakota Law platform a year ago, the list of people who have supported clemency for Leonard is long and impressive. It includes Nobel Peace Prize winners Bishop Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and Rigoberta Menchú; former Chief Judge of Tennessee’s U.S. District Court, Kevin Sharp; Sens. Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT); Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ); and James Reynolds, the chief prosecutor who originally put Leonard behind bars.
As we approach the anniversary of AIM’s Wounded Knee stand later this month, we’ll have much more to share with you. Lakota Law organizers Madonna Thunder Hawk and DeCora Hawk are on the ground helping to prepare a big event, and you’ll hear more from them this week. In addition, our video team is working on setting up live video feeds and our communications staff is working on an action you’ll be able to take to demand clemency for Leonard.
Greetings, and I hope your year is off to a great start! We’ve got a good video for you to watch today. It’s the twelfth chapter of our Dakota Water Wars video series, produced, as always, by us in partnership with the Standing Rock Nation and Great Plains Water Alliance. In this episode, we detail some new threats to the Mni Sose — the Missouri River — and highlight the importance of respecting both our water and treaty rights.
Watch: Lakota Law Standing Rock Organizer Phyllis Young shares her studied perspective on treaty law and passion to protect our water rights and environment.
Here’s the bottom line: the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie granted the Lakota people stewardship of the Mni Sose. When the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL) appeared in our homelands, it threatened both our sole source of fresh water and our way of life. Now, to make things worse, other entities have made plans to take water from the Missouri and pipe it to places far away, like Colorado, and nearby, like Rapid City and the Black Hills.
That last part is particularly troublesome. Mining interests in the Black Hills will use even more water than a municipality, and those mines threaten to despoil an area filled with many of our most sacred sites. Plus, sending our water away for use by extractive industries is the exact opposite of what we should be doing in the midst of a climate emergency. Right now, we have to mitigate carbon emissions, halt the warming of our planet, and responsibly allocate our water.
As you know, Indigenous cultures traditionally live in harmony with our surroundings, with care for all our relatives (not just the human ones). As we said during the heyday of our NoDAPL stand, and as we continue to say today: mni wiconi — water is life! When the 1868 treaty granted us the ability to protect the Mni Sose, the state of South Dakota didn’t even exist yet. So we won’t back down on this. We’re not going to let the state, or any other man-made entity, threaten or take our water without a fight.
Wopila tanka — thank you for standing with us! Chase Iron Eyes Co-Director and Lead Counsel The Lakota People’s Law Project