SDOHC's Mission

The SDOHC is devoted to documenting the history of the Northern Plains region and the care of previously collected interviews.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Voices on the Wounded Knee Massacre and Occupation

This past Friday, April 27th 2012, the South Dakota Oral History Center presented to a packed room at the Center for Western Studies during their Dakota Conference. The line of the day, for us, was the importance of oral history and the South Dakota Oral History Center to historical scholarship!

We started off with a discussion on the differences between oral tradition and oral history.  While these two fields may seem the same, there is a key difference between them. Oral tradition uses memories from beyond the lifetime of the individual telling the story. Oral history, on the other hand, only uses memories and experiences from the lifetime of the person being interviewed. Both are forms of story telling, but oral historians work very hard to place a person's recollections into an accurate historical context so that, while the precise dates and times may be off, the experience of the person gives us a true understanding of what it was like to be living in a certain time or through a certain important event.

Being that the conference's theme was the 40th Anniversary of the Wounded Knee Occupation in 1973, our examples of what oral history is were pulled from the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890.  It is this event that led to the significance of the area known as Wounded Knee and that would lead to AIM's take over of this specific spot in 1973. So, be sure to listen closly to the following memories of Chales Little Dog, a young 6 year old looking for his uncle the day after the massacre, and Pete Lemley, a white rancher who happened to be a witness to the massacre.

Interviewees: Charles Little Dog, Pete Lemely

The stories of Mr. Little Dog and Mr. Lemley draw us into not only the actual Wounded Knee Massacre, but also into the feelings and actions that led up to the event and its aftermath. These voices set us directly in a personal narrative of what it was to be an American Indian and a non-indigenous person during this time period and the ways in which different people might experience the same event.

Oral history adds voice to events whose story has supposedly already been etched in stone. As you can read in the Fundamentals of Oral History: Texas Preservation Guidlines, from the Texas Historical Commission, "oral history documents forms of discourse not normally documented and it emphasizes the significance of the human experience. Oral history has traditionally been known as a history of the people, meaning that it is accessible to everyday men and women, whose viewpoints and lives do not usually end up documented in mainsteam history."

Oral history, "in addition to providing an added dimension to historical research can: 1. foster appreciation for little-known or rapidly vanishing ways of life. 2. Verify the historicity of events which cannot be determined by traditional methods of historical research. 3. Correct stereotypical images of life ways and people. 4. Recover and preserve improtant aspects of a human experience that would otherwise go undocumented." [Texas Historical Commission]

With that, please listen to the following interviews from: 1.) Joan Hathaway, a resident of Custer, SD speaking to the tensing of relations in the town prior to the Custer Courthouse Riot and Occupation of Wounded Knee; 2.) Russel Means and 3.) Mike Her Many Horses, talking about their views of AIM; 4.) Kevin Abourezk, a student at the University of South Dakota who participated in the 25th Anniversary of the Wounded Knee Siege and realized how connected his family was to both sides of the event; and lastly 5.) Charles Kills Enemy, a medicine man who first speaks in Lakota and then English about why he has decided to support AIM. If you scroll down while listening to Mr. Kills Enemy you will be able to read Professor Herbet Hoover's remarks on his interview with Charles Kills Enemy and his thoughts on what AIM's actions mean to American Indian peoples.

Interviewees: Joan Hathaway, Russell Means, Mike Her Many Horses, Kevin Abourezk
Interviewee: Charles Kills Enemy

“The voice of the man who speaks in Indian, then translates in English, then follows with more in the Indian language, is that of Charles Kills Enemy. This he taped in his home at St. Francis recently to play at peace pipe ceremonies which he – a medicine man – conducts to expose what he believes the American Indian Movement is all about. What he believes is that AIM has become a necessity for American Indian People.
This belief is very significant. Not more than two months ago, Mr. Kills Enemy took the position that AIM was a negative factor in Indian affairs. […] Violence is wrong, he continues to say, and the use of the peace pipe to promote violence is a breach of faith with God; but excepting cases where there is violence, AIM is both desirable and necessary.”
They are the ‘shock troops’ as he puts it, in a move to gain not only treaty rights, but other natural traditional rights as well as for Indians.  And now he openly supports AIM. Doubtless a factor has been that his teenage daughter is a vocal member, packed a weapon into the recent occupation of Wounded Knee, and she vigorously supports that movement. But there is more involved than this. Mr. Kills Enemy is not one to be influenced so drastically by the new generation.
What has changed him more than anything is what has happened at Pine Ridge Reservation during the AIM occupation as he sees it. AIM has exposed his [Richard Wilson] game, has revealed how the BIA makes his type of leadership possible, and has vastly extended AIM acceptance on large reservations.
Unless my interpretations of this interview and the accompanying tape segments are entirely mistaken, I see them as saying that the end of the occupation of Wounded Knee marks a new stage in the growth of the American Indian Movement.  It appeared for some time that the occupation would become its death knell. Now, however, it appears to have won over many supporters on the reservation, especially supporters among senior citizens who before had rejected AIM as a young man’s urban movement. Now the movement promises to enlarge its impact as a result.
In forming this judgment, I have asked Mr. Kills Enemy and others about those who continue to oppose AIM and to support the Wilson administration and similar administrations on other reservations. The response is that those people who continue to oppose AIM and can see no merit in its operations and who continue to support the halfbreed governments that are elected under the Wheeler-Howard Act, do so because they are beholden to halfbreed leaders on the reservation, who are in turn obligated to the BIA and the U.S. Government. In other words, the opposition exists largely because the government of the United States holds the pursestrings; their manipulation is a power delegated to halfbreed officials elected by halfbreeds seeking patronage on the reservations. And the support of these administrations and the opposition of AIM comes largely from people who enjoy patronage and whose bank accounts are padded to the exclusion of those many others.
 AIM has conjured up an outcry among the many who have been excluded for so long. They now begin to see leadership in AIM, to speak out on their behalf, so that they too might enjoy compensation under treaty rights and compensation which has been taken and very carefully restricted for distribution among only those who supported the elected halfbreed administrations on the reservations. Again, I cannot state this as the truth, but it is something that is very evident now in speaking to older fullblood type people; it surely is evident in the attitude for medicine man Charles Kills Enemy.”
– Herbert Hoover, AIRP 0892, May 1973.
- Jennifer McIntyre, SDOHC Digitizer/Curator
As always, thank you for listening. If you have any additional information regarding these interviews or these subjects, or any questions, pleace contact the SD Oral History Center at