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Wounded Knee Warriors In Court

Margie Cohen

"Before we left Wounded Knee the government had 15 armed personnel carriers surrounding us, with .50 caliber machine guns mounted on them. They brought in 22 more tanks, and 140 FBI agents. They brought in 86 BIA policemen. They had the 82nd Airborne standing by; and they already started gassing the Indian people before that. And they shot the back of Frank Clearwater's head off when he was lying down in a church at 5:35 in the morning when food was being dropped into Wounded Knee because people were starving in there. The Indians called for a four-day cease-fire, to honor Frank Clearwater. And on the second day of that cease-fire tear gas was fired into Wounded Knee and Lawrence Lamont staggered out of a bunker and he, too, was murdered-blinded first, and then murdered. The Indian people were committed to die at Wounded Knee. They said that they would eat horses, cats, rats and even dirt."

It is almost a year since the historic, symbolic 71-day occupation of Wounded Knee by members of the American Indian Movement (AIM). On January 8, as the first anniversary of this occupation drew near, the Wounded Knee trials began in St. Paul, Minnesota, with the trial of Russel Means and Dennis Banks.

Last year, in the face of incredible odds-massive firepower and a blockade of food, water and medicine, the Oglala Sioux people moved into Wounded Knee and took a bold and united stand on their own land for their rights under the law and treaty. The occupation was their statement to the world that they meant to act to retain their culture and heritage and the lands that had been stolen from them.

The actions of the U.S. government in the wake of the occupation followed what has become the government's familiar and predictable response to all independent groups attempts at self-determination; far from recognizing the just nature of the Indians' grievances, the government elected to deny the issue of its guilt and complicity in creating the impoverished conditions under which the Indians in America live today and, further, issued more than 300 criminal indictments against over one hundred of the Indians at Wounded Knee.

Spokesmen for AIM, Means and Banks are two of six AIM members singled out as "leaders" of the occupation and charged with conspiracy. Further charges against them include burglary, larceny, assault on a federal officer, possession of unauthorized firearms, impeding federal officers in the course of a civil disorder, theft of a motor vehicle and conspiracy to commit all of these crimes. Possible sentences run as high as 185 years with one man facing charges carrying life sentences.

Judge Andrew Bogue, originally scheduled to preside over the Wounded Knee trials, recently referred to AIM members as "hoodlums that are roaming the countryside damaging people's heads and property."

Thus, the government's manner of dealing with Wounded Knee has been an attempt to discredit AIM as a dangerous criminal element in order to minimize public awareness of and sympathy with the Indian cause. By bringing as many charges against as many people as possible, the government hopes to overwhelm the jury into bringing convictions against at least some of the defendants.

"They made us promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one. They promised to take our land. and they took it." -Red Cloud

"We are the landlords of this country and at Wounded Knee we showed up to collect. These treaties supersede any state laws and, in fact, prevail over federal law. If the country is going to live up to its Constitution, then in fact it must live up to its treaty commitments. We still have to go to court to ascertain our treaty rights. Once again we have to rely on the White Man and wait for him to give us the right we already have. If he goes against his Constitution and convicts us, we will prove to the world that this is really a police state instead of a free country. The Wounded Knee trials are one of the most important of the century. They will expose how America practices its founding philosophy" -Organizational Statement of the American Indian Movement

The real criminals, of course, are the government and its agents, who have perpetrated acts of violence and theft on the Indian people for centuries. Fittingly, the trial strategy of the Wounded Knee legal defense will be to focus on the real crimes which are at the heart of the Indian struggle: the continued refusal of the government to uphold the Indian treaties. The Treaty of 1868, which has been consistently eroded and ignored, will be the main case for the defendants. Viewing the trial as a sequel to the confrontation at Wounded Knee in a different forum, the defense will put the actions of Wounded Knee participants in the context of the whole history of the treatment of the Native Americans since the initial intrusion of the White Man. "For the first time in history," announced an AIM statement, "the U.S. government will be tried for crimes against Indian people throughout America."

Despite the freezing cold St. Paul winter, temperatures dipping at times to 25 degrees below zero, and the large force of U.S. marshals stationed outside the courthouse, between 50 and 100 AIM supporters have packed the courtroom each day since the trial's commencement The legal defense committee needs and welcomes support from people in communities outside St. Paul and Sioux Falls, as well, for the costs of preparing a competent defense for huge numbers of defendants are staggering. If you can help by organizing fund-raisings, donating food or office equipment, writing letters to media and governmental representatives, or by giving financial support, contact the Wounded Knee Defense Committee, 333 Sibley St., Suite 605, St. Paul, Mn. 55101, 224-5631.