Culture

Osages reflect on Wounded Knee Occupation of 1973

Forty years ago, Raymond Lasley and five other Osages took part in the occupation of Wounded Knee.

Hailed as a civil rights victory for Native Americans, the occupation changed U.S. policy toward Natives.  

Reflecting on his experience, Lasley decided to retrace his journey and left for Wounded Knee, S.D., March 15, hoping to catch up with old friends and see places that would spark memories of his time there. He returned home March 22 with hundreds of photos he’ll produce into a multimedia package for his family.

“I thought I would do this for my kids, grandkids, great grandkids, leave them something that, ‘Yeah, my grandpa was there at Wounded Knee in 1973, even though his role was small, he put his life on the line for his Indian people,’” Lasley said.

On Feb. 27, 1973 leaders of the American Indian Movement, tired of inadequate United States policies and racial tensions in their communities, occupied the town of Wounded Knee for 73 days. With numerous firefights and a few deaths, the occupation made national news and stayed there for weeks.

At the time, Lasley and the five other Osages with him at the occupation didn’t know they were taking part in something that would mean so much to many.

At the occupation with Lasley was his younger brother Marvin and four Osage siblings from Pawhuska. Andrew Gray, Mary (Gray) BigHorse, Gina Gray and Louis Gray.

Haskell

Lasley, then a 20-year-old student athlete at Haskell Indian Nations University playing football, heard about the occupation from attending AIM meetings held on campus by the local chapters in Lawrence and Topeka, Kans.

“Back then, there were Vietnam vets coming back from Vietnam, some had been in the mid-60’s and some had transitioned out of military from college and were coming back, lot of veterans running around,” Lasley said. “It was a lot of those guys we looked to for leadership.”

A plan was made for students to caravan from Haskell to the Rosebud Sioux Reservation for Spring Break. Lasley joined the group.

“I was such a novice in all this, it was more of a thrill, something to do during Spring Break, but once we got there, there were numerous meetings we attended but there was a lot of talk and words I was unfamiliar with like, ‘sovereignty,’ ‘self-determination,’ ‘treaty rights,’ all those, I had no idea,” Lasley said.

The group set out for Rosebud, not all made it there, but once the group made it past the South Dakota state line, Federal Bureau of Investigation officers were following.

In the caravan was his younger brother Marvin and fellow Haskell student Andrew Gray.

Out of the darkness

Siblings Mary BigHorse, Gina Gray and Louis Gray were planning their way to Wounded Knee. BigHorse, a newly married 22-year-old whose husband at the time was Henry Wahwassauk, a high-ranking AIM member, was going to the occupation to join him. Gina and Louis were students at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, N.M.

Louis and his college roommate hitchhiked to Denver and found his sister Gina waiting on a caravan to take people to Wounded Knee. The caravan made it to the occupation site and there waiting at the safe house was BigHorse.

The safe house was where all the people going into the occupation went to wait. Under the cover of darkness, AIM members would sneak to the safe house outside of the compound and smuggle people in.

“It was scary because you couldn’t even see your hand in front of your face it got so dark,” BigHorse said. She and her sister Gina went together after their younger brother Louis had gone in a group of men.

“We went single file the whole way (5-7 miles). They told us they would throw flares and we would have to hit the ground because the FBI would fire on us,” BigHorse said. BigHorse said there were no trees for cover, nothing to hide behind. A tank rode up on them and everyone ran and she got lost from Gina.

Lost from her group she wandered around the hills until dawn when a rider from the occupation came upon her. He had to stay behind with other people who had gotten lost and she rode in on the horse.

“I came in on horseback and Louis and Gina were like, ‘How did you get a horse??’” she said laughing. “I was lucky someone seen me because I was going the wrong way.”

Once she found her husband she stayed in the main house in the compound with her mother-in-law. AIM leaders Russell Means, who passed away last year, Dennis Banks, Clyde Bellecourt and others also stayed in the house. She remembers long nights of discussion, she helped birth the only child born during the occupation with her mother-in-law, she remembers sweat lodge ceremonies, she remembers when the first person was shot. He was shot in the knee, “which we thought was ironic,” she said. She helped cook and clean and made food runs.

“They (FBI) became more and more hostile. They started cutting off the water, electric, food … it became unbearable in there,” she said.

Gunfire

Lasley remembers the first bullet fired.

His main job was to occupy bunkers throughout the nights. He would transfer from bunker to bunker, keeping watch for any federal agents that might get too close to the compound. His brother Marvin and Andrew Gray were with him most of the time.

“It was amazing, because they would come in the helicopters, the feds. They would come in helicopters and vehicles – we would see them from a distance. At 20 years old I would just take any information that came during the nightly meetings. They would sing, had a drum there, praying every single night. The meetings they would give us all updates on what was going on. We had declared it the Independent Oglala Nation. We would really focus on the situations with the sovereignty and basically, nation building,” Lasley said.

“I just loved it. I loved hearing about Indians and sovereignty, we didn’t have to have the BIA telling us what to do. We grew up in the days of guardians and telling us what to do,” Lasley said.

He was speaking to someone in a bunker one day when they heard a loud smack. About two seconds later, a bullet hit the wooden gun port next to the man’s head he was speaking with. That’s when the gunfire began and rarely stopped.

“I had an Italian Mauser, bolt action with three bullets. I got tired of those guys that kept shooting at us and shooting at us, and there was an armored personnel carrier about 300 yards from our position and I took one shot at them anyway and ducked back down. Another guy had a small 22 and had a big bag of 22 shells and shot at them all day long. There would be a bullet or two come through those firing holes that came through that bunker. After awhile they radioed us that there was a cease-fire and we went back to the church and found out that Frank Clearwater had been killed that morning,” Lasley said.

“They would give you an assignment and his (Clearwater’s) position was a pretty high profile position, he went up there (to his bunk) and was sleeping, he’d been up all night, and one of those bullets went through the walls and hit him in the head and killed him there on the spot,” Lasley said.

Clearwater (Cherokee) and Buddy LaMonte (Oglala Lakota) died during the occupation.

Departure

When the gunfire got really bad, Louis and Gina Gray decided to leave. The food was running out and people were losing their lives.

“I’d had bullets whiz past my head, hitting the gravel in front of me, but I never really got scared,” Louis said. “At one point it was clear to us that they were coming in. They were armed and within 10 minutes about 90 of us would all be dead.

“We wouldn’t have put up much of a resistance if they had wanted to come in because we had limited firearms,” Gray said.

The night before he went through a Lakota paint ceremony with Leonard Crow Dog, “he painted on us for when we went to our maker.”

Louis and Gina made the decision to leave but Mary stayed behind with her husband. They were smuggled out and when they arrived at the safe house, their father was waiting for them.

“It’s just one of those things that changes you for the rest of your life,” Gray said. “I had trouble with people calling me a militant when I got back … it’s not wrong to say when something is wrong.”

Gray was happy to see policies drafted to benefit Indian Country afterward.

“On the downside, I’m really unhappy that nothing has really changed on Pine Ridge (Reservation),” Gray said. “People living in shacks, the substance abuse, problems are off the charts. It’s the poorest place in America.”

At present Gray is a counselor for the Osage Nation.

“I talked to other counselors on Facebook and we’re trying to set something up, tentatively on the border of White Clay … Counselors on the Border, maybe we’ll hold sweats (ceremonies). The first sweat I ever went to was during the occupation with Leonard Crow Dog,” Gray said. White Clay is the infamous “town” that sits outside of the Pine Ridge Reservation boundaries and is the number one distributor of alcohol to the reservation. During his lifetime, Russell Means protested White Clay and many still do.

Changes to Indian Country

The end of the occupation was near and Raymond Lasley was telling his brother Marvin to leave without him. Marvin left reluctantly, only because Raymond told him to tell their parents what had happened. Marvin passed away in 2004.

Everyone was either staying to fight, get arrested or sneak out. Lasley chose to sneak out the night before.

“When I left I asked Wallace Black Elk for some tobacco, he fixed up a tobacco pouch and told me when you’re leaving you’re going to encounter an owl. When you hear that owl he’ll be calling to you and walk to the owl and follow the owl. He will lead you to safety,” Lasley said. “I was out there all by myself, debating whether to go when I heard that owl. I walked to that owl and it flew away, it hooted again, it walked up and flew away, it did this all night long, till the next morning when I was near the road to Pine Ridge and I could see that bunker, it was close to a mile down the road and I watched it for a long time.

“Follow that owl … that was pretty intense. I was really holding that tobacco too. That was something else.”

Lasley said he kept the tobacco pouch for a long time but he doesn’t know what happened to it, he said. “I kept it in my suitcase with my dance clothes. I was worried about my family, maybe I burned it and didn’t know how to take care of it and maintain it.”

Lasley said he roamed the hills for two days, starving and drinking water out of stock tanks and creeks until the FBI finally arrested him and sent him to jail on Pine Ridge. He was charged with a misdemeanor and released after pro-bono attorneys paid his bail. 

“The thing that came out of this, in 1975, President Richard Nixon, they passed the Native American Indian Education and Self-Determination Act of 1975,” Lasley said. “That probably is one of the acts of congress that most benefitted Native Americans.”

Lasley said he’s happy to have seen in his lifetime the change in Osage government and the opportunities for Natives to work and be paid well by the Nation, buy back tribal land, receive help for college tuition and books.

“It’s taken 40 years for it to come to pass, but now look at where we are. We fuss and quibble over money now, we badmouth each other … the most disappointing thing now is the ‘Indian crab syndrome,’ the crabs pull each other back down. That’s what was so amazing back then, living in that village type society where our main concern was food, water, shelter and we all ran one mind,” he said. “That was a beautiful time. But still, we have our own destiny in our own hands, we have our own opportunity to make our own way – but it didn’t come easy.”