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Wednesday, April 9, 2008

WOUNDED KNEE, S.D. - A handful of American Indians took over a church on Feb. 27, 1973 to protest racism and corruption in the Oglala Sioux government. A 71-day war resulted.


Photo courtesy Charles Abourezk -- Rapid City, S.D. attorney Charles Abourezk wrote, directed and produced "A Tattoo on My Heart," a new documentary film on the Wounded Knee occupation that presents the warriors' point of view.

It wasn't meant to be a shootout; the intent was to protest events that were crushing the people's pride and dignity on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Traditional Oglala people claimed they were ignored and some said at the time they were afraid to go into town (Pine Ridge village) for essential items such as food.

That's when Severt Young Bear, Lakota elder, called in the American Indian Movement: and traditional people and AIM members stood together in the standoff that attracted the media and captured the hearts of supporters nationwide.

Oglala Sioux Tribal President Dick Wilson was accused of authoritarian rule on Pine Ridge, and of using Goon (Guardians of the Oglala Nation) squads to keep order and to keep the traditional people and those who didn't support his administration in line, the traditional elders said.

Two events - the violent deaths of an Oglala man in Gordon, Neb. and another in Custer County, S.D. - brought thousands of protesters to the area. Arrests were made and buildings burned. The demonstrations and the occupation spilled over to the Pine Ridge Reservation, and the occupation of Wounded Knee began.

Two American Indians were killed and many others wounded. Two law enforcement officials were wounded.

A new documentary film, ''A Tattoo on My Heart,'' presents the warriors' point of view through actual film footage from the occupation and contemporary interviews. The film tells their story and their feelings about their stand against the most powerful military in the world - and how they became heroes. Its world premiere was held on the occupation's 32nd anniversary, bringing community residents and occupation veterans together to experience the film and honor those who took a stand against tyranny and racism.

Wilson and some of his supporters are portrayed as uncaring, sarcastic fools in brief clips; one shows him commenting on the accusations against him: ''There have been a number of accusations made lately,'' he said, smiling; a supporter seated next to him said sarcastically, ''We are all sharp shooters.''

Wounded Knee, as the film points out, was chosen as the site to make a stand with the knowledge that the Wilson administration and the federal government planned to protect the tribal administration and adjacent BIA buildings in Pine Ridge village. Machine gun nests were placed on top of the BIA building on all four corners; and armored personnel carriers, the FBI, federal marshals and the military were brought in to squelch any such takeover.

Anticipating this, the protestors instead went to where their ancestors had died at the hands of the 7th U.S. Cavalry in 1890: Wounded Knee.

Rapid City, S.D. attorney Charles Abourezk wrote, directed and produced the film; his partner, Brett Lawlor, was the executive producer. It took two years and 50 edits to complete the project. Floyd Red Crow Westerman, a veteran of AIM protests of the '70s, a songwriter, singer and Hollywood actor, is the narrator.

How important was the occupation and standoff to those who were there? It changed their lives, they said on film and in person, and they believe it changed the lives of all American Indians.

''Wounded Knee is like a tattoo on your heart ... Nobody could take away the stand that we made,'' Bill Means said on film.

Madonna Thunder Hawk, Cheyenne River Sioux tribal member, was a medic in the AIM compound. She said she is proud when she sees her son's picture in the film; at the time, he was 10 years old. She now has a grandson that age. ''My grandson knows who he is.'' And that, she said, is why the standoff and occupation were organized and took place.

Those in the compound knew they couldn't win the war, but what they gained was more important. Defending the pride, dignity and spirit of American Indians across the country prompted the takeover, not a desire for war.

''If another Wounded Knee [happened], I would do it again,'' said Webster Poor Bear on film. ''Because the reasons we did that are so powerful, truth is so powerful. Gandhi said [that] even if you are a minority of one, the truth is still the truth. That's why I was at Wounded Knee.

''I didn't realize how deep that truth went or how broad. When you live like that it's an honorable way to live ... I am honored and privileged to have stood with them.''

DVDs of the film are available at www.warriorsofwounded

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