Paul Chaat Smith

Like a Hurricane - Excerpt

Preface to Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee

Book Written By Paul Chaat Smith and Robert Allen Warrior

Bob Dylan once described the decade he reluctantly owned this way: 'It was like a flying saucer that landed. Everybody heard about it, but only a few saw it.' If that was generally true for the often surrealistic, flesh-and-blood carnival of the 1960s, it was a particularly dead-on description for the fast and furious campaign American Indian activists waged during that time.

For most of those who did not directly experience the surge of activism it has all but faded from memory. If it is recalled at all, it is as a series of photojournalistic images of Indians with bandannas and rifles courtesy of television reports from the presatellite age. For others it is only known through Hollywood reconstructions like Thunderheart or the permanent celebrity status of movement leaders like Russell Means and John Trudell.

A great many books written about the American Indians have shared two characteristics. They have been written by people who were not Indians, and they usually sought to persuade readers that government policies were cruel and misguided. That tradition has on occasion produced important, even brilliant books, but it is not the tradition that guides this work.

We came to write Like a Hurricane out of a profound dissatisfaction with the existing narratives of this crucial period in Indian and American history, one that we believed too often saw Indian people as mere victims and pawns. Our focus is not on the U.S. government's failed policies or on police repression, but on how Indian people, for a brief and exhilarating time, stages a campaign of resistance and introspection unmatched in this century. It was for American Indians every bit as significant as the counterculture was for young whites, or the civil rights movement for blacks.

As coauthors, we came to this project from different places, but a shared fascination to understand as much as we could the people and organizations that comprised the story of Hurricane. Coauthor Smith participated in the aftermath of the story chronicled here, traveling to South Dakota in 1974 at the age of nineteen to work on the Wounded Knee trials. He stayed with the movement through most of 1970s, joining the staff of the American Indian Movement's International Indian Treaty Council in 1977. Coauthor Warrior also knew of these events, but from a greater distance. While a graduate student, he wrote in the alternative and Native presses about Indian community issues and kept running into questions that represent the legacy of the watershed years featured here. Though not related to Clyde Warrior, whose life is told in the pages that follow, he has heard many stories of the Ponca leader from friends and relatives in Oklahoma.

We have relied on a wide range of sources, including more than sixty interviews; archives in California, Minnesota, New Mexico, and Washington, D.D.; contemporary press accounts from Indian and mainstream news organizations; memoirs; and other records. We have chosen to focus the book on three key events that took place from November 1969 through May 1973. Other events are, arguably, equally significant, and other personalities might have been included, but in the end we felt the student landing on the abandoned prison at Alcatraz, the fumbled, nearly catastrophic occupation of the BIA in Washington, and the seige at Wounded Knee a few months later best illustrated the character and substance of the Indian movement.

We look forward to future works that will engage these questions from other points of view and with different emphases. Certainly many of the figures chronicled here merit full-scale biographies. We hope others will more deeply explore the Red Power activists of the early 1960s, the student movement, and the deep connections between Iroquois and Hopi traditionals and the militants of Alcatraz and later of AIM, to cite only a few examples. We have tried to provide an honest account of the period, through the eyes of urban Indian rebels, conservative tribal chairmen, Bureau of Indian Affairs officials, White House aides, and others. The decision to write a book where not everything is red or white means that some of what follows reflect negatively on the Indian struggle. Indeed, much of Hurricane is a continual education in the missteps and errors of the movement, which like all others, often fell short of its goals. At the same time, it is also true that this undertaking has only increased our admiration for the imagination and daring displayed by so many courageous Indian people.

As we write, in late 1995, the most profitable casino in the world is run by the Pequots of Connecticut, and Russell Means, the hard-line leader of the American Indian Movement, stars in one of the year's biggest movies, a Disney picture called Pocahantas. For those tempted to reach facile, ironic conclusions, it should be noted that some consider Indian gaming a sophisticated, effective demonstation of Indian sovereignty, and as for Russell Means, he believes his commitment to radical transformation has only strengthened over time.

Such outcomes would have seemed fantastic to those who dreamed of indigenous revolution two decades ago. But perhaps no more so than the story that follows would seem to people who only know resistance leaders as movie stars, or casinos as flashpoints of Indian rebellion. From today's rebellion, the tale of one Mohawk's plunge into the cold waters of San Francisco Bay-and the ensuing wave of counterinsurgency that led to a military confrontation between the federal government and the Sioux Indians only forty-two months later-seem no less incredible.

It all makes predictions dangerous, verdicts uncertain, and accounting difficult. We have chosen instead to be observes in search of an honest telling of a fabulous story. We are deeply indebted to the many people who shared their memories with us of the time when Indian people, on an almost daily basis, shocked themselves and the world.

Washington, DC
Redwood City, California
December, 1995

Paul Chaat Smith