A well-documented, highly readable history of three turbulent years in the history of Native America. Essential reading for anyone interested in the course of contemporary American Indian politics.
Detailed, lively history. Smith and Warrior write clearly and dramatically; they have researched and interviewed well; and although unabashed partisans of the Indian cause, they are frank and even-handed to a point that might be painful to AIM diehards. An important addition to the history of a political movement that has yet to reach its stride.
Wounded Knee is to Indian Myth as the Louvre is to Art, I.M. Pei is to Architecture, Custer is to the U.S. Cavalry and French Vineyards are to good wine. The little Lakota village called Wounded Knee, located along a creek in the northern plains, was and still is the central place for a lot of Indian storytelling to either begin or end, depending on your sense of history. A new book, Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee, written by Paul Chaat Smith (Comanche) and Robert Allen Warrior (Osage) doesn't begin at that place, but the historical fact that nearly four hundred Minneconjou Lakotas were slaughtered there in 1890 by the U.S. Cavalry haunts every page.
This book is subtitled "The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee," and it should be understood as a history which contextualizes American Indian Resistance during a brief period of modern time. The story, itself, begins with the "takeover" of Alcatraz Island in California on a cold November night in 1969 when small boats push off from the Sausalito shores, and it ends, or rather fades away into a maze of media negotiations between American Indian Movement leaders and the federal government in 1974.
Though this marvelous and affecting storytelling is narrowly confined to the period of militancy usually called the AIM era from 1969 to 1974, a huge history of genocide and injustice unfolds. It is an inspirational exploration of a period of time which caught the heart of Indian Country. It shows how terribly vulnerable and threatened and creative and courageous people with their backs to the wall can be. And it shows the dark side, the betrayals, the death, the jealousies and the final disintegration of a movement that came so close to empowerment. It is a compelling, heroic story.
Hurricane is a story book to be read aloud or on long nights when sleep won't come, a pan-tribal book about race and racial conflict, about blood descendants and faith and the urban landscape and federal Indian policy. About homelands and grief, and the 'hurricanes' of fleeting moments when a cause taken to its zenith changed Indian lives forever, a time when the long-simmering battles by Indians to overcome their oppression would be out in the open.
According to authors Smith and Warrior, the process by which contemporary, largely urbanized Indians developed a renewed national mythic sense concerning one of the unavenged crimes of human history, began with the takeover of Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay by Indians of All Tribes in 1969. The authors brilliantly chronicle the Bay Area activism and Clyde Warrior's National Indian Youth Council, Vine Deloria's leadership of the National Congress of Indians, the Poor People's Campaign, the rise of Native American Studies Centers and the Office of Economic Opportunity, the BIA takeover, the Trail of Broken Treaties, the Wounded Knee Occupation, the rise of the American Indian Movement and its stand on the Yellow Thunder murder. They conclude their story by saying that "Wounded Knee proved to be the final performance of AIM's daring brand of political theater," but suggest, too, that the entire decade of activism rendered Wounded Knee a symbol of sustained native resistance to European colonialism. They make us believe that Wounded Knee is not just a story of the Sioux, rather, it has, perhaps, become a central indigenous myth, the womb for all Indian resistance stories.
Books like this are important not because they solve problems, not because they are "right" or “true.” On the contrary, they may be quite contentious. Knowledgeable readers will find much to argue about in this work. One of the major complaints of this book from Pine Ridge, the reservation where much of the activity took place, is that its non-Siouxan authors give the American Indian Movement and urban militants too much credit for change in Indian Country, and not enough to a sentiment expressed in a rather cryptic quote on page 123 by Vine Deloria who has argued that “reforms were a testament to the hard patient work of a generation.” He could have said several generations. Lakota revolutions are not just the inspiration of a largely urban-based AIM, these critics say.
But because of the skill of Smith and Warrior as researchers and writers of cleverly turned out sentences filled with thought-provoking insights, all the essences of good storytelling, they answer questions concerning the confusion of the times. What really went on at Alcatraz and Wounded Knee? Who were the players and what must we think of them? What mistakes were made? How can we understand our actions and the actions of our fellow tribesmen and women in light of a particular time and history? Who are the antagonists and are they still in place awaiting optimistic moments? What are the dangers we face? What can the past tell us?
Though some may worry that Smith and Warrior have neglected the wider implications of a period alternately called "termination and relocation" and the "turbulent sixties and seventies,' in that they say very little about the legislation promulgated during the period of time which diminished freedom and economic development on Indian reservations, they confirm their reputations as superb investigators and shrewd scholars of Indian politics. This is a book for those who want to hear about the hundreds of first-hand accounts of what very probably happened in those turbulent days twenty-five years ago.
It is as near to the truth as we've gotten so far.
Smith and Warrior sharpen our understanding of what exactly went on during the brief but passionate and paradigm-shifting Indian rights movement between 1969 and 1973. Their thoroughly researched, fast-paced chronicle focuses on three main events that held the attention of people all over the world: the gutsy takeover of Alcatraz, the spontaneous occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C., and the traumatic siege at Wounded Knee. As the authors analyze the strength and weaknesses of the Indian movement, and the unrelenting vehemence of government opposition, they make it clear that this era of flamboyant protest and “guerrilla theater” is of great and lasting significance.
The authors discuss all three heavily symbolic and media-dependent events with clear-eyed scrutiny, lauding personal heroism while recognizing instances of flawed leadership… Recommended for academic and public libraries.
The book's success rests on the authors clear and succinct examination of this period. They ask the right questions, allowing them to pursue accurate and fulfilling answers. Warrior and Smith serve to force readers to look for more information regarding an overlooked struggle by American Indians that woefully has been overlooked by the mainstream media and academia.
When people write about their own community, the pressure is to celebrate, rather than chronicle. Indeed, most of America's history was written for what historian Donald Worster calls "my people.'' A record of what "we'' accomplished, a chronology of "our'' progress. Sometimes we have grown to trust myth more than the truth. But life is not a fable, and eventually we learn more from what really happened than our fanciful memory.
Such recollections now cloud the 1970s and the American Indian Movement. Many recall that era in a romantic haze no less thick than the one generated by Hollywood and its stories about American Indians in the 1870s. This is an era that defines much of Indian Country today. Tens of thousands claim solidarity -- if not actual presence -- with the militant takeover of Alcatraz, the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters or the village of Wounded Knee.
Now Like a Hurricane tells the truth. Authors Paul Chaat Smith and Robert Allen Warrior show how the leadership of the American Indian Movement was, all at once, brilliant, drunken, serious, flippant, traditional, modern, savvy and clueless.
"AIM seemed less a political organization than a force of nature,'' Smith and Warrior write. "It had become a kind of prairie hurricane, wreaking havoc on one place until seemingly defeated and spent, only to inexplicably reappear weeks later somewhere else.''
Like a Hurricane begins in the San Francisco Bay on Nov. 29, 1969, when boatloads of American Indians, many college students, land on Alcatraz -- the Rock -- as a rag-tag occupation force. The occupation focused attention on the appalling conditions facing tribal people. The Rock was a source of pride, and it showed that Indians were alive in the 1970s -- and could still defeat an enemy. But 19 months later, Smith and Warrior write, "the symbol had become an embarrassment, a tasteless, even lethal joke and an insult to the lofty dreams of the early days.''
The spirit of the students on Alcatraz was captured nationally by the American Indian Movement. AIM had been an urban organization in Minneapolis but increasingly took on a national role. In 1972, Smith and Warrior write, "the organization was reaching out toward a traditional Indian past, becoming a warrior society of old combined with the attitude and language of third-world rebels of the 1970s."
But some of the rebellion was unplanned. For example, a civil-rights march to Washington, D.C., turned militant only because the planners had not found a place to stay for the arriving caravans of American Indians. "What happened was not a political conspiracy but a logistics meltdown," Smith and Warrior write. A ramshackle church proved unworkable as a host, and soon protesters moved to the BIA building because, said one, "we own that son of a bitch." A few hours later, hundreds of American Indians occupied the building, and over the next two weeks turned it into the Native American Embassy. The militants also trashed art, documents and the building itself.
The AIM action that captured the most attention was, of course, the siege at Wounded Knee. It is a complicated story that starts at the reservation headquarters of Pine Ridge: The tribal government was reactionary, and many of its citizens felt alienated. AIM, to them, was an inspiration -- a force of fairness. To the U.S. government, however, the Indian political divisions were confusing and the policy was (and is) to support the elected tribal government. Thus, when machine guns were placed in front of tribal buildings, the government did not understand that it was taking a side in the dispute.
The government made other mistakes, too, including the illegal use of the military. The U.S. Marshals called the Pentagon and Gen. Alexander Haig who, the book documents, authorized the use of equipment and personnel.
"The military played a central role in determining government strategy, concealing its presence with the simple yet brilliantly effective strategy of insisting that the colonels and generals sent to Pine Ridge wear civilian clothes at all times,'' according to the book. One BIA official wrote in his diary about one Col. Potter. "Deputy chief of staff of the Sixth Army. He is completely informal, sometimes looks like a duck hunter on vacation from hunting ducks. He has his desk clean all the time and never seems to be doing anything at all." Smith and Warrior cite military reports and memoranda that describe Operation “Garden Plot.”
AIM occupied Wounded Knee for 71 days that captured the world's attention. Smith and Warrior chart the ups and downs, the negotiations and the communication breakdowns. But Wounded Knee, say Smith and Warrior, “marked the high tide of the most remarkable period of activism carried out by Indians in the twentieth century.”'
“Wounded Knee proved to be the final performance of AIM's daring brand of political theater. As quickly as Indian radicalism had exploded on the national stage, it faded, disintegrating under the weight of its own internal contradictions and divisions, and a relentless legal assault by federal and state governments.”
But if the movement failed, it also succeeded in capturing the myth of the 20th-century American Indian warrior. The movement made Indian leaders visible and relevant.
One twisted measure of this success is how the movement became a Hollywood icon. Movies such as “Thunderheart” celebrate the notion of Indian radicalism. Even the star of the movement, Russell Means, has become a major actor and unlikely defender of Disney's “Pocahontas”' cartoon.
Finally, Like a Hurricane must have been a difficult book to write. The authors are from Indian country -- Smith is Comanche and Warrior an Osage -- and it would have been far easier to join the celebration. “The decision to write a book where not everything is red or white means some of what follows reflects negatively on the Indian struggle,” authors Smith and Warrior write in the preface. “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.”'
But it is the criticism, along with the praise, that makes Hurricane an important book because it shows how the leaders of AIM were sometimes great, sometimes lucky, and unflinchingly human.