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Wounded Knee Stand-Off 50th Anniversary

A child digging a foxhole to protect himself from gunfire
Kevin McKiernan
A child digging a foxhole to protect himself from gunfire

This article is taken from the February 2023 issue of South Dakota Public Broadcasting Magazine. Read past issues HERE

On February 27th, 1973, a 71-day stand-off began at Wounded Knee. During this time, around 200 Ogalala Lakota and American Indian Movement (AIM) followers occupied the town of Wounded Knee, SD. The occupation was a result of the desire among Native people that their voices be heard and treaties fulfilled. The town of Wounded Knee was significant because of the massacre that took place there 80 years prior.

I think that a lot of people think of Wounded Knee, and they think of guns, and they think of fighting and that sort of thing. I learned that was a very small part of what was going on.

The Occupation of Wounded Knee was significant for many reasons. It exposed the suffering of Indigenous people and helped shine a spotlight on injustices. Progress happened in the wake of the Wounded Knee Occupation, including the Indian Religious Freedom Act that Congress passed in 1978. There remains room for growth, and with education and remembrance of these history-defining events, change can happen.

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Kevin McKiernan
Kevin McKiernan during the occupation at Wounded Knee in 1973, with Lakota elders Oscar Bear Runner and Tom Bad Cob

Kevin McKiernan, who is the writer, producer, and director of the film From Wounded Knee to Standing Rock: A Reporter's Journey, was a rookie reporter for NPR and the Wounded Knee Occupation was his first assignment. Kevin discussed what it was like to be immersed in such a profound event. What he thought would be a quick weekend trip turned into much more. “I expected it to be over in a weekend, you know. I only brought one pair of pants,” says Kevin.

After being snuck into the reservation to evade a news blackout, he recorded film and sound during the standoff – much of it hasn’t seen or heard before. With over 150 hours of footage and interviews across 11 states and 8 reservations collected, his documentary was an 8-year journey that offers a personal look into what it was like to be involved in the 71-day occupation. “It was a much more profound thing than I realized,” explains Kevin, “I wanted to tell a story, and the story I wanted to tell was how I knew so little and learned so much.”

Kevin graduated college with a degree in English. Upon the beginning of this journey, he had a vague idea of what he hoped to accomplish by gathering this footage. He found his goal along the way, saying, “I didn't know what I was doing. I was very much like members of the audience who didn't know. So, as I learned something along the way in the film, I was hoping that the audience would learn that as well. I was a hitchhiker on history, and history took place in front of me.” He claims that while he already had his degree, this experience was where the learning really happened. “South Dakota was kind of my graduate school. I majored in English in college, and I had gone to graduate school in English as well. But I think South Dakota was my real education... I couldn't have learned any of that from a distance.”

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Kevin McKiernan
Leonard Crow Dog, the spiritual director of AIM, who lived in Rosebud, SD. The medicine man praying with a whistle

Kevin offers a take on the Wounded Knee occupation, explaining that while it was a territorial and violent battle, ultimately, it was a spiritual battle.

The real center of that experience for me was a spiritual one because of the daily sweat lodges and the other ceremonies that took place there. People really understood that their religion was under attack. If you look around to all the tribes in South Dakota and other Western states, you will see there's a tremendous revival in terms of spirituality.” Kevin explains that while spiritual freedom was taken for granted regarding other religions, this occupation was a fight for Native Americans’ spiritual freedom. “There was a ten-day shooting war with federal agents, which made headlines worldwide. But you couldn't really see from the outside as a reporter. You couldn't see even if you had very strong binoculars, what was driving it on the inside. That was a spiritual change.”

Kevin's aspiration for his documentary is that it sparks interest in Native history. “I hope that [viewers] learn and appreciate native history, which has never really been taught in this country until after the Wounded Knee experience. I hope they would be propelled by the story that that I was telling; the story of a stranger in a strange land.” Kevin wants to engage viewers and create a different view. “In the five decades since, a tremendous amount has changed in Indian Country. People have gone from shame to pride.”

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Kevin McKiernan
Man in sweat lodge, illustrating spiritual resistance

Kevin McKiernan, whose work has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, has served as a foreign correspondent from Nicaragua, Iraq, Syria, West Africa, and Afghanistan. He has also the PBS documentary Good Kurd, Bad Kurd and co-produced the Frontline episode The Spirit of Crazy Horse.

From Wounded Knee to Standing Rock: A Reporter's Journey airs on SDPB1 Monday, February 27th at 7pm Central (6 MT) - the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the 1973 Wounded Knee Occupation.

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