Like a Hurricane

AMERICAN INDIAN ACTIVISM FROM ALCATRAZ TO WOUNDED KNEE

By Diane Manuel

He was only 9 years old at the time of the 1973 takeover of Wounded Knee by the Oglala Sioux, but Robert Warrior will never forget the prime-time event that brought international attention to the concerns of American Indians.

“The thing I remember most clearly was Marlon Brando refusing the Academy Award,” says the assistant professor of English. “In his place Sacheen Littlefeather tried to make a speech ­ and got booed off the stage.”

Warrior revisits the activism that swept Indian country from 1969 to 1973 in the recently published Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee (New York: The New Press). Warrior, a member of the Osage nation, co-wrote the book with Paul Chaat Smith, a Comanche who writes and lectures on Indian art and politics.

“People who’ve read it say to me, ‘I thought it was going to be a heavy book about injustice,’” Warrior says. “Instead, we tried to tell a story that would be a biography of a period, from the revolutionary euphoria that surrounded Alcatraz to the sense of sobering reality that followed Wounded Knee.”

The narrative is focused on three events: the 19-month occupation of Alcatraz by 78 young Indians, which began in November 1969 as an attempt to reclaim “surplus federal land” granted to Indians under the terms of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868; the unplanned occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in 1972 that was launched by a caravan of protesters who were prohibited from camping in the nation’s capital; and the 1973 American Indian Movement-supported takeover of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation that lasted 71 days and cost the lives of two Indian defenders.

The book grew out of “a profound dissatisfaction with the existing narratives of this crucial period in Indian and American history,” the two authors write in their foreword. “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, staged a campaign of resistance and introspection unmatched in this century.”

Warrior and Smith spent five years researching three pivotal years. They interviewed Indian leaders and searched indexes of news broadcasts to compile an account “where not everything is red or white.”

In the process of writing the book, Warrior says, he came to appreciate the challenges of writing recent history.

“When writers of color write about their own group, there’s an expectation that everyone is going to like the group,” he says. “But in fact the scrutiny under which your work falls within that group is very high. People who invested so much of their lives want things to accurately reflect what happened.”

A recent review by the Shoshone-Bannock editor of the Moscow-Pullman Daily News in Idaho describes Like a Hurricane as “a continual education in the missteps and errors of the [Indian] movement” that demonstrated that the “leadership of the American Indian Movement was, all at once, brilliant, drunken, serious, flippant, traditional, modern, savvy and clueless.” Nevertheless, the editor notes, the book “has only increased our admiration for the imagination and daring displayed by so many courageous Indian people.” ST