PILGRIMAGE TO PINE RIDGE: September 2004
Its one thing to devote time to honor and keep their memory alive, but to pay my personal respects to that spot on a remote patch of the Pine Ridge Reservation; to walk the isolated road on the Jumping Bull family property, would allow this process to travel full circle.
IT'S NOT QUITE clear today when the idea to visit Pine Ridge came into the picture but it was probably just after I met Jack Coler's son and began serious research about Leonard Peltier.
That was April 3, 2000, and a lot has happened since. America's greatest modern tragedy, 9/11 and its aftermath, a job offer that I couldn't turn down prompting a quick retirement and departure from the FBI after 30 years, a first grandchild, and a second and much welcomed flying career along with a continuing involvement in the matter of Leonard Peltier.
A LITTLE BACKGROUND: After a frustrated attempt to become an airline pilot I went to plan B. Timing was the problem, there were just no jobs available and even though with a great resume and still only 25, flying a corporate jet out of LaGuardia, college degree, former Green Beret officer, etc., the prospects in 1971 for an airline flying career were nil. The biggest culprit was the advent of the larger aircraft like the 747 that could carry more people on fewer trips which translated into fewer pilots and layoffs by most major carriers and the collapse of smaller ones. Like many who came into the flying business through general aviation I had been paying my dues; flight instructing, with the constant risk of a student trying to kill you while you're teaching him the basics, charters, cargo, etc., and then lucking out with a corporate job. The Falcon jet was great and quite a thrill for a Long Island kid who always had his eyes on the sky. The prospects though were tenuous, the two pilots I flew with were probably in their mid 30s but seemed old to me at the time. They had already been flying for several companies and moved around chasing better flying positions. Stability and longevity didn't appear to be integral to a corporate pilot career.
1971 was a difficult year, facing the prospects of not reaching the goal I set early on and had worked so hard to reach. As the airline market shrunk the requirements increased far faster than anyone could catch up; more education, more flying hours, more licenses. That prompted a college degree as a quick goal. While flying part-time for three companies I earned a bachelor's degree in two years, ten months and twenty days; but still that wasn't enough. Driven to succeed and find an interesting and rewarding career, plan B led to applying to the FBI, U.S. Secret Service, Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (the predecessor of today's DEA). They all were interested but it wasn't until June that the FBI recruiter called and offered a position.
It was with some sadness, accepting the fact that my flying career would never be, but also with great anticipation that an exciting career as an FBI agent was about to begin.
Now that I have the benefit of hindsight and have since reached the original goal of flying high-end corporate jets for a great company-in a real sense achieving that original dream, I'm reminded of a question a friend posed a couple of years ago. She asked, "Would you do it all over again?" I barely hesitated as a rewarding and challenging career flashed through my mind and I said, "Yes, I would."
I was fortunate. Entering and serving in the modern post-J. Edgar Hoover era of the FBI during many years where the vast majority of American's had a great deal of respect for the Bureau and its agents; spending half a career in the Big Apple working cases that are envied around the Bureau, finishing up in Cincinnati and still getting to have the occasional great case while having a much better quality of life for the family. I was even able to get back into flying as the Bureau's dependence on aircraft became established. I worked with some of the finest and most dedicated public servants anywhere, and except for a brief period of one year out of thirty, had some of the best supervisors and managers available. I was indeed fortunate, blessed actually, that I enjoyed the job right up to the end. Even the exit was predicable; made my last arrest the morning of my retirement party.
Entering in 1972 it's hard not to recall each incident when an FBI agent was killed in the line of duty; especially one I knew, a Quantico classmate, Chuck Elmore. In 1979 Chuck, and J. Robert Porter, were gunned down by a lone nut who walked into the small satellite office in El Centro, California and opened fire. The subject was also killed but I'm sure no one would recall his name.
Many years later, and after I became personally involved in the Peltier matter, I was struck with a sense of guilt and couldn't understand why I wasn't as troubled and outraged thinking back to that horrible event when agents Jack Coler and Ron Williams were murdered on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. I remembered when it happened of course but it wasn't until I thought back to that time, recalling what was happening in my own life that I understood why. In April, 1975, after almost ten years of marriage, our first son, Trevor Joseph was born. TJ had congenital heart defects and by nine-weeks had his first heart surgery. Along with other physical problems he had our undivided attention. Added to this were daily commutes into New York City which created its own stress and expense, and chasing bank robbers and later Mafia types, tended to keep New York agents very busy. TJ had an eight-hour open-heart surgery in December 1976 at the finest infant cardiac care facility at the time in the country; the University of Alabama Medical Center in Birmingham. Bringing him home to Long Island we were told we would probably have him for another, maybe twelve years. A year to the day later we rushed him to the hospital with complications that subtly developed, and never brought him home.
ON APRIL 3, 2000, I knew that Jack Coler's youngest son, Paul, who was but one and a half when his father was murdered, was to be in the Cincinnati office for a totally unrelated reason. Paul is a professional pilot, and my supervisor, Dave Welker, made a point of bringing him by my desk to say hello. Paul and I talked for awhile about the airlines, flying, and prospects for the future, and how we both came into flying through general aviation. That was it. No discussion of Peltier. But Dave did mention that Peltier had an upcoming parole hearing.
That evening, more out of curiosity than anything, and being new to the Internet and computers, I did an Internet search and simply typed in "Leonard Peltier." Needless to say I was shocked at the results. The volume of websites, around 125 if I recall, were all demanding the parole, pardon or clemency for "political prisoner," Leonard Peltier. "Where the heck had I been?"' I thought. What was all this about? I perused all the sites, most of which repeated the same material, and focused on the central reference, the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee, the LPDC website. I began reading while my curiosity (as a veteran investigator, and someone connected by profession to two dead fellow agents, and now one who just met one of their sons) was peaked to the point that I downloaded, printed and read every page they had to offer to the public over the Internet. I started this process in my usual way, marginal notes and highlighting as I went along to remember key facts and statements. Their message was clear; Peltier was innocent and had been railroaded by an out-of-control FBI hell-bent on avenging the deaths of two of their own, especially since the two other protagonists, Dino Butler and Robert Robideau, had been acquitted. The LPDC's approach and mission was very clear, garner as much political and popular support for his cause to bring pressure on the courts, congress and the administration to free Peltier. It was also crystal clear that Peltier had placed himself and his cause in the public arena; he was now very much a public figure. His endorsements by a few well known people were apparent and frequently bragged about. I was also struck by the LPDC's strong solicitations for tax deductible donations.
But when I finished that review I had to stop and think; if this were true, if their presentation of the Peltier case was accurate, then perhaps something was wrong, that perhaps the government's case was as bad as they claimed. I had many more questions.
Peltier and the LPDC made it clear that there were other resources and encouraged everyone to read Peter Matthiessen's, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, and watch the "documentary" by Robert Redford, "Incident at Oglala." which I did, with greater and growing interest. Matthiessen's "Spirit" is essentially the story of Peltier, the events leading up to the June 26, 1975 shootout on the Pine Ridge Reservation, the American Indian Movement, the politics and failures of tribal leadership, and the ensuing capture and trial of Butler, Robideau and Peltier. Redford's "Incident at Oglala" was not a documentary but a screenplay of Matthiessen's book, including all its questionable reporting, sources, and conclusions. I also added Peltier's own book "Prison Writings" to this process.
I became somewhat obsessed with what I was reading, still highlighting, earmarking, marginal notes, comparing what was said by whom and when. I took a few days of annual leave and worked through the weekend as I watched "Incident" nine times, now making additional notes about the exactness and timing of certain statements and events.
At this point I was no longer in doubt about Peltier's guilt but getting angry that so much on the Internet contradicted what had been previously said. There seemed to be a lot of misinformation about Peltier and the agent's deaths. But misinformation was a word frequently used by the LPDC; I preferred to call it folklore that was perpetrating a myth.
That anger led to frustration, which led to expanding the notes I had been taking into an essay of sorts. Then the idea of a website to present the other side of the story became an obvious mission. My brother, a seasoned professional investigator in his own right and well versed on Internet protocols, and my neighbor, a staunch victim's rights advocate and professional webmaster, provided me with the basics to get the project off the ground. Twenty-seven days later, April 30, 2000, the NPPA website was launched.
At some point early in that process I decided it would be appropriate to visit the site where two young men, fellow FBI agents, died a horrible and violent death. Its one thing to devote time to honor and keep their memory alive, but to pay my personal respects to that spot on a remote patch of the Pine Ridge Reservation; to walk the isolated road on the Jumping Bull family property, would allow this process to travel full circle. Native Americans rely heavily on the concept of the circle. Coming full-circle is important, especially when I later confirmed, as many in my family had suspected, that my paternal great-grandfather was a full-blood. (see note below) To this day I wonder, as no doubt a number of Peltier supporters do also, why some FBI agent, a native New Yorker, in Cincinnati of all places, who never worked an Indian Country case or even stepped foot on an Indian Reservation, would take a stand against the Peltier network and become a lightening rod for two young men he never met. But someone had to do it.
Although close to the same age, Leonard Peltier and I are cultures apart. As for my own upbringing, admittedly I had a miserable childhood; to this day I have no fond memories growing up and left home at eighteen only to return for occasional social visits. That's not to say I didn't have those middle-class advantages that go along with growing up in an all-white Long Island suburb. Those advantages did eventually play out but not until entering the U.S. Army not long after high school. It was the Army experience that transformed a confused and frustrated teenager into the beginnings of a responsible adult. Taking advantage of the opportunities and becoming a young Green Beret Officer made all the difference. How fast must a twenty-year-old grow up when men who had fought in two wars were calling him "Sir"? Very fast, indeed. I was primed and ready for Viet Nam, and volunteered, but only through the arbitrariness of the alphabet instead wound up in Central America, which fortunately gave me the opportunity to pursue my real dream to begin taking flying lessons. Again, more advantages, which led to opportunities later on. Marriage, college, and a long career in the Bureau followed.
I wouldn't dare compare my early years with Leonard's, but at least, according to his own words, he was raised by paternal grandparents who undoubtedly loved and nurtured him. He said it "was one of the truly beautiful things in (his) life." 1 His existence though was quite different from the suburbs. His early years were in "a small log house, about twenty feet by fifteen feet, "with no water or electricity." Along with those disadvantages, Leonard, and countless others like him, before and since, had to face the worst kind of discrimination while the government suppressed who he really was, trying in a perverse way to assimilate him into the greater white society by forbidding native language, appearance and ritual; in a real sense trying to take away his unique identity.
And then there's my own Indian connection. I know Peltier and his supporters get a chuckle out of wannabe's but there are a couple of important points here; first, I don't wannabe a wannabe; what I am though is immensely proud of my heritage. Secondly, the vast majority of Peltier supporters are not Native American's anyway, but white-folk just like me; sort of. The most vocal of those are in Europe; Belgium for some strange reason, where their advocacy ranges from rabid to schizophrenic.
I MADE THE FINAL arrangements but tossed and turned all night wondering whether I should go. I wanted very much to but couldn't convince myself a hundred percent. Couldn't nail down the logistics, where to stay, which way to go first, how much to take in, and then there was the weather, forecast for cool temperatures and a 60% chance of showers for the week. Not very encouraging, not that rain would make much difference but things always seem more positive with a little sunshine, the rain too could make traveling more difficult.
Got up early and headed to the airport all the while thinking that it would take very little for me to take the easy way out and turn around. After all, I'm on vacation and there were plenty of things to do around the house. Walking down the gangway to the waiting Boeing 757, I slowed still unsure. I boarded.
The night before I made sure I had maps of the area and printed some from the Internet of the Pine Ridge area. I figured that getting around in that part of the country couldn't be too difficult, not too many major roads connecting places. I also copied the maps of the Pine Ridge Reservation and the murder scene at the Jumping Bull family property from Mattiessien's book, a book I had read and reviewed many times. Aside from the highlighting and plastic tabs I know many of the key portions by heart.
Seated in the Boeing I reviewed my folder again and brought out a book to read; another one, the tenth, by one of my favorite author's, Nelson DeMille. Reading, I kept drifting ahead still uncertain about how I was to tackle the trip. The logistics were still a puzzle. I still didn't feel any real sense of excitement or adventure, certainly not that I was going on a vacation; wondering what it would really look like after all these years, whether I would see the same things that Jack and Ron saw or would it all be different now. I was also told by enough people, and from my own reading, that the Reservation is not a pleasant place; depressing and forlorn, populated with people I tried to identify with but who were trapped in a difficult and often demeaning and unproductive existence. I was also told recently by a very loyal supporter that he had visited Jumping Bull and received a rather cool reception. And a FBI Special Agent in Charge, now retired, was only able to see it from nearby Highway 18. So, even the prospects of getting to the scene were problematic. I thought too that I didn't really have to stand on the actual ground-and maybe I didn't even want to, but just see where it all happened.
I suppose it's not easy to leave the Reservation, but it isn't easy getting there either; at least from the mid-west. I was heading to Salt Lake City, as it turns out, five hundred miles further than I wanted to go. Looking at the Delta map, the route, as I knew from my own flying, would take us not too far south of Rapid City.
Three hours later we're descending into Salt Lake and from my aisle seat could just barely see a few mountains, some of which were snow capped; and its still September. I'm not particularly fond of riding in the back of airliners although I have to on average of two to three times a month in order to complete a trip and fly home, or fly out to pick up the aircraft for a charter.
I fixed that problem on the next leg by managing to talk myself in to the jump seat of a Skywest Airlines, Canadair Regional Jet from Salt Lake to Rapid City. The two young pilots were very nice fellows and we talked about the subtle differences between their RJ and the Canadair Challenger I fly. The cockpits were nearly identical in size and layout but a number of the switches and control panels were located in different places. They also asked what I was doing and I had the opportunity to explain my trip to Pine Ridge. They seemed genuinely interested. The cockpit is the best seat in the house and I always enjoy the process leading to a landing, but this time I was more preoccupied with the terrain. I've flown over the Great Plains many times but that's usually up around forty thousand feet-and the view is different. I couldn't get over how barren and sparse it all was, aside from Rapid City itself, only a few miles in any direction there wasn't much, especially to the South, which is where I'd be heading.
The rental company gave me a free upgrade and I didn't pay much attention to the type but it turned out to be quite comfortable. By now I decided to head south and spend the night in Chadron, Nebraska, which would put me about fifty miles outside the Reservation, instead of the hundred plus from Rapid City. I wanted to be there first thing in the morning. Little did I realize that I would spend a total of only forty-four hours in Indian Country, but would drive the Toyota Van 506 miles.
With the time change it was still early afternoon and I drove into town, mostly out of curiosity, to see the Rapid City Resident Agency. I'd been in RA's, as they're called, in the past but wanted to visit it because this was a logical starting point. I spoke with an agent who was sitting in for the supervisor and confirmed a couple of things I was curious about concerning the layout of the Reservation, and what I should avoid. He confirmed that staying in Chadron was a good idea.
Next, I visited the agent, now retired, who had the Resmurs 2 case for many years beginning after the trials and through the long and laborious appeals process. In his home we spoke for an hour or so and I listened intently to some of the problems he had faced, problems I was all too familiar with when it came to major investigations. There's a saying in the Bureau, little cases-little problems, big cases-big problems. Before we parted he gave me the cell phone number of a Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) official who he felt could be helpful in getting me onto Jumping Bull, which I knew was private property.
Leaving Rapid City I called the BIA official and explained my interest. He said he would do what he could and I should call him at 8:30 in the morning.
On Highway 79 I kept checking the map to see where the cut-off was for Highway 18 which would lead me into the Reservation; noticed it and continued south. The dreariness of the late afternoon and constant drizzle added to the travel fatigue but I pressed on for the next hundred or so miles, driving into dusk and then total darkness, finally crossing the South Dakota border into Nebraska. Entering Chadron I noticed a little airport and detoured to see if they rented airplanes or gave sightseeing rides. I spoke with a young fellow who provided the number for the local flight school operator. Still planning for alternate scenarios I considered that if I couldn't see enough of Jumping Bull then perhaps I could rent a plane and fly over the site to get a good view from the air. That's if the rain would let up. Got to the hotel and anticipated a 5:00 a.m. wake up.
NOT BEING TYPICALLY shy about these kinds of things, when I'm on a mission of sorts, I reverted back to how I would usually handle problems during thirty years in the FBI. So by 8:15 the next morning I located the BIA office in Pine Ridge. Pine Ridge is the biggest town on the Reservation and the BIA agents handle investigations of felonies occurring within the thousands of square miles they cover. They are often at odds with the tribal police who handle all the normal police matters and misdemeanors. I knocked and no one answered as someone walked down the hallway and asked if he could help. I lamely explained, being as deliberately vague as I could, but with some sense of urgency, that I was supposed to call the BIA official at 8:30 and was wondering if I could call from there. He agreed. One problem was that I had absolutely no cell phone service since leaving Rapid City, and it wasn't good there either. I called the official and he began to apologize that he couldn't get hold of any of the investigators, before I could explain to him that I was already in the BIA office speaking with one of them at the moment. He asked who was there; the agent identified himself, "Marvin," so I handed him the phone and hoped for the best. This was my best shot I believed at getting on Jumping Bull's private property. Their conversation was brief. Marvin didn't say much, hung up, stepped over to the coat rack and started putting on his jacket as he headed for the door. I followed, assuming that's what he wanted me to do.
Marvin was a big man, mid to late forty's I'd guess, pretty much overweight and very Indian. I guessed he was born and raised in Pine Ridge.
On the way down the stairs I offered to take my rental van but he said that the roads were pretty bad from all the rain and it was best to take his four wheel drive. Driving out of town, westbound on Highway 18 towards Oglala and Jumping Bull, Marvin didn't say much. I thought that the BIA official must have told him to take me out there and Marvin was following orders but probably had better things to do than cart around a pushy, retired FBI agent. I tried for small talk but he would just answer the question, nothing more. I hate clichés, especially considering where we were, but Marvin was, how would you say, stoic. He wasn't exactly sure where the Jumping Bull family property was so I showed him Matthiessen's map. After about fifteen miles he slowed down. I figured we weren't too far out of Oglala and close to the area when something happened; a good portion of the sky opened up and the sun came out. We were now bathed in sunlight. Marvin pulled off to the side and made a radio call, asking someone if they knew where Jumping Bull was. That description didn't help me at all when he noticed, from the map, and then pointed to what may have been a small abandoned log house. He turned off Highway 18 on what he thought was the road leading to what the map said was Jumping Bull. But I couldn't get anything to coincide with the diagram. There was a small cabin, which could have been the "June Little cabin," but no outhouse or remnants of one (figured they wouldn't need one now, but who knew, there was nothing else around). Near the log house was what appeared to be a newer structure, not more than a two or three room rectangular structure, if that. And I couldn't see any of the other buildings from the map. Maybe we were in the wrong area or things had changed that much in the intervening years.
The SUV slid on the muddy road which was bordered by a fence leading to the first cabin. Marvin noted from the diagram that the field between us and the road was probably a plowed field, now overgrown. Another muddy drive ran to the newer structure but a locked barbed wire gate prevented access. It was obvious that no one was home at the June Little Cabin either, its door was padlocked, although it did appear as if someone lived there judging by what was in the yard. There were no cars. We walked behind the new structure and towards a low area, which on the map looked like a small forest. All these trees weren't a small forest but instead lined the bottom of the fairly deep depression between rolling hills, Jumping Bull property on one side, and rising to a few widely spaced houses on the other. Minus the other structures on the map, both Marvin and I believed we were in the right place. I took several photos and asked Marvin to take a couple also. I wanted to record what I was witnessing. But I did plan to come back later.
Getting back into Marvin's SUV I instinctively bent down and picked up a small rock, any rock, it didn't matter. Later in the day I washed the mud off and found that it had a very interesting triangular shape. Sitting flat on one side, and with a little imagination, it resembled a miniature of the Paha Sapa.
We departed and I felt bad for Marvin; huge clumps of mud were thrown into the wheel wells as he accelerated onto the highway.
"Were you around here when it happened?" I asked. "I was just a kid" he replied. I did learn that Marvin was born in Pine Ridge, has been a BIA agent for fifteen years and was with the "Tribe," for five. He went on to explain what the "Tribe" reference was but I already figured that out. We both agreed that the benefits were better. I tried to catch myself and not sound too much like a dumb city guy inquiring about how he must keep busy with homicides. I felt I was stereotyping again but I had always understood that there were a lot of homicides on the Reservation. "Only two so far this year," he said. "Boy that's pretty good," I replied awkwardly. He continued though that they do handle a lot of stabbings and assaults. I didn't want to add that I figured alcohol was a prime ingredient for most of those incidents. I asked about how to get to Wounded Knee and where the Red Cloud Law Center was located in town. He drove me past the center and showed me the road to Wounded Knee. Actually, even though it's the most populated area on the Reservation you can pretty much see all of the town of Pine ridge in a half hour or so. We got back to the BIA building and I thanked him several times for taking the time and apologized for any inconvenience. I think he was glad to see me leave.
I gassed up and drove the block back to the law center. Earlier, there were three cars parked in front, now there were none. I was hoping that by the time I got back from Wounded Knee someone would be there. I wanted to meet the attorney who runs the center. We had spoken on the phone, exchanged emails and he recently helped me with an important matter.
I wanted to send a few postcards from Pine Ridge and the only two places in town where I could get them was Sioux Nation, a supermarket, and Big Bats, a combination gas station, the only one, restaurant and convenience store. I noted neither place really catered to tourists, they were strictly functional, nothing fancy but each did have a rather large selection of Native American related books, more complete even than I'd seen in some of the major book stores. I perused the racks, as I usually do, searching for Peltier's Prison Writings and Mattiessen's Spirit. Neither place had them (Sorry, Leonard). Quite understandably I found myself thinking about Leonard Peltier very often on this trip. After all, he's why I came here. I already had many of the books in my study at home but one title caught my eye, The Dull Knifes of Pine Ridge, A Lakota Odyssey. 3 It turned out to be an incredibly well-written story of several generations of one Pine Ridge family and was rich in meaningful Indian history.
I addressed several postcards and walked across the street to a little Post Office in a two story building, which I noted, was only open a few hours a day. I know Leonard's Leavenworth address by heart and on his card simply wrote, "LP. Finally made it to the place where it all began. Regards, EW."
DURING MY TRAVELS in Pine Ridge that day I passed the Red Cloud Indian School several times but felt that my schedule was a little too tight to visit their Heritage Center. I would later regret not stopping.
Heading East on Highway 18 and then north I finally came to a sign that read, "Wounded Knee 1 mile," turning onto a narrow road I didn't notice a small hill off to the right. Over the crest of a hill I saw, not a village or town as I expected, but a handful, maybe fifty or so trailers and small buildings on either side of the road. There was nothing beyond so I turned around and was able to see the condition of these homes in more detail. They were in very poor condition with all types of junk and garbage in the yards, and as I had already seen in Pine Ridge, a number of abandoned and rusted-out vehicles. I know it's another one of the stereotypes we labor under but wrecked cars were part of the landscape wherever people lived on the Reservation. I also know that's perhaps what it takes-scavenging derelict vehicles, so families have at least one car they can depend on.
Backtracking I found a sign and then realized that on top of the hill I'd overlooked was the cemetery and marker for Wounded Knee. The massacre at Wounded Knee in the winter of 1890 was the defining event in the First American's long and painful history with the white man. It's significance no less crucial to later America than Pearl Harbor and 9/11. It sprang from a growing hysteria that the reservation-confined Indians were engaging in ceremonial activities that would lead to more bloodshed. The hatred on both sides from the Indian Wars was still simmering. A resurgence of some hope among the natives rested in the belief that the desperation of reservation life would soon come to an end with the arrival of a new messiah, not unlike like the white man's, but an Indian this time, who would return their freedom and hunting grounds. The Ghost Dance became their ritual, but the white ranchers, farmers, traders and merchants only saw it as a threat. The U.S. Army, alerted and pressured, moved in to ensure security of the region.
On the same spot where I now stood a battery of army Hotchkiss cannons and Gatling guns were poised to force the surrender of the old and ill, Chief Big Foot, and his Miniconjou band of men, some elderly, and women and children. The prevailing belief is that the conflict started by accident, a misunderstood gesture or accidental discharge of a weapon, but it was all that was needed for the surrounding army to lay waste to everyone: When the killing ended, by later official government reports, 290 lay dead, including 200 women and children. A number of these were buried in a mass snowy grave. Although most of the soldiers were killed by their own crossfire, the government later awarded sixteen soldiers the Medal of Honor. 4 For those, especially in the mass grave, their frozen silence marked the end of most efforts to escape Reservation life. The government's efforts to contain the Indian once and for all seemed to be accomplished.
Eight decades later, in 1973, this same place would mark the beginning of yet another period of conflict between Native Americans and the U.S. Government. It's commonly referred to as Wounded Knee II, as the American Indian Movement struggled for recognition and self-determination of native peoples and the government responded to what it viewed as lawless insurrection and a violation of federal laws. That conflict essentially ended two years later in a secluded area just south of Oglala on property owned by the Jumping Bull family; and was the reason for my own visit to the Reservation.
The mass grave and its marker are surrounded by a fence and an archway of stone, brick, and wrought iron. The stone is decayed, chipped and defaced with graffiti, the wrought iron rusted, and the road leading to the top of the hill, rutted, and with the rain, now muddy. It was indeed a sad testament to such sacrifice. Leaving, I stopped to look at a large roadside sign which told the story of the "Massacre" of Wounded Knee. It was badly faded and barely readable and also surrounded by mud. I couldn't help but notice on the sign that "Massacre" had been added on-placed over what was there. I assumed it may have originally read "Battle." Apparent too were a number of bullet holes.
DRIVING BACK TOWARDS Pine Ridge the melancholy of the day and what I had just seen added to an already deep sense of compassion for those who struggled to survive at Pine Ridge. I also knew the statistics; the poorest county in the nation, the highest average unemployment rate at 80% plus, rampant poverty, endemic alcoholism and everything that disease fosters, and a general malaise and hopelessness of many of its residents.
I stopped briefly in Pine Ridge hoping that someone would be in the Red Cloud Law Center, no luck, so I left a note on the door saying that I regretting not being able to meet Mr. Charles Yow. I continued north on Highway 18.
The weather cooperated again, the light rain stopped and the sun peeked through occasionally, certainly picking up my spirits a bit. I slowed passing Jumping Bull and thought that the "log house" on Matthiessen's map could be a storage shed. I continued into Oglala with another idea in mind.
Anyone in law enforcement knows, or quickly learns, that if you want some good information about who lives where, go to the post office. Although the post office in Pine Ridge was in a small brick building that housed some other businesses, several of the others I'd seen so far reminded me of a concrete munitions bunker. They were square lifeless structures with odd sloping roofs; purely functional designs. Compared to the surrounding housing they looked like the most substantial buildings on the Rez. I first drove into what was Oglala, again, mostly trailers and small run-down homes, most with all sorts of waste in the yards and each one speckled with broken down and rusted hulks of useless automobiles. I mentally noted that I had not seen, since reaching the Reservation, any new vehicles; there were no Mercedes, Lexus's or Infiniti's in these neighborhoods. I remembered too asking the FBI agent in the Rapid City office if there were any places in particular that I should avoid, "The Oglala housing," he informed me. Then, up on the left past the Post Office was what I assumed was the housing area he was talking about. Several rows of identical brown trailers, maybe twenty or so in all, the type I could imagine the government providing for the more needy Oglala residents. The surrounding dirt yards were the same as I had seen elsewhere, cars included.
Back at the Post Office, the postmaster, I assumed, and the first white man I'd seen all morning, came closer to the little circular opening in the thick service window as I was asking him the location of the Jumping Bull property. I felt Marvin and I had been at the right spot but it looked so different from the map that I wanted to be absolutely certain. An Indian who had been retrieving his mail from the wall of boxes hesitated when I asked the postmaster the first question. I began to ask a second question and deliberately turned to make eye contact with the other customer. We both hesitated for a moment and it became apparent to him that I was waiting for a little privacy so I could continue. As he exited I turned to the postmaster, and through the little opening asked if it was the property with the small log house. "Yes," he said, "It's about three miles down on the right side of Eighteen." Just about the right distance I thought and I added that I just wanted to make sure I had the right place. He surprised me and volunteered, "Where the agents were killed, right?" "Right" I replied, smiled and thanked him as I headed for the door. I imagined that I wasn't the first person to inquire about Jumping Bull, but yet I was starting to feel a little self-conscious and perhaps uneasy. As I got back into the van and pulled out onto the highway I checked the rearview mirror. Nothing.
Approaching Jumping Bull, heading south, I slowed and tried to imagine the scene twenty-nine years earlier. Jack and Ron, in separate late model Bureau cars with telltale antennas-making them obviously government vehicles; following who they thought was one of their fugitives, Jimmy Eagle. I could understand the excitement, I'd been in similar situations a number of times myself, the adrenalin pumping, vision focused on the subject's vehicle, trying to anticipate what would happen next, the tension level creeping up a bit.
I pulled to the side of the road and got out of the van. There was a little more sun now and the warmth felt good. I stood there for a long while, looking at the dirt road leading into the Jumping Bull property. I oriented the map trying to make the pieces fit. My first impression with Marvin earlier, as now, was that I expected a much larger area and landscape. What I thought would be a small forest was actually a large area of trees within a wide ravine. From the highway the tops of the trees were just visible. From where I stood I imagined that the area where the agents drove into when they stopped, and the shooting began, was no larger than a few football fields. The gently sloping and rolling terrain continued off to the west for miles but this area, now that I was standing near it, appeared quite small and not terribly far from the highway, but just far enough and low enough to make it difficult to know exactly where they were or for anyone to find them. I thought back to my own shooting with a bank robber, St. Patrick's Day, 1978. But that was after a four-block foot-chase ending in a narrow alleyway. In those ensuing minutes there were plenty of places to take cover, other alleyways, parked cars, dumpsters, corners of houses. But Jack and Ron were exposed and in the open.
I imagined I heard Ron's radio calls for help and the agents in the Rapid City office trying desperately to figure out where exactly they were and to get help to them quickly. I imagined the nearest agent, Gary Adams, racing down the same highway and turning onto the dirt road in front of me where he was forced back from rifle fire. I also imagine three final, fatal shots.
Across the ravine I could see that another road ran behind the area to the west where there were a few widely separated small houses. I decided to look from that direction. This road was either a newer one or recently widened and covered with gravel. Being careful not to trespass I drove along the road to get a better view from the other side of the ravine and of the Jumping Bull property, but I was reluctant to drive into any of the dirt driveways.
A van came from the other direction and turned into the middle house. I was still on a personal mission, a career investigator who spent many years talking to people, and also a pushy New Yorker, so I followed it up the driveway to the tiny home. A small Indian woman, maybe around fifty, got out of her van as I did. "Lost?" She said. "Well not really," and believing that I wanted to be very up front with her said, "I'm a retired FBI agent and I just wanted to see the Jumping Bull property, is that where it is?" She said it was and confirmed that many of the buildings that were once there are now gone and that Calvin Jumping Bull built a new house. She pointed it out. She was cordial but kept her distance. I asked if that was the area where the agents were killed; she gestured to beyond the ravine with its low lying trees to the back side of Jumping Bull property. Just where I had believed it all happened. "You know Calvin had nothing to do with any of that." "Yes, I know," I replied, as she added an intriguing comment. "He's an educated Indian. He teaches at the local college." She offered also, before I could respond, "I don't think Calvin or my husband would talk to you." I just smiled and nodded feeling even more that I wasn't where I belonged. The Lakota word, wasichu, came to mind. I was prompted to ask her the same question I'd asked Marvin, figuring also that she wasn't that old, but it was hard to tell. "I was just a kid" she said, which was exactly the same answer I got earlier this morning. To keep the conversation going I politely asked her name, "Ingrid, One Feather. Calvin's my brother-in-law." I thought to myself, "Nothing like going right to the source, Ed." But then, this isn't a very big community and many people had to be related. She said she was just home for lunch, waving a Styrofoam box for emphasis, indicating that she needed to go and our conversation should end. I asked if she would mind if I walked around the back and took some photos. She said I could and went into the house where I could see a younger woman looking out a window. I imagined the conversation between them as I walked to the back of her property, stepped over a small fence and could clearly see the layout of where the whole Peltier thing had started. Now Matthiessen's map made more sense, the light shading indicated the ravine, a fairly deep depression leading back up to the Jumping Bull property and the once plowed, but now fallow, and overgrown fields. Although, as Ingrid had indicated, many of the dirt paths and old buildings were gone or overgrown, I could see the overall layout, still smaller than I had envisioned, but clear enough. I pointed the camera to where the AIM camp would have been, about where Jack and Ron would have been pinned down and murdered, and later where Agent Adams had his tires shot out.
In a moment of reverie my mind slipped back to a cold December day in 2000; December 15th to be exact, when I participated in a dignified procession to the White House with hundreds of fellow FBI agents. There, petitions with thousands of signatures were left for President Clinton asking him not to grant clemency to Leonard Peltier. That afternoon at a downtown restaurant I had lunch with several agents including the two who had conceived and organized the walk to the White House, and Dave Price. Dave had been assigned to Rapid City, knew both Jack and Ron and was among the first to arrive on the scene. I listened intently as he began to describe, in a quite tone and subdued voice, what had happened that day. Instinctively he took out a pen and on the paper placemat began diagramming the area around the Jumping Bull compound and with a succession of arrows and lines showed how difficult it was to see any large area because of the trees and sloping and rolling terrain. As he explained that they had missed the bodies at one point, searching along a depression, his voice wavered. I could tell that even after all these years he was still very much affected by what he had seen. The diagram was a little piece of the history of the Incident at Oglala and I've often regretted not taking it with me as we departed.
Walking back across the yard to the driveway I cupped my hands and yelled at the closed front door. "Thank you." I didn't expect a reply.
Turning onto Highway 18 a shadow crossed the windshield and hood. Looking up I could see my favorite animal, a large red-tailed hawk. It turned, made one complete circle over Jumping Bull and continued west. I watched until it was out of sight.
Driving back I felt my mission was complete, I had seen the Reservation, even if briefly, visited Wounded Knee and spent time at Jumping Bull. With no more immediate plans I figured I'd drive to Rapid City to see if I could get a flight out that evening. There were plenty of things to do at home and I wanted to write down my thoughts about this trip while they were still fresh. For a number of miles in the northwest corner of the Pine Ridge Reservation is the National grasslands, the shortgrass prairie, The Badlands, a vast expanse of rolling hills that seem to go on forever. It was quite beautiful; that scenery also made the trip worthwhile and provided more time to absorb what I had seen on the Reservation. I tried to imagine circles of tipi's and vast herds of buffalo.
Ingrid's comment about Calvin still stuck with me. She seemed quite proud that Calvin taught college. It was abundantly clear to me that there should be every opportunity for education on the Reservation, that's the very least the taxpayers owed these residents. But here was Calvin, a college professor, living in what could not have been more than a two or three room home, a home that was much smaller than a detached garage in suburban neighborhoods back east. It just seemed unfair that he couldn't be rewarded more for his labor. But maybe he's happy and pleased with what he has; and who am I to judge him on material things anyway?
One thing I did notice that I hadn't seen in my travels elsewhere around the country was a few large road signs about pornography, sexual abuse and child abuse. I had spoken to FBI agents in the past who worked Reservations for many years and these crimes seem to have a recurring theme.
I've noted some of the ironies during the trip; the Sun suddenly appearing as I saw Jumping Bull for the first time, the hawk circling over the scene of the murders, U.S. Army Sergeant Charles Windolph, and there was one more after I made it back to Cincinnati: In the Sunday paper, which I rarely read, I just happened to notice an ad that Kevin Locke, the pre-eminent player of the Northern Plains flute, was performing at a local college to raise money to "benefit the Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Reservation." Locke was to perform the music of the Oglala Lakota American Indians. I attended the one-man performance. It began with a short film about the Jesuits and this private K-12 parochial school since its humble beginning in 1888 through its modern successes with an average of 600 students. Learning this I regretted not stopping at the school. Kevin Locke, who had just come from Washington D.C. and a performance at the dedication of the Museum of the American Indian, is from the Standing Rock Reservation and is a marvelous performer, adding serious historical lecture interspersed with humor, explaining their origins and performing many flute songs, performing a series of elaborate hoop dances that brought the large crowd to its feet in applause and appreciation, and telling Indian folklore and religious stories first in English and then in Indian tongue. I had no idea how beautiful the native language and hand gestures could be. I made a donation to the school, and plan to make it a regular occurrence. I felt it was more than ironic that I traveled all the way out west but continued the learning process as Pine Ridge followed me back to Cincinnati.
HEADING NORTH I passed another sign for Mt. Rushmore and wondered if I still had enough time-it seemed so close. A quick stop for gas and directions determined that it was only about fifty miles to the west.
The park would be closing in an hour or so but I figured it shouldn't take too long to see it. The first thing that struck me was that this park and memorial was immaculately maintained, pristine was the right word, better than any federally operated facility I had ever visited. The second was, as I made it through the grand marble entranceway and up the steps to view the monument for the first time, was how small it appeared in real life. I had seen the History Channel special on Gutzon Borglum and Mt. Rushmore (paradoxically named for a New York Lawyer, Charles E. Rushmore) several times and recalled most of its history, but it always seemed much larger in film and photographs.
I walked the grounds and footpath for a closer look and marveled at the beauty of this stone creation and its surroundings. The lowering Sun accented the park and cast deep shadows in the surrounding valley. I recalled that Mt. Rushmore was often called the "Shrine of Democracy" but the ironies of its selection and construction belied the truth behind it all. The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 established an enormous tract of land as the Great Sioux Reservation which included the most sacred place in Indian folklore and religion, the Black Hills. The Paha Sapa was where the Indians believed their ancestors came from, the birthplace of the Lakota Nation. Now it would be theirs, for all time, in perpetuity; their sacred, most holy place, was preserved as the Great Father in Washington had promised. Forever anyway, that is, until white men found gold; "the yellow metal that they worship and that makes them crazy" 5 called off all bets; the U.S. Government and the Calvary would see to it. But at least Uncle Sam was consistent, of the 371 treaties with the American Indians; all were either broken or annulled. The Fort Laramie Treaty had a provision that excluded whites entering without permission and any land sold needed the consent of three-fourths of all adult Indian males. Unsuccessful in persuading the Indians to sell, the government did the next best thing and declared all those who refused to cooperate as "hostiles," and ordered them to surrender. The U.S. Army had their mission; Custer and the Little Bighorn just made it personal. The whole process essentially ended at Wounded Knee.
In the Borglum studio, a well-spoken lecturer casually mentioned that the Mt. Rushmore project was partly designed to create jobs, "After all," he added, "a great portion of the west had been suffering under horridly dry conditions-the dust bowl days, and then there was the crash of '29." The economy was in shambles and the government stepped in with make-work programs like the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Construction Corps. (My own father, rescued from a walk-up cold-water flat in the Bronx, New York was a recipient of the CCC camp's largesse.)
As I was leaving I spent a little time perusing the granite carved list of the four hundred men who worked on the fourteen-year project. I didn't notice any Indian names. But then I wasn't surprised either.
Like any typical tourist I bought a T-shirt. One I had really liked and seen on trips out west before. A prophetic gesture showing Mt. Rushmore in the background with four famous Indian Chiefs superimposed in the foreground, the caption read: "The Original Founding Fathers."
I CHECKED THE flights at the Rapid City airport and learned that none would work to return that evening. It was still daylight so I decided to head north towards Deadwood following the long valley along Interstate 90 to see a little more of the Black Hills. It was worth the trip even if Deadwood is a typical tourist gambling town.
On the drive back to Rapid City low light from the setting sun illuminated the hill tops in unusual and beautiful cloud formations, which I stopped to photograph. At one stop I noticed long precise rows of glistening white grave stones. It turned out to be the Black Hills National Cemetery, a final resting place for those from that area who had served their country. I drove in, randomly stopping to catch one last photo of the setting sun illuminating the long rows of markers. While searching for the right frame and angle I happened to notice that one of the markers was in gold letters, instead of black like the others, and read "Medal of Honor." Before leaving I went back for a closer look. I have always been interested in the history of the MOH and the degree of bravery of those who've received it-I've also had discussions (mostly arguments) with some Peltier supporters over the significance of the MOH in relation to the Indian Wars. I began reading the full inscription but stopped when I saw the words, "Indian Wars." After returning home I brought out my MOH reference books and learned that Sergeant, Charles Windolph, then a private, Company H, 7th U.S. Calvary, born in Bergen, Germany and entering the Army in Brooklyn, New York, had distinguished himself "At Little Big Horn, Montana, 25-26 June, 1876, by his actions; With 3 comrades, during the entire engagement, courageously held a position that secured water for the command." I noted also that twenty-two 6 other soldiers were so recognized by their government.
I was glad to read that Sgt. Windolph was not a participant at Wounded Knee. I contemplated what his life must have been like in his ninety-nine years; coming from Europe, living in New York, surviving Custer's last stand and then witnessing America's phenomenal growth and change over the next fifty or so years. He saw the birth of the automobile, the airplane, breaking the sound barrier, the telephone, then automobiles everywhere, refrigerators, air conditioning, television, Interstate highways, two major wars and the atomic bomb; along with the final subjugation of the Indian, reduced to poverty levels in America's original welfare system. I also noted that his wife, with her own gleaming white headstone, was buried along side him.
The debates with Peltier supporters over the MOH issue usually began with them throwing back at me that the Wounded Knee soldiers were honored for their participation in a massacre. What I pointed out was that in those days there weren't any other medals to award acts of courage and bravery and it was regrettable that the first one was named the Medal of Honor. It wasn't until 1904 that additional medals were defined and created by the military services, in ascending order, to recognize other forms of heroism and courage. But it wasn't until 1918 that the significance of the MOH was clearly defined requiring documentation and witnesses to provide for recognition "in action involving actual conflict with an enemy, distinguish himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty."
Even as one-sided as the "battle" of Wounded Knee was, there were a number of able-bodied Miniconjou braves who no doubt fought hard to defend their people. It's also reasonable to believe that within that conflict there were soldiers who did act courageously, albeit, given the standards set down for the MOH for the next eighty years-had other types of medals been available then, many less, or perhaps no, Medal's of Honor would have been awarded for Wounded Knee. Native tribes also had their own method of recognizing bravery as evident from the types of feathers and elaborate headdress worn by some warriors.
Sergeant Windolph's bravery and experience at Little Big Horn calls to mind another important anniversary; it would be ninety-nine years later that another conflict between Indian and government occurred in some other isolated area; Jumping Bull. There, Leonard Peltier would later characterize his involvement by saying the agents' deaths were not murders, but in "Indian people's eyes," "self defense."
No matter how abhorrent any reasonable person would view the massacre at Wounded Knee, it clearly was no justification for Peltier's lawless actions.
Leonard Peltier and the LPDC have many ardent supporters, and so does the NPPA. One such individual, Dan Moran is a long-time resident of another city in South Dakota. He too has followed and studied the Incident at Oglala. He has come to his own conclusions about Peltier's guilt and also this summer made a pilgrimage to Jumping Bull to honor the memory of two young FBI agents murdered in the line of duty. Dan left something behind; a thoughtful gesture conceived from the heart. While there he buried two small capsules containing "1975" vintage coins which added up to the ages of Jack Coler and Ron Williams, and a photo of each of them with their names. In another spot Dan had also left an offering to the soul and memory of another person; a small bag with two coins, one American, the other Canadian, where Anna Mae Aquash's body was discovered.
I didn't leave anything behind at Jumping Bull, but instead took with me an indelible memory and image of the field in which it all took place, and a keepsake; a small stone which sits on my bookshelf as I prepare this essay.
I have corresponded with Dan many times over the past several years. One of his beliefs is that one day Leonard Peltier will clear his own conscience and confess and at that point "music will rise out of Jumping Bull and will be heard around the world."
I too share Dan's optimism and will add one other element to this thought, Leonard has no idea how many people would be affected by such a gesture, his support would broaden immediately and many of those who have called for his continued incarceration would begin to think otherwise.
ONCE BACK IN Rapid City for the night, and since I'd been eating on the run for the past two days, I decided to have a decent dinner at a nice local restaurant. I thought it would be a fitting end to this trip with a special meal and ordered a buffalo steak. I imagined that Leonard would get a chuckle out of this too. Fact is, prepared properly and cooked to medium-rare, it was delicious, but its significance to the Plains Indians was not overlooked either. The buffalo was central to many of their beliefs, coming from the center of the Earth in great numbers to provide nourishment, clothing and implements for the tribes. Nothing was wasted; every part of the animal was used for some useful purpose. They followed the buffalo for centuries until the advancing white man began decimating the herds for their own needs. That additional slaughter was also seen by the U.S. government as effective policy and the "fastest and cheapest way of forcing the Indian off their sacred lands and onto reservations." 7 My buffalo steak was delicious but the thought of its history was bitter.
The next morning I finally strapped into another Skywest Regional Jet for the first leg of the trip home. I'd already started reading Dull Knifes as the RJ swung gently into position and halted momentarily.
From my seat in the back I could repeat the sequence of events in the cockpit by rote. The First Officer had already computed the takeoff speeds, ensured that the flight plan was properly entered into the Flight Management computer system and was reading the "line up" checklist for the Captain to make sure everything was ready for takeoff. The normal conversation is a challenge and response between the FO and Captain. The engines spooled up as the Captain advanced the thrust levers, when the fan needles on the glass-cockpit display gauges stabilized he would call out, "set power" while the FO made any necessary fine adjustments to the pre-determined power setting. Next in a rapid-fire succession would be the FO's duty to call out, "power set," "airspeed alive" then cross-checking against the captain's airspeed strip. Then further acceleration. The FO now alert for any aberrations in the instruments, warning lights or bells, and would then call out, "Vee One," the go-no-go speed, or commit point down the runway where in the event of a fire or engine failure it would be safer to take the aircraft into the air than attempt to stop on the remaining runway. In that scenario it would be treated as an in-flight emergency responded to first with memory items, then emergency checklists and coming back around for a landing. All this they would have briefed prior to the take-off. "Rotate." The Captain gently rotates the nose to around fifteen degrees pitch-up attitude. The wing generates sufficient lift and is airborne. "Vee Two." The safe climb speed-again, previously calculated, to provide the best angle of climb to clear any obstacles ahead in the remote chance that just after take-off an engine should fail. All this, of course happening a lot faster than it takes to describe it. More acceleration, then the predicable mechanical sounds of retracting landing gear and flaps:
We level off at a few thousand feet and turn west. Below I see the now familiar Highway 79 leading south, Interstate 90 and the valley running north to Deadwood. I see all of Rapid City and the surrounding open plains.
The RJ pitched-up again and slipped gently into the thickening overcast. South Dakota gradually faded from view, but not from my thoughts.
1 Leonard Peltier, Prison Writings (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999) 71-72.
2The FBI's code name for the killings of Agents' Coler and Williams; a contraction for Reservation-murders.
3 Joe Starita, The Dull Knifes of Pine Ridge; A Lakota Odyssey. (University of Nebraska Press, 1995). (I made it a point to email Mr. Starita to tell him how much I enjoyed his book and how thoroughly he told the story of the Lakota people and the Dull Knifes family.)
4 R.J. Profit, Editor, United States of America's Medal of Honor Recipients and their Official Citations (Minnesota: Highland House II, Inc., 2002). A review of Congressional Medal of Honor recipients and their official citations indicated that sixteen (16) individuals were awarded the MOH for "distinguished conduct in battle with hostile Indians," "At Wounded Knee Creek, S. Dakota, 29 December 1890;" some citations also referred to specifics acts. The recipients were: William Austin, John E. Clancy, Mosheim Feaster, Ernest A. Garlington, John C. Gresham, Mathew H. Hamilton, Joshua, B. Hartzog, Harry L. Hawthorn, Marvin c. Hillock, George Hobday, George Lloyd, Albert W. McMillan, Thomas Sullivan, Fredrick E. Toy, Jacob Trautman and James Ward.
5 John G. Neihardt, Black Elk Speaks (University of Nebraska Press, 2000) 7.
6 Profit. There were twenty-three (23) individuals who received the MOH resulting from actions at "Little Big Horn, Montana, 25-26 June 1876." The recipients were: Neil Bancroft, Abram B. Brant, Thomas J. Callen, Benjamin C. Criswell, Charles Cunningham, Frederick Deetline, George Geiger, Theodore W. Goldin, Richard P. Hanley, David W. Harris, William M Harris, Henry Holden, Rufus D. Hutchinson, Henry W. B. Mechlin, James Pym, Stanislaus Roy, George D. Scott, Peter Thompson, Frank Tolan, Otto Voit, Charles H. Welch, and Charles Windolph.
7 Starita, 37
(Note regarding Native American heritage)
Growing up I had heard that my great-grandfather, according to relatives, was "a real American Indian." My oldest cousin, much older than me and my younger brother, had done much research over the years reviewing records in New York City and the Bronx where my ancestors had settled after arriving in America at Ellis Island.
Little could be found going back to the second generation, but what we do know is that my grandparents were first generation Americans both born in 1885, living in New York City and were of English (grandfather Alexander Purdy Woods), and German (Anna Elizabeth Stoors) ancestry. They had nine children, six boys of whom my father was the fifth youngest and three girls, one of whom, Alice, a triplet, died at an early age. All my uncles, except the youngest, served during WWII. My father, by forging his birth certificate, enlisted in the Navy at age seventeen and rose quickly in the enlisted ranks to serve as a crew chief on the PBY Catalina flying boat in the South Pacific. He bravely earned a number of medals including the Distinguished Flying Cross.
What we know about my maternal great-grandparents is that they emigrated from Germany in the mid-Eighteenth Century. My paternal great-grandparents William Henry Wood(s) was probably born around 1860 and married another first generation German immigrant, Mary Gilhouser. They lived in the Bronx, the northern borough of New York City. William Henry was believed to be a full-blood American Indian and worked as a pole-setter helping to build some of the many piers and docks in the city. He died an accidental death but the date was not recorded. At some point it is believed the "s" was added to the last name making it even more difficult tracing records, along with the notoriously inaccurate recording of births, deaths, etc. at the turn of that century.
Interest in my Native American heritage increased in April, 2000 when I became personally involved with Leonard Peltier, and the No Parole Peltier Association and its website were launched. I contacted my aunts and uncles (they have all since passed away) and talked to them again about William Henry. In their advancing years nothing more than what my cousin had learned changed. Their firm belief and understanding of his Indian background remained steadfast.
I then happened across an article about DNA testing for ancestry. I ordered a testing kit, signed the consent form and had them send the kit to one of my uncles (my father had also since passed away), believing that the test would be more valid the closer we got to my great-grandfather's generation. The testing is based on a swab taken from inside the cheek of the donor. It is a blind test, no personal or family information is provided except for a name and address; that's one of the reasons the consent form was so important. Whatever the results may be are scientifically determined by pairing the relevant genes for the major racial groups; European, Asian, African and Native American. What you are is what you get.
My uncle submitted the sample as instructed and a couple of months later I received a CD that provided some exciting, but not surprising data. My family was correct in their belief. My uncle (which means my father and his brothers and sisters) were determined to be 76% European, which made perfect sense because we know their parents came from Germany and England.
They were also 24% Native American.
So there it was. Even though we could not determine exactly where my great-grandfather had come from, or what tribe, band (or reservation) his ancestors may have sprung, he was an American Indian. New York, of course, had some of the largest tribes in the Americas during the Eighteen and Nineteenth Centuries so it is not beyond the realm of possibility that many upstate (and Canadian) Indians migrated down to the larger cities, particularly New York, seeking work and marrying into the ever-growing European immigrant population. Like when William Henry married Mary Elizabeth.
It would be nice if at some point we'd be able to determine exactly where our great-grandfather came from, but in the meantime, we'll let his DNA speak for him and us.