Wounded Knee, 1973 "For Stan the Mailman, the true warrior -- Dennis J Banks" Photograph courtesy Chag Lowry
By Chag Lowry
My grandfather, like others of his generation, lived through events that we as younger people may find hard to fathom in todays world. His life was very complex, and this story represents only part of his experiences. Yet this part touches on the illegal theft of California, recalls the horrors and triumphs of living through World War Two, and re-examines the impact of the role that California Indians had during the occupation of Wounded Knee at Pine Ridge in South Dakota in 1973.
My grandfathers name was Stan Lowry, and he was born among the Mountain Maidu people in their traditional homeland and raised in the town called Susanville 80 miles west of Reno, Nevada. My part of this story began with a phone call from my father Ike in the fall of 1999. He told me that he received an unusual call from a lady from back East. She had asked if he was related to Stanley Lowry. My father said that he was. This lady was moving to India, and she had something that belonged to Stan and asked if she could mail it to my father. My father said sure, and asked what it was.
This lady (he never got her name), had interviewed my grandfather Stan in her car at Pine Ridge in 1973 about his time in the occupation. He had left a duffel bag in the car and she had kept in her attic for 26 years! There was a tag with Stans name on it and his old address in Susanville. So my father told her to mail it to him, and he would see that his Dad got the bag. What exciting news! I wondered what was in the bag? I told my father to make sure and take pictures of Grandpa Stan when he opened that bag.
After that call, I began to think about Wounded Knee a lot. I always heard about the massacre in 1890 of the unarmed group of Sioux at the site. Over 300 people lost their lives to the US Armys Seventh Calvary; most were women, children, and elders. In our written history of America that might seem like a long time ago, but it isnt. Its really just a few generations.
In 1973 the Indian people of the Pine Ridge Reservation were pushed to the brink of despair over several murders of local Oglala Sioux by white people. The authorities did not pursue the cases so members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) were asked to investigate the death of one of the men, Raymond Yellow Thunder. The corruption of Dick Wilson on the local tribal council also caused great concern. He hired a goon squad that intimidated anyone opposing his will. He also called the FBI and the U.S. Marshals and stated that AIM was going to spread trouble at Pine Ridge.
The government mobilized for war and laid siege on the Indian activists. The siege turned into a 71-day struggle pitting these Indian men and women against hundreds of heavily armed FBI agents and the U.S. Marshals. The government had sent in members of a 110-member elite force called the Special Operations Group. This unit was created in response to an earlier AIM protest over Indian lands in Minnesota and it was the branch of the Justice Department responsible for ending the 18-month Indian occupation of Alcatraz Island, as well as several non-Indian anti-war demonstrations.
World attention was focused on this dramatic turn of events. The government might have immediately carried out a massive armed strike against the Indian people if the media was not present during the crisis. The United States government sent 17 armored personnel carriers, 130,000 rounds of M-16 ammunition, 41,000 rounds of M-40 high explosives for grenade launchers, helicopters, and Phantom aircraft to the area right at the start. All of this was put up against people armed with rifles and shotguns. The government attempted to starve the activists out by denying food, medicine, and other humanitarian supplies. The Indian people dug in trenches and kept vigil, waiting at any time to die for their cause.
During the siege the FBI and other government agents repeatedly shot at the Indian people who were holed up inside small houses and buildings. High-powered sniper units targeted the movement of the Indian men, elders, and women. Several Indian people lost their lives from being shot by these snipers. Other Indian people held rallies and marches throughout the country in support of Wounded Knee, and some of them lost their lives as well. Although members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) have received most of the recognition for being at Wounded Knee, many Indian people from other states who were unaffiliated with AIM also traveled to the area to lend their support.
To say that 1973 was a difficult time to be indigenous would be an understatement; racism against Indians and other people of color was on the rise. The conflict in Vietnam had just claimed the lives of dozens of young Indian boys, while at home in America their mothers, fathers, children, and grandparents faced prejudice from civilians and harassment, beatings, and death from the police and the FBI. In California, the state Legislature had passed a bill in 1972 authorizing payment for the sale of California from its indigenous occupants to the United States. This payment totaled around $650 to each California Indian. Today, California has the worlds fifth largest economy. This economy is based on the exploitation of resources maintained and protected by Native people since time immemorial.
Back to my grandfathers story. When the duffel bag came to my father he sent for my Grandpa Stan and my Uncle Allen, who had went to Wounded Knee with my grandfather. They opened the bag and found several souvenirs- a photo of my Aunt Sue when she was a baby; eating utensils; clothes; and my grandfathers old jacket that he wore during the occupation. My father took pictures and told me how excited Grandpa Stan was to open the bag. He had totally forgotten it had existed. That fall I thought about Wounded Knee a lot. I wondered who else from California had traveled over there.
One day soon after this I was talking with my cousin Paula Allen. Her Uncle Phillip, who is of Karuk heritage, had been at Wounded Knee as well. She mentioned a book about the Wounded Knee occupation that my grandfather was in. I didnt know about that, so the next day I went to several old bookstores and antique shops on the offhand chance they might have that book. At one place in Eureka I walked out of the store and ran into Roy Redner and his friend Bruce Kay. Roys brother Russ was also there at the Wounded Knee occupation. Roy and Russ are of Redwood Creek and Shoshone ancestry.
I told them about the book I was looking for, it was called Voices of Wounded Knee: 1973 in the Words of the Participants. Bruce said the Humboldt State library had a copy. So I went there and found the book. As I read through I came across an interview my grandpa Stan gave. He talked about how California Indians suffered during the Gold Rush from 1848 through 1890, and about the treaties between California Indians and the federal government that were hidden, and about the fight against excessive logging on Indian lands. He spoke about how he was sure that Wounded Knee was a precedent that would start the road to recovery for Indian rights.
My grandpa Stan never spoke of his time in Wounded Knee to us kids. The story was there, but always in the background. When I was very young I could tell people, My grandpa went to Wounded Knee, but I didnt fully understand why. I had to grow older to understand the significance of why he went.
I found that article in Voices of Wounded Knee in the late fall of 1999, and went home to Susanville for the winter break in January of 2000. I wanted to start a book about California Indian veterans of World War Two. I was fascinated about that war, and I looked up to my grandfather and his cousin Mervin Evans for being veterans. They and my great-uncle Leonard would walk in Veterans Day parades in Susanville, right down the middle of Main Street. They walked straight and proud and were given respect by everybody that day. I always thought that was damn cool.
So to start my book I interviewed Mervin first and my grandfather second. I walked the few houses down to my Grandpas house through a half-foot of fresh snow and sat and talked with him on January 29. During my Grandpas interview I found out he was in the Battle of the Bulge, the largest land battle of the entire war. He earned a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, and the undying devotion of the four platoons of men he commanded as a second lieutenant. I know, because Im still in contact with many of his boys from the 99th Division.
They said he was a great leader with an uncanny ability to measure distances for artillery. He led by example with extreme bravery against a fanatical German enemy during perhaps the coldest winter in modern history in the Ardennes Forest between Belgium and Germany. Sometimes my Grandpa lost a man, and he cradled them in his arms as they passed away. Try to imagine the emotions of those times. You cant. But he brought most of his boys home alive, and they forever remembered their second lieutenant Lowry. As the war drew to a close my Grandpa went with other officers through the concentration camp called Buchenwald. It was a terrible experience for him, one that drew tears to his eyes as he recalled it 54 years later.
At the end of this interview about his time in World War Two he told me a little about what he did at Wounded Knee. This was the only time he ever spoke of it to me.
Me and Allen went, I was there for 90 days in 1973. I took care of the post office, I got the mail from the guys and I sent it out of the Wounded Knee area to a place called Porcupine, and one of Russell Means brothers (Ted Means) would pick up that mail and mail it. Then he would pick up whatever mail that came in for guys at Wounded Knee and Id get it and give it to the guys. So they called me the Postmaster General!
Was there anyone else you knew there?
Well, me and Allen were the only ones from here, but there were people from Hoopa, and from all over. I had a list of the tribes where people were from; it was from tribes all over the United States, and Canada and Mexico. We were Pit River and Maidu from here. There were several guys from Hoopa there. Allen was making trips, hed go all the way back to Hoopa, get a convoy of people who made donations, and come back. They brought guns, ammunition, food, and medicine and came all the way back to Pine Ridge Reservation. Hed make a trip every two weeks.
Why did you and Allen go over there to Wounded Knee?
Me and Allen went over to (Stans sister) Juanitas house. We watched TV and saw that white people were beating Indians. They were beating them bad and even killed some of them. Allen wished we could go over there, so I said I had some money in the BIA bank; it was that California money they gave us a long time ago. I said it was about 600 dollars. He said to get it, and wed go over there.
So we got to the airport and got on an airplane; Id never flew on an airplane before, and I was kind of scared. I told Allen to fly back there and I would meet him, Id go on a bus! No, he said, so we went. Pretty soon we were flying and I looked down and saw water, it looked like the ocean. I told him that looked like the ocean. He said no, it was Lake Tahoe. Pretty soon we got down to L.A.! I said how come were in L.A, we should be over in Denver somewhere!
Oh, he said, maybe they made a mistake, Ill go figure it out. He told them and they rescheduled us. We got on a plane and made it back to Denver, then to South Dakota. At South Dakota we got on the same plane with a bunch of FBI agents.
They had come from Washington D.C. They were talking, saying Oh, everythings all right except for these outsiders coming to stir up trouble.
There we were, we were the outsiders! So when we got to Rapid City Allen asked what we were going to do. I told him wed walk down the sidewalk and wed come to a corner. There would be an Indian standing there looking around and wed go and ask him directions where to go.
Sure enough, we walked down about six blocks and there was an Indian standing on the block. We asked him where all the Indians were gathering. He said to go down to a big building. It was a girls Catholic school. We went in there and this Indian guy said, Where are you from? We told him California. California! he said to come with him. They had a big hall where they were having a big talk. There were a lot of Indians in there. We went in there and that guy yelled out Ho! Everyone stopped talking and asked him why he yelled out.
He said, They just came in, two from California! The people said, California! Come in! Pretty soon Dennis Banks asked if we were hungry and we said yes. They said to leave our stuff there and the girls took us to a big dining room and gave us menudo and fry bread. We went back and they gave us a room and a bedroll. That was in Rapid City. Every once in a while in Rapid City wed get an alert. Everybody was assigned to a car. Wed run out and get in a car, then get out and circle a bit, then come back. Those were just dry runs, because one of those times it would be the real thing.
They also told the girls not to go into town. The people in town didnt like us, and if they caught someone along theyd beat them up. It was cold back there, and I had a place on the second floor. There was a porch that Id sit on and watch. We had threats from people who said theyd throw bombs in there. We had sleeping bags and such, but not too much. You froze out there. We kept having dry runs jumping into the cars. Finally, one time they said to keep the weapon you had with you. I had a piece of iron. I sharpened it up like a spear, that was my weapon! There was a whole convoy of cars and the highway patrol was by us with sirens going. We went all the way through Pine Ridge and stopped at a little place called Calico. We went with a guy from Minnesota.
There was a building out there and they told us to go out there and put all our stuff there. They had food ready for us and there was dancing and everything that night. They had drums going and there was a circle dance. The next day we got in a car and took off and finally came to a sign that said Wounded Knee.
There were different houses there and they would send five or six guys to a certain house. While I was there I went to the store there. The store had been selling at really high prices. The white people would take all the Indian peoples check just for food. So that night, we put roadblocks out on all the roads. The people who lived there went through that store and stripped it. And here I was way out on security and couldnt get a damn thing! There were rifles, and knives, and canned goods.
The next day they took everything out of that store and that was our meeting room. It was like a big open dorm. And all along the sides they put in the bedrolls. It just so happened that I took the side where the post office was. While I was there some of the guys opened the post office box and there was three or four thousand dollars in there so they gave the money to our leaders.
So since I was in the post office there were a lot of people writing letters. Id gather up the mail and put it in a bag. Wed send two or three guys about two miles to the edge of Wounded Knee to a place called Porcupine. And one of Russell Means brothers would collect the mail from us and mail it out. Then hed send the mail he collected to me and Id hand it out. So they called me Postmaster General.
When I was there at Wounded Knee I thought about the lists. If the government came in and found out all those lists of names and addresses so I didnt keep a list because we didnt know how long wed stand. I did list the different tribes. I listed about 40 or 50 tribes from all over. We had tribes from New York, California, Oregon, Washington, Montana, Oklahoma. I did register the tribes. Then we sent the patrols out. We had interior security, and we sent patrols go around the reservation about three or four miles out.
Did you ever get shot at?
Oh, plenty. When we were at Wounded Knee we figured the federal people must have fired at least two million rounds into where we were at. They had APCs, the armored personnel carriers; they were armed with the 50-caliber or 60-caliber machine guns. The officers had automatic rifles and M-16s.
What was the heaviest weapon you guys had?
We had a few 45-machine guns and machine pistols, and rifles. All of sudden a plane parachuted a whole bunch of stuff in to help us. There were these boxes with Chinese writing on them, and in those boxes were AK-47s. Then when they fired the M-16s at us we fired the AK-47s boom, boom, boom, boom, they shut up! Some of the guys from Denver, especially this one Navajo, were gathering weapons and bringing them in. In the end we had Indians coming from everywhere. We had a lot of Mexican Indians, Canadians, Alaskans, and people from all over the world were sending in money.
Every night wed have a meeting and this one Indian guy who was a lawyer was our banker. Hed read the letters and say where the money came from. It might be somebody from Australia, or rich people would send in thousands of dollars. We were pretty well organized. That first night there was probably $100,000. The next night and the next more came in. Pretty soon there was maybe a quarter of a million dollars. We were all excited and wed dance all night and eat fry bread. Each tribe would have their own drum. That went on all night, Id hear them in the morning when I woke up and way late at night, all Id hear were the drums.
I know there were Indian people that died, were you around?
Yeah, this one man and this one girl came in from New York. I was on the inside fixing space for people to sleep in. This guys name was Frank Clearwater. He had whole cartons of cigarettes. So I gave him a bedroll. Everybody coming in was bringing in ammunition. I remember this colored girl, she was just skinny, she was packing 30 pounds of ammunition. The word was out. The one thing we didnt have, we didnt have any drinking. If they caught you drinking theyd run you out, kick you clear off the reservation. Theyd have a car take you to the end of the reservation and cut you loose, and tell you not to come back. That was good.
How did you leave Wounded Knee?
Well, I dont know how many people were killed. I know one pitiful thing, this one boy who lived there, his mother was living there, had just come home from Vietnam. They called him Sonny-Son. They put him out there by this house, this was Clearwater, and they (the government) had a hell of a good sniper, and the sniper shot Clearwater right through the head. They called a cease-fire and brought in a helicopter to take him to the hospital in Rapid City. He didnt make it.
Then another man came home from Vietnam and was in the same spot, and damned if that sniper didnt kill him. Boy, we had a cease-fire the next day, and we had a ceremony, a funeral, you know. They had an Indian ceremony first, with prayer. Then they had a military funeral. They got ten riflemen with ten rounds of ammunition and gave him a 100-gun salute. When they lowered him into the grave the whole valley went boom. Later on the radio we heard that the white people were wondering what happened, so they told them it was a funeral.
I helped dig that grave for him. I think youll see those pictures of the massacre in the 1800s, they have the same cemetary there and that church there. They have all the names of the original massacre there, and thats where buried him.
Is that when you left?
Well, they had tipis up on the hill and people from Washington would meet our leaders. Theyd talk and talk, one side would give up a point and then the other would. Finally they came to a settlement and the word went out that peace made. So a lot of people had their own transportation and started leaving. I went to the medicine man Leonard Crow Dog, his father and ancestors were medicine people from way back, the same way with Black Elk. We had about six medicine men there. Anyway, Crow Dog, his reservation was called Rose Bud, and they called it Crow Dogs paradise. Thats where they took us. They had tipis there and food. It was nice, the Cheyenne River runs right through it.
Finally, this car from the labor union in California came, it was a big station wagon with a Mexican girl driver to pick up those who wanted a ride to California. So I got in that. We heard on the radio they said we were heading west; the only place where we stopped that we might have had trouble was in Denver. The police checked her out at this service station. We pulled into a side street at night and turned out the lights. Toward morning she snuck out and took the highway toward Salt Lake. She went 90 the whole way! She was a good driver though.
So we got into Salt Lake and there was a safe house. They gave us clean clothes and we ate and slept. This one Eskimo from Alaska was with us and he left from there. After that we loaded up and started out again. When we stopped in Reno to get gas on the other side was a car from Wounded Knee. It was Dicky Wilson and his goons! They were coming to California too. We were there at the same time! Someone could have went over and got him, but we were too close to home.
So I had ten or 15 dollars and we went to play this nickel machine in Reno. Then we headed out in the morning. We made it to my sister Juanitas and her husband Ramon. Nobody told her we were coming, but Juanita got up that morning and cooked a big breakfast, and Ramon helped her. They didnt know we were coming, but here we pulled in, a big carload, and she had breakfast all ready! Its funny how that happened. That Mexican girl and Ramon talked in their language. She was telling him that Cesar Chavez was the one who sent her back there to Wounded Knee.
I had a sleeping bag on top of that car and I had things from Wounded Knee in there. When I took the bag off it was a different one, and I felt bad about that. But just this last month somebody sent a package with a whole bunch of stuff from Wounded Knee! It had a warm outfit with a hood, and a coat, and quite a few other things. That jacket was warm just like the one I wore on security back at Wounded Knee, it might have been the same one. Itll come in handy this winter when I go out to Eagle Lake and fish!
Thank you Grandpa.
My grandfather Stan passed away late in the summer of 2000. I thank him and all the other California Indian people who took a stand at Wounded Knee 30 years ago.
Chag Lowry is of Maidu, Yurok, and Pit River ancestry. He can be reached via the Original Voices website at www.originalvoices.org.