The Minnesota Leader


December 30, 1974

Notes from a Day at Wounded Knee
By Kevin Barry McKiernan

Kevin Barry McKiernan is a 30 year old journalist who resides in the Twin Cities. He covered the Wounded Knee occupation and many of the subsequent court trials for National Public Radio and for KSJN Radio in St. Paul.  He was a free lance photographer for UPI wireservice and for WCCO-TV during the occupation and for UPI Audio Network during the Bank-Means trial. He spent 7 weeks inside Wounded Knee during the takeover. The following is a page from a diary of his experiences.

APRIL 17, 1973: Dawn

Food drop! I scramble awake from the floor of the trailer house and run outside. It seems incredible! Three single engine planes fly-in from the north, dipping low wing to wing over Wounded Knee. Seven silky parachutes float to earth. The aircraft fan out, disappearing over the pine-studded hills. They're gone as quicky as they came.

One parachute lands in a field across Manderson Road. Food! What a beautiful sight for sore eyes and hungry bellies. People are flocking from everywhere, gathering up the chutes, ripping the bundles open---fresh carrots, potatoes, rice, chocolate bars, rolling tobacco. And leaflets bearing the words, "Freedom from Oppression in Indochina."

Then all hell breaks loose. There's sniper fire from "Vulture," the largest of the federal helicopters. It's raking Manderson Road where food's being carried to the Security Building for distribution. Bullets are dancing in the dirt around Florine Hollowhorn's kids. It's like a salt-shaker pouring around them. A miracle nobody's hit. I grab some food and run back to the trailer.

7:00 a.m.
Automatic gunfire from Armoured Personnel Carriers (APC's) on the hill behind the trailer.  In minutes there are sounds of shooting all over town.  AIM's are running for cover under trailers, behind cars, down in the trenches, from building to building behind the community center.

Mary Ellen leaves the new-born baby with Grandma to go for food to the trailer next door.  A federal sniper's tracer bullet splatters the metal door frame inches from her arm.  She dashes inside.  The round lies imbedded near the knob, smoldering as the door bangs closed behind her.  Bullets go through both trailers.  Our bedroom window shatters.  Trailers are so shabbily built they offer about as much protection as a Dixie Cup.

9:00 a.m.

Federal fire seems confined to north and west sides of Wounded Knee.  Run next door to fill a pouch with some of the Bugler tobacco from the food drop.  Nice to be smoking again.  Helicopters flying high around our perimeters.  AIM's fire on them but they're out of range.  Junior is shot through the left palm while reloading his own pistol.

Automatic fire coming in from the hills.  Single shots from .22 rifles and 20 gauge shotguns going out from the village.  Sounds dueling in the morning sunlight.  CRACK-CRACK-CRACK!  Plip!  Boom!  Plip!  Boom!  Grandma sits on the couch holding the week-old baby she delivered.  She's calmly braiding the long black hair of her 35 year old son, a Philadelphia truckdriver after he left the reservation in Kansas.  He's sitting below her on the living room floor.  She looks through the glass and smiles, "Listen to that meadow lark, singing through all of this!"  Grandma's got a .38 Special stuck in the bosom of her dress.  She still refuses to be driven uptown from the trailer where she's made her home these past weeks.

Some rice.  I ask Mary Ellen if she'll take the baby to safer quarters over at the trading post, if I can get a vehicle to the trailer to pick them up.  She says yes.  But the only car with gas is the white Toyota---which ran up the hill behind us carrying men and guns an hour ago.  There was a crazy face-off with an APC.  Everybody got pinned down.  They crawled down the hill backwards, abandoning the car.  I can't get to it, but I'll see if anything else is running.

Grab the Minolta still camera and cautiously venture out, carrying three pop bottles full of drinking water for the guys in the closest bunker.  Hop, crawl and scramble across the road. Flatten out under the bullets whizzing overhead I remember what Bobby said; if the rounds are only whizzing, they're at least a yard above you; if they're cracking, "They're right on you!"  Sweating.  Make my way a few hundred yards up to the swig of water and leave the pop bottles.  Notice a green van parked outside by the sandbags.  Yell to the people across the field in the houses: "Is the truck running?"  A girl sticks her head out of the closest project home---"No, it's out of gas!"  Fifty yard dash to her doorway.  Clutching the Minolta.  Running for my life.

Three people in the house, all in the kitchen lying down below the window lines.  A pregnant Chippewa girl is on the floor, her back propped up against the sink pipes.  There are a couple of guns on the table.  I grab a walkie-talkie and try to call Pawnee Command Post to get a car down here for Mary Ellen.  No response.  Batteries are weak.

Two more people burst into the kitchen.  Bad news.  Someone's been shot!  Up in the old Episcopal church on the hill near King Cobra bunker.  Hurt bad, they say.  That new nurse sprained her ankle trying to run through fire to get to him.  Others trying to stretcher him out over the draws and through Big Foot's burial ground.  But the fire's too heavy.  They're trapped somewhere halfway to the field hospital.

11:00 a.m.

Up from the lower projects comes Mary Ellen hurrying, babe in arms.  She's flanked by Ray and Gwen carrying guns.  Two girls, Venona and Kamook, raising white flags behind them.  As they weave from house to house, the APC fire is still loud but it doesn't seem to be hitting near them.  I run down to meet them.  We make our way back to the house.  Mary Ellen and the baby ought to be safe in the basement.

11:30 a.m.

A tall young kid from Rosebud named Bo, that mouthy, shovy character who's always asking me why I'm taking  pictures, decides to make a run for the trading post.  He saddles up the white stallion I rode the other day.  He mounts up, pushes his cowboy hat down tight over his straight black hair and digs in the spurs.  Everybody's cheering for him as he gallops south through the ditches along Manderson Road.  APC's on the hill open up with short, steady bursts.  He crests the ridge in a cloud of dust.  He's whipping that horse flank to flank.  Bullets are popping in the dirt ahead of him.  Underneath him.  Behind him.  Then the clip-clops grow fainter.  And the gunfire subsides as he disappears toward the Big Foot Trail.  How he made it i'll never know.

Ray is reading war comics and seems to be relaxing out on the back porch in the morning sun.  Gwen paces back and forth through the yard among the junked cars, barking dogs and laundry on the line.  Then they decide they'll try to make it uptown, too.  It's crazy to go through the ditches where Bo went.  The only way is the back gulches, then up to the church shack near King Cobra where that guy was hit.  I grab my camera and follow.  We go up the hills and down the canyons, out of sight from the APC's.  Gwen's leading with her drawn .22 pistol.  Ray's behind, with one of his two handguns out.  I'm bringing up the rear with my 50mm Minolta.

The last two hundred yards are wide open up the west side of the hill to the church.  We're zig-zagging but still a hell of a target.  Final sprint to the door.  Somebody throws it open.  We burst out of breath into the darkened interior.

I see a guy with three days beard growth lying on a mattress by a blanket-shrouded window.  He motions me to get down, pointing his carbine at the wet wooden floor underneath my boots---"There was a guy just got shot here!  He was sitting in a chair where you're standing.  Get the hell down!"

I sink to the floor.  A white basin at my feet is full of blood.  Somebody else says it's from the man they just carried out, a 47 year old Apache.  Look around the room.  Bullet holes in the sides of the walls.  Guy with the carbine points to the hole which passaged the round that struck the man: "Frank Clearwater.  He was just sitting there in that chair.  Just woke up.  Almost everybody else was still sleeping..."  He points to the half-dozen mattresses that line the floor around the pot-bellied stove in the middle of the shack.  "...Bullet came through the wall, blew the back of his head off.  He never knew what hit him.  And he just came in yesterday with his wife.  She was pregnant.  They hitchhiked all the way from North Carolina.  He never even picked up a gun..."

Now I remember Frank!  He and his wife were the ones who showed up yesterday in the Security Building.  Asked me for blankets  I told them where to find some, then shot the shit with Frank for a few minutes.  I had a little Bull Durham tobacco left.  Asked him if he had any rolling papers.  "No," he said, "but here's cigarette...take couple.  I just got in and there's still a full pack."  They were Pall Malls.


Ray and Gwen are lying on the floor.  Ray's filling the chambers of his .38 with new rounds. The World War II Medal of Honor earned under General MacArthur in Asia as a 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Army lies pinned on his chest next to a red and white AIM button. An American flag is sewn upside down on the back of his jersey. Cree, Cheyenne, Apache and Seminole---what a mixture in this guy---who as a young kid almost 30 years ago enlisted in the Service to keep the world safe for democracy. Gwen's still panting form the run. "Times like this," she says between breaks," I wish I were ten years younger!" Before long they're up and out the door.

Everybody's got tobacco from this morning's air drop. We sit on the dirt floor rolling cigarettes. I'm taking pictures. Occasionally, I pop out by the trench where there's a telescope mount with heavy metal field glasses like those you'd find at the top of the Empire State or in Golden Gate Park by the San Francisco Bay. I can see really well as far west as that APC position on the hill behind the trailers. Magnification is powerful, but the focus is ripply from this distance. It's producing heat waves, but I can see two APC's, a jeep and five men up close enough to make out which men are carrying weapons. Wish I had a telephoto lens like this on my minolta.

Bobo, the crazy little guy who broke the spindle on my tape recorder at the wedding the other night, bursts into the bunker. His face is awash with sweat, a medicine bag is hanging on a rawhide cord form his neck. "Where's the nurse with the sprained ankle?" He's been sent out to guide her back to the hospital downtown, where three Indians now lie wounded.  She's needed more than ever since the doctor's gone out with Frank up to RB#1, to get medovacked to the Pine Ridge Hospital.

He's got no gun, but he's planned a route to town.  Ann, the California photographer, and I decide to go, too.  We jump out of the bunker and into the trench (which leads to a halfway carved tunned under the house).  Plan is to try to run from ditch to ditch down the east side of the hill until we reach the Manderson Road.  "I can't run!"  The nurse yells to Bobo.  "You gotta run!  Do you want to stay alive?" he says.  She's starting to get hysterical.  Bobo's already up out of the trench and zig-zagging down the flare-burnt hillside.  Then Ann, a Nikon camera and lens bouncing all over the front of her dungaree jacket.  I grab the nurse's hand and we careen down the hill, diving in the first ditch.  It's a shallow one, offering little or no protection from the Feds on the ridge to the east.  She's crying out with pain from her injured leg.  Bobo's yelling we got to get the hell out of here.  I suggest we make a run for Big Foot's grave, then try to make it behind the tombstones and through the cemetery weeds to the Catholic Church.  Bobo says the fire from the western ridges is too heavy.  Nurse keeps calling to Bobo, "Brother, I can't Brother, it's too dangerous, Brother, my leg..."

Spurts of automatic fire as we reach Big Foot Trail and cross it.  Drag, pull, cajole nurse into running with me.  She's half-freaked out.  Of course, I might be too, if I'd seen that guy's head half blown off.

12:30 p.m.
We make it.  Hospital's in a low key frenzy.  Three wounded (included Junior).  Junior's in main dispensary unconscious, and i.v. into his right arm, his left hand bandaged from the bullet wound.  Sara is doing dishes in a careful, almost hiding way in the kitchen.  There's a guy named Daryl lying on a stretcher in the TV room with three bullets in his right arm and a bullet hole in his foot.  Eva's got an i.v. going into him, Black Elk's got peyote trying to work the bullets to the surface in his arms.  No luck.  They're M-16 "tumblers," like they used in Vietnam.  Who knows where they go after hitting you.  The kid's half in shock.  "I didn't have a gun.  They pinned me down in gully.  Didn't have a chance.  That M______ F_____ sniper.  Even in Vietnam they wouldn't have done this to me."  Another Vietnam vet lies on a plywood bunk across the room.  He's got a bullet in his heel, and they can't get his boot off.

People running in and out, dodging bullets from the street.  Whole squad of guys pinned against trailer wall 40 feet across from hospital door.  I sit with Grace Black Elk.  We're all numb.  Firing outside is constant.  It doesn't seem real.  Daryl calls for music.  Portable record player begins playing Indian drum chants.  Medics are given tourniquets and other supplies in little packs, then dispatched to the bunkers.  (Daryl had lain in the gully across from the Catholic church for 45 minutes before any help could be gotten to him.)  I tell people I'll make a dash across the street to the trading post basement for more still film, the movie camera and the recorder.  Somebody yells out, "Don't go!  They'll be dragging you in here in a minute!"  Laughter.  Somebody yells, "Hey, what size boots do you wear?"  I light out across the open street to the trading post.




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