(Editor's note: Santa Barbara journalist Kevin McKiernan - documentarian, author and veteran foreign correspondent - has completed a new feature doc -- "From Wounded Knee to Standing Rock: A Reporter's Journey,"—which will have a one-night screening at the Marjorie Luke Theatre next Tuesday, Dec. 10, at 7 p.m. Tickets are available here).
The journalistic odyssey recounted in the film began in 1973, when then-fledgling NPR dispatched rookie reporter McKiernan to cover the armed takeover of the historic village of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, and winds through four decades, as he improbably pursued the investigation of a mysterious murder from that turbulent and iconic historical moment. In this piece, Kevin recounts how it began).
I had never been on an Indian reservation, much less seen anyone shot.
Then I met Frank Clearwater, a 47-year-old Cherokee from North Carolina. Clearwater and his wife wanted so badly to be part of the uprising that they’d hitchhiked in wintertime all the way from North Carolina to South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
By the time they arrived, the historic village was surrounded by hundreds of FBI agents and U.S. Marshals who had publicly vowed to “starve out” the Indians.
After a long hike through the backcountry, the Clearwaters managed to penetrate the cordon around Wounded Knee, where the 82nd Airborne had placed Vietnam-era trip wires.
I bumped into the couple outside the Wounded Knee trading post. It was cold that night, and I told them where they could find some blankets. Clearwater returned with the blankets, then lit up a “ready-made” cigarette he’d bought in a store.
At that point I hadn’t even seen a store in nearly two months. He offered to share it with me and several Indians who were standing around.
The occupiers had long ago run out of tobacco, and some had resorted to smoking shavings from cherry bark. A store-bought cigarette was something special, and everyone gathered in a circle, passing the cigarette around like a form of communion until a long red ash could be seen in the dark.
Then the newcomers walked up the hill to the little pine church to look for a place to sleep.
A firefight from hell. The next morning, just after dawn, three small planes rented by Wounded Knee sympathizers flew over the FBI bunkers and parachuted bundles of food to the besieged compound.
The dramatic airdrop ignited a hellacious firefight between the Feds and the Indians, rousting Frank Clearwater from the floor of the church.
As he sat up in his blanket roll, a bullet ripped through a thin wooden wall and blew off the back of his head.
By the time I got there, Indians were crouched at the windows with their rifles. Bullet holes marked the walls and blond-colored splinters of pine lay on the floor.
Clearwater was all but dead.
A blanket I’d given him had been used to roll him onto a makeshift stretcher. I crouched down for a moment, realizing that this was the man I’d smoked the store-bought cigarette with just a few hours earlier.
Now his face was frozen, his lips contorted, and the blanket was covered with blood and tissue. I couldn’t help thinking: weren’t we just talking about how cold it was?
A Sacred Cemetery. The next man to die was a Lakota Sioux named Buddy LaMonte, a Vietnam veteran just home from the war.
He was hit when he popped out of a foxhole with his rifle about 50 yards from the trailer where I’d slept the night before.
It's likely that the federal agent killed him from a distance, using a sniper scope.
Buddy was popular on the reservation, and his mother, Agnes, worked as a cook for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). The local ties earned the LaMonte family the right to bury their son in the Wounded Knee cemetery, next to the victims of the notorious 1890 massacre.
Before the burial, Buddy's casket was opened and the mourners filed by to pay their respects. At the grave site, Agnes talked about her great aunt and uncle, who were killed at Wounded Knee in 1890, and how Buddy had gone to overseas “to fight communism.”
When he got home, she said, his fight was with the tribal council and a reservation spoils system that favored the mixed bloods over the "traditionals."
Native Americans I've met over the years are proud when a family member or a family member volunteers to fight in a war. Buddy's family had dressed him in the same olive green uniform he’d worn on the day he'd left home for Vietnam.
But his hair had grown long since military service, flowing loose below his shoulders. And that day he was wearing beaded moccasins, not military boots. Someone had placed a package of razor blades and a can of Gillette shaving cream in the casket on top of his chest, next to the medals he’d earned in Vietnam.
I had been taking pictures in Wounded Knee for two months and now I was joined by some of Buddy's relatives who were busy clicking away with their Kodak Instamatics.
But as I raised my camera to photograph the open casket, someone in the grief-stricken cortege, a woman who had come from Denver for the funeral, stopped me.
“How much money will you make on this story?” she asked bitingly.
“What do you mean?” I stammered in defense.
“Getting pictures of my dead cousin,” she said. “I know you reporters. All of this is just a job for you.”
Her remark impaled me like a rod through the chest. In the flash of an eye, my welcome in Wounded Knee--where I'd come to embrace my role as a witness-- was thrown into doubt.
I was trying to be a real photographer and, I'd hoped, to keep a clean heart. Now I was random white man, standing awkwardly by this mass grave I'd seen every day for weeks, overtaken by race and history. Suddenly, I was a non-Indian, a waiciscu or “a taker of the fat,” as they say in Lakota.
As I surveyed the mass grave in front of me, I tried to imagine what the 1890 massacre might have looked like through the viewfinder of my camera.
In my mind’s eye, I saw the archival images from Life magazine, the old pictures of the 7th Cavalry dumping bodies like trash into the rectangular pit. I thought of all the skeletons — some 300 — in the ground underneath. By now they had been in this awful pit for 83 years.
I thought of the soldiers, avenging members of General Custer’s old unit, who'd been awarded Medals of Honor for what they had done here, and how the Pentagon still refused to recall the high tributes.
I thought about killing and the clash of civilizations that had taken place on the piece of ground under my feet. I thought about how war distorts the truth and how history fights to correct it. I wondered about the role of journalism. And what lay ahead for me.
Finally, I put the camera down.
As visitors who’d had no part in the long siege clicked away, I would have to remember this day without film.
At its simplest, reporting struck me as an act of remembering what you saw on the other side of some mountain, then faithfully recounting it for people who couldn’t make the trip.
If I was going to keep doing this work, I knew I had to find a way to strengthen my purpose, not to flinch when I got close to what was real. To do this kind of thing, I sensed, I would have to find a “low road” to travel, a path where I might witness things up close, away from official truths.
Most of all, I needed to honor the work I was choosing. The next time, I vowed, I would get the picture. And not put the camera down.
Below, behind-the-scenes clips and outtakes for the film by the late cinematographer Haskell Wexler.
Images: Kevin McKiernan (Rod Rolle); McKiernan at Wounded Knee in 1973, with Lakota elders Oscar Bear Runner and Tom Bad Cob (Courtesy photo); Photos by Kevin McKiernan: Tending the wounded at Wounded Knee; Medicine man Leonard Crow Dog; at Standing Rock, 2016.