Long sweeping clouds cloaked the sun as a small group gathered on a hilltop cemetery in Wounded Knee, South Dakota.
People walked, some ran even, from hillsides in the four directions – East, West, North and South – an intentional journey to mark a day in history rooted in indigenous resistance.
Forty-four years ago on Feb. 27, some 200 Oglala Lakota and followers of the American Indian Movement occupied Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation for 71 consecutive days. It was an act of defiance among traditionalists critical of their colonized tribal government, a bitter reminder of a legacy of broken treaties between the Great Sioux Nation and the United States.
“It’s good to see the different relatives come back every year ’cause we don’t want this to die off, to forget what happened here in 1973 but also 1890,” said Lakota activist Bill Means, referring to the occupation’s symbolic relationship to the 19th century Wounded Knee massacre. “And now we went to Standing Rock.”
Less than a week after police razed Oceti Sakowin, the main demonstration camp behind the effort to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline, some of the last resisters who hail from these prairie lands embraced the anniversary to find closure and to heal.
“I’m short on words today and hard on prayer,” said HolyElk Lafferty of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. She and her mother, Bernie, were among the 60 or so final water protectors, or protesters, forced to leave Oceti Sakowin at gunpoint on the morning of Feb. 23.
“I told HolyElk, I can’t take this camp down. This camp represents us,” said Bernie Lafferty, who took part in the 1973 occupation at Wounded Knee when she was 19. Her voice softened and she started to cry.
The mother and daughter named their small tent village at Standing Rock in honor of their family matriarch, Agnes White Buffalo Chief Lamonte. Her gravesite is on the hilltop where HolyElk, Bernie and several other water protectors exchanged hugs, sang American Indian Movement songs and observed a ceremonial gun-salute at Wounded Knee. Nearby stood the headstone of Bernie’s uncle Lawrence “Buddy” Lamont, who was killed by a sniper during that occupation.
The elder Lafferty said the relative spirits were the source of her resolve all those months at Standing Rock when she prayed that the pipeline construction would end.
“I know they were there with us,” she said.
That resolve continued, even after police evacuated the camps.
“Just because they knocked down our homes, don’t mean they knocked us down,” she said, her tears turning to fierce determination.“We’re still here. We’ll just be stronger next time.”