From Wounded Knee to Standing Rock is not quite Kevin McKiernan’s Moby-Dick. It’s more like his personal creation myth as a lifelong journalist, as suggested by the film’s subtitle, A Reporter’s Journey. McKiernan, a Santa Barbara resident for more than 40 years, is an irresistible storyteller with an insurrectionist’s heart. Over the past 35 years, he’s put himself in harm’s way both at home and abroad as writer, photographer, and filmmaker, chronicling the bloody eruptions triggered by America’s imperial imperative. The occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1973 is where it all began for McKiernan. It’s clear from this documentary — finished more than four decades later — that his journey will never truly be over.
The facts of Wounded Knee should astonish far more than they do. For no less than 71 days in the winter of 1973, the federal government engaged in a protracted military stand-off with a couple hundred activists with the American Indian Movement (AIM) who had occupied the town of Wounded Knee, the place where federal troops, by the way, had massacred 300 Lakota men, women, and children in 1890. U.S. Marshalls encircled the town almost immediately after the siege began. Gunfire was exchanged. Blood was spilled. A military blockade was erected to starve out the militants — many of whom were armed and ready to fight — and to keep new recruits from getting in.
McKiernan at the time was a young man of sharp wit and loose ends. Almost accidentally, he stumbled onto the story — and journalism in general — when an NPR affiliate in Minneapolis, where he then lived, asked him to cover the event. Two weeks into it, the feds ordered all reporters out. Those who stayed, the feds warned, would be arrested. McKiernan, not yet even a rookie, paid little heed and, with the help of a Lakota member of AIM, managed to smuggle himself behind enemy lines. The only reporter inside, he would remain there for the duration.
McKiernan uses himself in the film as a handy narrative foil to string together a complex story and the sprawling cast of characters. He’s in a hurry to cover a lot of ground, and focus is definitely required. The star of the show is the right-here, right-now feel McKiernan conveys. He may have been green and scared in the moment, but in 71 days, he managed to build considerable trust and take a lot of photos. A casual intimacy permeates his images, some grainy, some out of focus, and many quietly personal. He captures the hum-drum routine of daily living amid the threat of frequent gunfire. Young kids play marbles with the shell casings of spent ammunition. Grown-ups, by contrast, play chess using different caliber bullets as the various chess pieces.
In the context of the 1970s, McKiernan makes a showdown like Wounded Knee seem to make sense. Today, it would have been mass suicide.
In the film, bullets fly. People get killed. When sympathetic lefties airdropped in food supplies, military helicopters opened fire on the deliveries. A man McKiernan had given a blanket to only the night before had his head blown off. When McKiernan photographed the ensuing mayhem, a protester sardonically asked him what his shoe size was just in case McKiernan drew fatal fire and his boots needed new occupants.
It’s clear who McKiernan thinks the bad guys are, but mostly, he tries to let them hang themselves with their own words. There’s Kent Frizzell, an emissary from the Nixon White House, sent to strike a deal to make the occupation stop. It was Frizzell who announced reporters would be arrested, and it would be Frizzell who would later arrest McKiernan for violating that edict after the siege ended.
Along the way, McKiernan gives us plenty of face time with Dick Wilson, the chillingly corrupt reservation leader whom AIM activists showed up to oust in the first place. Wilson, who savored fat, wet-tipped stogies, headed a militia at the time known as Guardians of the Oglala Nation, otherwise known as GOONs, and was in cahoots with the FBI. Wilson made it clear, in so many words, to a young McKiernan that he knew exactly how he’d take care of upstart AIM members. After the siege was over, Wilson spelled it out in blood as the murder rate at Pine Ridge jumped to three times that of Detroit, then the murder capital of the U.S. Perhaps most chilling, however, was the interview McKiernan managed to get with a congenial GOON hit man, dressed in a white wifebeater T-shirt and fidgeting on camera with an assortment of firearms, explaining how the FBI supplied him his armor-piercing bullets.
McKiernan makes it clear he never sipped the Kool-Aid of journalistic objectivity. But he does strive for fairness. That distinction becomes manifest in his treatment of the death of Indian activist Anna Mae Aquash, with whom he developed a strong friendship during Wounded Knee. Among the tenderest shots of the film are those taken of Aquash’s wedding, which took place mid-siege. It was held in part to fight off the boredom but also to instill in members of so many disparate tribes a unifying sense of spirituality. A few years later, Aquash would be found dead in a ditch at Wounded Knee. The federal medical examiner quickly concluded she died of exposure. Her hands, bizarrely, would be cut off and sent to the Justice Department for fingerprinting. Two weeks later, a medical examiner hired by Aquash’s family would discover that there was a bullet lodged in Aquash’s skull. The bloody hair, one might have thought, would have been a tip-off.
Eventually, Aquash’s murder would be the stuff of multiple grand jury investigations and criminal trials, but many observers — McKiernan included — believed the execution was ordered by AIM leaders who suspected she’d become an FBI informant. McKiernan argues that suspicion was part of a deliberate campaign of disruption and distrust hatched by FBI officials like David Price, with whom we also get significant face time. Price, McKiernan reports, made a point of arresting Aquash multiple times on high-profile charges and then quickly releasing her with no apparent explanation. (By that time, two FBI agents had been killed in a shootout with AIM members. A jury would dismiss charges against two of the three arrested, finding they’d acted in self-defense. The third, Leonard Peltier, would be convicted based on witness testimony that has since been recanted as coerced. He, however, remains behind bars.)
McKiernan would come to suspect that it was Dennis Banks, the charismatic AIM leader with whom McKiernan had grown close over the years, who ordered the Aquash hit. Banks was having an affair with Aquash at the time, and he had already been successfully targeted by one confirmed informant for the FBI. An older McKiernan asked an older Banks point-blank on camera what role he had in Aquash’s death. Banks’s insistence that he had nothing to do with it proved singularly unconvincing. Almost as unbelievable were similarly strained on-camera denials by former FBI agent Price.
McKiernan has spent the better part of 40 years putting meat on this story’s bones. Little wonder it zigs and zags. How could it not? Wounded Knee, we learn, gave rise to a host of Native American rights laws passed in the 1970s, much in the same fashion so many major environmental laws got passed in the wake of Santa Barbara’s oil spill of 1969. How much difference any of it ultimately made remains dubious. Given the crushing poverty on most reservations, it’s tempting to conclude not much. McKiernan ties the 2016-17 protest at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation — which united a new generation of Native American activists with anti-fracking environmentalists — to Wounded Knee. It feels real, but also forced.
More compelling is the story of Willard Carlson, a Yurok elder now in Northern California, whom we first meet telling us how he went to Wounded Knee ready to wage war. His mother we meet as well. When she heard her son’s plans, she explained to McKiernan, she made sure he was properly equipped. In this case, that meant sending him off with eight rifles.
It might be funny if they hadn’t been dead serious.
Carlson would survive Wounded Knee to return home. There, for the past 25 years, he’s been leading the charge to reestablish the material and spiritual infrastructure to reenergize Yurok culture. McKiernan takes us there and shows us how. As we meet Carlson, it’s easy to understand how McKiernan got sucked into this story. And how he’ll never not be able to tell it.
4•1•1 | From Wounded Knee to Standing Rock: A Reporter’s Journey plays Tuesday, December 10, 7 p.m., at the Marjorie Luke Theatre (721 E. Cota St.). See kevinmckiernan.com.