- Posted By: Bryan Chan
- Posted On: 6:42 p.m. | February 27, 2013
The 40th anniversary of the Wounded Knee occupation is Feb. 27. Photographer Jim Hubbard was there and gave us this account of those days covering the event for United Press International:
During the cold of winter in late February 1973, UPI dispatched me to the village of Wounded Knee, S.D., on the Pine Ridge Reservation. A heavily armed radical group of Native Americans, members of the American Indian Movement (AIM), began an occupation of Wounded Knee. AIM stormed Wounded Knee after they had attempted to impeach the elected tribal president, Richard Wilson, whom they accused of corruption and abuse of opponents. They also protested the U.S. government’s failure to fulfill treaties with Indian peoples and demanded the reopening of treaty negotiations. They were prepared for a fight when the U.S. military and government officers, including the FBI, surrounded Wounded Knee.
The government cut off the electricity to Wounded Knee and attempted to keep all food supplies from entering the area. For 71 days, the men and women in Wounded Knee lived on minimal resources during their standoff with the federal forces.
Without lodging on the reservation, I secured a spot on a concrete floor in a Pine Ridge Catholic Church’s basement, where I could spread my sleeping bag. But more important than where I would sleep was a need for a makeshift darkroom with water, electricity and a telephone. The priest was gracious and hospitable. He showed me the basement. It was dark and dingy. However, in this house of God, I was provided for. It had a small kitchen and bathroom and, lo and behold, a telephone that sometimes worked. The church was only a short drive from Wounded Knee.
When I was on the road for an assignment, I carried a large suitcase that contained the equipment for a portable darkroom. Another smaller case contained a portable transmitter. For the transmitter, I needed a phone or jack, and with my handy screwdriver I could take the phone apart and attach the wires inside the phone or on a wall jack, enabling me to use the portable transmitter to transmit the photos. The 8-by-10 photo was attached to a drum that revolved and was scanned by a light moving across the image, converting it to sound waves over the phone lines that delivered it as a print to receivers at newspapers around the world.
I also carried a hair dyer to dry the film and prints and a small portable typewriter to type captions. I used Kodak HC100 developer, as it was fast, and I could have a roll of film developed in about four minutes, put in fixer for two minutes, washed for a few seconds and ready to make prints. I was known to be one of the fastest wire service photographers ever. None of these methods are archival, but the only concern we had was getting an image to our clients as quickly as humanly possible. UPI’s slogan was “a deadline every minute.” So be it if the film started fading an hour later due to the short fixing and washing time.
South Dakota was one of the states I was assigned to cover for UPI from my home base in Omaha, and I was familiar with much of the state. In 1972, I spent two weeks in the Black Hills to cover Sen. George McGovern’s vacation after he was selected as the Democrats’ presidential candidate. I visited Wounded Knee during that time. I had also been assigned to cover a flash flood in Rapid City, S.D., less than a year before the Wounded Knee occupation, that killed 250 people.
When I first arrived at Wounded Knee, my objective was to learn the lay of the land in the rugged, hilly Northern Plains. The land was desolate and isolated. Entering Wounded Knee, I saw rundown shacks and old, weather-beaten trailers that housed the residents. There was a log cabin trading post, more like a grocery store, in the center of the village. It had one gas pump in front, but the large underground gas tank was empty. AIM used the trading post as its headquarters during the occupation. Armed young Indians, with a few white supporters, wandered in and out. Pine Ridge was considered one of the poorest counties in America.
Nearby, a white wooden Catholic Church, Sacred Heart, was topped with a steeple, and beside it was nestled a cemetery, the burial site of those who died in the 1890 massacre by the U.S. Army’s 7th Cavalry. Today, a crumbling concrete foundation next to the cemetery is all that remains of the picturesque Sacred Heart Catholic Church, once one of the most recognizable symbols of the 1973 occupation. The historic church was burned down by AIM in the final days of the siege.
The thing that concerned me most about covering the story were the roaming groups of young Indians and their supporters, armed with weapons with their fingers on the triggers. They were careless and often pointed their guns in the direction of anything moving, including me. They remarked incessantly about how they wanted to kill the white man and added “even you.” It happened so often that the threat lost its effect. But some of these still-wet-behind-the-ears kids also seemed to me to be mentally unstable.
Every morning I had to pass two roadblocks to get to Wounded Knee. One was controlled and manned by the FBI, and the other, one mile farther, was controlled by AIM militants. Journalists were required to have our cars searched along with full body searches at both roadblocks. Same drill when leaving the village at night. The feds also checked the fuel level of our vehicles and warned that if excessive fuel was used once inside the Indian stronghold, we could be prosecuted for aiding and abetting the Indians. We always told the feds that sometimes gas got siphoned from our cars.
The young AIM and Oglala Sioux warriors often asked, “What do you have for us today?” They demanded that allowing us entry would minimally require candy bars and cigarettes, both small items they knew we could hide in our camera bags. Before leaving Pine Ridge, I went to the grocery store, bought cigarettes and candy, then hid the items under my cameras in the bag for the Indians at Wounded Knee.
Firefights during the evening hours raged, in which the feds and Indians exchanged thousands of rounds of ammunition, most never hitting intended targets. Near the end of the siege, U.S. marshals estimated that in one day during one of their regular firefights, they fired 6,550 rounds and the occupiers fired 1,875.
Considering that the drama lasted for more than 70 days, the siege took on an aura of the longest theatrical production in history to gain the world’s attention. I came to know many of the Native Americans well, including two of their most illustrious leaders: Russell Means and Dennis Banks. They would often ask me if I was able to get the pictures I needed. We discussed their tactics, and they assured me of their cooperation. I learned a great deal about the two, and they attempted to educate me about the plight of Native Americans throughout American history.
Over the course of the standoff, my UPI photos appeared in most major publications around the world and domestically in the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Time magazine and Newsweek. The photo of the Indian holding a rifle perched on the church steeple was on front pages around the world.
After the media sensationalism surrounding Wounded Knee, Marlon Brando refused to accept his Oscar for his performance in “The Godfather” (1972) and arranged for Sacheen Littlefeather to speak on his behalf at the ceremonies to protest Hollywood’s treatment of American Indians in films. Another Hollywood giant, Paul Newman, sympathized with the seizure of Wounded Knee and actually arranged for supplies to be smuggled into Wounded Knee.
Nearly 20 years later, I returned to Wounded Knee to teach Native American youth on the Pine Ridge Reservation photography so they could document their own lives for a photo exhibit in Washington, D.C., in a field now called participatory photography. A photographic book of the kids’ images was also published, “Shooting Back From the Reservation: A Photographic View of Life by Native American Youth,” with a forword written by AIM leader Dennis Banks. I took several of the young people to the exhibition opening at the Washington Project for the Arts. The day before the opening, we had a private meeting with President Clinton, and one of our star photographers from Pine Ridge, 18-year-old Davidica Little Spotted Horse, giggled when Clinton said to her, “I love your name.”
Currently I am an adjunct professor in USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, where I teach two classes: Visual Communication and Social Change, and the Visual Communication of Death in the Digital Age. Also I serve as the creative director of documentary projects at Venice Arts, in Venice, Calif., and travel, implement and consult with groups in the Middle East, Africa and Asia who want photographic projects for their youth. I have recently completed a soon-to-be-published book, “The Negative Image of a Do-Gooder.” The book is about how my career as a photojournalist intersected and influenced my spiritual journey. Finally, I continue producing my own images when inspired.
See more of Hubbard’s work