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Oglala Sioux Tribal President Theresa Two Bulls apologized to tribal members Monday for giving permission for three Colorado Army National Guard helicopters to land near the Wounded Knee Massacre site Saturday as part of an educational program.

“I did not intend to be disrespectful,” she said during an Oglala Sioux Tribal Council meeting in Pine Ridge. “I just wanted to open the door, to start communication, and I apologize that there’s a lack of communication.”

But descendants of massacre victims and survivors, many of whom protested the Black Hawk helicopters’ arrival Saturday, said the way the visit was handled was “disrespectful and appalling.”

“That’s a sacred site,” said Phyllis Hollow Horn, president of the Wounded Knee community. “Blood was spilled there by our relatives, by the United States 7th Cavalry.”

That was the story Guardsmen came to hear. According to a news release from Two Bulls’ office, the Colorado National Guard requested permission about two weeks ago to visit Wounded Knee. At the site, massacre descendant Marie Fox Belly was to tell the Guardsmen how U.S. soldiers killed nearly 300 Native Americans there on Dec. 29, 1890.

“The opportunity to hear the true stories from the descendants of the Wounded Knee Massacre would enable the National Guard members to realize the consequences of weak leadership,” the news release states.

Two Bulls said she informed Wounded Knee District tribal council representatives Garfield Little Dog and Philip Jumping Eagle of the visit but received no response. She also informed the local Community Action Program (CAP) office and spoke on KILI radio about the Guard’s visit.

Somehow, though, Wounded Knee residents didn’t get the message until Friday or Saturday. For them, seeing three Black Hawk helicopters descending over the mass grave site where their ancestors lie buried touched off deep-seated fears and emotions.

As a descendant of massacre survivors, Wilma Thin Elk of Manderson grew up hearing the story of Wounded Knee. “I thought, ‘So are we going to be the next ones to lay here, to get killed here?’” she said.

A five-minute cell phone video posted on You Tube shows the three helicopters approaching the site. One touches down, staying on the ground for about 30 seconds before taking off again.

The video shows about 20 people who can be heard shouting, “We don’t want United States military here!” and “This is our land!”

Debra White Plume of Manderson described how people of all ages, some carrying sage or eagle feathers, went running toward the helicopters. She said several women ran under the choppers as they attempted to land, waving banners and a United Nations flag and refusing to move. The helicopters eventually left.

Tribal Police Chief Everett Little Whiteman said his office was notified of the visit and officers were there to provide security. He called the incident a “peaceful protest.”

One local resident observed that many in the community “don’t like military around” because of the history of Wounded Knee. “Something bad could have happened, the way that was handled,” he said.

“There should have been some kind of communication but there wasn’t,” Hollow Horn said Monday. “I’m just kind of disappointed in our tribal president.”

Two Bulls took full responsibility at Monday’s council meeting for the mishap, saying council members had nothing to do with it.

“I apologize if I was disrespectful to anybody,” she said. “But as a leader you have to make choices. And in the past, you’ve seen tourist buses going up there to the (Wounded Knee) site.

“Why have not the descendants and the people of that community complained about that?” she asked. “That’s been going on for many years.”

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Two Bulls also called on tribal members to help set up a meeting of all Wounded Knee descendants from the Oglala and other tribes.

Tribal council members then approved a resolution by Little Dog that the tribe and its members not allow the U.S. military to come “anywhere near” the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre mass grave out of honor and respect for the dead.

In a news release from the Colorado Army National Guard, Maj. Gen. H. Michael Edwards, the adjutant general of Colorado, said the Guard had welcomed the opportunity to “participate in paying tribute to those who lost their lives there (at Wounded Knee).”

“As a 150-year-old, community-based organization, we value heritage and the importance of remembering those who came before us,” he stated. “Due to our concern for the safety of citizens on the ground who were closely observing our arrival, we chose to depart the area.”

The release also quoted Colorado public affairs officer Army Capt. Michael Odgers, who said that “while the Battle of Wounded Knee is a dark chapter in the history of the Army, without learning from the mistakes of our past we are doomed to repeat them.”

“This trip was taken to better understand our shared histories, and we hope those who protested the visit can begin to understand our motives,” Odgers stated. “It’s unfortunate that this valuable learning opportunity was lost, and we sincerely apologize for any misunderstanding this visit created.”

On Monday, Thin Elk said she was still trying to make sense of what happened Saturday.

“We have an airport in Pine Ridge. Why didn’t they land over there and come to the site … in a car?” she asked. “What was the whole point?”

Contact Heidi Bell Gease at 394-8419 or heidi.bell@rapidcityjournal.com

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