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VVAW Remembers Native American Struggle
By Ann Hirschman
Reprinted from the Spring 1993 issue of The Veteran
I tried to write a couple of lines and seven pages came out. I guess I write like I talk.
I wrote this thirty years ago and it still brings me back to the experience of Wounded Knee. It was my honor to have been there and the experience has informed my life in profound ways.
I felt like a very small unimportant cog in a great wheel. I hope that the tone of what I wrote isn't misleading. The courage and strength of the AIM people, especially the Wounded Knee residents, was and is an inspiration.
The most difficult part of this memoir is that Leonard Peltier is still in prison, Anna Mae Aquash is dead at the hands of the FBI, and things on the reservations have changed far too little in 50 years.
We all have to keep on keeping on.
Love to all,
When I got the message that Barry wanted an article about Wounded Knee I thought: "Why now?" When he said it was the 20th anniversary I thought: "NO WAY," but it's true!
Twenty years ago I was in Fort Lauderdale (a relative political backwater) hoping for a few months of normal life. Peter Schnall, a doctor I'd known from the Medical Committee for Human Rights, called to recruit medics at Wounded Knee. I said: "Sure, I'll go if I'm needed."
I was young, single, temporarily between jobs and addicted to the adrenaline rush you get in emergency medicine. Did I forget to mention stupid?
Five weeks later I was on my way. The first complication came at the airport where I discovered that the MOST DIRECT flight to Rapid City, South Dakota, had three stops and a plane change in Chicago. It took the agent 35 minutes to write up the ticket. When I mentioned that the two guys in suits behind me in line would want to go on the same plane, she cried.
We'd heard that people trying to go to "The Knee" were being "detained" under various pretexts. I noticed that these people had tried to go solo, so I called Chicago VVAW and asked for support. I'm finally able to thank you guys for getting me to my second plane intact and not in handcuffs.
At Rapid City, I was met by a scared lawyer from Mark Lane's crew. He seemed bent on getting "informed consent" and kept saying cheerful stuff like: "you DO know that there is shooting going on?"
After assuring the lawyers that I was prepared to risk my ass, I was introduced to a pediatrician named Mike from California, who was to be my partner for a few weeks. We got into the chopper. Next war I get the one with doors? We had a nice trip 'til the FBI tried to shoot us down.
Our pilot decided to land at the FBI checkpoint because he didn't have a death wish. We were strip-searched (you haven't lived 'til you've been nude, in an APC, in the winter, in South Dakota). A lot of our stuff was confiscated. They took our toilet paper and tampons, so we couldn't make Molotov cocktails (for you skeptics, NOBODY could make this shit up!) They took all the cigarettes they could find. They did give us back our clothes.
Finally, we were in Wounded Knee. After all of the chaos getting there, it was a haven of peace. The outgoing medics briefed us and introduced us to the Medicine Men in charge (Black Elk and Crow Dog) and left.
One of the first people I met was Eva, a nurse from the AIM chapter in Kansas. She asked me if I knew how to shoot and if I'd agree to provide first-line security in the "infirmary." I mentioned I could shoot and was issued an M-1 for the duration. Later, on speaking gigs for the Wounded Knee Legal Committee, I was often asked about the rumored sexism inside. I pointed out that there was limited ammo and that it was not a great time to teach people to shoot.
It only took a few hours to see that there was a real problem with both communication and deliveries to us from the outside world. On my first night, the most useful thing I did was to help Dennis Banks print the newsletter by recycling waste ink.
Several of the people in the Knee were vets and their ability to cope with the firefights and aftermath really helped me. I would take cues from them as to how to act and it really helped me survive and not do anything insensitive to the other people there.
There was one big firefight while I was in and I was scared green until I had some patients to fix. Frank Clearwater had just come in with his pregnant wife when the shit hit. He was with several others in the church on the hill when he got shot. I was about 300 yards away when I got called and two guys who were "runners" helped me up the hill.
Inside the one-room building, it was horrible. Frank had been hit in the head behind his ear and the back of his head was gone. The doctor was a quarter of a mile away, there was shooting going on, and I'd never been trained as a brain surgeon. I tried, it wasn't enough. Maybe nothing would have helped, but I tried. Frank was evacuated under white flags (they kept shooting anyway) to the infirmary, still barely alive. Mike (the doctor) and I and, more importantly, the Medicine Men, were afraid that we needed to get Frank to a hospital. We decided that Mike would ride with him to insure that he actually got care when he arrived. Frank Clearwater died a few days later.
Now we had no doctor and, for one, my arrogance stood me in good stead as I was too conceited to be scared. I also still had the benefit of Black Elk, Crow Dog, and Eva to work with.
The next casualty was a guy whose name I still can't use because I don't know his legal status. He took a hit in the arm and there was an entry wound but no exit. We had no X-ray machine and the arm was twice its normal size. I knew that if we didn't get the bullet out we might lose the arm or the patient despite the few antibiotics we had. Black Elk advised a sweat lodge to try to get an idea. This was not in my nursing school books but ANYTHING was worth a try,
A Sweat Lodge is like a sauna, only a lot hotter. The ceremony seems very simple. A group of people, usually led by a Medicine Man, meditate and ask for help while seated in a circle around superheated rocks.
Despite the 28-degree outdoor temperature, the sweat is done in the nude. The sweat lodge is so intense that people basically melt when they get out. Mike took his pulse after his first sweat and it was over 200!
After this sweat, Black elk ordered us back to the infirmary. We RAN back. I would have bet against being able to walk.
Black Elk then found the bullet, easily! We were able to remove it. The arm slowly started to look like a human limb again.
Then there was Cooper. I've always said that only the good die young and that Al Cooper will live to 143. He didn't have to test the theory the week I met him. Vets are like that! Al was on the security team and decided to fix a radio on his time off. He did forget to unplug it. He had ammo belts across his chest. The current passed through his heart. Eva had never put in an IV but she did great. We now had a patient with a pulse of 31 (not really compatible with a long life). Usually, I'd have done an EKG but we didn't have one. So we punted. I finally felt like I'd got one right when Al woke up and demanded to go back on patrol.
I could bore everybody with more gory stories but enough already.
There was an incident near the end of my stay that taught me again that you can't believe the feds. There had been a foray to a neighboring ranch and the people got back in time for the evening news. The lead story was of the burning down (by arson) of this ranch. We ran outside. We looked at the ranch. We were CONFUSED! Later that night a bunch of tracer bullets hit the ranch and we weren't confused anymore.
Then it was time to leave. We thought the new crew would be fine if they listened to Black Elk and Crow Dog.
Our exit was negotiated with the FBI. With us was a very sick young girl who needed medical care outside. The FBI had not checked with BIA tribal police goons and they had other ideas. We watched as our patient and the FBI were about to leave us with the goons. I did not expect, at that point, to get out. BIA goons had "eliminated" other people leaving Wounded Knee and we knew it.
One of the most conflicted moments of my life was when our patient got so much worse that the FBI got scared for her—and came back for us. (I was GLAD to be in FBI custody and, maybe, glad that the patient needed us, and guilty for being glad.) I must have spent too much time with the Mother Cabrini Brigade.
The FBI took our patient to the hospital and left us with a couple of people at a farmhouse in the middle of a field. The people were supposed to be "liaison" people from Washington. It felt like a hard-cop soft-cop game to me. That night, after a meal (?) of what looked like WWII C-rats, we were rescued by a wonderful guy in a Toyota 4WD and brought back to Rapid City. We had showers, cigarettes, and Pepsi all at the same time.
My next stop was the national VVAW meeting at Placitas. I do not remember the trip, I do not remember the camp-out, I do not remember Annie Bailey being there. It's a good thing you vets taught me about PTSD, or I might worry about this.
I don't know how to finish this. There are too many people to thank to list everybody. I learned more than I taught and got more that I gave. I have tried to use the lessons and gifts as best I could.
Ann Hirschman is a nurse and has been a respected member of VVAW for over 50 years. She is a board member of VVAW.
Ann Hirschman at Wounded Knee, 1973. Photo by Anne Pearse Hocker.
Wounded Knee, 1973.