Newspapers from across the nation and the world found the occupation of Wounded Knee in February 1973 a very hot news item. Reporters came, they saw, and then they wrote about it. Some saw only one side of the story while others retained their objectivity. But have no doubts that the fourth estate was well represented at Wounded Knee.
Bill Kovach, the National Correspondent for the New York Times was there. He became my friend 18 years ago while he was the Curator of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard and he remains my friend today. Kovach went on to become the editor of the Atlanta Constitution but resigned from that newspaper rather than compromise his integrity as a fair and impartial journalist.
He told me over dinner last week in Washington, D. C., that Wounded Knee made a deep and abiding impression on him. “I came away from the experience with a profound sense of disappointment and sadness; disappointment that the American Indian Movement could find no other way to express their frustration than the destructive occupation of the community and the Trading Post. Sadness for those trapped in the cycle of despair of the Pine Ridge Reservation and the fact that the American people could sit quietly by and watch yet another episode unfold of the sorry story of its national government’s lack of will, interest or plan for some true justice in its relationship with the American Indians,” he said.
Kovach met Lakota from both sides of the issue. He interviewed Russell Means and also spent time with Dick Wilson, the elected President of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. He tried to separate the blarney from the facts between the two strong leaders. He came to admire both of them.
Most of the visiting press found rooms at motels in the border towns surrounding the Pine Ridge Reservation and others commuted the 90 plus miles from Rapid City, SD. Lucky ones, like Kovach, John Kifner of the New York Times, and Jimmy Doyle, then with the Boston Globe, found space at Velma’s Hotel in Pine Ridge Village. I say “found space” because all of the rooms were occupied and Kovach and other reporters paid good money to sleep on the floor in the lobby of the hotel.
“One night there was someone pounding on the door and I recall that it was one of those really cold, winter nights. Velma asked me to answer the door and I did. There stood a man dressed in black leather from head to toe. He was a Russian reporter from Pravda and he was demanding a room,” Kovach said. It turned out that Velma didn’t want any “Russian Commie” staying in her hotel, and of course all of her rooms were filled, so she turned the Russian reporter away.
Kovach had rented a car from Hertz in Rapid City. He knew that if he told the car rental agency that he was going to Pine Ridge, they would not have rented him a car, so he told them he was doing a travel piece on Mount Rushmore. He drove the car, filled with other reporters, in and out of Wounded Knee for about a week. Joe Trimbach, the FBI Agent in Charge, turned the Russian reporter away, but allowed Kovach and the other American reporters to enter Wounded Knee.
One freezing day, as he drove across the bridge at Wounded Knee, the rental car hit a patch of ice and skidded off of the bridge landing on its top in the dry creek bed. No one was hurt. Kovach asked Russell Means to keep an eye on the car until he could get a tow truck there. Means said, “Sure, I promise. Don’t worry about it.” The next day when he got back with the wrecker only the burned out skeleton of the car remained. “It had been stripped of everything including the motor,” Kovach said.
As he was sorrowfully looking at the remains of his rental car, Russell Means approached. Kovach said, “I thought you were going to keep an eye on my car.” Means replied, “Oh, I forgot.” Kovach pondered the frightening prospect of being forever banned from ever renting another car from Hertz.
News reporters are oftentimes people unto themselves. They are among some of the wittiest and funniest people I have ever known. I recall the raucous times I spent with my reporters at Indian Country Today and The Lakota Times. Our newsroom was often filled with laughter. And heaven forbid that you screwed up because you made the page we called “Little Notes” in our paper. The New York Times is no exception and has its own in-house publication it calls, “Times Talk.” The week Bill Kovach drove his car off of the bridge at Wounded Knee; he made the front page of Times Talk.
There was a picture of the rental car, burned black and lying on its top and the bold headline read, “Bury My Hertz at Wounded Knee.” It took awhile for Kovach to live that one down.
Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the Class of 1991. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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