Stew Magnuson: Wounded Knee 1973 hostages speaking out

The following opinion by Stew Magnuson appears in the latest issue of the Native Sun News Staff Writer. All content © Native Sun News.

Wounded Knee hostages have seen their story whitewashed from history
By Stew Magnuson

Former South Dakota Sen. James Abourezk, taking questions at the Dakota Conference at Augustana College last year, was taken aback when Adrienne Fritze stood up to correct him.

Just a few minutes earlier, Abourezk had cracked wise about the day he went to the occupied village of Wounded Knee two days after the American Indian Movement had taken over.

He suggested that they were all in on some kind of joke with their AIM captors. He had come to negotiate their release. Having failed to do so, he decided that they weren’t captives at all.

The former South Dakota lawmaker didn’t count on another non-AIM witness being in the crowd that day. Fritze, who was 12 years old at the time, was the niece of Clive and Agnes Gildersleeve, the long-time owners of the trading post.

She had read and heard for almost 40 years the misrepresentations of her family in history books, along with AIM’s twisted rationalization for destroying a community, and taking away all their possessions. She was standing right in front of Abourezk, Sen. George McGovern and the TV crew when they came in for the photo op on May 1, 1973.

She did not find Abourezk’s lighthearted anecdote amusing.

I won’t go into the exchange between the two that followed other than to say that Fritze said her and her family were under duress every minute of the almost nine days they were there. They were threatened with knives and guns, and held against their will. The occupiers stole any possession of any value in front of their noses, and they were powerless to stop them.

In short, those fighting for liberty did so by taking others’ liberty away.

Abourezk’s attempt to recover after Fritze confronted him with these uncomfortable facts was quite sad, and one of the low points of a conference that had many low points.

It’s all in the new book, Wounded Knee 1973: Still Bleeding.

The “Still Bleeding” secondary title refers to many who are suffering as a result of the occupation. The Fritzes, Adrienne and her mother Jeanne, the last two living hostages, are among them.

Tim Giago, founder of Indian Country Today and other Indian newspapers including this one, and a former Wounded Knee resident, has written eloquently over the years about the Gildersleeves.

I did not know them personally as he did. All I can say is that since I first began doing research at Pine Ridge almost 10 years ago, I have never met anyone who had a bad word to say against them.

If there is one thing Wounded Knee 1973: Still Bleeding contributes to the historical record, I hope it’s a more balanced description of the hostages, and their predicament.

AIM leaders, and sympathetic historians, have put forth two assertions. One that they were happy and willing hostages. And two, as Russell Means suggested minutes after Abourezk and Fritze’s exchange, that they basically deserved it.

I’m not trying to brag when I say I am the first journalist or historian to interview Adrienne and Jeanne. I just want to point out that I was the first to even bother asking them for 39 years.

That is telling. Writers have accepted the simplistic “crooked white trader” and “willing hostages” narrative for four decades.

The happy and willing hostage’s idea has its roots in quotes that Agnes Gildersleeve and her brother Wilbur Riegert — both Ojibwe — gave to the press.

Agnes, in front of cameras and in private conversations, said she wasn’t sure she wanted to leave. Certainly, she had ambivalent feelings. The stated reason for not wanting to leave was because she feared what would happen to her home of 40 years after she left.

Well guess what happened to her home of 40 years after she left? It was burned to the ground.

Riegert, an elderly wheel-chair bound hostage, I believe has been particularly aggrieved by historians. This was a man who loved Lakota culture and religion and spent his life collecting art and artifacts, and writing unpublished histories about the people he had lived among his entire adult life.

In the book, Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee, authors Paul Chaat Smith and Robert Allen Warrior quote him as telling a print reporter that he sympathized with AIM’s demands.

First of all, interviews given with armed AIM leaders standing a few feet away are done so under duress (You would think a smart guy like Abourezk would know that).

In any case, this is undoubtedly true. Riegert was well aware of all the injustices perpetrated against the Oglala Lakota, would have loved to have seen the Black Hills returned to them, as well as many of the other demands fulfilled.

Like a Hurricane isn’t a completely bad book. But Smith and Warrior cherry picked facts to make Riegert and the Gildersleeves look like villains. It is an influential book, and used as textbook n college classes, so the misconception continues.

The other assertion is that they were corrupt, so they got what was coming to them.

I hope my readers know by now that I don’t back away from uncomfortable facts. And the fact is that the white trader system on Pine Ridge in the first half of the 20th century on Pine Ridge was tremendously corrupt. AIM leaders asserted that the Wounded Knee Trading Post engaged in shady business practices, and Riegert’s museum was exploiting the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890.

I have come across no evidence that the Gildersleeves engaged in such practices. I believe that Riegert was sincere in wanting to share his love and knowledge of the local culture with any tourist who came to see his museum.

I duly note in the book that Jim Czywczynski invoked the Fifth Amendment 95 times in order not to incriminate himself at a Wounded Knee trial when asked about his business practices. (Yes, the same man who tried to sell the Oglala Sioux Tribe the land at Wounded Knee at a huge mark-up last month). He bought the trading post from the Gildersleeves and ran it during its final years.

At the end of the day, the occupiers had no right to take hostages, steal, and loot and destroy lives under any circumstances.

There were many other Wounded Knee residents besides the 11 hostages. Their untold stories will have to wait for another column.

Stew Magnuson ( is the author of Wounded Knee 1973: Still Bleeding, published by the Now & Then Reader. It is available as an eBook on Kindle, Nook, Kobo and iTunes. Buy it in paperback on or bookstores such as Prairie Edge in Rapid City and Plains Trading Co., in Valentine, Neb.

Copyright permission by Native Sun News

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