Sisters in the struggle: The journey from Wounded Knee
Stephanie Autumn and Madonna Thunder Hawk met at the historic 1973 Native American occupation of a South Dakota town. For Autumn, it was the beginning of her mission to end the womb to prison pipeline for Indigenous people.
When Stephanie Autumn was in her first year of college, she wasn’t sure if she wanted to be an interior decorator, a marine biologist, or an elementary school teacher. Then she went to Wounded Knee.
This year marks the 48th anniversary of the historic Native American occupation of a small South Dakota town. The 1973 stand at Wounded Knee – the site of the 1890 massacre of more than 250 Lakota men, women, and children – lasted for 71 history-changing days. It was the first armed conflict between Native Americans and the government since the final days of the so-called “Indian Wars,” the term that describes the violent process of colonisation in the United States and Canada.
“That is my reference point to everything,” says Autumn, now 67, with long silver hair and a kind demeanour. She relays her story via Zoom from her home in a suburb outside Minneapolis. “It’s how I hold myself accountable. It’s how I see my work. How I view the world, my children, my grandchildren, my relatives. Everything for me is tied to that experience.”
Autumn is a member of the Hopi Nation, a mother, and a grandmother. She is the director of the Tribal Youth Resource Center at the Tribal Law and Policy Institute and the founder of American Indian Prison Project Working Group. She has dedicated her life to trying to dismantle the womb to prison pipeline for Indigenous people and credits her involvement in the Wounded Knee occupation with putting her on that path.
Born in Arizona to a Hopi father and a mother of Irish descent, Autumn had a turbulent childhood. Both of her parents struggled with substance abuse issues. Her father passed away when she was seven and soon after, her mother – still battling with her own sobriety – moved her to California. Autumn was placed in foster care and, from the age of nine until she graduated early from high school at the age of 17 in 1972, she moved from one foster home to another.
At California State University, Northridge, she met her mentor, Jerry Hill (Oneida), an advocate for Indigenous revitalisation and the current president of the Indigenous Language Institute. At the time, an era of social movements focused on race-based reforms was well under way, with movements like Trail of Broken Treaties (a cross-country caravan protest for Indigenous rights), the revolutionary pro-Black politics of the Black Panthers, and United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez all making national headlines. Alongside her studies, Autumn was involved in a local Chumash occupation effort to reclaim stolen Indigenous land in California’s Simi Valley. But, due to being in and out of the foster system, she felt unsure about her place as an Indigenous woman; she knew her land, her relatives, but felt out of touch with the core of her Native identity. Her mentor, she says, sensed that.
“Some people were going to Wounded Knee and [Jerry] advised me that’s probably the best thing I could do. I could always go back and get my education, but going to Wounded Knee would really help me realise what Creator put me on Earth for. Help me realise how to live in this world with the blood that runs through my veins,” she recalls. “So I jumped in the car and I went to Wounded Knee. And that changed my life forever.”
Wounded Knee, ’73
Autumn was only 17 when she entered the occupation. She turned 18 while under US government fire.
Autumn and some acquaintances drove for several days from California to South Dakota, arriving in early March of 1973. At this point, local police along with federal marshals had already surrounded the town.
“I want to say March 2, because the roadblocks weren’t down,” she says, pausing to recall the date in her memory. “Or was it March 1? Because I think the roadblocks came down March 2.”
The occupation of Wounded Knee had begun on February 27 that year – what is now known in many Indigenous circles as “Liberation Day.” Some two hundred members of the American Indian Movement (AIM), a faction of the even broader Red Power Movement, seized control of the town under the cover of nightfall. The move had followed a de facto war between the pro-assimilation tribal chairman of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, Dick Wilson, and residents of Pine Ridge who sought to preserve traditional Lakota lifeways. Allegations of corruption and abuse were rampant, as was suffering on Pine Ridge. There were high rates of suicide, poverty, and substance misuse.
Founded in the nearby Twin Cities, AIM began as a grassroots mobilisation of young Indigenous people fighting the colonial violence of police brutality and degradation of Indigenous culture. Some of AIM’s members had been party previously to the Red Power occupation of Alcatraz (1969-1971) and Mount Rushmore (1970 and 1971) in the pursuit of a recognition of the rights agreed upon in Native nations’ treaties with the US government.
Madonna Thunder Hawk, 81, a fierce and prominent AIM leader and a veteran of both Alcatraz and Mount Rushmore recalls meeting Autumn during her 71 days inside the Wounded Knee trenches.
“[We met] under fire. She was there, she wasn’t just a pretty face walking around,” Thunder Hawk notes, recalling Autumn as an active member of the occupation, and not some casual spectator. “And she did an important volunteer job.”
Thunder Hawk, alongside nurse and fellow movement leader Lorelei DeCora Means, led the efforts at the several medic stations located within Wounded Knee. They handled everything from basic first aid to bullet wounds born from almost nightly rounds of ammunition fire between AIM and federal agents. Autumn recalls the immediate admiration she felt for the Oohenumpa Lakota woman, who was 33 years old at the time of the standoff.
“Madonna was a leader already, then,” Autumn says, remembering her first days hanging around some other “newbies,” wide-eyed at the spectacle of this unprecedented event in contemporary American history. She doesn’t recall ever formally approaching Thunder Hawk. “I never really got to be like ‘Hey I’m Steph!’… But I was just in awe of her. I wondered ‘Will I ever have that core? Will I ever have that presence, and that clearness and that determination?’”
You had to learn how to survive, you had to learn to call up your courage, you had to learn to hold your own, to contribute to the greater good, and sort out who you were as a young woman and what you could contribute.
Life on the inside of the occupation was a sharp contrast to everything Autumn had previously known. Having grown up in foster care, Wounded Knee was her first exposure to extended Indigenous kinship, where multiple communal networks had to work together and divide up tasks to operate daily life inside the camp. Aside from more spotlighted duties like artillery personnel, intricate systems of care had to be established for functions like washing and cooking. Women played a pivotal role in day-to-day survival inside Wounded Knee. And on the outside, support systems of backpackers, travelling in darkness, assisted with food and medical supplies, and helped with communication. Because she was young, AIM leadership assigned Autumn to security duty.
“Every day was like, as [Leonard] Crow Dog would say, ‘the University of the Universe’. You had to learn how to survive, you had to learn to call up your courage, you had to learn to hold your own, to contribute to the greater good, and sort out who you were as a young woman and what you could contribute,” Autumn remembers. “I had never been to an inipi (sweat lodge) ceremony before. First one was at Wounded Knee. I had never seen a Ghost Dance. I had never dodged bullets [before] Wounded Knee.”
By mid-April, bad news arrived from Arizona through the Wounded Knee lawyers: Autumn’s mother had passed away. Travelling to and from the barricades meant risking arrest from state and/or federal law enforcement. But thanks to the efforts of the Wounded Knee Legal Defense/Offense Committee (WKLDOC), a body of lawyers formed to defend and raise money for those inside the occupation, Autumn was able to leave and travel back home without being apprehended.
“By the time I got back, the services had already happened,” she notes. “So I got another ticket and came back, and went into Rapid City. Because I had already been [inside], I was able to get back in.”
The barricades she returned to resembled a warzone, with federal agents shooting two Indigenous men and wounding several other occupiers during the final weeks of the standoff. By the end, a US marshal and an FBI agent were also seriously wounded.
Autumn remained at the occupation until a surrender agreement was reached on May 8, 1973.
Several AIM leaders were swiftly arrested – some subsequently had their charges dismissed over the government’s unlawful handling of evidence. Others, like Leonard Peltier, went underground but continued to be targeted by the FBI. The aftermath of Wounded Knee would continue to unravel in the years that followed, with the infamous 1975 incident on Pine Ridge that resulted in Peltier being sentenced to two consecutive life terms for the shootings of two FBI agents – despite serious doubts about the fairness of his trial.
Continuing the momentum
A decade later – “marriages later, lifetimes later,” Autumn jokes – the young woman found herself back on Pine Ridge, working out of an AIM office in Porcupine, South Dakota. An Oglala man, Basil Brave Heart, invited her to a Talking Circle at Oglala Lakota College – an event she had never attended before. Brave Heart was organising the Circles for Lakota men and women in recovery and to promote wellness in the community. This invite, she said, started her journey working in Restorative Practices for relatives in the state and federal prison system.
In the years since Wounded Knee, Autumn had become deeply involved in the defence of people brought into the legal system for their role in the occupation and its aftermath, including Peltier, who is still incarcerated at the age of 76 and is not eligible for parole again until 2024. Having witnessed what unfolded following Wounded Knee, Autumn began researching the racial disparities facing Native Americans in the judicial system – illuminating the “womb to prison pipeline” that disproportionately affects tribal communities.
While the data is often lacking, Native Americans historically have and continue to be vastly overrepresented in the US carceral system. Native men are four times more likely to go to prison than white men, while Native women are six times more likely than white women. In addition, more jails continue to be built in Indian Country, enabling a further rise in incarceration rates.
“Incarcerated Indigenous people and people of colour, are the feeders to keeping the un-justice system,” she says. “We’re the quarters and dollar bills that pay prison administrators salaries.”
At the same time, Thunder Hawk and several other key women of the Red Power movement were mobilising under the banner of Women of All Red Nations (WARN). Co-founded by Thunder Hawk, WARN was created in the late 1970s to combat gender-specific attacks on Indigenous sovereignty, such as uranium mining in the Black Hills and the subsequent reproductive emergencies (miscarriages and birth defects) it caused for Indigenous women exposed to irradiated water. The collective’s South Dakota leaders – Means, Thunder Hawk, Phyllis Young, Lakota Harden, Pat Bellanger, and others – challenged the systemic injustices of continued colonisation: coerced sterilisation in the medical industry, Indigenous erasure in education, the stealing of tribal children into the (white-run) foster care system, and the continued oppression of incarcerated Native Americans in the prison system.
Autumn and Thunder Hawk lived together for a time in South Dakota, and frequently travelled together across the Dakotas for events and direct actions.
“During the early ’80s, I worked with [Autumn] in the Rapid City area,” recalls Thunder Hawk. “We worked on the Peltier case and just different things having to do with all the people who were indicted. And she’s been working ever since.”
While Thunder Hawk and fellow Wounded Knee veteran Lorelei DeCora Means had a special knack for issues of land rights and reproduction matters, Autumn classifies her roles as more of the “prison arm” of the group. She worked closely with the lawyers of WKLDOC and the “hundreds” of South Dakota Native Americans in the system to support the needs of incarcerated Indigenous people, both culturally and materially.
Thunder Hawk was a constant source of guidance and support for Autumn’s organising efforts.
“Even when I messed up …” Autumn admits, “Madonna was there to guide, to say, ‘I think I know something here, you can listen or you can find out the hard way.’ Most of the time I listened, and sometimes, I found out the hard way. But even when I didn’t listen, she always brought me back in and helped dust me off and she never shamed or blamed me. You couldn’t ask for a better sister.”
Autumn, who had struggled with her identity for many years, soon felt like she knew her place thanks to the movement and to Thunder Hawk’s role as mentor and relative. As a girl, Autumn was “too dark” to fit in among white girls, and didn’t feel Native enough in Indigenous circles. But with Madonna Thunder Hawk, it was different.
“I always had a place. I always had work. [Madonna] would always encourage me. She would see the strengths that I carried more than any challenges in me. And that’s rare. It’s really rare.”
Organising at the intersection of the many issues facing Indigenous families at the time, Autumn spent much of her energy examining ways to help relatives on the inside of the carceral system, and ways to support them when they returned to prison life. Autumn moved to the Twin Cities area with her four children in 1983, where she describes the “bubbling up” of the movement around restorative justice.
However, Autumn prefers the term “Restorative Practices”.
“Restorative justice is really the Western model,” she clarifies. “It’s really rooted in a Western paradigm and Western structure, whereas Restorative Practices is rooted in an Indigenous worldview.”
While the paradigm of restorative justice focuses on authority and discipline, restorative practices centre around concepts more aligned with community and healing. Shifting from one paradigm to the other aims for more holistic and transformative solutions to community safety.
There are people who are in it for the long haul, and she’s one of them.
While in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, Autumn worked in the community to raise the issues of mass incarceration of Native people. She took on work with Heart of the Earth Prison Project and the Council on Crime and Justice, organisations that sought to treat root level sources of injustice towards Indigenous relatives, and eventually enrolled at the William Mitchell College of Law to study Family Group Decision Making Conferencing and financed her own research on the Maori people and their traditional model of repairing family and community harm.
In 2002, Autumn became the director of the Minnesota Restorative Justice Campaign, working with Doug Hall, founder of the Legal Rights Center. Together, they began a statewide campaign to tackle policies and law enforcement tactics that disproportionately impacted Indigenous community members, especially the youth. All this was done, she says, with an emphasis on bringing lessons and learning back to the Native community.
In the decades since, Autumn has been recognised nationally and internationally for her significant expertise in tribal justice frameworks, substance abuse prevention, trauma-informed practices, and other similar fields. But she’s quick to emphasise that the work is never truly done.
“That’s the thing about Restorative Practices: even though I’m this old, I’ll be practising and learning until I cross over to the Spirit World. Because in the Indigenous model, we believe every day you’re learning,” Autumn states. “It’s not just a Circle or a Family Group, it’s not doing a training. That’s not it … It’s how we are utilising these ways to create systems change within our own communities, within our own families.”
A lasting impression
Reflecting on her work with Autumn and their shared time at Wounded Knee, Thunder Hawk points to Autumn’s continued effort for the larger movement for Indigenous self-determination. In Thunder Hawk’s words, Autumn is a “doer,” someone who “keeps it real.”
“There are people who are in it for the long haul, and she’s one of them. And let me tell you, they’re few and far between!” she laughs. “But they’re still there, and she’s steady, and she’s stable, and she’s committed … And of course, she’s raised her family the same way. Her children and grandchildren. She’s handed it down, that commitment. The cause.”
For Autumn, the importance of Wounded Knee – of the movement – cannot be overstated.
“When I went to Wounded Knee I had never witnessed, I had never heard, I had never seen people who were willing to lay down their lives because they loved their people. Because they loved the land,” Autumn reflects, her tone soft and reminiscent. “The blessing was that I was able to witness it. I was able to see it, hear it, feel it. And when you’re able to witness that type of courage, that type of love, it forever changes your life.”
She emphasises that those 71 days inform how she sees everything in her world: her children, her grandchildren, her work, her people’s lifeways. She says she also sees it ripple across modern events, with the day-to-day struggle continuing.
“For me, the parallels of Wounded Knee run across everything,” Autumn says when asked if she sees similarities between the current moment around social justice and her own personal history. “Because unfortunately, when we look at 1973 and the education system, the justice system, the lack of resources, you know, everything, what has changed? Nothing has changed. The world has changed. But the disparities of everything that our people face, it hasn’t changed enough.”
The 1973 stand in South Dakota, and the organising that followed, left an indelible mark on American history, and arguably galvanised a movement for Indigenous rights on a global scale. But here, in the US, Indigenous people continue to struggle for their freedom.
“Gas. Guns. APCs. You name it,” Autumn says in reference to the 2016 occupation at Standing Rock against the Dakota Access pipeline, noting its similarities to the struggle at Wounded Knee. “This group of human beings, young to older, they stood. I think everything that I’ve witnessed moving forward is really tied to that standing at Wounded Knee. For me, that’s the hope. I’ll never be able to forget it.”
For both women, the sisterhood born from their time at Wounded Knee is something that can never be broken.
“This is what Native women have always done throughout our history,” says Thunder Hawk, recalling the generations of Indigenous women like her who have been mentored by their own matriarchs. She speaks proudly of Autumn, referring to their relationship as a sisterhood, but being careful to highlight their 14 year age difference. “I consider her a sister, a younger sister. Because it was forged in fire. We were under the gun, literally, so we have that bond. That will always be there.”
Autumn’s words echo the same comradery. For her, the connection from the movement, to her sisters in the struggle, to her family and her work are all bound together in the fight for liberation.
“It doesn’t matter how long it’s been. That connection from Wounded Knee, it’s this lifetime into the next. There isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for Madonna,” she says. “I always share with people, that I don’t trust this corrupt US government but what I know for sure is that I would give anything to any of my brothers and sisters that were in the Knee and I would give my life for our lifeways, the land, my children, my grandchildren, Restorative Practices. Those things I know to be true. There is no other truth in the world to me except those things and they are the air I breathe and inform how I move in this world.”