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Native American professor publishes new book on American Indian movement

STANFORD -- He was only 9 years old at the time of the 1973 siege of Wounded Knee by the Oglala Sioux, but Robert Warrior will never forget the prime-time event that brought international attention to the concerns of American Indians.

"The thing I remember most clearly was Marlon Brando refusing the Academy Award," says the assistant professor of English. "In his place Sacheen Littlefeather tried to make a speech ­ and got booed off the stage."

Warrior revisits the activism that swept Indian country from 1969 to 1973 in the recently published Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee (New York: The New Press). Warrior, a member of the Osage nation, co-wrote the book with Paul Chaat Smith, a Comanche who writes and lectures on Indian art and politics.

"People who've read it say to me, 'I thought it was going to be a heavy book about injustice,'" Warrior says. "Instead, we tried to tell a story that would be a biography of a period, from the revolutionary euphoria that surrounded Alcatraz to the sense of sobering reality that followed Wounded Knee."

The narrative is focused on three events:

  • The 19-month occupation of Alcatraz by 78 young Indians. The occupation began in November 1969 as an attempt to reclaim "surplus federal land" granted to Indians under the terms of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, but lost its idealistic appeal when "street punks" took control.
  • The unplanned occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in 1972. It was launched by a caravan of protesters who were prohibited from camping in the nation's capital and quickly collapsed in a "logistics meltdown."
  • The 1973 American Indian Movement-supported takeover of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation that lasted 71 days and cost the lives of two Indian defenders.

The book grew out of "a profound dissatisfaction with the existing narratives of this crucial period in Indian and American history," the two authors write in their foreword. "Our focus is not on the U.S. government's failed policies or on police repression, but on how Indian people, for a brief and exhilarating time, staged a campaign of resistance and introspection unmatched in this century."

Warrior and Smith spent five years researching three pivotal years. They interviewed Indian leaders and searched indexes of news broadcasts to compile an account "where not everything is red or white."

As a result, Warrior says, some sections of the book "reflect negatively" on the Indian struggle.

"What the story tells us is that by the time you get to Wounded Knee, there was a recognition among a lot of people of just how deeply rooted the problems [in the Indian movement] were ­ that there was a tremendous amount of thankless work that needed to be done."

Warrior, who has written for the alternative press since his high school days, says he took a Jimmy Breslin-like approach to researching the book.

"I wanted to stand at the back of the room and find people who hadn't given their stories before."

As the book evolved, the dramatic story began to tell itself. The takeover of Alcatraz, for example, had figured as a single paragraph in the proposal Warrior and Smith sold to the publisher. But in the final text it occupies four of the first five chapters.

"We discovered that a lot of things happened in the course of 19 months," Warrior says. "Leadership changed, agendas changed and the population itself changed."

When the takeover began in November, it was led by c