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. 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 rather than compromise his editorial integrity.
He told me over dinner in Washington, D. C. last week 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 people 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 communted the 90 miles from Rapid City. 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 the other reporters paid good money to sleep on the floor in the hotel lobby.
"One cold night someone was pounding on the door and Velma asked me to answer the door. There stood a man dressed in black leather from the top of his head to his toes. He was a Russian reporter from Pravda and he was demanding a room," Kovach said. It turned out the Velma didn't want any "Russian Commie" staying at her hotel so she turned the Russian away.
Kovach had rented a car from Hertz in Rapid City. He knew that if he told the rental agency that he was going to Pine Ridge they would never have rented him a car so he told them he was doing a travel piece on Mount Rushmore. He drove the car filled with 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 his fellow reporters access to Wounded Knee.
One cold day as he drove across the bridge entering 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 and Kovach was embarrassed. He asked Russell Means to keep an eye on the car until he could get a tow truck. Means said, "Sure, I promise." The next day when Kovach returned with the wrecker only the burned out hulk of the car remained. "It had been stripped of everything including the motor," Kovach said.
News reporters are oftentimes people unto themselves. They are among 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 if you screwed up because you made the page we called "Little Notes" in our paper. The New York Times 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 resting 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 najournalist[at]msn.com