Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

May 1, 2013

Yellow Thunder Camp -- First Hand, First Year

Yellow Thunder Camp -- First Hand, First Year

Copyright Scott Barta, Dakota
Posted with permission at Censored News

On April 4th, 1981 my favorite cousin, Ihanktunwan Hoksina "Yankton Boy" Greg Zephier, Sr., brought three Tipis (borrowed from brother Al who was on the Pierre Indian School Board) to Porcupine, SD on the Pine Ridge Lakota Sioux Reservation to take on the caravan that would take us into the Sacred Black Hills to reclaim and utilize our 1851 Treaty Lands.
Bill and Russell Means had planned for that day, Martin Luther King's anniversary, to caravan from Porcupine to a location known only by Bill Means to set up the Treaty camp. There was also a 'law' that world-famous defense attorney, William Kuntsler, had discovered still on the books (he told Bill and Russ about it) that had allowed many white people to seep and sneak into the Black Hills to begin with - a law that stated anyone who set up a church and school would receive three acres of land.
We arrived that afternoon to hot sunshine, then snow, then rain, then hail, and then sunshine again, which seemed we experienced every one of the four seasons in one day. The first thing we did was set up the Life Renewal Lodge and then the three Tipis. We went there under the "supreme law" guarantees of the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie. Article VI of that old document states "Treaties made with Indian Nations shall be the supreme law of the land, with the judges in every state bound thereby" - an Article of law still violated each and every day.
In the first Life Renewal Lodge ceremony that evening, my uncle Big Bob Humphrey of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska recommended we name the camp "Yellow Thunder" in honor of Raymond Yellow Thunder who was murdered by rednecks in Gordon, Nebraska in 1972. Racist authorities there were refusing to charge the two rednecks who were guilty of the death.
At that time our family was at a convention in Omaha Nebraska that AIM (American Indian Movement) was attending. The Sioux City AIM Chapter, led by my dad, George Barta, and mother Reva DeCorah (she was the National Secretary of AIM until her passing in 2007), had chartered a greyhound bus so that all the Indian youth and AIM families in Sioux City could attend. The AIM Chapter in Sioux CIty was one of the strongest in the country, with eight members participating in the later take over at Wounded Knee in '73.
With word getting out during the Omaha convention of the Yellow Thunder situation in Gordon, my dad "hijacked" the bus and the driver and we all took off to Billy Mills hall for a huge rally in Pine Ridge. I remember looking out the bus window in awe and amazement on the way to Gordon from Pine Ridge and seeing the hundreds of cars and miles long caravan on the way to take over the town - that lasted for one whole week. My sister Susie was the official secretary for Dennis Banks, the newly proclaimed "mayor" of Gordon. Later, my dad would become good friends with the bus driver and his family and we often would stop by their Council Bluffs, Iowa home to visit whenever we were down in that area.
Big Bob asked us in the Lodge that day that the camp be named in honor of Raymond because that AIM action in Gordon brought the urban AIM groups together in unity with the traditional reservation people. Everyone taking part in the Lodge ceremony wholeheartedly agreed that it was the perfect name.
Mathew King, the Principal Itancan for the Lakota Nation, was there during the first days of camp establishment and eventually went in to the local whiteman's deeds department to let them know he would be utilizing 800 acres of his share of Lakota Treaty Lands in any way he saw fit, and that he was using the Treaty document as the "master" of all deeds as his authorization.
Many people came to the camp the first few months and many more into the summer. By fall and the first winter, a minimum of one new person came to check out the camp. In late August that first year, the racist governor Jerklow threatened to evict the camp on September 9th.
Many of us from camp were attending a wake on the Cheyenne River Reservation when we got the news of the governor's "deadline." Bill and Russ Means, Clyde Bellecourt and a few others were standing around the cars talking about how the point of the encampment had been made and well covered by the media, and that we had done the best we could. I waited till last to speak up and said (an old Greg Zephier move), "Well I stayin'; we just go to wakes down on the rez, and all the people drinkin' and partyin' - I ain't going anywhere!" They got all fired up and decided to get hold of all the dedicated AIM people on the rez and bring up guns and ammo.
I said we have to be ready on Sept 8th cause they might come in at midnight or even before (you can never trust the government, like at Fort Snelling, MN take-over in 1971, they said they would meet at noon then came in swinging at daybreak) so everyone came up on the 7th and got into battle positions and were dug in pretty good.
Four of us went out for a late night scouting party the evening of the 8th. One was a Tselegi "Cherokee" fullblood! I remember I was so happy to meet him when he first came to Yellow Thunder, he spoke his own language and I had only met people who claimed to be Cherokee up to that point. Anyway, it was pitch black out and I remember making our way towards the "buffer group" encampment. Russ had the non-Indian supporters camping a ways up the road and they were supposed to lay in front of the tanks if they came rolling in that way in order to give us time to get ready. Well we snuck up on them and gave them quite a scare!
After we left we went down from camp along the creek when in the blackness I thought I was seeing a tiny, tiny light and said to the guys, "What is that, is that a light over there?!" As we got closer, it was a light, a campfire. As we got closer, it turned out to be a couple of white guys camping out - they were totally oblivious to what was going on! We scared the cr_p out of them too, imagine sitting around a campfire and four Indians come out of the darkness fully armed. They were innocent so we let them be.
The next day, me and my kola, Dave Little, an Oglala Lakota was one who started K.I.L.I. radio at Russ's request, were guarding up above camp on "Drum Lookout." We had a two-way radio set up there for communication into the Black Hills Alliance BHA office in Rapid City. All of the sudden, a helicopter came roaring down the canyon from the west. I had a shotgun and nine millimeter pistol and Dave had a mini 14. I had the shotgun raised and Dave the M14 while the helicopter rose slowly not 50 feet in front of us with a guy in the opened side door of the chopper with a white helmet and black ear muffs with his thumbs on a 30 caliber machine gun pointed right at us! We all pointed at each other for maybe a dozen seconds, that felt longer than that. Then the machine-gunner turned his head to the side and said to the pilot, "Let's get the hell out of here" (or something like that I imagine) and the chopper swung back and took off. That was the extent of the September 9th deadline eviction, they didn't come in and they avoided bloodshed.
It was a great experience that first year, had some spiritual experiences while there, also. Seen a blue light at night come up the path then disappear before our eyes. Seen huge red beams of light go over our heads forming a giant set of Tipi poles with a tiny star right in the middle - with a small cloud going by in the shape of a eagle head with the star where the eagle's eye was, my cousin Greg said, "Look, they built a Tipi for us!"

About the author
Scott Barta was born and raised in Sioux City, Iowa and left at nineteen years of age to find himself and uncover his indigenous Way of Life and ancient teachings, interested and intrigued with the term Grand Mother Earth. Having stayed with his cousin on his father's side, Greg Zephier, Sr., for years during his young adult life to learn from his wise and spiritual cousin the ways of "common man" Fasting, Life Renewal Lodge, and Sun Dance, while trying to understand how to be content and appreciative of Nature and All That Is - the Sky and Earth of Wakan Tanka, the Great Mysterious. He now makes his home on the Yankton DaNakota Reservation in Wagner, SD, the last home of true democracy in the world (Oyate Omniciye) and works for a children's program of the Yankton Sioux Tribe.

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