As I watched the unfolding story of what happened at the end of the Indigenous Peoples March when Omaha elder Nathan Phillips used a song to potentially pacify interactions between Catholic high school students and Black Hebrew Israelites, I wondered about the history of the song Uncle Nate sang, the American Indian Movement song.
I’ve always felt the American Indian Movement, or AIM song had great power. I particularly remember singing it with a thousand other people at a 2016 rally in Seattle against Energy Transfer Partners and the Dakota Access Pipeline. Tears streamed down my face that night, and afterward I stumbled off invigorated and energized for days.
So even though the song was nearly drowned out by the jeering of the schoolboys at the Indigenous Peoples March, I knew it didn’t matter. Those boys got zapped with blessings whether they knew it or not. ‘But what is the song’s history?’ I wondered. My search for answers took me nearly fifty years into the past.
My Lakota friend provides an overview
My friend Matt Remle, a Seattle-based Lakota activist and one of the planners of the Indigenous Peoples March, provided me with my first insights into the song’s origin.
“There are many theories as to exact origins of the song,” Remle told me, “and from my understanding it's taken on various forms and was rewritten at times over the years. A few known facts, it was used when members of AIM came to support the family of Raymond Yellow Thunder, a Lakota who was murdered in Nebraska in 1972.”
This was a great start. I Googled Raymond Yellow Thunder and found many articles and books about him. He was an Oglala Lakota man who lived on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
According to Dennis Banks, a co-founder of AIM, Raymond Yellow Thunder was killed “just for the fun of it,” by two white men, Leslie and Melvin Hare, in February 1972. It happened in the town of Gordon, Nebraska, just across the border from Pine Ridge.
AIM co-founder Dennis Banks recounts what happened
In his book, Ojibwa Warrior: Dennis Banks and the Rise of the American Indian Movement by Banks and Richard Erdoes (University of Oklahoma Press, 2004), Banks describes the vicious hate-crime perpetrated against Raymond Yellow Thunder.
Raymond Yellow Thunder (January 1, 1921 - February 13, 1972) Oglala Lakota, born in Kyle, South Dakota on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. (Unattributed archive photo)
Leslie and Melvin Hare, two white sons of a wealthy rancher, grabbed Raymond from the street and beat him to the ground. They dragged him into the Gordon American Legion Post No. 34, where a dance was in progress. The Hare brothers stripped Raymond Yellow Thunder naked from the waist down and forced him to dance at gunpoint to provide “entertainment” for the crowd. Then the Hare brothers beat him again.
Banks recounts how the crowd joined in, kicking and hitting Yellow Thunder. The Hare brothers then dragged him out to their car, threw him into the trunk, and drove off. His body was found several days later, dead from hypothermia and massive head injuries.
Lakota medicine man Leonard Crow Dog picks up the story
In the book, Crow Dog: Four Generations of Sioux Medicine Men by Leonard Crow Dog and Richard Erdoes (HarperCollins, 1995), Crow Dog recalls his friendship with Yellow Thunder and described the frustration and outrage felt after his death.
Leonard Crow Dog at the Wounded Knee Sundance, 1971. From the book, “Crow Dog: Four Generations of Lakota Medicine Men” by Leonard Crow Dog and Richard Erdoes, HarperCollins, 1995
He had no enemies, only friends. He had no car and I used to drive him where he wanted to go. He was from the Pine Ridge reservation and had been killed for no reason. What were we going to do? How could we get justice? Raymond’s relatives went to the police, to the FBI, to the BIA, and to the tribal council for help. Nobody gave a damn. Then we called the American Indian Movement for help.
Crow Dog is a fourth generation Lakota medicine man living on the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota. He has been the spiritual adviser of the American Indian Movement since 1970.
Before that, AIM, which was formed in 1968, was only a political group. But Dennis Banks felt something was missing, something spiritual. He approached Leonard Crow Dog and asked for help. Crow Dog and his father Henry took Banks into the sweat lodge and performed an Inipi purification ceremony with him, Banks’ first. From that moment on, AIM was both a spiritual and a political organization. So when Crow Dog asked for help, Banks didn’t hesitate.
AIM to the rescue
On March 6, 1972, Banks organized a caravan of two hundred cars and one chartered bus full of AIM members and supporters to go to Gordon to support Raymond Yellow Thunder’s family and seek justice.
Crow Dog says members of fifty-one tribes also came for a total of sixteen thousand people. He prayed for guidance and told the group they should go unarmed. He sprinkled sacred gopher dust over Banks and the other leaders to make them bulletproof and off they went, sixteen thousand Indian warriors, men and women, seeking justice. The small town of Gordon had never seen anything like it. Most hid or fled when they heard the caravan was coming.
Crow Dog recalls they took over City Hall, held rallies, and demanded the mayor do something about Yellow Thunder’s murder.
We forced them to charge the Hare brothers for his death. We also forced the mayor to dismiss Gordon’s chief of police.
In addition, they got the mayor to fire a police officer who was accused of raping young Indian girls.
Afterwards, a celebration… and a song
Severt Young Bear recalls in his book, Standing in the Light: A Lakota Way of Seeing by Young Bear and R. D. Theisz (University of Nebraska Press, 1994) how a celebration was held in the Gordon auditorium after the demands were met. Young Bear was a singer in the well-respected Porcupine Singers drum group. That night they received a request for a victory song. Young Bear and the group began playing a rousing song that he thinks was created by one of their members named Drury Cook, which was popular at Native gatherings and was known as “The Indian Anthem.”
The only song that came to mind was that song, so we pushed it up. We sang it in the auditorium and then out into the street back to the main street intersection. There were about seven hundred people following us out there celebrating, hollering, dancing, waving the U.S. flag and the Oglala tribal flag. We kept singing it; people danced and felt good.
Within months, the song was adopted as the AIM song.
Epitaph: Crow Dog’s statement on the AIM song
So the song Nathan Phillips sang to those Catholic schoolboys was born from blood and brutality. Its beauty became the cry of all Native voices rising up and opposing five hundred years of genocidal racism. It wasn’t some high school football rallying song. It was the profound response of all Native people standing up for the little guy. It is a song of protection.
Sicangu Lakota Chief and spiritual leader of the American Indian Movement Leonard Crow Dog speaking at Southern Methodist University in October 2016. (Screenshot from the YouTube video “Leonard Crow Dog at SMU” uploaded by anzianoking.)
I reached out to Leonard Crow Dog through my friend Mark Holtzman. He made this statement on January 23 from Crow Dog’s Paradise on the Rosebud reservation. Crow Dog, who is now 76, says he thinks in Lakota and then must translate it into English when he speaks. That’s why the wording is a little rough. But the nuances of his original thoughts in Lakota still come through:
“The music is provided of the melody to bring the unity of the nations that understand and those that relate the message of coming relations of what is right and what is wrong. Now today is that time is come up to unify all races. Nobody knows. Nobody knows, is he Republican or is he Democrat? But remember with this music, will bring the unify for the tribes and relations of the Buffalo Party. We are the original Buffalo Party. Women and children, we are struggling to march and bring the understanding to the Republican and the taxpayers of the world... What they doing to our lands called the United States and sovereign nations.
I am Chief Leonard Crow Dog. For the world of tribes, I represent the American Indian Movement and the traditional way of life.
A’ho! Mitákuye Oyás’iŋ!"