AIMâï¿½ï¿½uprising turns 40
Published: Thursday, February 21st, 2013
A little over 40 years ago, on Feb. 6, 1973, Between 100 and 200 members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) arrived in Custer at 1:40 p.m. and gathered on the Custer County Courthouse steps. They included youth and middle-aged persons, some with babies. They arrived in a caravan of 29 cars to join approximately 24 other Native Americans who had arrived earlier.
Early in the week, Dennis Banks (AIM) national field director, stated Custer had been selected as the focal point for a National Day of Indian Rights on Feb. 6.
According to a television broadcast, Banks stated the purpose of the day would be to speak out against acts to deny Indians their right to live. He was quoted as saying Feb. 6 would be a “good day to die” and urged all Indians in America to come to Custer “for their final hour.”
“Acts of murder against Indian citizens are receiving no response from the judicial systems of Nebraska or South Dakota,”âï¿½ï¿½he said.
In a Rapid City news article, Banks said the date of Feb. 6 coincided with a preliminary hearing on a manslaughter charge in connection with the death of an Indian man from Hot Springs. Banks said AIM “was shocked to learn another Indian’s life had been taken by murder” and was angry the man, Darld Schmitz, then 28, of Custer, had been charged only with second-degree manslaughter.
Banks had made no contact with Custer officials nor indicated what course of action would be taken other than the purpose of “speaking out” for Indian rights.
A decade ago, Schmitz said when interviewed that on Jan. 21, 1973, he and three other people went to Wild Bill’s Bar in Buffalo Gap for the night. When they emerged from the bar at 2 a.m., they witnessed a fight between Jim Geary of Hot Springs and Wesley Bad Heart Bull.
Schmitz said Bad Heart Bull was whipping Geary with a logging chain and had knocked the man out. When one of Schmitz’s female friends tried to get between Geary and Bad Heart Bull, Bad Heart Bull started “slinging her around.”âï¿½ï¿½At that point, Schmitz said he tried to help his friend, and subsequently Bad Heart Bull attempted to hit him with the chain. In the scuffle, Schmitz pulled out a pocket knife and stabbed Bad Heart Bull, who later bled to death from the wound. Schmitz was later charge with second degree manslaughter. He was eventually acquitted of the charge.
Eventually, Banks and the late Russell Means, another Native American activist, entered the courthouse and began conferring with then-states attorney Hobart Gates.
The Feb. 8, 1973, issue of the Custer County Chronicle said Banks asked Gates what precaution he planned to take to protect the Indian, and Gates said he would prosecute the case to the fullest extent of the law. Banks also asked Gates to change the charge to murder, which Gates refused to do.
Within a few minutes, the Native Americans on the steps and porch began counting to 10 and tried to break down the front entrance doors to the courthouse twice. Eventually, they gained access to the courthouse, where they were met by law enforcement officers. Fighting ensued for 10 minutes, with injuries to both the protestors and officers.
Two Indians were arrested at the time. During the fracas, a radiator was ripped from the courthouse wall and windows, as well as doors, were broken. Tear gas was used to clear the courthouse and some tear gas tossed into the crowd was tossed back into the courthouse.
At around 2:45 p.m., a confrontation in the street led to fires erupting in front of the courthouse, at the chamber of commerce building across Mt. Rushmore Road and in the courthouse.
Fires in the front of and inside the courthouse were quickly extinguished, but left considerable damage. When firemen attempted to approach the chamber building, rocks, pop bottles and stones were thrown at the trucks, which then backed off. The chamber building was completely gutted by the fire.
Dave’s Texaco, across the intersection from the chamber, was the target for broken windows and another attempt to start a fire. The fires were started with gasoline taken from a nearby service station. At the same time, the two police cars were demolished and an attempt was made to set them on fire.
In the end, 27 AIMâï¿½ï¿½members were arrested, including Means. There were injuries to five law officers and two Native Americans, who were treated and released at Custer Community Hospital. Twenty-two people were charged with three counts of inciting felonious riots and two charges of arson; three peoples were charged with three counts of inciting felonious riots, two charges of arson, and assault; and two juveniles were charged with delinquency.
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