Léopold Lambert met with Indigenous Lakota activists Madonna Thunder Hawk and Marcella Gilbert during their passage in France to present Christina D. King and Elizabeth A. Castle’s film Warrior Women that portrays their struggle over two generation — Madonna is Marcella’s mother. In this conversation, we talked about four episodes of Indigenous resistance in Turtle Island (North America): the occupations of Alcatraz (1969), Mount Rushmore (1971), Wounded Knee (1973) and Standing Rock (2016), all of which were experienced by Madonna.
Madonna Thunderhawk is an Oohenumpa Lakota. Born and raised across the Oceti Sakowin homelands, she first became active in the late 1960s as a member and leader in the American Indian Movement and co-founded Women of All Red Nations and the Black Hills Alliance. In 1974, she established the We Will Remember Survival School as act of cultural reclamation for young Native people pushed out of the public schools.
Marcella Gilbert is the daughter of Madonna Thunder Hawk and a Lakota and Dakota community organizer with a focus on food sovereignty and cultural revitalization. Her formative years were influenced by the activism of her extended family’s leadership in the American Indian Movement. She was a seventeen-year old delegate to the newly established International Indian Treaty Council to Geneva in 1977 and a graduate of the We Will Remember Survival Group. This alternative school run by and for Native people, was a remarkable tool for decolonizing and healing the intergenerational damage caused by boarding school.
Special thanks to Nick Estes, Aurélie Journée, and Samantha Lavergnolle.
DATES OF THE FILM SHOWING IN FRANCE ///
EPISODE TRANSCRIPT ///
Léopold Lambert: Hello everyone, today my two guests are Madonna Thunder Hawk and Marcela Gilbert, who are two indigenous Lakota activists who are, who do us the honor of visiting us in Paris in those days to talk about the film that Christina King and Elizabeth Castle made around their struggle. The film is called Warrior Women. And we are able to talk with them today. Hello!
Marcella Gilbert: Hello, hello!
Madonna Thunder Hawk: Hello!
LL: Thank you so much for giving us some time in a very busy day. Where you’re talking to many media in France, this one will be a little bit more international. But perhaps as a first question, since you are talking to many journalists in France, I was wondering whether any of them give you any indication that they are aware of France’s responsibility in settler colonial conditions in Turtle Island? Because, of course, it’s a huge responsibility, but no one seems to really be aware of it over here.
MG: We really didn’t get that indication. But people are, I mean, there’s awareness. And you know, but we didn’t really go into a conversation like that. Yet.
LL: Hopefully, it will. But it’s true that quite often and similarly to the African American struggle, we see we see French journalists being very comprehensive, understanding and even supporting but when it when it comes to, to anti-colonial anti-racist fights where France has a responsibility it seems like those same journalists are nowhere to be found. So it’s, I was interested in asking you this question. But so talking about the talking about the film itself, as a film, I think does a very great work in introducing many aspects of, of what, what indigenous people in Turtle Island and in the Americas in the world are fighting against. And I think today, rather than really talking about the sort of structural conditions of settler colonialism, I was more interested, in the little time that we will be speaking, to maybe insist on the efforts of resistance, and the film starts with one of those indigenous schools that you participated in funding Madonna, in the 60s, I believe. Could you maybe tell us what those schools are?
MTH: Well, I’d just like to start out with the fact that during that time, in the United States, there’s so much social upheaval. There was many movements going on across the country, and we were just one of many. So things happened as our surroundings whatever area of we were involved in, in the country, and of course, we’re, you know, in the Dakotas, United States, in our, our area of South Dakota, where all our reservations are, but so it was kind of like it developed on its own. We didn’t sit down and say, Okay, now we’re gonna do education. Now. Everybody sit down now get up, get out your, you know, planning papers, and we’re gonna sit down here and talk—never happened. It was out of necessity. Many after Wounded Knee. We’re in the nearest large town, which is Rapid City, South Dakota in the Black Hills. That’s where our offices were for the Wounded Knee, legal defense offense committee, because it was so many people indicted by the federal government as a result of what happened at Wounded Knee, we were all turned into criminals by the federal government. So there was a legal defense committee that was organized of volunteers across the country that came, attorneys and law students, non-native, most of them, practically all of them.
So I, as a person, I was indicted, you know, I was a defendant. So I ended up being kind of like a liaison between the legal committee and the Indian community, native community. So many of them were families that were indicted, and they had children. So we ended up, there was a lot of children wandering around the area of the legal defense committee and stuff, including my children.
LL: One of whom is here, yeah,
MTH: Yea, Marcella, and my nephews and nieces and extended family. So we ended up with, with a was more, more or less like a youth group. More than a school, you know. So it was just, it was it just developed on its own. It was, it was really a good, good time.
MG: It was, I really, really enjoyed it. I was at, I was in a public school, before I went to the survival school in Rapid City. I was 13. And I remember when I got there, one of the young people that were there, handed me the 1868 Treaty and said, You need to read this. This is what you know, everybody has to know this. And so right there, I knew that this was not your normal, regular, you know, and it was awesome. It was just amazing. I loved it, it was the best experience in my life, you know, of education. Because, you know, we learned hands on, we went to the Wounded Knee trials, we went to, you know, different actions. And it was amazing. It was amazing time, it was really good to be a young person then.
LL: Nice, and I think we’ll, we’ll go back to it in just a minute of how amazing that time was, but they’re talking about Rapid City, the first. the very first article our common friend Nick Estes wrote for wrote for the Funambulist was specifically on Rapid City and, and the concept of border towns in particular. And, of course, of course, every city in North America is sort of a legal settler colonial city, but then some are, more specifically, violation of treaties in those cities that are right outside right outside the territories that have been called reservations. And so could you maybe just for the listeners who might not be well aware of those treaties, because we are going to speak more about it in just a minute. Could you maybe explain just a tiny bit more the relationship of this kind of border towns to the indigenous population and how, how those towns are by the text illegal cities?
MTH: Well, I think just from what I’ve observed and learned over the years, is that understand now what that concept “border town” meant. Of course, it’s we’re colonized people over there, all indigenous are colonized. But some of us have land base yet. And for economic purposes, many of the border towns owe their existence to the native population, which is usually a lot of federal funding, through programs, etc. So as I like to say, we’re still sacrificing in the national interest of the United States, whether it’s keeping white communities going economically, or the extraction of our resources, you name it. As our area along the Missouri River in the United States, we sacrificed our reservation alone close to a million acres to a dam which was built in the national interest. So all of the taking was not in the 1800s. It’s still going on today in the modern day. And so yeah, the border towns are very, very racist. I mean, it’s just almost now, since there’s a lot of intermarriage and a lot of, you know, people I knew that were racist, out and out upfront racist back in the 60s, they have grandchildren now that are enrolled members of our tribe. So that’s happening. But still, the racism is there, when it comes to economics, it’s almost like the white population is they bite the hand that feeds them. If it wasn’t for us in our existence, they wouldn’t have a ton. You know, that’s from my personal perspective, you know.
LL: Thank you. And so you already you already mentioned Wounded Knee in 1973. So we’ll, we’ll get there in in a moment. But maybe the first sort of very charismatic episodes of indigenous liberation that Madonna, you took you took part in and Marcella, I’m not even sure you were born in 1969. But I don’t know if you were there. But what was the occupation of Alcatraz in the Bay Area, for me is very important in the ways that it talks about those treaties as well, because you sort of played the system, the settler colonial system against itself. Could you tell us about this particular moment of where something that sort of put the basis of what we have what has been Standing Rock later, and maybe much more people are currently aware of, and maybe less of Alcatraz could do. Madonna? Could you? Could you describe what, what was this occupation of Alcatraz in 1969?
MTH: Well, there’s always a story behind the story. But just to lay a little groundwork, not all treaties made by with indigenous people, groups of people were ratified. Ours, it so happened in the Dakotas with the what the government called the Great Sioux Nation or Oceti Sakowin, in our language, they were ratified by the Congress of the United States, which makes them statutory, and there are the law of the land. Which, since those days, late 1800s, the United States government has chosen to ignore. So our treaties still stand, they’re not broken, they’ve just been violated. So okay, that’s why when we talk treaty rights, that’s what we mean. Okay. And it has a lot to mostly had to do with land, and the boundaries of land. So one of the provisions in one of those, because there’s several of them, was that if there’s any excess federal territory, or land, that it would revert back to the original inhabitants if it could be made, if they could prove that it could make it productive. Okay. That’s the key provision.
But ever since World War Two, many of our people had gone out to the cities in different areas of the country to work in the war effort of World War Two. And for example, my, my relatives were stayed in the Bay Area. And back in 1964, they went out in a small boat, a handful, two or three of them, and this will happen. They were all Lakota from our area of South Dakota. They went because the federal government, it was Alcatraz Island was a federal prison and they closed it in 63, I believe. So they said, Okay, here’s what we’ll do. We’ll go out to stake claim to the island, Alcatraz Island, because that land should be referred back to the California, the original indigenous people of California, because that’s what the treaty says, well, it was symbolic because that’s what it says in our treaty. So that’s what they did. They went out of state claiming and they left. Well, what five years later the newly formed student organizations in San Francisco State University and Berkeley newly formed Native American Ethnic studies departments, okay had Indian Studies. They got together. And as a group, they went out and state claim to the island under the same provision of the treaty. And they stayed. Okay.
Well, I was in South Dakota, we were already in South Dakota. And it just so happened that we were. It had been going on for approximately a year the occupation of Alcatraz, when we were, we occupied Mount Rushmore to put in the public eye, the fact that the Black Hills of South Dakota, which is one of America’s play lands, because of the Mount Rushmore, the faces of long dead presidents carved into a mountain. That’s where most of the tourists come and they come to see it. So we took that mountain over to make the statement of this is a violation of our treaty. This is our land that’s supposed to, you know, but the United States and everybody else just overran it and just took it over. So that was the whole idea behind that. Well, there was an organizer from Alcatraz Island that came and his name was John Trudell. And he came and so we were visiting with him talking and everything he said, Would you be interested in coming out to Alcatraz because all the press has left, all the movie stars all the notoriety is all gone. Now we just have a community of people living there that are holding it down. But we need to rebuild, you know, community, we need to we have a lot of children need to start a school. So I said, Sure. So I went out to Alcatraz a year after it had already been occupied. So that’s how I got out there.
LL: Yeah, and I think as far as symbolics are is concerned, occupying a prison from old buildings is also a very, very powerful gesture and some things that we could use also in abolitionist abolitionism today. Well, so we can now talk about this, second, or this third episode because Mount Rushmore is certainly one we ought to be speaking about as well. But so in February 1973, started a 71 day occupation of, of the little town of Wounded Knee on Lakota land. And I think, in that case, Marcella, you were you were probably not very old. But you were you were present. And could you maybe tell us about those 71 days of self-organization?
MG: Well, I’ll tell you what, where I was, because I wasn’t there. My brother was there. My mother and my brother were in Wounded Knee. I was staying with my mother’s mother, my grandmother, Faith, in Rapid City. And so she spent time at the Wounded Knee, legal defense offense committee office. And so I hung out with I got to hang out with her. And I think I was let’s see, when was that? 73? I would have been 12? Yeah. And so I got to see what was going on in Rapid City, you know, that, like there was a place in Rapid City where donations were coming to support Wounded Knee, like food, mostly food. And I remember one time we were walking, we were going down there, my grandmother and I, but before we could get down there, the police had pulled in down there and raided it and took all the food and had their guns out. And where you know, and they took all the food and left. So I remember that happening. But I was so, I was in Rapid City during the time that not the whole 71 days, but you know, the time that my grandmother was there, I was there with her. And so I hung out at the at the legal defense offense office. But perhaps for an international audience who might not be fully aware of what happened in 73. Would you mind maybe, setting the, setting the context of this, of this particular action?
MTH: Well, again, there’s a story behind the story. I was with the American Indian Movement at the time we had a core group that traveled around because we got requests to come to every reservation, every community off the reservation in the country wanted us to come. Because they had no forum, they had no one to tell their troubles to or what was going on. So we got these requests from all over. Well, it just so happened we were in Rapid City, South Dakota, the Black Hills. And there was a… I’m not very good on dates anymore. But there was a happening in there in the town called Custer, South Dakota. And I, that was one of the reasons why were in Rapid City at the time. But we got a delegation of I remember, because I was called, they call me upstairs, and I had all my children with me at the time. And we were had all these people to take care of I mean, you had to someone had to take care of the logistics, how are you going to feed everybody? You know, you have families, you have children, you know, we had babies, you know, we had all of those kinds of things going on. So I was busy. But anyway, I got the call, they said, Come downstairs, they want you downstairs, there’s a meeting going on. So when I got down to the meeting was in the basement of this huge building, where we were all staying, and there was a large gathering and a delegation came up from the Pine Ridge Reservation. And the spokesperson, she told us, basically what she said was “What are you doing in the urban areas, when the real fight is on the land on the reservation?” That was basically what she said. So you need to come down. And you need to hear your people. And my brother Russell Means he is, that’s where his father’s family was from. So they basically, the elders scolded him. And they said, You need to come down to your reservation to your people, and you need to hear them talk. So then, okay, well, so then they set up meetings.
So the next day, myself and a few of the other women, we got a call, and said Alright, we’re gonna go down and we’re gonna go south to Rapid City, we’re gonna start hitting the communities on the reservation, we’re gonna make a big circle, and come back to Rapid City in the evening. But right now we’re just going to meet with people and set up, you know, let them know we’re coming. And, you know, we can plan in each community, while the word went out. AIM is coming to the reservation, so I mean, just like that, no planning, everybody just said, “You got to come to our community.” And they gathered in the community halls, the different communities where people all came, food, you know, singing, drums, you know, all of that, like that. So there was just a handful of us, and we’re mostly women that came down. And the old, what’s it called, the traditional leaders have, you know, not the tribal government, but the traditional leaders all met. So we were there talking, and we were making our way. Planning again, you know, the next community. Well, the route we had to take, took us east through Pine Ridge Village. Now, that’s what the Bureau of Indian Affairs is located, the Indian Health Service, all the offices to run the tribal, run the reservation.
Well, as we were going through Pine Ridge, we were just going to go right through and then turn north and go through the small village, of Wounded Knee, which is down kind of in a little valley, surrounded by hills, basically, and then on continue north, to the next community, and meet with those people and then go on back to Rapid City kind of make a big circle. So as we’re going through Pine Ridge, more and more cars started joining our small caravan. Pretty soon we had a caravan a couple miles long. And all these people were joining the caravan. So we’re going bumper to bumper very slow. And we noticed when we’re looking around, there was these military vehicles. Kind of off the road kind of way in the back of the buildings, you know, these larger yards where they kept road equipment and stuff. But I noticed back then, and then on top of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building on the corner, I saw sandbags and I could see a barrel of a gun, big gun. So I said do you guys, Look look look, do you guys see that you know, but we’re moving slowly people are jumping out, running in and buying goodies and stuff. And, and but we’re going moving. “Yeah, how’d you see that looks like a gun. And look back there, you know, when are those tanks?” You know, we were—we didn’t know it was that well what’s going on? We didn’t know we were the target. Something must be happening somewhere. Because we were a caravan of families children, I had my 10 year old son with me. And here we’re going. So we go to Pine Ridge, and we’re going, it started getting dark. This is in, what, February. So we’re going and we start getting closer to Wounded Knee. And I look back and you could just see miles of car lights, headlights, and where they’re turning north and coming. It’s just beautiful. Oh my goodness. Little did we know we were driving into a trap.
So as we’re coming down the hill, the long hill into on the knee, we could hear gunfire. So then runners, coming up the road, they were running and everything hit the ditch, it did get out of the car to get in the ditch. So that’s what we did. And we made our way into the village. And by that time there was there were saying take cover, we got to take cover, you know, we’re surrounded. We got, we got busted the first night, myself and three other women and one man. I wanted the backroads outside of Wounded Knee. So that’s how we ended up being one of the first ones arrested. And so then our case came up first, we were the first ones that were tried after Wounded Knee. But that’s so everybody on that caravan have that two or three mile caravan, however, and I was along, everybody has their own individual story. Because there was no cell phones, there was no instant communications, there was just gunfire. So we all you know, hit the dish for coverage, so everybody has their own story of how things happened. But the what was called the leadership at the time, we were scattered all through the caravan. So there wasn’t any big plan, alright, and we’re going to Wounded Knee and we’re going to make a stand, that you don’t go, we have a standoff in a hole. I mean, the village is down the bottom of the valley and is surrounded by hills anyway. So that, to my experience, that’s what happened. And it stretched out to 70, 72 days.
LL: It’s good, we even had the soundtrack. Those were firefighters. Very apropos. Well, and so maybe doing a big jump in time, which is obviously not revealing the continuity of indigenous resistance in Turtle Island, but maybe finding another occurrence of total panic from the state as well because I think all those soldiers and police officers and that we found back in Standing Rock is what makes this bridge also very, very intuitive one and then Standing Rock. I think many of our listeners are very, very aware of, of the fight against the North Dakota Access Pipeline and the fight of water protectors and the union of many indigenous nations again against this but I would love to hear your own your own perspective on what happened and perhaps was through a funny question perhaps but Madonna in the film, you’re seen wearing a keffiyeh, the Palestinian keffiyeh and I was wondering if there was a story behind the story here as well.
MTH: Well, yeah, of course there is! Indigenous stories on this planet earth are all the same. We’re all victims of colonization. So the basic land struggle is where it was about. So we understand we’ve had we American Indian Movement, the progressive, you know, elements of our people that have been in the forefront and the struggle has always been we understand we’ve had a relationship with the struggle in Palestine because it’s been about indigenous, being, you know, persecuted in own land. We know that story inside now. So we understand Palestine we have a relationship with them since the 70s, with Palestine. So, end of story, because it’s the same story: colonization, you know, and persecution of indigenous people.
LL: Do you have any, any other transnational indigenous alliances that are worth mentioning? I mean,
MTH: Ireland. In my personal view, those are the longest that when I was first understanding and knowing about global, even the term “global” back in the 60s and early 70s is when I started understanding colonialism that is a bigger issue than just our land, just Turtle Island, you know, that it’s global. And this is what was happening all over to everybody. And I was totally amazed when I learned what was going on. In Ireland, Northern Ireland, 800 years, they’ve been fighting for their independence, struggling for, to be Irish. I mean, that’s longest standing colonialism, you know, that I remember. Anyway, that’s just an example. You know, and then you name it all over, all over the planet.
LL: Great, well, perhaps as a as a concluding question, I think. So, the podcast is listened by many people of many different backgrounds. But it’s true that because of my own training and my own research, we have a solid basis of architects, listeners of people who’ve been trained in architecture, and settler colonialism being so much about the land, of course, architects are always the one crystallizing the sort of settler presence in building cities, building buildings, building pipelines building many, many things of the kind whether, whereas we were talking about architects with a diploma in architecture, or just yourself or politicians, every everybody who sort of designs this settler colonial infrastructure. So I was wondering if you had something you could say to maybe settler architects, and also the few indigenous architects, who are now, many of them are now I know that many of them are graduating soon, from school in particular in University of New Mexico and Yale. Is there, do you have a reflection on this crystallization of the settler colonial infrastructure and how architects can sort of refuse such endeavor?
MTH: You know, I think in, in this modern day, now, anything is possible. If you can, architecture stuff, you can dismantle, to, you know, and use the new way of thinking and how to work with Mother Earth, in working with… I mean, look at the hobbits, the hobbit houses! I love that I saw that movie and I thought, earth homes! I want one of those. And we’re going to have one, we’re going to build a decolony on my daughter’s land. Back home, that’s what we’re gonna have. I mean, start thinking those terms of Come on, break up, you know, do it work with Mother Earth.
LL: You know, we have funny pictures of Nick visiting the hobbits, the hobbit houses.
MTH: Oh you do? You do?
LL: Yea I think that, yea. Marcela, perhaps a word where to conclude this conversation?
MG: Oh, well, thank you so much for giving us this opportunity. And I’m impressed with all that you’re doing and getting, you know, sharing the world with the world. And I think I think I have to support what, what my mother said about, you know, working with the Earth, I think that’s powerful. And I support that totally, totally, totally.
LL: Wonderful. Well, I don’t think I took a big risk in telling you that the anti-colonial movement in France is fully in solidarity with your struggle and we think about you all the time. And I thank you very much for your time.
MTH: Thank you! This was good