Mother Jones

“The Black Hills Are Not for Sale”

Regina Brave remembers the moment the first viral picture of her was taken. It was 1973, and 32-year-old Brave had taken up arms in a standoff between federal marshals and militant Indigenous activists in Wounded Knee, South Dakota, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Brave had been assigned to guard a bunker on the front lines and was holding a rifle when a reporter leaped from a car to snap her photo. She remembers thinking that an image of an armed woman would never make the papers—“It was a man’s world,” she says—but the bespectacled Brave, in a peacoat with hair pulled back, was on front pages across the country the following Sunday.

Brave had grown up on Pine Ridge, where the standoff emerged from a challenge to the tribal chair, whose alleged offenses included scheming to accept federal money for Paha Sapa, also known as the Black Hills. Brave’s great-grandfather Ohitika had helped negotiate the 1868 treaty preserving Lakota stewardship of the hills, but after white settlers found gold there, the lands were wrested away. Ohitika fought alongside his son, Brave’s grandfather, in an unsuccessful battle to save the Black Hills. Half a century later, the US government agreed to pay $17.5 million in belated compensation.

Traditional Lakota of Brave’s generation believed that the chair’s bid to accept a settlement was sacrilege, and pressed their leaders not to accept the money, despite the tribe’s financial destitution. The 71-day Wounded Knee occupation ended with two Natives dead and one federal marshal paralyzed. The chair remained in power for another three years, but the money remained untouched; no tribal council has yet accepted it, demanding instead, under the rallying cry “The Black Hills are not for sale,” that the land be returned. (The fund is now worth more than $1 billion.) The incident at Wounded Knee—on the same site where the US Army massacred several hundred mostly unarmed Lakota nearly a century earlier—helped launch the American Indian Movement, and Brave’s career as a Native rights activist.

Now 79, Brave lives in a one-story house in a small town on Pine Ridge. Out front she parks the blue 2008 Grand Caravan she bought with her prize money from the ACLU’s highest honor, the Roger N. Baldwin

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