ON A COLD WINTER EVENING in 1972, four young, restless white men and one woman were drinking beer and cruising the streets of Gordon, Nebraska, when they came upon an intoxicated Oglala Lakota ranch hand named Raymond Yellow Thunder. They grabbed him by the hair, punched him in the face, stripped him from the waist down, and forced him into the trunk of their car. They thought it would be a great joke to shove him half-naked into the American Legion Hall, where a benefit dance was underway. The townspeople stared in shock as the bruised Indian cowboy in the doorway pulled his shirttail down to cover himself and hid his face in shame. Then he quickly retreated into the freezing night. No one thought it was necessary to call the police or an ambulance.
Eight days later, Raymond Yellow Thunder was found dead, quite possibly from the head injuries he had received at the hands of his tormentors.
This tragic incident serves as the springboard for Stew Magnuson’s compelling and evenhanded book The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder and Other True Stories from the Nebraska-Pine Ridge Border Towns. Part journalism and part history, this fine work of narrative nonfiction reads like a collection of related short stories, skillfully weaving together threads from the distant past, the recent past, and the present. Magnuson, a former foreign correspondent and a native of Omaha, employs both a reporter’s detachment and a novelist’s empathy as he recounts decades of festering anger and mistrust between the white settlers of Sheridan County, Nebraska, and their native neighbors, the Oglala Lakota of the Pine Ridge Reservation. He draws his tales from personal interviews and archival sources.
Raymond Yellow Thunder’s death galvanized the nascent American Indian Movement (AIM) and briefly thrust the small prairie town of Gordon into the national spotlight. A rumor circulated that the victim, on the night of his beating and humiliation, had been forced to dance “Indian style.” Some claimed that his skull had been crushed. AIM led a march through Gordon that prompted white residents to lock their doors and hide. Activist Russell Means told TV reporters that AIM would “take Gordon off the map” if their demands for justice were not met. Reva Evans, publisher of the Gordon Journal, tried to defend the hometown she loved: “Indians are treated just like everyone else in this town.” But the Oglalas told a different story at a heated town meeting that Evans declined to attend. An elderly white lawyer who did show up at the gathering considered himself a “friend of the Indian” and couldn’t understand why the Oglalas shouted him off the stage and applauded when he was thrown out of the auditorium. Prosecutor Michael Smith managed to obtain convictions against the perpetrators in a highly publicized trial, although he harbored doubts about the exact cause of Yellow Thunder’s death. A year later, energized AIM members occupied Wounded Knee for 71 days.
Magnuson relates how people from two very different cultures wanted “to believe the worst of each other” and missed numerous opportunities to try to understand the other side’s experiences: “The white citizens of Gordon could have come down to the auditorium to learn how their neighbors lived. And AIM could have welcomed them.” Former AIM leader Bill Cross, reflecting on the group’s activities of the 1970s, recalls with pride that “Indian people regained their identity.” At the same time, he makes it clear that AIM was not intended to be a “bridge builder” but a “polarizer” and a vehicle for Native Americans to assert their rights. “We’ll never live together,” he concludes. “Physically, we will, but we’ll never share.”
Interspersed in this story of AIM and the FBI’s “dirty war” of the 1970s are historical chapters illuminating the origins of the problems that still plague the towns bordering the reservation. Magnuson brings to life a cast of long-gone Nebraska characters: gold-seeker John Gordon, who invaded the Sioux Black Hills in 1875; Red Cloud and Spotted Tail, skilled negotiators who knew they could not defeat the U.S. Army and were denounced by their angry young men as “treaty chiefs”; Jules Sandoz, a “stubborn and mean-spirited” Swiss immigrant who was hated by his white neighbors but somehow managed to befriend the Oglalas.
Most importantly, The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder helps readers understand why, for many Native Americans, the Indian wars have never ended and the scars have never healed. The Wounded Knee massacre may have passed from living memory, but in some quarters it remains as raw and painful as if it had happened last week rather than 118 years ago.
Scott Zesch is the author of the novel Alamo Heights and the narrative history The Captured: A True Story of Abduction by Indians on the Texas Frontier, which won the TCU Texas Book Award and was a selection of Book of the Month Club. He is currently working on a book about the Los Angeles race riot and Chinese massacre of 1871.