To avoid the tragic fate of Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull who were killed after surrendering to the US government, AIM leader Dennis Banks was persuaded to leave Wounded Knee the night before the federal stand down on May 8th, 1973. The warrior selected to lead his escape party was Lenny Foster, a Diné Navajo who has since become Leonard Peltier’s spiritual adviser. Hear how Lenny was able to evade detection and smuggle Dennis Banks to safety with the help of the spirits.
SEASON TWO, EPISODE TWO
THE GREAT ESCAPE
You know, the law enforcement agencies of the United States government are trained to use deadly force, and they certainly attempted to shoot and kill us when we were defending our treaty rights. We made a stand there in Wounded knee, South Dakota, February 27, 1973. I was there right from the beginning, right from the first night ‘til right at the end.
This is Lenny Foster, Leonard Peltier’s spiritual adviser. For nearly four decades, Lenny has leveraged the power of indigenous ceremonial practices to touch the lives of thousands of incarcerated Native Americans as part of the Navajo Nations Corrections Project.
When it was time to stand down and have a surrender, Lou Bean and Gladys Bissonnet and Ellen Moves Camp, the elder women said that Dennis Banks should not be made to surrender because the government forces would cause a fight to shoot Dennis Banks.
It was decided that he should escape. He was asked to make a plan to have some Indian boys lead him out.
When they asked, who would you ask to lead you out of here? I guess through the whole 71 days, he was looking at all the Indian boys, the warriors. And he said, “I want Lenny Foster, Dine Navajo to lead me out of here.”
You’re listening to LEONARD—a podcast series about Leonard Peltier, one of the longest-serving political prisoners in American history. I’m Rory Owen Delaney.
And I’m Andrew Fuller. We’ve spent the last three years working to share Leonard’s story with a new generation of people: who he is, how he ended up behind bars, and why we believe he deserves to go free.
This is Season 2, Episode 2, The Great Escape.
In recognition of the 48th anniversary of the end of Wounded Knee, Lenny Foster shares the incredible story of how he snuck AIM leader Dennis Banks out across government lines two days before the federal stand down on May 8th, 1973.
Wounded Knee was a place where many indigenous, different tribes, different Indian nations came together and shared. Shared in the prayers and shared in the experience of surviving.
We had all the leaders there at the beginning. It was Dennis Banks. Russell Means, Carter Camp, Clyde Bellecourt. Pedro Bissonette. They were all there. Crow Dog was the medicine man. Wallace Black Elk was also one of the spiritual leaders.
That was perhaps one of the most beautiful experiences our people had. But it was also a very serious and deadly experience.
I survived 11 firefights. On one occasion, I almost got hit in the head. And that was a reminder just how serious Indian rights, human rights for indigenous people is. Sometimes we end up giving up our lives for that cause, for the treaty rights.
I was there when Frank Clearwater was shot, killed. I was there when Buddy Lamont was assassinated. Was shot. And he died that afternoon.
I'm sure there will be other Wounded Knees in the future, but Wounded Knee 1973, that was my experience. And I survived and lived to tell about it.
You know Dennis Banks was a gifted orator. He was a blessed leader chosen by the Great Spirit. He was the founder of this movement, indigenous rights movement throughout the Western hemisphere. And when we all were together in Wounded Knee, I served as a warrior as a dog soldier in the Little Big Horn Bunker.
We had John Carlson, David Wilson, Dick Le Guard with the Minneapolis St. Paul AIM. Percy Casper and myself were from Denver AIM. So we all defended that Land there in that area and engaged in these firefights.
They shot tear gas canisters at us. They shot flares. They had the heavy firepower. Then right at the end after Buddy Lamont was shot and killed, our chiefs, Kills Enemy and Fools Crow called for a ceasefire. They didn't want any more Indian boys being shot and killed. So they call the ceasefire, and we buried Buddy Lamont there in Wounded Knee.
When it was time to stand down and have a surrender, Dennis Banks sent Henry to the bunker and asked where is Lenny Foster? He's right here. I said, I'm right here. They said, DJ wants to see you. He wants to talk to you. And I said, me, how come he wants to see me? Well, you better get over there right away. He wants to talk to you.
And I thought, what did I do? Did I do something wrong or something, being called into the command post to talk to the cofounder of the American Indian Movement?
So they call me to the log cabin house where he was in. And the women, they decided that DJ shouldn't be surrendering. So they decided that some of the warriors should take them out, walk them out through the night.
So when they asked me, I didn't, I can't say no. So I had a real serious obligation, a commitment was to ensure that I would walk point. I said, yeah. Okay, I'll do it. And then I said to Crow Dog and Black Elk, they were sitting there. Can we have a sweat lodge ceremony, smoke the pipe, prepare. He said, okay. So we had a sweat lodge ceremony, cleansing and purification, smoke this down with cedar, white Sage. Sweet grass. We smoked the chanunpah, the pipe and prayed about it. Crow Dog said he’ll use Crazy Horses’ prayers to make us invisible.
That was on May 6th, I think that was a Tuesday. And there was five of us. It was Dennis Banks, Henry Owassik, Percey Casper, Frank Black Horse, and myself. And we left that would have been May the seventh. The stand down was the eighth on a Thursday. That was the surrender date. So we left the night before.
After the break, The Great Escape.
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Once the sun went down, it was dark pitch black, and it was an 11 mile walk, hike out of there over rough terrain, gullies and ravines. But as I was walking, maybe, Oh, maybe three miles into the hike.
Once we got past the Creek, we encountered an open area where there was a tree line, off in the distance. And I said let’s don't bunch up. Single file. No talking. I’ll walk point, go up ahead. Make sure there's no ambush. Make sure there's no trip wire and make sure there's no Feds.
I got to the certain tree line. There was an owl. I didn't know what it was. It scared me. It was an owl. A big owl sitting up in the tree hooting.
In our Dine beliefs, our Navajo beliefs, you encounter an owl at night, he's bringing you a message. Not a good message. It is a message that something is in your path that's not good. I knew that because of my traditional upbringing. I was taught those ways.
Then I went back and I said, come on, let's go. We're clear. So we made it and we kept going. And then I encountered an owl again. This time I asked [DINE] what do you want. What are you telling me? That's what I said in my Dine native language to the owl. And he took off. He went towards the East direction. And we were going North. And there's 11 miles from Wounded Knee to Porcupine. Once we get to Porcupine, we're in freedom.
So we had maybe six miles left, but that owl went towards the East. And then when I followed it, I said, there's a reason why it's going that way. It's taking me to a safe place. Then I realized there's a road. A road was right there, paved road, the highway that went from Wounded Knee to Porcupine. And there was nothing, no one. So I just ran back maybe a hundred yards. And then they were waiting for me right there under a tree. I said, come on, let's go. We're clear. But we're going to go this way. The highway is right there. And I told them no, we're safe. We're safe. As long as we walk on the shoulders and it's close to the tree line, if there's any traffic or lights, we can see it coming.
We didn't encounter nothing, no traffic, nothing. It was still dark. It might've been like 4:30 in the morning. We were walking along the shoulders of the road and we got close about a mile, mile and a half from Porcupine. There was an area, a flat area, a hill, and there was a car running. So I said, let me, let me go check. I'm going to sneak around from behind. I stayed within the tree line. So they they couldn't see me. I snuck around from behind the car. I looked in there. There were two feds sitting there in that car.
As I proceeded to go back towards where the group was waiting, Black Horse was the one that he ran across the road. They saw him. I said oh man, they saw him. They're going to come. So I said, come on, let's go. Let's get out of here. We had to run back across the paved road, a highway. We went back to the West and there was a ravine.
There was a hill. And we were able to start running up that ravine to get away. They had a dog with them, German shepherd dog you could hear it, but they had him on a leash. My first thought was if they let that dog loose, it's going to come towards us. It's going to smell us. So we gotta get outta here.
I told DJ just to run up along that ravine. We'll catch up with you. We're going to hold up the rear. My responsibility was to protect him. For me, it was the best way was to protect the rear to stay right where we're at in case they started to follow us.
I told him to take off. So he did. Then out of nowhere, these couple of reservation dogs came out of nowhere. Right there they got into a big old dog fight. They never saw us. They never saw us. So we got away. We got further, maybe a mile, a mile and a half. They left or they took their dog with the dog that came to our rescue, I don't know where they disappeared to.
The spirit sent them. First of all, the Spirit sent that owl to give that message. Beware. That was the message. And we got away. And we went to this house. Percy Casper went to this house. They knew him. So they, John Attacum was the family. They let us into that house. He went further up to another house and Dennis Banks was there.
So the next day May the 8th, Thursday, they had the stand down on Wounded Knee. But we were in Porcupine, 11 miles away. We're completely free. So we waited 'til the sun went down. John Attacum took us in his car. We all got together and we drove to Crow Dog's Paradise, which was probably 80 miles, 85 miles. It is quite a ways. So we drove over there, got away. There was a big camp. We were free.
Then Friday morning we had breakfast. DJ asked me where I was going. I told him I’m going to go to Denver, then from Denver I’m going to make it back down to Navajo land, Fort Defiance, Arizona. And we all went our separate ways.
I call that the great escape. But it was pretty intense the fact that I was able to lead Dennis Banks out of that, he could have chose anybody, but he chose me to do that. The only way I could do that was by using the sweat lodge ceremony to pray. That was part of my traditional upbringing beliefs. ‘Cause I grew up in a sheep camp, Navajo, Dine sheep camp. So the gifts that I received from my father and my mother and grandparents, my auntie, my uncle, they're all traditional Dine, was to pray.
And that's how I utilized that teaching to escape, help Dennis Banks escape. And he was always forever grateful for it. Anytime I saw him, he would always mention that to me. And he thanked me that being a Dine and being loyal to him, just those words that he said to me has always been a gift. I always remember that.
In the next episode of LEONARD: Political Prisoner…
This podcast was produced, written and directed on Tongva Land by Rory Owen Delaney and Andrew Fuller.
Kevin McKiernan serves as our consulting producer.
Thanks to Bobby Halvorson for the original music we’re using throughout this series.
And thanks to Mike CAZentini at the Network Studios for his engineering assistance, and to Peter Lauridsen and Sycamore Sound for their audio mixing.
Thanks to everyone at the International Leonard Peltier Defense Committee.
Thanks to Lenny Foster for sharing his stories and wisdom.
And thanks, most of all, to Leonard Peltier.
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