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Abourezk Shares Means & McGovern Memories

October 24, 2012, 5:55 PM by Perry Groten

Abourezk Shares Means & McGovern Memories

The coincidence of losing two high-profile South Dakotans in the same week isn't lost on a former U.S. Senator who was a good friend to both. Jim Abourezk is a direct link to both George McGovern and Russell Means, who died within a day of each other. 

An event four decades ago brought all three of them together during a tense time in South Dakota's past.

The event was the American Indian Movement's takeover of Wounded Knee in 1973.  As a newly-elected U.S. Senator, Abourezk joined South Dakota's senior Senator George McGovern to try and work out a settlement with AIM leaders, including Russell Means.  Those talks led to a chilling moment when Abourezk actually feared for his life.

Trying to work out a peaceful settlement to the armed standoff at Wounded Knee unexpectedly placed Abourezk squarely in the front line of history.

"I was there to try to diffuse it and I wasn't thinking beyond that, first of all, how to stay alive, and secondly, how to get the thing settled," Abourezk said.

Means demanded that Abourezk and McGovern come to Wounded Knee to negotiate.  The two U.S. Senators rode in a car to meet with the AIM leadership.

"I found a tree branch and a white towel and I tied that on the end of the tree branch and we stuck it out the window of our car and George and I were in the back seat," Abourezk said.

But the makeshift white flag provided little comfort to the menacing site Abourezk and McGovern encountered along the way.

"We got into the Indians' perimeter and there's all these Indian Vietnam vets who were there with AK-47's Kalashnikovs,  I don't know where they got them all, but they had them.  And we were driving slowly right, and they were following us, just like that.  And the tension, I'm telling you was thick enough to slice," Abourezk said.

But McGovern's wry sense of humor cut through the tension.

"And he leaned over to me and said, Jim, why did you have to be so bloody courageous about this deal here?  And it broke the tension, we started laughing," Abourezk said.

Abourezk and McGovern safely arrived in Wounded Knee and talked long into the night with Means.

"I said Russ, this has got to end at some time, why don't we end it now before somebody gets hurt. And he said, we're ready," Abourezk said.

The settlement didn't hold. The standoff would go on to last 71 days.  But for a brief time, three South Dakotans looked past their differences, and the gun barrels, to find common ground.

Abourezk says he's convinced the federal government allowed the standoff to drag on for political purposes.
Abourezk says McGovern, who flew 35 combat missions as a bomber pilot during World War II, wasn't at all frightened by all of those AK-47's pointed at them.

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