“I’m very casual about my writing,” says Woody Kipp, an English instructor at Blackfeet Community College and author of Viet Cong at Wounded Knee: The Trail of an Indian Activist, recently published by the University of Nebraska press. “I write a poem every now and then and just throw it somewhere. I wrote a couple novels while I was traveling around teaching, and I don’t even know where the hell they’re at. On disc somewhere. I don’t know where anything’s at.”
“I haven’t gone back and reread the whole thing yet,” he admits of the Viet Cong book—his first. “I’ve looked at parts of it, but I already know just from reading those parts that I would have done a few things differently. I think, damn, I should have said that better or I should have added this.”
Viet Cong at Wounded Knee, Kipp says, is essentially Act I in the story of his life, from his birth and immediate adoption to his participation in the American Indian Movement and the siege at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. The book comes to a close just after the 1973 siege (in which Kipp, a Vietnam veteran, likens his own status to the insurgent group of the book’s title), right before a “dropping-out” period that lasted the rest of the decade and a good part of the next.
Not the easiest time in his life while he was living it, he says, and not the easiest to write about, either. Born in December 1945 to a hard-drinking mother and a father who disappeared shortly afterward, Kipp was adopted into a “proud, complicated Blackfeet family that stood with one foot in the old ways and the other in the acculturated American ways.” His oldest adopted brother, Big John Kipp, had served with the Marine infantry and was commended during the battle for Iwo Jima for carrying a captive Japanese soldier to an interrogation station. Corporal punishment is not a traditional part of Blackfeet parenting, Kipp informs, but his adopted brothers and sisters were “products of assimilation, and verily, verily did they believe in a good thrashing.” Fighting was a big part of his upbringing, he writes (“It runs in the family.”) and fighting well was a skill that stood him in good stead when he joined the Marines himself and did two tours of duty in Vietnam.
At 157 pages, Viet Cong at Wounded Knee is a pretty spare memoir, aggressive in its prose but hardly encumbered by introspection and or self-analysis. Those things came later, says Kipp. While writing the book he struggled to remember how he used to think.
“I tried to get back into that mindset I had when I was 27 years old. It’s difficult to do. In fact, you can’t really do it. You can go back and try to think, hmm, how was I thinking? But the fact is that I am totally a different person now than I was in 1973 when Wounded Knee happened, through education and experience.”
And without all the drinking, described so vividly in the book. Kipp says he “mostly” swore off alcohol in 1974 and gave it up completely in 1987. Viet Cong at Wounded Knee, though, is full of heavy drinking and seemingly inevitable violence. As Kipp reveals, even the AIM caravan from Missoula to Wounded Knee and back—a road trip for which he received course credit at UM—was a rolling booze-up fueled by beer, whiskey and “Texas fifths” of vodka sucked straight from the bottle: “Indian drinking,” Kipp writes. “No pretense of sociability, drinking for the effect. An Indian willing to give you the shirt off his back as you left Rushville with a bottle of whiskey at his disposal would be ready to take your head off by the time you got to Pine Ridge. That’s how a lot of us drink.”
“The whole thing about alcoholism and the consciousness of native people is certainly there in this book,” Kipp affirms. “As I say, many of us were drunk and doing drugs at the time. The ideal, of course, was to be sober, but there were very few people in the movement who were able to at the time. As a matter of fact, we once had a meeting in the native studies building at the university—in ’75, I think—and I was elected Montana state AIM coordinator simply because I’d been sober for three months. That was a pretty big deal in those days.”
Kipp readily concedes that memory is all too fallible anyway; ask six people who just witnessed a traffic accident to describe what happened, he says, and you’ll get six different accounts of the crash. Accordingly, there’s very little recorded speech in Kipp’s book, very few quotation marks. It just isn’t very honest, says the author, to hang quotes around things you think people might have said 30 or 40 years ago. It’s as faithful a retelling as he could make it, he claims, but there’s always going to be someone who remembers things differently.
“The things that happen in the book are very experiential. I had a friend read through the part where I had just come out of the Marine Corps, and she said some of that stuff was bullshit.
“But I read something in a book about African storytelling that went a little like, ‘Any story I give you, you also have the right as a storyteller to add, subtract, whatever, but the essence of the story must remain the same. You can’t change the basics.’ I hope that I’ve been able to hold to that paradigm in terms of trying to give people who read this book a sense of the American Indian Movement and the reaction of Indian people once they started getting a mainstream education and looking at what had happened to them historically.”
Whatever the method, there’s very little in Viet Cong at Wounded Knee to suggest that it was written some 30 years after the last of the events it describes. It’s hardly Soul on Ice for the reservation, although Kipp’s book has its share of true-to-the-period attacks on “white society” as the great monolithic evil at the root of all native ills. Some, no doubt, will see this as evidence of a possible revival in race-baiting literature; others, truer to the spirit in which the author intended the book, will read Viet Cong as the honest attempt of an older man to capture a literary likeness of himself as a younger man.
“What struck me while I was writing it was my ignorance,” Kipp says. “Even at the time of Wounded Knee, I was just totally ignorant of many concepts I’ve been introduced to since then, from Christianity, from Buddhism, from [Blackfeet] teachings. After Wounded Knee, I was trying to do the old Timothy Leary thing and just drop out. It took me years to realize that I couldn’t just drop out. I can’t go back to 1854, like I wanted to at the time. I have to live in the present. But, as I say, for the book I tried to get back into that mindset and to make it as accurate as possible in terms of that period of my life.”
“There’s a quote in my book,” Kipp chuckles, “to the effect that our attitude at the time was ‘Fuck John Wayne and everything he stands for.’ Man, did that ever get reactions across the board. If my father-in-law were alive he’d fight me over that, he was such a John Wayne fan.”
Woody Kipp is a former columnist for the Independent. Ask for his first book, Viet Cong at Wounded Knee: The Trail of a Blackfeet Activist, at a bookstore near you.