Wounded Knee incident
|Wounded Knee Siege|
|American Indian Movement||
U.S. Marshals Service|
Federal Bureau of Investigation
Guardians of the Oglala Nation
|Commanders and leaders|
Richard M. Nixon|
Richard A. Wilson
Wayne B. Colburn
L. Patrick Gray
William D. Ruckelshaus
|Casualties and losses|
|2 killed, 13 wounded||2 wounded|
The Wounded Knee incident began on February 27, 1973, when approximately 200 Oglala Lakota and followers of the American Indian Movement (AIM) seized and occupied the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The protest followed the failure of an effort of the Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization (OSCRO) to impeach tribal president Richard Wilson, whom they accused of corruption and abuse of opponents. Additionally, protesters criticized the United States government's failure to fulfill treaties with Native American people and demanded the reopening of treaty negotiations.
Oglala and AIM activists controlled the town for 71 days while the United States Marshals Service, FBI agents, and other law enforcement agencies cordoned off the area. The activists chose the site of the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre for its symbolic value. Only the military was armed and shooting was frequent. The American Indians reportedly had only one AK47. A U.S. marshal was shot and paralyzed in March. A Cherokee and an Oglala Lakota were killed by shootings in April 1973. Ray Robinson, a civil rights activist who joined the protesters, disappeared during the events and is believed to have been murdered. Due to damage to the houses, the small community was not reoccupied until the 1990s.
The occupation attracted wide media coverage, especially after the press accompanied the two U.S. senators from South Dakota to Wounded Knee. The events electrified American Indians, who were inspired by the sight of their people standing in defiance of the government which had so often failed them. Many American Indian supporters traveled to Wounded Knee to join the protest. At the time there was widespread public sympathy for the goals of the occupation, as Americans were becoming more aware of longstanding issues of injustice related to American Indians. Afterward AIM leaders Dennis Banks and Russell Means were indicted on charges related to the events, but their 1974 case was dismissed by the federal court for prosecutorial misconduct, a decision upheld on appeal.
Wilson stayed in office and in 1974 was re-elected amid charges of intimidation, voter fraud, and other abuses. The rate of violence climbed on the reservation as conflict opened between political factions in the following three years; residents accused Wilson's private militia, Guardians of the Oglala Nation (GOONs), of much of it. More than 60 opponents of the tribal government died violently during those years, including Pedro Bissonette, director of the Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization (OSCRO).
On February 28, 1973, AIM leaders Russell Means (Oglala Sioux) and Carter Camp (Ponca), together with 200 activists and Oglala Lakota (Oglala Sioux) of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation who opposed Oglala tribal chairman Richard Wilson, occupied the town of Wounded Knee in protest against Wilson's administration, as well as against the federal government's persistent failures to honor its treaties with Native American nations. The U.S. government law enforcement, including FBI agents, surrounded Wounded Knee the same day with armed reinforcements. They gradually gained more arms.
According to former South Dakota Senator James Abourezk, "on February 25, 1973 the U.S. Department of Justice sent out 50 U.S. Marshals to the Pine Ridge Reservation to be available in the case of a civil disturbance". This followed the failed impeachment attempt and meetings of opponents of Wilson. AIM says that its organization went to Wounded Knee for an open meeting and "within hours police had set up roadblocks, cordoned off the area and began arresting people leaving town...the people prepared to defend themselves against the government’s aggressions". By the morning of February 28, both sides began to be entrenched.
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For years, internal tribal tensions had been growing over the difficult conditions on the Pine Ridge Reservation, which has been one of the poorest areas in the United States since it was set up. Many of the tribe believed that Wilson, elected tribal chairman in 1972, had rapidly become autocratic and corrupt, controlling too much of the employment and other limited opportunities on the reservation. They believed that Wilson favored his family and friends in patronage awards of the limited number of jobs and benefits. Some criticism addressed the mixed-race ancestry of Wilson and his favorites, and suggested they worked too closely with Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) officials who still had a hand in reservation affairs. Some full-blood Oglala believed they were not getting fair opportunities.
"Traditionals" had their own leaders and influence in a parallel stream to the elected government recognized by the United States. The traditionals tended to be Oglala who held onto their language and customs, and did not participate in federal programs administered by the tribal government.
In his 2007 book on twentieth-century political history of the Pine Ridge Reservation, historian Akim Reinhardt notes the decades-long ethnic and cultural differences among residents at the reservation. He attributes the Wounded Knee incident more to the rising of such internal tensions than to the arrival of AIM, who had been invited to the reservation by OSCRO. He also believes that the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 did not do enough to reduce U.S. federal government intervention into Sioux and other tribal affairs; he describes the elected tribal governments since the 1930s as a system of "indirect colonialism". Oglala Sioux opposition to such elected governments was longstanding on the reservation; at the same time, the limited two-year tenure of the president's position made it difficult for leaders to achieve much. Officials of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, administrators and police, still had much influence at Pine Ridge and other American Indian reservations, which many tribal members opposed.
Specifically, opponents of Wilson protested his sale of grazing rights on tribal lands to local white ranchers at too low a rate, reducing income to the tribe as a whole, whose members held the land communally. They also complained of his land-use decision to lease nearly one-eighth of the reservation's mineral-rich lands to private companies. Some full-blood Lakota complained of having been marginalized since the start of the reservation system. Most did not bother to participate in tribal elections, which led to tensions on all sides. There had been increasing violence on the reservation, which many attributed to Wilson's private militia, Guardians of the Oglala Nation (informally called the GOONs), attacking political opponents to suppress opposition.
Another concern was the failure of the justice systems in border towns to prosecute white attacks against Lakota men who went to the towns for their numerous saloons and bars. Alcohol was prohibited on the reservation. Local police seldom prosecuted crimes against the Lakota, or charged assailants at lesser levels. Recent murders in border towns heightened concerns on the reservation. An example was the early 1973 murder of 20-year-old Wesley Bad Heart Bull in a bar in Buffalo Gap, which the tribe believed was due to his race. AIM led supporters to a meeting at the Custer courthouse, where they expected to discuss civil rights issues and wanted charges against the suspect raised to murder from second-degree manslaughter. They were met by riot police, who allowed only five people to enter the courthouse, despite blizzard conditions outside. Reinhardt notes that the confrontation became violent, during which protesters burned down the chamber of commerce building, damaged the courthouse and destroyed two police cars, and vandalized other buildings.
Three weeks before Wounded Knee, the tribal council had charged Wilson with several items for an impeachment hearing. However, Wilson was able to avoid a trial, as the prosecution was not ready to proceed immediately, the presiding official would not take new charges, and the council voted to close the hearings. Charges had been brought by a coalition of local Oglala, grouped loosely around the "traditionals", the Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization (OSCRO), and tribal members of the American Indian Movement. Wilson opponents were angered that he had evaded impeachment. U.S. Marshals offered him and his family protection at a time of heightened tensions and protected the BIA headquarters at the reservation. Wilson added more fortification to the facility.
The traditional chiefs and AIM leaders met with the community to discuss how to deal with the deteriorating situation on the reservation. Women elders such as OSCRO founder Ellen Moves Camp, Gladys Bissonette, and Agnes Lamont urged the men to take action. They decided to make a stand at the hamlet of Wounded Knee, the renowned site of the last large-scale massacre of the American Indian Wars. They occupied the town and announced their demand for the removal of Wilson from office and for immediate revival of treaty talks with the U.S. government. Dennis Banks and Russell Means were prominent spokesmen during the occupation; they often addressed the press, knowing they were making their cause known directly to the American public. The brothers Clyde and Vernon Bellecourt were also AIM leaders at the time, who generally operated in Minneapolis.
The federal government established roadblocks around the community for 15 miles in every direction. In some areas, Wilson stationed his GOONs outside the federal boundary and required even federal officials to stop for passage.
About ten days into the occupation, the federal government lifted the roadblocks and forced Wilson's people away as well. When the cordon was briefly lifted, many new supporters and activists joined the Oglala Lakota at Wounded Knee. Publicity had made the site and action an inspiration to American Indians nationally. About this time, the leaders declared the territory of Wounded Knee to be the independent Oglala Nation and demanded negotiations with the U.S. Secretary of State.
A small delegation, including Frank Fools Crow, the senior elder, and his interpreter, flew to New York in an attempt to address and be recognized by the United Nations. While they received international coverage, they did not receive recognition as a sovereign nation by the UN.
John Sayer, a Wounded Knee chronicler, wrote that:
The equipment maintained by the military while in use during the siege included fifteen armored personnel carriers, clothing, rifles, grenade launchers, flares, and 133,000 rounds of ammunition, for a total cost, including the use of maintenance personnel from the National Guard of five states and pilot and planes for aerial photographs, of over half a million dollars.
The data gathered by the historians Record and Hocker largely concur: "barricades of paramilitary personnel armed with automatic weapons, snipers, helicopters, armored personnel carriers equipped with .50-caliber machine guns, and more than 130,000 rounds of ammunition". The statistics on the U.S. government force at Wounded Knee vary, but all accounts agree that it was a significant military force including "federal marshals, FBI agents, and armored vehicles". One eyewitness and journalist described "sniper fire from…federal helicopters", "bullets dancing around in the dirt", and "sounds of shooting all over town" [from both sides].
On March 13, Harlington Wood Jr., the assistant attorney general for the Civil Division of the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ), became the first government official to enter Wounded Knee without a military escort. Determined to resolve the deadlock without further bloodshed, he met with AIM leaders for days. While exhaustion made him too ill to conclude the negotiation, he is credited as the "icebreaker" between the government and AIM.
After 30 days, the government's tactics became harsher when Kent Frizell was appointed from DOJ to manage the government's response. He cut off electricity, water and food supplies to Wounded Knee, when it was still winter in South Dakota, and prohibited the entry of the media. AIM says that "the government tried starving out the [occupants]", and that its activists smuggled food and medical supplies in past roadblocks "set up by Dick Wilson and tacitly supported by the government". Keefer, the Deputy U.S. Marshal at the scene, said there were no persons between federal agents and the town, and that the federal marshals' firepower would have killed anyone in the open landscape. The Marshals Service decided to wait out the AIM followers in order to reduce casualties on both sides. Some activists organized an airlift of food supplies to Wounded Knee.
Both AIM and federal government documents show that the two sides traded fire through much of the three months. The U.S. Marshal Lloyd Grimm was shot early in the conflict and suffered paralysis from the waist down. Among the many Indian supporters who joined the protest were Frank Clearwater and his pregnant wife, who were Cherokee from North Carolina. He was shot in the head April 17, within 24 hours of his arrival, while resting in an occupied church, during what was described by both sides as a vicious fire fight with federal forces. AIM supporters evacuated Clearwater from the village but he died in a hospital on 25 April.
When Lawrence "Buddy" Lamont, a local Oglala Lakota, was killed by a shot from a government sniper on April 26, he was buried on the site in a Sioux ceremony. After his death, tribal elders called an end to the occupation. Knowing the young man and his mother from the reservation, many Oglala were greatly sorrowed by his death. Both sides reached an agreement on May 5 to disarm. With the decision made, many Oglala Lakota began to leave Wounded Knee at night, walking out through the federal lines. Three days later, the siege ended and the town was evacuated after 71 days of occupation; the government took control of the town.
Ray Robinson, a black civil rights activist, went to South Dakota to join the Wounded Knee occupation. He was seen there by both a journalist and a white activist. He disappeared during the siege and his body was never found. One AIM leader, Carter Camp, said years later that Robinson had walked away under his own power, seeking aid for a wounded leg. Other witnesses have recalled open conflict between Robinson and AIM activists.
His widow Cheryl Robinson believes he was murdered during the incident. In 2004, after the conviction of a man for the murder of Anna Mae Aquash, Robinson renewed her calls for an investigation into her husband's death. Paul DeMain, editor of News From Indian Country, has said that based on interviews, he believes "Robinson was killed because AIM thought he was an FBI spy".
Support for action
Public opinion polls revealed widespread sympathy for the Native Americans at Wounded Knee. They also received support from the Congressional Black Caucus as well as various actors, activists, and prominent public figures, including Marlon Brando, Johnny Cash, Angela Davis, Jane Fonda, William Kunstler, and Tom Wicker.
After DOJ prohibited the media from the site, press attention decreased. However, actor Marlon Brando, an AIM supporter, asked Sacheen Littlefeather, an Apache actress, to speak at the 45th Academy Awards on his behalf, as he had been nominated for his performance in The Godfather. She appeared at the ceremony in traditional Apache clothing. When his name was announced as the winner, she said that he declined the award due to the "poor treatment of Native Americans in the film industry" in an improvised speech as she was told she could not give the original speech given to her by Brando and was warned that she would be physically taken off and arrested if she was on stage for more than a minute. Afterwards, she read his original words about Wounded Knee backstage to many of the press. This recaptured the attention of millions in the United States and world media. AIM supporters and participants thought Littlefeather's speech to be a major victory for their movement. Although Angela Davis was turned away by federal forces as an "undesirable person" when she attempted to enter Wounded Knee in March 1973, AIM participants believed that the attention garnered by such public figures forestalled U.S. military intervention.
Following the end of the 1973 stand-off, the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation had a higher rate of internal violence. Residents complained of physical attacks and intimidation by president Richard Wilson's followers, the so-called GOONS or Guardians of the Oglala Nation. The murder rate between March 1, 1973 and March 1, 1976 averaged 56.7 per 100,000 per annum (170 per 100,000 over the whole period). Detroit had a rate of 20.2 per 100,000 in 1974 and at the time was considered "the murder capital of the US". The national average was 9.7 per 100,000. More than 60 opponents of the tribal government died violently during this period, including Pedro Bissonette, executive director of OSCRO. AIM representatives said many were unsolved murders, but in 2002 the FBI issued a report disputing this.
1974 trial of Banks and Means, 1975 appeal
After an eight-and-a-half-month trial the U.S. District Court of South Dakota (Fred Joseph Nichol, presiding judge) dismissed the charges against Banks and Means for conspiracy and assault (both Banks and Means were defended by William Kunstler and Mark Lane). The jury had voted 12-0 to acquit both defendants of the conspiracy charge, but before the second vote one juror suffered a stroke and could not continue deliberations. The government refused to accept a verdict of eleven jurors and sought a mistrial; in the meantime the defense team filed a motion for judgment of acquittal.
The judge ruled to dismiss, citing prosecutorial misconduct, stating: "It is my belief, however, that the misconduct by the government in this case is so aggravated that a dismissal must be entered in the interests of justice." In 1975 the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the government's appeal was barred by the Double Jeopardy Clause and dismissed it, "despite Government's argument that jurisdiction should be assumed due to the public interest in fair trials designed to end in just judgements."
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Judge Nichol, citing misconduct, negligence and even deceit by federal prosecutors and the FBI, dismissed the charges after the eight-month-long case when it was clear his only other choice was to declare a mistrial because the jury couldn’t resume deliberations.
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Sayer, John William. Ghost Dancing the Law: The Wounded Knee Trials. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997). Akard, William Keith. "Wocante Tinza: A History of The American Indian Movement.” (P.d.D thesis, Ball State University, 1987). Busacca, Jeremy. “Seeking Self-Determination: Framing, the American Indian Movement, and American Indian Media.” (P.h.D Dissertation, Claremont University, 2007). Chastang, Amanda B. "Reclaiming Identity: How the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement Challenged External Media Misrepresentations through Self -Representation." (Master’s Thesis, The University of Tulsa, 2018).
- "Records of Wounded Knee Legal Defense/Offense Committee", available for research use at the Minnesota Historical Society
- Owen Luck Photographs Collection, 1973–2001, Princeton University, open for research. Luck was at the incident and took 39 photographs held in this collection.