The Battle of Wounded Knee 1973

Resistance Stories of Lakota People

by Debbie Lang

Revolutionary Worker #1038, January 16, 2000

In the spring of 1973, hundreds of Indian people and their supporters occupied the village of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. They demanded an end to the U.S.-government-backed murder and intimidation of American Indian Movement (AIM) supporters and "traditionals" on the reservation. And they demanded that treaties signed by the U.S. government be honored that gave the Lakota (also known as the Sioux) the right to self-rule and to the land surrounding the Black Hills.

Federal authorities surrounded them with an army of over 300--which included the U.S. Army, FBI and Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) agents, U.S. Marshals and state police. The Indians refused to back down. They used weapons to defend themselves and held off the government forces for 73 days. The courage and militancy of the fighters at Wounded Knee grabbed the attention of people all over the world and helped build powerful support for the struggle of Native peoples. Wounded Knee--the site of the massacre of 300 Sioux men, women and children in 1890--became a symbol of Indian struggle and resistance.

After this siege, the U.S. government unleashed an intense, murderous repression against the people of Pine Ridge. And AIM activists, including Leonard Peltier, came from around the U.S. to help organize and defend the people of Pine Ridge.

In 1977 Leonard Peltier was framed-up for the murder of two FBI agents and railroaded into prison-- where he has now spent 23 hard years. He is respected around the world as a voice for Native people and an inspiring political prisoner who refuses to be broken.

November 1999 was Leonard Peltier Freedom Month. Thousands of people traveled to Washington, DC to demand freedom for Leonard Peltier--including people who took part in the Wounded Knee occupation and the Pine Ridge struggle. This article is based on conversations RW reporter Debbie Lang had with these veteran fighters.

"In our family stories we have stories of what happened to our people. I have a grandma. Her name was Dora Hi White Man. She survived the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee. As a little child, four, five, or six years old, I remember my grandma Dora. So I'm very fortunate to know a survivor of the 1890 massacre. And today you might think 1890 was long, long, long ago. But it's just recent, because I knew my grandma and my grandma ran from that massacre.

"I live in Oglala. When Wounded Knee 1973 was going on I was a little girl. I looked that way and the whole sky was pink (from the flares being shot up by the government). To me Wounded Knee was just right over the hill there. I was like, Oh right on! Cool! Keep on doing that, man! I was really happy. Little did I know that my nation was trying to make war with one of the big power nations of the world. I was just proud of them. And ever since Wounded Knee I've always been real happy to be an Indian and I'm proud of the fact that you mess with us, we'll mess right back."

Arlette Loud Hawk, Lakota, resident
of Pine Ridge Indian reservation

In the 1960s, in the midst of the Black liberation movement and the mass upsurge against the Vietnam War, a great movement of resistance rose up among the Native peoples in the U.S. AIM drew forward a whole new generation of Indian youth to fight the powers. They helped organize a 19-month occupation of Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay; occupations of Mt. Rushmore; a Thanksgiving "Day of Mourning" held at Plymouth Rock; and the Trail of Broken Treaties caravan to Washington, D.C.--which ended with the occupation of the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) building.

AIM member Carter Camp told me: "People were waiting for us to appear on the scene and for some Indians to stand up and say that we're not going to take this shit no more. We've lived under this oppression for so many years. We're going to fight back now. The American Indian Movement is the force that stood for the people as a warrior society and said we're no longer going to allow you to roll over our people, to take our land, to pave over our reservations and dam up our rivers."

The Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota has a lot of valuable natural resources including coal, uranium and an aquifer (an underground water reserve) with millions of gallons of clean water. In 1868, after losing in battle against the Sioux, the U.S. government negotiated the Fort Laramie Treaty. Then, right after this, they began breaking the treaty in order to steal Indian land and resources. The U.S. government and Christian missionaries tried to force the Lakota to assimilate into U.S. society. Children were stolen and forced into boarding schools run by Christians. Lakota language, culture and religious ceremonies were outlawed. By the 1970s, the Lakota had lost two-thirds of their land and the government had plans to steal more--especially in order to get uranium for their nuclear weapons production.

In February 1972 Raymond Yellow Thunder was beaten to death by two white men in Gordon, Nebraska. Attacks on Indian people by white racists and the police were common around the reservation, and the white people who committed these crimes were almost never punished. This time, AIM led a caravan of 200 cars to Gordon and forced the authorities to file serious charges against the murderers. AIM's actions had an electrifying effect on the reservation. Rosaline Jumping Bull, who grew up on the res, told me:

"My dad worked for the BIA. He was on the credit board. One time he came home and said, `You know, a strange thing happened today. Some real strange looking Indian boys were at the BIA building. They had long hair. They said they call themselves A-I-M.' We weren't allowed to have long hair so we didn't know what a long hair was. I said, this I've got to see. And that's when they killed my uncle Raymond Yellow Thunder at Gordon. Mom said, `Don't go over there and get in trouble. Don't you try and go over there. You're always doing things wrong.' So I sneaked over there. I rushed over there. The TV and media was there. I was busy hiding because I didn't want my folks to see me. But I wanted to join AIM's march. Oh, it was fun, it was really fun. I didn't know we could fight back, you know? I was taught not to fight back, to obey the white people cause I'll get punished. That's what my folks always told me. My grandmother did, too. Then I took my mom and she was right up there with them."

Arlette Loud Hawk was a young teenager at the time and I asked her what she remembered. She said: "I remember everything graphically, vividly, with such clarity. One of the reasons why Wounded Knee 1973 stands out in my memories is because of my cousin, Wesley Bad Heart Bull. Wesley Bad Heart Bull had gotten killed in a nearby town called Buffalo Gap. My mother's maiden name is Stella Bad Heart Bull and that was her brother's son who had been killed by white people. Before that I had a cousin that was named Lesley Bandley. He was in the United States Army. He was walking along the side of the road and some white boys just came and ran over him and killed him. And there was no justice for Lesley Bandley. And there is no justice for Wesley Bad Heart Bull.

"My mom and my dad, they knew Dennis Banks and they knew Russell Means who were both with AIM. My uncle was the vice president of the Oglala Sioux tribe. His name was Dave Long. He always came over to visit my parents. When my cousin died I could hear my uncle telling my mom, `Stella, you'd better call in AIM."'

On February 6, police attacked AIM members at a demonstration at the Custer courthouse where they demanded that the white man who murdered Wesley Bad Heart Bull be charged with murder. Arlette told me she watched the TV and saw "Indians had started fighting back with all those federal marshals" after police attacked AIM.

In an attempt to counter the growing influence of AIM on the reservation, the U.S. government backed the election of Dick Wilson as tribal chief in 1972. Wilson was a super-patriotic reactionary who hated AIM. He used tribal funds to hire thugs called GOONs (Guardians of the Oglala Nation) and began a reign of terror on the reservation against AIM, the "traditionals" and their supporters. Hundreds of people were threatened, beaten, shot at or had their homes burned. Wilson was backed by BIA police and the FBI. Carter Camp described some of the military force the U.S. government positioned on the reservation to back up Wilson:

"There was a force of the U.S. Marshals Service there called Special Operations Group. These people were not your regular law enforcement that you might see in a city with a suit and tie on, but they wore combat fatigues and carried M16s. They drove around in humvees and jeeps and they had APCs. They had helicopters. And wherever Indian people gathered, it didn't matter if it was a wedding or a funeral, they came out in force. Then they started telling the people that they couldn't gather in groups of larger than four for any reason. Our people were living under this oppression and they just couldn't stand it any longer. And they came to us in the American Indian Movement."

Ellen Moves Camp told me how she and other members of the Oglala Civil Rights Organization turned to AIM for help: "We called the American Indian Movement because they were already in Rapid City. They were up in Washington. They went to the courthouse in Custer. So we invited them down. We wanted to talk to them. We were with a boy by the name of Pedro Bissonnette, who later got killed by the GOONs. We were talking to them and they said, "Join the civil rights movement with us. That's where we belong. We got them helping us." In a secret meeting, Ellen Moves Camp and other residents of Pine Ridge persuaded the Sioux elders to invite AIM to intervene.

"The best, most free time of my life"

"For security reasons the people had been told everyone was going to a meeting/wacipi in Porcupine. The road goes through Wounded Knee. When the People arrived at the Trading Post we had already set up a perimeter, taken eleven hostages, run the BIA cops out of town, cut most phone lines, and began 73 days of the best, most free time of my life. The honor of being chosen to go first lives strong in my heart. That night we had no idea what fate awaited us. It was a cold night with not much moonlight, and I clearly remember the nervous anticipation I felt as we drove the back-way from Oglala into Wounded Knee...We were lightly armed and dependent on the weapons and ammo in the Wounded Knee trading post. I worried that we would not get to them before the shooting started...

"We were approaching a sacred place and each of us knew it. We could feel it deep inside. As a warrior leading warriors I humbly prayed to Wakonda for the lives of all and the wisdom to do things right. Never before or since have I offered my tobacco with such a plea or put on my feathers with such purpose. It was the birth of the Independent Oglala Nation. Things went well for us that night, we accomplished our task without loss of life. Then, in the cold darkness as we waited for the caravan (or for the fight to start), I stood on the bank of the shallow ravine where our people had been murdered by Custer's 7th Cavalry. There I prayed for the defenseless ones, torn apart by Hotchkiss cannon and trampled under hooves of steel by drunken wasichu (whites). I could feel the touch of their spirits as I eased quietly into the gully and stood silently, waiting for my future, touching my past. Finally, I bent over and picked a sprig of sage--whose ancestors in 1890 had been nourished by the blood of Red babies, ripped from their mothers' dying grasp and bayoneted by the evil ones. As I washed myself with that sacred herb I became cold in my determination and cleansed of fear. I looked for Big Foot and YellowBird in the darkness and I said aloud, `We are back, my relations, we are home."'

From "Remembering Wounded Knee," written by Carter Camp

Carter Camp says they chose to make a stand at Wounded Knee because of its history--it had special meaning to Native people and was well known to millions of others from the powerful book written by Dee Brown, Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee. He said:

"On the tribal headquarters they put machine gun emplacements on every corner of the roof with big sand bags and they had these .50 caliber machine guns. They thought we were going to attack the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Pine Ridge and the tribal government. But we knew we couldn't. We were too lightly armed. And when we agreed to help the Oglala Civil Rights Committee and the traditionals do something we had to find a place where we could make a stand without getting totally wiped out too quickly. We thought we might get wiped out but we wanted a place where people would know about it." On February 27, a caravan of 200 cars of Indians and their supporters wound its way through the darkness towards the village of Wounded Knee. The advanced squad had already liberated it. Carter described how it happened:

"First, we captured the BIA police and ran them out of town with no radios or anything and no guns and let them go. Then we took 12 hostages and put them in a safe place. After we had held the place for maybe two hours the AIM leadership came with a caravan of about 400 people. We had set up perimeters around Wounded Knee and by now the FBI and these people are understanding that they've been outflanked because now we're there, we're ensconced and we're starting to build our bunkers. And now they know if they come in they're putting their own lives at risk, not just our lives. We're in the defensive position, we're making bunkers and we've got the high ground. And so they're nonplused. They actually don't know what to do. So they backed off a while, which gave us time to get our people situated and that sort of thing and it became a 73-day siege."

Everyone I talked with looked back on the armed siege of Wounded Knee as one of the best times of their lives. Russell Loud Hawk helped on the military perimeter around Wounded Knee. He smiled broadly when he said: "AIM came in to straighten out the reservation because before that the traditional people were catching hell from the U.S. government. That's why I was pretty glad that they came. So I joined them. I was telling one of these ladies here, remember all the crazy things we did? You people were in, us guys were surrounded. We pulled some crazy things but I think we outdid the FBI at that time."

Carter Camp said: "We were fighting every day and in danger every day. But it was a lot of fun. During the lulls in the fighting, or during the time when there was not actual danger, it was just a wonderful time being together. People would break out the drum every night and we'd sing together and different tribes would sing their songs. We had Indian ceremonies that are very special to us, but we don't bring 'em out in public. But now we could have 'em right there where everybody could participate. We don't have to hide them around anymore. We had the elders, medicine men, women and children--all in Wounded Knee with us.

"We were a strong community. We all had work to do and fighting to do. But at the same time, we could live together and do the things that we wanted to do, say the things that we want to say, and understand this world the way that Indian people understand it. So it made us feel good. We just really were able to come together in a unity that you don't hardly find in Indian Country. We're different tribes and we don't always get around to each other like that. I mean literally thousands of Indian people were coming from around the country. At any one time we might only have 700 or 800 people in Wounded Knee, but people were coming and leaving. Then, of course, a group of AIM people and the traditionalists stayed there throughout the thing."

Ellen Moves Camp remembered: "We had meetings in the morning. We had prayer in the morning. We'd all go and our negotiations would start. And then we had sweats every night...When they'd start firing on us everybody would just sit and wait to see what was going to happen. Once I went outside and I was standing there watching that shooting going on, those flares coming in... It was bad and yet everybody seemed to be happy and everybody worked together. There was no fussing or anything. Everybody was together there. It was a good feeling."

Lasting Legacy

On March 11, AIM and the Oglala Sioux elders declared the rebirth of the Independent Oglala Nation and demanded discussion with U.S. government representatives over the terms of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty. In response, the government brought in reinforcements to stop food, supplies and new recruits from reaching Wounded Knee. The phone lines were cut. The major media left. The government announced dozens of indictments against the people inside. On May 4, the White House sent a letter promising their representatives would meet with the Sioux chiefs within weeks to talk about the Fort Laramie Treaty--on the condition that the Indians lay down their arms. The Indians agreed to end their occupation.

The government never investigated the BIA as they had promised. Richard Wilson and his murdering GOONs were never prosecuted. Instead a new reign of terror was carried out against the Native people of Pine Ridge. And almost 700 indictments were handed down by federal authorities in connection with the Wounded Knee occupation.

Ellen Moves Camp was one of the Indian negotiators. She described the government's attitude: "People would come in from Washington and they'd lie to us. They didn't do anything they said they were going to do. We tried to negotiate with them but they just lied to us all the way through. They promised to negotiate the treaties and follow the treaties and they never did do it."

Millions of people were inspired by Wounded Knee. Hundreds risked their lives and hiked many miles over the hills to join the people inside or to bring food and medical supplies. Doctors and nurses came to help in the Wounded Knee clinic. Telegrams of support came in from all over the world. Tens of thousands of people held support demonstrations in many cities across the U.S. and around the world. The broad support for the Indians at Wounded Knee made it difficult for the government to launch a full-scale military assault.

Carter Camp told me: "Wounded Knee galvanized Indian Country, all over. During those 73 days we were in there, from Seattle to Washington, D.C. and from New York to Florida, Indian people were trashing BIA offices, protesting at the Indian health services, telling their own tribal governments to stop the leases with the uranium companies and the coal digging and that sort of thing. Indian people were just making themselves known.

"Wounded Knee and the rise of the American Indian Movement and the struggle of the late '60s and '70s just changed everything about the way Indian people think of themselves. They started thinking in terms of the future, not of being exterminated or maybe this is our last generation that cares about being Indian. It just invigorated the entire Indian nations...They started having pride in where they came from and what they were and who they were. And that wasn't done in America for many, many generations. It also made the government understand that once more there was a line in the sand that they couldn't push us beyond. We had taken all we could absorb and that if they push us just too damn far then we'll fight."

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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