The Armed Occupation of Wounded Knee 1973
Revolutionary Worker #952, April 12, 1998
On February 27, 1998, hundreds of people gathered at South Dakota's Pine Ridge reservation to honor the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Wounded Knee occupation. People came from throughout the Western Hemisphere to join in the two days of commemoration, celebration and discussion.
One participant told the RW, "There was a time in 1973 when the possibility of change presented itself. People seized that moment. And those moments can happen at any time. I hope I'm part of more moments like that."
*****"I will stand with my brothers and sisters. I will tell the truth about them and about why we went to Wounded Knee. I will fight for my people. I will live for them and, if it is necessary to stop the terrible things that happen to Indians on the Pine Ridge Reservation, I am ready to die for them."
Pedro Bissonette, during the Wounded Knee trials on June 27, 1973.
He was murdered three months later by police at a roadblock
on the Pine Ridge reservation.
Twenty-five years ago, in the spring of 1973, hundreds of Indian people and their supporters went to the village of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. They intended make a powerful statement demanding an end to the murderous attacks by police and government agents, and demanding that the U.S. government honor its treaties granting Native people land and self-government.
The day after they arrived at Wounded Knee, they found themselves surrounded by an army of over 300 government forces--including agents of the FBI, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), U.S. Marshals, Justice Department and various local and state police.
The Indians refused to back down. They used weapons to defend themselves and held off the government forces for 71 days of siege.
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 against the injustices of this system.
War, Broken Treaties and
the Massacre at Wounded Knee
The Lakota people (also known as the Sioux) had long hunted the northern plains, when European-American soldiers and settlers invaded these lands. The Lakota people and their Arapaho and Cheyenne allies fought back. Under the leadership of Red Cloud, they defeated the U.S. cavalry by 1868 in the Boseman Trail war. The U.S. government was forced to sign the Fort Laramie Treaty recognizing the right of the Lakota people to forever rule a large stretch of land surrounding the Black Hills--between the Missouri and North Platte rivers.
This treaty was quickly broken. Gold was discovered in the Black Hills. General George Custer's cavalry was sent in to protect the prospectors who invaded Indian lands. Meanwhile, Euro-Americans systematically wiped out the buffalo--and destroyed the basis for traditional Lakota life. War broke out again in 1876 and the Northern Plains Indians were ultimately defeated--though not before killing Custer and his cavalry at Little Big Horn. The two great war leaders of the Lakota--Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull--were assassinated.
Then on December 29, 1890 at a place called Wounded Knee, U.S. soldiers brutally massacred 300 Sioux people of Big Foot's band trying to flee to safety through the winter cold.
That same year, the last of the Lakota people were forced into concentration camps called "reservations."
A Hundred Years of "Indian Policy"
Over the next century, federal authorities tried to force Indian people to become farmers, to abandon their languages and cultural identities, to view themselves as "U.S. citizens," and assimilate into larger U.S. society. Children were stolen from the Indian people, and forbidden to speak their languages. Traditional religious ceremonies like the Sun Dance and the sweat lodge were banned. Christian churches funded missionaries to convert the Native people. The government set up "tribal councils" to carry out its policies on the reservation.
The results of a century of such armed occupation and suppression were devastating. Lakota life expectancy in the 1970s was 46 years. Alcoholism and suicide rates were very high. In 1973 there were 137 churches on the Pine Ridge reservation alone--more than one for every 100 residents.
Native Americans remained among the poorest people in the country. By the 1960s unemployment on Pine Ridge reservation was 54 percent. Most available jobs were tied to the government-funded agencies and tribal authorities. One-third of the people depended on government checks to live.
By the 1970s only 1.5 million of the 3 million acres on Pine Ridge were still owned by Indians. And the federal government was poised to carry out a massive new theft of natural resources. The Black Hills and the Pine Ridge reservation contain large deposits of coal and uranium, which is used by the government to make its nuclear weapons. The authors of Agents of Repression point out: "Overall, the plans for industrializing the Black Hills are staggering. They include a gigantic park featuring more than a score of 10,000 megawatt coal-fired plants, a dozen nuclear reactors, huge coal-slurry pipelines designated to use millions of gallons of water, and at least 14 major uranium mines."
Tons of radioactive waste were washed into Cottonwood Creek and the Pine Ridge water table exposing tens of thousands of people to radiation.
In the 1960s, a great movement of resistance rose up among the Native peoples of the U.S. Its high point came with the armed takeover of Wounded Knee in 1973.
The Birth of the American Indian Movement
The siege of Wounded Knee took place in the midst of the upsurge against the Vietnam War and the Black liberation movement in the U.S. in the 1960s and early '70s. The Vietnamese people were defeating the U.S. military machine. The whole country was being rocked by struggle against the system.
The American Indian Movement (AIM) was formed in 1968 by Indians who lived in the inner-city ghettos. Inspired by the Black Panther Party, they went deep among the Indian people--and formed street patrols to defend the people from the racist police and courts. They believed in uniting Indian people of all the different peoples into one movement.
AIM members 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 building.
In February 1972 a Sioux named Raymond Yellow Thunder was abducted by two white men in Gordon, Nebraska. They took him to an American Legion Hall dance and beat him to death. His battered body was found two days later. Such attacks on Indian people by white racists and the police were common around the Pine Ridge reservation. AIM led a caravan of 200 cars to Gordon and forced the authorities to file serious charges against the murderers and dismiss the local police chief.
Severt Young Bear said: "When AIM came in and helped the family look into the death, that made the older people that are living out on the reservation, out in the country--they kind of lifted up their heads, and were speaking out then. And they been talking against the BIA, Tribal Government, law and order system on the reservation, plus some of the non-Indian ranchers that are living on the reservation and been abusing Indians. It was brewing and it finally happened in Wounded Knee."
The government became very worried about AIM's growing influence among the people. In the spring of 1972, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) backed the election of Dick Wilson as tribal chief. 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 and its supporters. Hundreds of people were threatened, beaten, shot at or had their homes burned.
The Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization (OSCRO) led angry residents of the reservation in an attempt to impeach Wilson. In response, Wilson called in BIA police and the FBI to back him up. They began monitoring every move by AIM and OSCRO members on the reservation. Meanwhile Wilson tried to ban AIM completely from the reservation and prohibited all public meetings and demonstrations.
By February 1973, a big confrontation was brewing.
The Siege at Wounded Knee
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. An AIM leader described why people went to Wounded Knee: "Our original thought was to go to the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Pine Ridge and physically throw out the government. We soon realized that this was impossible, because they had the place completely fortified and had Federal Marshals and BIA pigs all around it, and sandbags on top, machine guns, and fortifications all over the town. So in order to avoid that kind of pitched battle, we decided to come to Wounded Knee, because of its historic significance to our people, naturally, and the fact that it lies right in the heart of the Pine Ridge Reservation. We felt that by coming here, occupying this town, we would be telling the Sioux Nation that they had someone there to fight for them, to help them fight and protect them."
On arriving at Wounded Knee they released a statement demanding hearings on the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty and an investigation of the BIA and the tribal government at Pine Ridge.
The government responded by bringing in an army of 300 FBI, BIA, U.S. marshals and local police. They surrounded the village and put up roadblocks. No one was allowed to enter and anyone leaving was subject to arrest. As the book Agents of Repression tells it, "In the first instance since the Civil War that the U.S. Army had been dispatched in a domestic operation, the Pentagon invaded Wounded Knee with 17 armored personnel carriers, 130,000 rounds of M-16 ammunition, 41,000 rounds of M-1 ammunition, 24,000 flares, 12 M-79 grenade launchers, 600 cases of C-S gas, 100 rounds of M-40 explosives, helicopters, phantom jets, and personnel, all under the direction of [top Nixon aide] General Alexander Haig."
The Indians dug their own trenches and set up roadblocks. A security squad led by a Vietnam veteran was formed. CB radios were used to communicate between the bunkers and foot patrols. The AIM fighters were armed with .22s, shotguns, a few good hunting rifles and one AK-47 that a Vietnam vet had brought back to the States. People bypassed the government barricades to bring in food, medicine and ammunition--often coming in on foot or horseback.
For 70 days there were almost daily gunfights. Tens of thousands of bullets, plus tear gas were fired into the village - trying to force the fighters to lay down their arms and surrender. Any proposal by the Indians was rejected by the government. The Indians stood firm there at Wounded Knee, where the ground once before had been soaked in Indian blood.
Declaring Themselves Free
On March 10, the authorities took down their roadblocks in the hope that the Indians would leave. Instead, the Indians saw this as a victory and took the opportunity to strengthen their position. Hundreds of supporters poured into Wounded Knee, bringing food and medical supplies.
The following day, AIM and the Oglala Sioux elders declared the rebirth of the Independent Oglala Nation--182 Oglalas, 160 Indians from other tribes and 7 white people declared themselves citizens of ION. They demanded discussion with U.S. government representatives over the terms of the 1868 Ft. Laramie Treaty.
A Lakota Sioux woman recalled: "For the first time in many years, the Oglala people could organize themselves according to their ancient spiritual values and ways of life--the Indian Way. The life of the Indian people is their spirituality. We were free! It was the first time that we had ever known freedom. We ran a hospital, a school for our children, we had a common commissary, we ran our own security force to enforce our borders. People got married, babies were born in a free land. For 71 days there was power in the hands of the Indian people. Men and women stood side by side in the kitchen, in the bunkers, on patrol, in the hospital and in the schools, and at the constant negotiations with the United States government."
Bold Stand, Broad Support
Millions of people were inspired by the stand at Wounded Knee. Other Indian tribes canceled leases on mining contracts they had signed with major corporations. Indian people from over 60 different tribes slipped through the blockades to join their brothers and sisters inside. Hundreds of people 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.
The Government's Tactics
The government brought in reinforcements and mounted intensive patrols to stop food, supplies and new recruits from reaching Wounded Knee. They were determined to starve the defenders out. After March 11 fewer and fewer supplies made it past the government roadblocks. On March 26 the phone lines were cut. The major media left.
That night, the government launched a massive barrage--shooting over 20,000 rounds into the Indian camp. The following day, the government announced dozens of indictments against the people inside.
The government also initiated a nationwide clampdown against supporters of the occupation. The Crusade for Justice, a Chicano group in Denver, was raided by the police. A number of Indians and supporters were shot down by the police. People were arrested for collecting food and medical supplies for Wounded Knee.
On April 5 negotiations broke down again when the government insisted that the Indians give up their weapons. Clyde Bellecourt of AIM said, "The people are pretty uptight about the fact that there would be marshals coming in with handguns and they would be totally unarmed. And they still envision what happened to Big Foot and his band in 1890, and they totally distrust the United States government at this point."
On April 17, Frank Clearwater, an Apache, was killed by a government bullet. And on April 26, Buddy Lamont, an Oglala from Pine Ridge, was also shot in the head and killed.
On May 4 the White House sent the Indians a letter promising that White House 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. Over 150 people left Wounded Knee over the next three nights, evading the authorities and taking their weapons with them.
The Nixon White House immediately broke the agreement. On May 31, a Nixon aide presented hundreds of Indians with a letter that said: "The days of treaty making with the American Indians ended in 1871, 102 years ago..."
The government never investigated the Bureau of Indian Affairs 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. Almost 700 indictments were handed down by federal authorities in connection with the Wounded Knee occupation.
During the next three years at least 69 AIM members and supporters were killed in the Pine Ridge area. More than 300 were assaulted, and many of these people were shot. AIM worked hard to defend the people and press for its just demands. In that struggle, AIM leader Leonard Peltier was accused of killing two FBI agents, and was railroaded into prison.
*****"They tried to jail us. They tried to throw us in courts. They tried to put long prison terms on us. They tried to scare us. But...we weren't afraid of the FBI coming and saying `You guys might go to jail for this.' We didn't care because we've already been to their prisons, and we were saying to America, `America, we've had enough of this.'"
Dennis Banks of the
American Indian Movement
For 100 years, Wounded Knee was remembered as the windswept spot on the Northern Plains where hundreds of defenseless Sioux people were massacred by the U.S. cavalry. But then, in 1973, another memory was added to this spot--Wounded Knee became liberated territory for over 70 days.
This heroic armed occupation remains, 25 years later, a powerful symbol of hope and struggle. Those courageous moments of freedom and sacrifice at Wounded Knee 1973 will never be forgotten.
Voices From Wounded Knee: The People Are Standing Up, published by Akwesasne Notes
In the Spirit of Crazy Horse by Peter Mathiessen
Agents of Repression: The FBI's Secret Wars Against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement, by Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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