Wounded Knee II (1973)
On February 27, 1973, approximately 250 members of the American Indian Movement (AIM), the Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization (OSCRO), and their supporters occupied the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The occupation was the culmination of months of conflict between the activists and tribal chairman Dick Wilson, whom they accused of being corrupt, nepotistic, and despotic. AIM leaders first came to the area in early February, after the murder of an Oglala Lakota by a white man. Relatives of the murdered man asked AIM to help them seek justice, and after a protest in nearby Custer, South Dakota, Wilson became concerned that he would be AIM's next target. With the help of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the United States marshals, Wilson fortified his headquarters, further aggravating his opponents. At the same time, the anti-Wilson members of the tribal government began impeachment proceedings against the chairman. When Wilson survived the impeachment, his opponents invited AIM to come to the reservation to protest his administration.
AIM leader Russell Means was a member of the Pine Ridge tribe and had been present on the reservation during the impeachment hearings. After the invitation from the tribe members, Dennis Banks and others joined Means at Pine Ridge, where they met with OSCRO and traditional tribal chiefs. On February 27, Wilson's opponents gathered at a meeting hall in the town of Calico. In private meetings, the chiefs advised the activists to hold their protest at Wounded Knee. Not wanting to reveal the plan to any potential Wilson informants, Means announced to the crowd that the meeting was to move to a larger hall in Porcupine, and they formed a caravan to move across the reservation. Along the way, however, the caravan stopped at Wounded Knee, where a small group of AIM members had already begun to seize the town's trading post and churches. Within hours, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the BIA, and the U.S. marshals set up roadblocks around the town.
By February 28, the federal presence had expanded to approximately 250 officers using army-provided armed personnel carriers (APC), and military jets began flying reconnaissance. Soon after, military advisors from the Pentagon arrived. As their presence violated federal law, they remained dressed in civilian clothes at all times. Inside Wounded Knee, occupants formed a security team led by those who Page 1076 | Top of Articlehad served in Vietnam. They began fortifying the village with trenches and bunkers. The occupiers soon realized that they were overmatched and outgunned. One of AIM's veterans had an AK-47 assault rifle that he had brought home from Vietnam, but otherwise, they were armed mostly with hunting rifles and shotguns. In contrast, the federal officers had automatic weapons, over 100,000 rounds of ammunition, grenade launchers, and tear gas, in addition to APCs and helicopters.
Not long after the siege began, the protesters provided the government with a list of demands. The occupiers wanted the Senate to hold hearings on Indian treaties, to investigate operations at the BIA, and to inspect conditions on South Dakota's reservations. The document listing these stipulations also stated that the protesters had the support of eight Oglala chiefs and medicine men. Within two days, government negotiators were on the scene. On March 1, South Dakota's U.S. senators, James Abourezk and George McGovern, visited Wounded Knee to check on hostages that the FBI reported AIM had taken. Although the hostages, all permanent residents of Wounded Knee, probably were taken as prisoners at the beginning of the siege, they informed the senators that they were staying on their own accord to watch their property and to help ensure that the government did not kill the protesters.
Shortly following the senators’ visit, negotiations began between the occupiers and officials representing the Justice Department, who had primary responsibility for brokering a solution to the siege. On March 4, the two sides met in a canvass tepee between Wounded Knee and the federal roadblocks. Talks soon broke down over the issue of amnesty, which federal negotiators would not grant. However, the National Council of Churches was able to bargain a cease-fire, and on March 10, the Justice Department took down their roadblocks. Although many of the Pine Ridge Oglalas returned home, Indians from the across the country filed into the village and rejuvenated the occupation. On March 11, those inside Wounded Knee proclaimed themselves the Independent Oglala Nation. The roadblocks went back up. Just beyond the federal perimeter, Dick Wilson, who had become a minor figure in the drama, established his own roadblocks using his private police force, commonly called the “goon squad” by its critics. Wilson's men turned the slur into an acronym standing for “Guardians of the Oglala Nation” (GOON) and used the name with pride.
Those inside Wounded Knee faced increased hardship after the reestablishment of the roadblocks. Food and medical supplies were more difficult to obtain. In defiance of a court order, the GOON roadblocks prevented supplies from entering Wounded Knee. The occupiers relied upon provisions brought in on foot at night, and in one incident, supporters organized an airlift. Although firefights had occurred since the beginning, violence also intensified in the second phase of the siege. In addition to gunfire from Indians and federal officers, local whites came Page 1077 | Top of Articleto Wounded Knee at night and fired at both sides, hoping to provoke governmental action against the Indians. By late March, the gunfights had become so frequent and so intense that the government warned reporters that they could not longer guarantee their safety. In the first four weeks of the siege, both sides suffered minor wounds. Then, on March 26, U.S. marshal Lloyd Grimm was paralyzed in a firefight. In April, North Carolina Cherokee Frank Clearwater and Pine Ridge Oglala Buddy Lamont were killed by gunfire while inside Wounded Knee.
Following Lamont's funeral on May 6, the protesters and federal negotiators finalized an agreement to end the siege. On May 8, after 71 days at Wounded Knee, the Indians disarmed. Those AIM leaders still present were arrested. Although the Oglala leaders did get their meeting with officials in Washington, nothing came of their talks. The most significant benefit of the occupation was increased awareness of AIM and Indian issues in general. The siege was widely covered by the national media, and Wounded Knee became a cause célèbre. Wounded Knee drew more attention than any other AIM protest. Leftist activists from around the country voiced their support for AIM, and some even traveled to South Dakota to join the occupation. Federal officers arrested hundreds of supporters bringing supplies to Wounded Knee. Yet, the protest also reduced the productivity of the organization. For more than a year after the end of the siege, AIM leaders and resources were tied up in trials stemming from the occupation. Although eventually thrown out because of FBI tampering, the court cases distracted AIM from activism and contributed to the group's growing ineffectiveness in the mid-1970s.
—Jacob F. Lee
Lyman, Stanley David. Wounded Knee 1973: A Personal Account. Edited by Floyd A. O'Neil, June K. Lyman, and Susan McKay. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991.
Matthiessen, Peter. In the Spirit of Crazy Horse: The Story of Leonard Peltier and the FBI's War on the American Indian Movement. New York: Viking, 1983.
Sayer, John William. Ghost Dancing the Law: The Wounded Knee Trials. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.
Smith, Paul Chaat, and Robert Allen Warrior. Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee. New York: New Press, 1996.