Editorials about the End of the Wounded Knee Occupation
On the 71st day of a tense standoff, the occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, by traditional members of the Oglala Lakota (Sioux) tribe on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation—aided by activists from the American Indian Movement (AIM)—finally came to an end on May 8, 1973. The protest resulted in three fatalities, several persons wounded, and much physical destruction to the tiny hamlet of Wounded Knee.
After the activists laid down their arms and surrendered, ending their occupation and the accompanying siege by law enforcement officials, newspapers across the country editorialized about the occupation and what it all meant. There was a range of responses, from outright condemnation of the occupiers to more nuanced editorials probing the causes of the protest and trying to draw conclusions from the ordeal.
This editorial was published by the Springfield Union (Springfield, Massachusetts) on May 8, 1973—the day the occupation ended:
Wounded Knee Peace at Hand
Unless there is a last-minute hitch, as happened once before, the “Second Battle of Wounded Knee” will end tomorrow [correction: today—ed.]. According to an agreement, the besieged Indians then will surrender to surrounding U.S. marshals. The confrontation began Feb. 27, at the South Dakota site of the battle between the Indians and the U.S. Army in 1890.
The latest demonstration staged by members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) is to seek redress for wrongs done to the Indians over many years by the U.S.
Unfortunately, AIM members seriously transgressed the law in their Wounded Knee demonstration. At least two people have been killed and several wounded. Court orders have been disregarded. Some AIM members will face trial.
This editorial was published by the Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas) on May 9, 1973:
The federal marshals—or perhaps it was Watergate—have proved too much for the militants at Wounded Knee. The siege or seizure has ended not with a bang but with the anticlimactic thud of arms being grounded by the militants.
This is, of course, a triumph for law and order, even if there will be a bill for several million dollars (the price of the siege) for us to foot—plus the unlikelihood of the outlaws ever serving more than a few months for a long list of federal crimes.
The crimes are the only really clear thing about Wounded Knee, which has lacked the kind of focus that makes for public understanding. The most that can be said of the militants was that they wanted more federal handouts under the guise of treaty revisions.
When they turned outlaws, their pretensions were cancelled, but because they were Indians the government dared not treat them like other citizen-criminals. Instead of arrests, we had a siege that, in effect, dignified the wrongdoing.
Except for the violence, it was a farce on the federal side—a sorry one in its implications for law and order. The federal besiegers are expressing satisfaction over the success of their policy, but they can boast of little else. The outlaw militants got the best press.
More than that, they have proved that crime does pay. They drained all the sensation they could out of their lawbreaking—and probably quit only because they were losing ground to Watergate, another siege with a much bigger press.
This editorial was published by the Seattle Times (Seattle, Washington) on May 9, 1973:
Wounded Knee’s Hard Lessons
Reflecting on the apparently successful “disarmament” agreement with militant Indians at Wounded Knee, a Justice Department aide remarked that the government had “learned many things” during the long siege in the brown, rolling hills of South Dakota.
If the government indeed has acquired new knowledge from this melancholy episode, we hope that one hard lesson will transcend all others—that is, that federal inaction created the climate that permitted the incident in the first place.
A federal official spoke pridefully of a “pattern of patience, negotiation and renegotiation” that led to yesterday’s evacuation of the tiny hamlet by the insurrectionists and their followers.
But nothing was said of the absence of federal leadership and response which created the vacuum into which the irresponsible militants stepped 70 days ago, aided and abetted by exaggerated television coverage which reinforced white misconceptions of Indian “stereotypes” and by the likes of Jane Fonda, Ralph Kunstler and Angela Davis.
Most Indians surely were outraged at the grotesque posturing of the Wounded Knee militants whose theatrics at the site of the massacre of 1890 eclipsed such earlier performances as the seizure of Alcatraz and the destructive raid on the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Yet moderates and militants alike are acutely aware of past failures to deliver on government promises. They remember, for example, the unfulfilled pledge in 1970 to upgrade Indian education. They have not forgotten, either, that the “task forces” on Indian grievances organized after last November’s Bureau of Indian Affairs incident had not, at last report, even held meetings.
All sorts of complex issues are interrelated in the Wounded Knee situation, ranging from a bitter local struggle over political control of the impoverished Oglala Sioux to the whole matter of Indian oppression and abrogated treaties.
Thus, Wounded Knee became a fresh symbol of resentment toward unkept promises and laggard attention to Indian problems both on and off the reservations across the nation.
Responsible Indian and government leaders must now move to redress grievances swiftly and effectively, lest more such pathetic spectacles arise in the future.
This editorial was published by the Oregonian (Portland, Oregon) on May 10, 1973:
Knee Twice Wounded
The second battle of Wounded Knee has ended with the issue no more settled than it was in the first, more than 80 years ago. And there will certainly be just as much disagreement on its causes and results as was the case in the brief battle in which 153 Indians and a score of U.S. cavalrymen died on an early winter day in 1890.
This was a bizarre and especially troublesome demonstration in an era of such violent protests. It was precipitated by a few Indians, leaders of the American Indian Movement (AIM), who were not there when those who had stood with them—Indian and white—were taken in hand by U.S. marshals. It was ostensibly a protest against leadership of the Oglala Sioux tribe on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. But the leaders of the confrontations and a significant number of their supporters were not Sioux.
It was a costly engagement, both to the people involved and to all Americans, who will pay for it. The few score residents of the small village with the big place in history will return to homes and other buildings burned and ravaged. The cost of repair has been estimated at $240,000. More important, two participants in the defense of the village are dead, and a U.S. marshal lies paralyzed by gunfire from the militants. Also, the nation’s taxpayers will foot the bill for as much as $7 million for the cost of the government’s operation in the affair, which was much more costly as well as more patient than that of the U.S. troops in 1890.
The militants of the AIM, who thought up this serious caper and deliberately sited it at Wounded Knee because of its dramatic connotations, achieved something. They did call attention to the legitimate grievances of the American Indian. But, in doing so, they also revealed how a few dissident Indians, by irresponsible action, could hurt the Indian cause in the long range.
AIM was the organization responsible for the ravaging of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Building in Washington, D.C. That tactic of protest has been thoroughly discredited. AIM’s foray in Wounded Knee is, at this stage at least, just as regrettable.
The American Indians, many of whom are outcast and impoverished in the native land of their race, are in need of forceful spokesmanship. But the self-feathered chiefs of Wounded Knee do not fill that bill.
This editorial was published by the Sunday Times Advertiser (Trenton, New Jersey) on May 13, 1973:
After Wounded Knee
If the militant Indians who took possession of the village of Wounded Knee last Feb. 27 had been able to formulate clear and realizable objectives, that painful 70-day occupation might have had its compensations. The cost was not small: Two lives lost, a federal agent paralyzed, destruction of homes and property to the extent that many of the 250 villagers may not return and Wounded Knee may become a ghost town.
The toll would certainly have been higher without the restraint of federal authorities and the eventual willingness of Indian leaders to lay down their arms. The difference between two deaths and the Army’s massacre of 153 Sioux in the earlier incident at Wounded Knee in 1890 may signal some improvement in Indian-government relations, but it’s not much to show after 83 years.
The public’s sympathetic interest in the Indians’ plight tended to wane as the occupation wore on, and the settlement provides merely that federal officials will listen to the grievances of an Oglala Sioux faction opposed to the elected tribal leadership. That isn’t a great deal.
Future improvement in the condition of the Indian people, long mistreated by the government and now caught in a bind of dependency between ancient custom and modern stirrings, will come more from patient determination and sensitive consideration than the type of militant protest just ended.
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