Reservation Tensions Explode into Wounded Knee Occupation
On Feb. 27, 1973, traditional members of the Oglala Lakota (Sioux) tribe and activists from the American Indian Movement (AIM) occupied the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, a protest designed to draw attention to the deplorable living conditions on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and the corrupt rule of Richard Wilson, head of the tribal council. The site where U.S. troops massacred more than 150 Lakota in 1890, Wounded Knee was chosen for its symbolic importance. The activists hoped the federal government would not dare repeat a massacre of Indians at the infamous spot.
The Wounded Knee occupation was the desperate culmination of a series of conflicts that had made life on the reservation miserable for many of its inhabitants. The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation was one of the most impoverished communities in America. There was a sharp divide between full-blood and traditional Indians on one side, and the politically corrupt regime headed by Richard White and his fellow mixed-blood Indians on the other.
Wilson ruled with an iron fist, taking care of his family and friends and ignoring the needs of the traditionalists. Wilson’s opponents had recently tried to impeach him, but without political power their efforts failed and Wilson tightened his grip. His followers, called “goons” by the traditionalists, were heavily armed and a machine gun emplacement was built on top of the tribal council’s administration building. The conflict had reached a boiling point.
It was then the traditionalists decided to call upon AIM, a radical group of mostly urban Indians known for their aggressive tactics and warrior mentality. The approximately 300 Wounded Knee protesters were surrounded by hundreds of U.S. Marshals, members of the FBI and National Guard, state and local police, local ranchers, and Wilson and his followers, all heavily armed, including machine guns, 15 armored personnel carriers, helicopters, and over 130,000 rounds of ammunition.
The tense stand-off lasted 71 days with frequent gunfire on both sides. Two Indians were killed and several wounded during the Wounded Knee occupation; one U.S. Marshal was wounded—he later died of complications related to his shooting. Finally, on May 5 the Indians agreed to disarm on the promise the government would look into their grievances, and on May 8, 1973, the town was evacuated.
The occupation of Wounded Knee was front-page news for the Aberdeen American News (Aberdeen, South Dakota) on Feb. 28, 1973:
10 Hostages Held in AIM Takeover of Wounded Knee
Wounded Knee, S.D. (AP)—Some 200 members of the American Indian Movement were in control of this small town Wednesday and were holding about 10 of its residents hostage, authorities reported. One AIM leader said the Indians had vowed “to die if necessary” unless their demands were met.
About 90 law enforcement officers sealed off the area on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwestern South Dakota after the takeover Tuesday night by the militant Indian group.
Joseph H. Trimbach, special FBI agent in charge of the Minneapolis division, said the Indians were holding the hostages in the town’s four or five buildings and shots were fired at any approaching car.
Trimbach said the AIM group entered Wounded Knee at approximately 10 p.m. EST Tuesday night and allegedly burglarized a store for weapons.
Carter Camp, a national AIM coordinator reached by telephone, said “We have made a complete commitment to die if necessary” if the government was not willing to take steps to redress what the Indians regarded as injustices.
Camp said the Indians were holding the priest of a Roman Catholic Church among the hostages. “The church sits on high ground and gives a commanding view of the area. We have the men and the weapons to hold it.”
Camp said a number of the Indians were armed with “high-powered” rifles. He could not confirm or deny an FBI report that one man had shot himself and had been taken to a local hospital.
The AIM leaders said the hostages “have not been harmed or maltreated and they will not be harmed.” He said, however, that a number of demands must be met before the town is vacated and the hostages released.
Camp said in a telephone interview from Wounded Knee that the hostages are in no danger “unless the police come in here and try to annihilate us.”
“If they come in here shooting, it’s going to be pretty hard to distinguish between Indians and white people,” Camp said. “The hostages are in no danger from Indian people. They understand that. But they’re in the same place as Indian people, so they’re in the same danger if they (law enforcement officials) decide to invade.”
The FBI had said Indians in Wounded Knee were firing on approaching cars. The AIM leader said shots had been fired, but said he thought they had come from Indians who were sighting-in weapons taken from the Wounded Knee Trading Post.
“I don’t think any shots have been fired at people,” he said.
Camp said the town had been seized to dramatize four demands. He said the AIM demands were sent to Washington and added that the FBI was waiting for instructions from the Capital.
He said the demands included:
• “The Senate committee headed by Sen. Ted Kennedy launch an immediate investigation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Department of the Interior for their handling of the Oglala Sioux nation.”
• “That Sen. William Fulbright investigate the 371 treaties between the federal government and the Indians to show how the government has failed to live up to the terms of the treaties. We can prove the United States never keeps its treaty commitments.”
• “That the Oglala Sioux be allowed to elect their own officials. Those now in office are just puppets. They need traditionalists.”
He said Indians also are demanding that state and local governments “become more sensitized to Indian problems,” and said the group is calling for a new tribal election. “The Oglala Sioux should have a new leader,” Camp said.
The AIM coordinator said his group was supporting the seizure, but that it had been initiated by members of the Oglala Sioux tribe who were not members of the organization.
Camp said AIM agreed to support the takeover of Wounded Knee at the request of persons he called “the traditional leaders of the Oglala Sioux.”
“I haven’t been authorized to give you the names of these leaders,” Camp said, “but I can tell you that they’ve been trying for two weeks to make their grievances known to responsible officials. They’ve been having trouble with the tribal government and with the BIA. Finally they formed the New Civil Rights Task Force and called on us for assistance. We plan now to mobilize our group to give them every possible help.”
The chairman of the Oglala Sioux tribal council is Richard Wilson of Pine Ridge. Wilson successfully avoided an impeachment attempt last week by three council members he said were sympathetic to AIM.
Camp said it “is symbolic that we have seized Wounded Knee and there is a definite threat that another massacre could occur here. We are not going to give in without a fight.”
Wounded Knee was the site in 1890 of a bloody battle between Sioux Indians and federal troops in which some 200 Indian men, women and children were killed.
The battle, subject of the recent book, “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” marked an end to fighting between Indians and white men in the Dakota territories.
Camp said war drums were played through the night and they would continue until some of the grievances of the Oglala Sioux have been resolved.
He said the AIM members in Wounded Knee came from Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and other states and he expected others to join them later.
At Pine Ridge, Aaron Desersas [i.e., De Sersa], national communications director of AIM, said a physical attempt took place Tuesday against AIM leader Russell Means. Desersas blamed harassment and intimidation by Wilson and his followers for the attempt.
Desersas said he joined AIM national field director Dennis Banks in urging all AIM members to arm and defend themselves if necessary.
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