Native Americans Occupy Wounded Knee Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Several hundred members of the Oglala Sioux tribe and members of the American Indian Movement occupied the town of Wounded Knee to protest actions of the tribal government and treatment by the U.S. government.

Summary of Event

Members of the American Indian Movement (AIM), the Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization, and the Oglala Sioux tribe took control of the hamlet of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, on February 27, 1973. The site was symbolic, as a massacre of several hundred Oglala Sioux had occurred there in 1890. The occupiers had several goals in mind, both local and national, when they took control of Wounded Knee. They saw problems with the tribal government of the Pine Ridge Reservation Pine Ridge Reservation and were also continuing a string of protests against the U.S. government that had been going on for several years. American Indian Movement Native Americans;activism Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization Wounded Knee occupation (1973) [kw]Native Americans Occupy Wounded Knee (Feb. 27-May 8, 1973) [kw]Wounded Knee, Native Americans Occupy (Feb. 27-May 8, 1973) American Indian Movement Native Americans;activism Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization Wounded Knee occupation (1973) [g]North America;Feb. 27-May 8, 1973: Native Americans Occupy Wounded Knee[01060] [g]United States;Feb. 27-May 8, 1973: Native Americans Occupy Wounded Knee[01060] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Feb. 27-May 8, 1973: Native Americans Occupy Wounded Knee[01060] [c]Indigenous peoples’ rights;Feb. 27-May 8, 1973: Native Americans Occupy Wounded Knee[01060] Means, Russell Banks, Dennis Wilson, Richard

Many Native Americans had fought in World War I as volunteers. In return for their efforts and in response to their request, the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 Indian Citizenship Act (1924) made American citizens of all Native Americans living in the United States. The government later used the act to argue that all treaties with Indian nations were void, because the “nations” with which these treaties had been signed no longer existed. In 1969, a group of almost three hundred American Indians occupied Alcatraz Island. The government responded by increasing funding to the Office of Economic Opportunity, which aided American Indian groups in urban areas. Between 1962 and 1972, various tribes spent $40 million in litigation costs trying to get the U.S. government to fulfill treaty obligations. The occupation of Alcatraz Island signaled that they were willing to assert their rights more militantly.

The next major protest event was the culmination of the nationwide demonstration known as the Trail of Broken Treaties. Trail of Broken Treaties In November, 1972, an automobile caravan of nearly one thousand American Indians arrived in Washington, D.C., intending to put pressure on the candidates in the upcoming presidential election. Caravan leaders presented each candidate with their Twenty Points, which demanded that all American Indians be governed by treaty relations (a point raised again during the occupation of Wounded Knee) and asked for a clear statement of American Indian ownership rights regarding land, water, and minerals.

When caravan leaders arrived at the Bureau of Indian Affairs Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S. (BIA) building, they found that housing arrangements for the caravan were inadequate. Government officials agreed to let the caravan use the auditorium at the Department of the Interior. When about five hundred members of the caravan were asked to leave for the auditorium, they feared that they would be attacked outside in retaliation for entering the BIA building uninvited. They seized the building, blockading doors and making weapons from wooden desk legs. The occupiers destroyed parts of the building and its furnishings, preparing for an attack that never came. They left on November 9, having been promised that the Twenty Points would be considered and responded to within sixty days. The response to the Twenty Points that was given on January 9, 1973, was unsatisfactory to the American Indians. The points asking for enforcement of treaties and authorization to make new treaties were rejected. AIM leaders vowed not to surrender in any future protests unless action was taken on the treaties. Those who had been part of the occupation of the BIA building praised the leadership offered by AIM and urged a widening of the struggle for American Indians’ rights. Several minor skirmishes occurred in early 1973.

Not all American Indians were pleased with the protests. Some tribal governments were willing to cooperate with the U.S. government and did not want to upset relations. Richard Wilson, the tribal chair on the Pine Ridge Reservation, was one of the American Indians opposed to the methods used by AIM and other activists. After the takeover of the BIA building, he vowed not to allow any protests on the reservation and got the tribal court to issue an order banning AIM members from speaking at or even attending any meeting on the reservation.

Wilson had been elected as tribal chair in April, 1972, but was accused of buying hundreds of votes in that election. Wilson’s administration was charged with diverting government funds to supporters and granting questionable contracts to whites. In response to these charges, he had opponents beaten and their families threatened. Cars were forced into accidents, people were shot at in the dark, and homes were burned mysteriously. The BIA saw that Wilson would suppress a popular revolt by AIM, so it supported him and ignored complaints against him. The BIA funded an auxiliary police force as well as sending its own agents to the reservation. Russell Means, a leader of AIM, vowed to run against Wilson in the next election for tribal chair, but that would not occur until 1974.

A flyer in New York City asks for support during the occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, by members of the American Indian Movement (AIM).

(Library of Congress)

The Justice Department became convinced that Means and Dennis J. Banks, another AIM leader, meant to seize the BIA building on the Pine Ridge Reservation. On February 12, 1973, more than sixty heavily armed marshals were sent to the reservation to guard the building. The BIA and the Federal Bureau of Investigation Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) also increased their forces.

Wilson was impeached as tribal chair, and his hearing was held on February 22 and 23, 1973. Wilson acted as his own lawyer, in front of a judge he had appointed. He was successful in manipulating and coercing the tribal council into voting in his favor. Several hundred angry members of the Oglala Sioux tribe, which lived on the Pine Ridge Reservation, convened a meeting in Calico, a town near Pine Ridge. They invited Means and Banks to attend. AIM’s policy was to enter the reservation only on request. The Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization, formed several weeks earlier, made that request for AIM’s help in overthrowing Wilson. On February 26, AIM members began to caravan to the Pine Ridge Reservation. Means and several others went to Pine Ridge on February 27, and Means was beaten by two members of Wilson’s police force. The group returned to Calico temporarily but came back to Wounded Knee early in the evening, leading a larger band of about 250 Indians, mostly Oglala Sioux. According to a police report, they broke into the reservation store at 7:55 p.m. and took weapons and ammunition.

The original intent appears to have been a short occupation to negotiate for Wilson’s dismissal and a traditional tribal government free of BIA interference. The various government forces, however, blockaded the roads and arrested anyone coming out of Wounded Knee who appeared to be implicated in the takeover. The occupiers then set up defenses and barricades of their own. A messenger brought out a list of demands, which now included Senate review of Indian treaties and handling of Indian affairs by the BIA and the Department of the Interior as well as review of conditions on all Sioux reservations in South Dakota.

People on the reservation were split between support for AIM and anger at the violent outburst. Fourteen hundred signed a petition supporting AIM and calling for removal of federal forces and for Wilson’s ouster. Supporters slipped through roadblocks to carry food to the occupiers.

Members of the Justice Department met with the occupiers on March 4. The administration of President Richard M. Nixon insisted that violence be kept to a minimum and that occupiers be given every opportunity to surrender. The roadblocks opened on March 10. A few of the occupiers left Wounded Knee, but hundreds more people poured in to visit or to remain.

The occupiers declared the Independent Oglala Nation (ION) on March 11. This declaration was supported by traditional chiefs and headmen and was not an independent action by AIM. The ION revived the Treaty of 1868 as the basis for relationships with the federal government and announced its intention to send a delegation to the United Nations. The roadblocks closed again, but by then more than three hundred American Indians were in Wounded Knee. Support for the occupation grew on other reservations. Some AIM members who started for Wounded Knee were arrested, and activists in several cities were killed in conflicts related to support of the Wounded Knee occupation.

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On March 9, the government issued an order for everyone to leave the village, threatening to open fire. The deadline for evacuation was canceled, but the threat of shooting attracted more American Indian supporters of the movement to Wounded Knee. Wilson, the tribal chair, wanted to launch an attack on Wounded Knee. Rather than attack, the government began new negotiations on May 1. It agreed to refrain from recommending bond for those with federal warrants outstanding, to prosecute civil and criminal violations against Oglala Sioux through the tribal government, to protect tribal members against Wilson, and to hold meetings on the 1868 treaty later in May. Some of the occupiers did not trust the government to abide by its conditions and slipped out of Wounded Knee on May 7. When marshals and FBI agents took over the town on May 8, there were only 129 occupiers left.

Significance

By the end of the occupation, two American Indians had been killed and a federal marshal had been paralyzed by a bullet. An FBI agent and about a dozen American Indians were also injured. Thousands of rounds of gunfire had been exchanged nightly, and the village suffered millions of dollars of damage. Some of those arrested were held on bail as high as $50,000, breaking the promise made by the government. The promised meeting on the 1868 treaty took place, but the government representative was authorized only to listen and to reject any proposals. According to the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, Indian Reorganization Act (1934) the government had to deal with the tribal chief. Wilson remained in that post. Crimes against Oglala Sioux were not investigated as promised or were investigated only without the knowledge of the victims. In any event, there were no prosecutions. On the contrary, the BIA police and Wilson’s own police became more aggressive in stifling dissenters.

Russell Means and Dennis Banks were tried in 1974 on five charges each, three of assault and one each of conspiracy and larceny. All charges were dismissed; they could have resulted in a sentence for each man of up to eighty-five years. The judge in the case accused the FBI agents who testified of lying under oath, furnishing altered documents to the defense, and planting a spy in the defense camp.

Between March 1, 1973, and March 1, 1976, at least sixty-one violent deaths occurred on or near the Oglala Nation’s four thousand square miles of land. All but a few of those killed were AIM activists or supporters, and most were killed by Wilson’s police force. In comparison, the annual killing rate was 170 per 100,000; the average in the entire United States over the same time period was 9.7 per 100,000.

Means, Banks, and other leaders continued to be harassed by federal and state authorities and were forced to appear in different courts. By 1979, Means had been charged with thirty-seven felonies and three misdemeanors. He was exonerated on all counts but one. Banks was almost as busy in the judicial system. He finally fled to California, where Governor Jerry Brown Brown, Jerry refused to extradite him.

As promised, Russell Means ran against Richard Wilson for the office of tribal chair in 1974, even though the charges against him related to Wounded Knee had not yet been dismissed. Means won the primary, in which several others were entered, but lost the final runoff election by a narrow margin. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found fraud in that election. Means challenged the result, but as tribal chair, Wilson was the only one with the authority to call the tribal council into session to consider the challenge. Two members of Means’s campaign lost their jobs immediately following the election, for no apparent cause. Wilson refused to hold a new election, and violence against his detractors continued. The FBI kept agents on the Pine Ridge Reservation, along with tanks and armored personnel carriers. Wilson was finally defeated by Al Trimble in the 1976 election for tribal chair.

On a wider scale, tribal governments elsewhere began to support their own people to a greater extent and became more independent in their dealings with the BIA. The BIA backed away diplomatically in most cases, possibly in fear of another occupation, even though it had veto power over reservations’ financial affairs. The 1974 Indian Self-Determination and Assistance Act allowed reservation Indians more say in their own affairs. A 1977 report by the American Indian Policy Review Committee, however, said that the act failed to give tribes true self-determination. American Indian Movement Native Americans;activism Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization Wounded Knee occupation (1973)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Banks, Dennis, with Richard Erdoes. Ojibwa Warrior: Dennis Banks and the Rise of the American Indian Movement. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004. American Indian Movement cofounder begins his autobiography at Wounded Knee, 1973.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. 1970. Reprint. New York: Henry Holt, 2000. A chronicle of the problems of various tribes and of various battles, up to the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890. Each chapter is devoted to a distinct topic. Chapter 19, the final chapter, concerns the original battle at Wounded Knee. Extensive notes, large bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Deloria, Vine, Jr. Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties: An Indian Declaration of Independence. 2d ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985. Provides a history of American Indians’ rights. Chapter 4 discusses the takeover of Wounded Knee in 1973. The last half of the book is largely a legal treatment of treaties and an examination of American Indians’ claims to status as independent nations. Deloria proposes that the United States recognize Indian nations as a solution to the conflict over rights. Partisan in outlook. Chapters are untitled, and different chapters describe the same time periods, making the book difficult to use as a research tool. No index or bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johansen, Bruce, and Roberto Maestas. Wasi’chu: The Continuing Indian Wars. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1979. Documents the ways in which American Indians have been subjugated, both as individuals and as peoples. Three separate chapters describe different cases. Focuses on the twentieth century. Extensive notes with sources and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Josephy, Alvin M., Jr. Now That the Buffalo’s Gone: A Study of Today’s American Indians. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982. Discusses attitudes and goals of modern American Indians. The legal battles of several tribes for their land, hunting, and fishing rights are described. The siege at Wounded Knee in 1973 is shown as a culmination of American Indian history. The aftermath of the siege is also described. Index, bibliography, and photos.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pierre, George. American Indian Crisis. San Antonio, Tex.: Naylor, 1971. Pierre was chief of the Colville Confederated Tribes of Washington. He examines the problems of modern American Indians and recommends job training and education as solutions, along with a review of federal supervision of American Indian affairs. Early chapters contain some history of American Indians. No reference features.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sayer, John William. Ghost Dancing the Law: The Wounded Knee Trials. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997. History of the trials that followed the Indian takeover of Wounded Knee, related from many angles. Draws from interviews and transcripts. Provides critical analysis of the media’s role throughout the trials.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zimmerman, Bill. Airlift to Wounded Knee. Chicago: Swallow Press, 1976. A description, by a participant, of the illegal airlift of supplies into Wounded Knee during the occupation. Chapter 6 contains an extensive interview with Dennis Banks. No reference features.

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