Remembering the Wounded Knee occupation

February 27, 2013

Brian Ward tells the story of one of the most important Native struggles of the past.

IN RECENT months, the Idle No More movement led by First Nations in Canada has spoken out against disastrous government policies threatening reserves and the environment. Idle No More has been a powerful voice of resistance, particularly as consciousness about environmental issues grows.

Of course, Native resistance is nothing new to this continent. It has been part of history since Europeans set foot on Turtle Island (as North America is known to some Native Americans). The images of the Idle No More movement blockading highways across Canada reminds us of past struggles.

One of the most important such struggles began 40 years ago on February 27: the occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973 by Oglala Lakota elders and the American Indian Movement (AIM), who called for the impeachment of the corrupt tribal council president Dick Wilson, and for Congress to reexamine broken treaties.

IN THE 1970s, the Pine Ridge reservation, where Wounded Knee is located, was run like a Latin American dictatorship.

Two AIM activists stand guard during the occupation of Wounded Knee
Two AIM activists stand guard during the occupation of Wounded Knee

The U.S. government would funnel money to Dick Wilson, the tribal council president, who oversaw the reservation with an iron fist. Supporters of the radical AIM were hunted down by the Guardians of the Olgala Nation (GOON) squad, ending in numerous gun battles. The GOON squad worked closely with the FBI and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).

In her International Socialist Review article on Leonard Peltier, Michele Bollinger described Dick Wilson as:

deeply unpopular because of his mistreatment of the elderly and traditional people on the reservation, his undemocratic methods, and the rampant nepotism and corruption that infested his administration. He was infamous for embezzling Housing and Urban Development money and misusing funds, and for neglecting everything else on the reservation. Wilson used federal funds to start what some have called a paramilitary, and what became a virtual death squad. The cocky, crew-cutted Wilson only named his armed gang Guardians of the Oglala Nation (GOON) after angry Pine Ridge residents had been calling them the "goon squad" for a while.

Since Wilson was so unpopular, resistance developed on the reservation. The Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization (OSCRO) was formed to impeach Wilson. Petitions were filed--one even had more signatures than the number of votes Wilson got in the preceding election. Showing his nepotism and corruption, Wilson personally presided over the impeachment hearing, so you can guess the outcome.

OSCRO was at a loss on what to do next--action through the tribal council was clearly not going to work. Over 200 people came to a hearing put together to decide whether AIM should be invited on the reservation to help with the situation. AIM had an organization and could bring people to defend the Oglala Lakota people. Frank Fools Crow, the traditional chief of the Oglala people, said, "Go ahead and do it. Take your brothers from the American Indian Movement and go to Wounded Knee and make your stand there."

On February 27, 1973, a caravan of 300 armed Oglala Lakota and AIM activists arrived at Wounded Knee and declared it a liberated territory. They took over the church and trading post, blocked all the roads, and took several white hostages.

The leading participants included Leonard Crow Dog, Carter Camp, Madonna Thunder Hawk, Russell Means and Dennis Banks. As AIM leader Dennis Banks said, "The message that went out is that a band of Indians could take on the U.S. government. Tecumseh had his day, Geronimo, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse. We had ours."

"We were about to be obliterated culturally," Russell Means explained in the documentary We Shall Remain at Wounded Knee. "Our spiritual way of life, our entire way of life was about to be stamped out. And this was a rebirth of our dignity and self-pride."

Within hours of the start of the occupation, the federal government mobilized an overwhelming response, sending over 200 FBI agents, federal marshals and BIA police to surround and blockade Wounded Knee.

The senators from South Dakota, George McGovern and James Abourezk, came to negotiate freedom for the hostages--they learned that the hostages were sympathetic to the Indian cause and weren't staying against their will. Agnes Gildersleeve, the owner of the trading post, said, "We're not hostages, we are going to remain here. It's your fault that these Indian are here. Have you listened to them? We're not leaving because you'll kill them if we leave!"

Shootouts happened almost every night of the occupation. Leonard Crow Dog, one of the spiritual leaders, would lead people in sweat lodges and ceremonies to prepare for battle if it was to come. These ceremonies were very important to the resistance and developing a sense of Native pride--American Indians weren't allowed to practice their religion and culture at the time.

THE DEMANDS of the occupiers were quite simple: investigate corruption on the reservation and hearings in Congress on broken treaties. Yet the government immediately rejected these demands, sending mid-level officials to deal with the situation and gave out ultimatums about the occupiers leaving Wounded Knee. AIM burned this document in front of the cameras.

The mainstream media broadcast continued to demonize AIM and try to turn public opinion against the movement. Nevertheless, the occupation gained sympathy throughout the U.S., with majorities saying they supported the Indians. Actor Marlon Brando would refuse to accept his Oscar for best actor in The Godfather in a protest in solidarity with Native rights and against the stereotypes of Indians in movies. Apache actress Sacheen Littlefeather gave a speech refusing the award that was watched by millions.

The occupation was taking place as the Watergate scandal was rocking the Nixon administration. The administration didn't want to look any worse than it already did by raiding the village, which was the site of the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre. AIM and Lakota activists were able to build solidarity around the country as supplies continued to flood in. Thousands of people came to participate, including American Indians from tribes around the country, along with white, Chicano, Black and Asian activists.

A small delegation led by Frank Fools Crow went to the United Nations in an attempt to gain recognition of the occupation's autonomy as a liberated nation. The request was denied.

Meanwhile, the response of the FBI was go all-out against the occupation. Former FBI agent Joe Trimbach later recalled: "The [FBI] director said, 'Tell Trimbach he can have anything he wants!' Which was pretty neat, because it was like having a blank check. I had agents go up to Rapid City and buy every rifle they could find."

The U.S. government was worried that Wounded Knee would become an example that others would follow. A high-ranking BIA official expressed alarm over his view that Wounded Knee had "crystallized a revolutionary movement in the United States."

By the end of the occupation, two American Indians had been killed, Buddy Lamont and Frank Clearwater. Buddy Lamont was from Pine Ridge, a Vietnam veteran and well-known on the reservation--the radio station building at Pine Ridge is now named after him. Lamont's great-grandparents were with Crazy Horse at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and his grandmother was one of the few survivors of the Wounded Knee Massacre. Frank Clearwater was a Cherokee from North Carolina who had just arrived with his wife at Wounded Knee. He was killed by a stray bullet as he was laying down.

As the FBI escalated its attack on AIM, the occupation became harder and harder to sustain. With no electricity and running water and supplies dwindling, the occupation pushed people to their limits. After 71 days, at the request of Frank Fools Crow, the occupation ended on May 8. The FBI came in, and disarmed and arrested 120 people. Fortunately, however, many people had snuck out the night before, evading arrest.

Gladys Bissonette, who had been part of the occupation throughout, said on its last day:

This was one of the greatest things that ever happened in my life. And although today is our last day here, I still feel like I'll always be here because this is part of my home...I hope that the Indians, at least throughout the Pine Ridge Reservation, unite and stand up together, hold hands and never forget Wounded Knee. We didn't have anything here, we didn't have anything to eat. But we had one thing--that was unity and friendship amongst 64 different tribes...I have never seen anything like this.

By the end of the occupation, more than 1,200 people had been arrested nationwide in relation to the protest, and 500 elders were indicted. Most were acquitted--however, Leonard Crow Dog ended up serving a couple months in prison.

With the resistance of the Idle No More movement undoubtedly continuing in Canada and the U.S., it's important for us to remember and learn from the struggles of the past and the story of a people who have been written out of the history books.

One of the most important lessons of the occupation of Wounded Knee is the importance of solidarity. The courage of the Lakota was inspiring, but the occupation would never have lasted as long as it did without the support it had from the public.

It's our job as activists to fight alongside all people who are oppressed. On this anniversary of the Wounded Knee occupation, let us remember the lives that were lost and the courage of those who fought.

Further Reading

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