In defense of the Wounded Knee militants

October 6, 2016

The courageous protests against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline are being led by Indigenous peoples—this represents a reawakening of the rich history of Native resistance in the U.S. One such struggle is the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee, in which Oglala Lakota elders and the American Indian Movement (AIM) called for the impeachment of the corrupt tribal council president Dick Wilson, and for Congress to re-examine broken treaties.

Here, we reprint an article from the March 16-29, 1973, issue of Workers Power, a newspaper published by the International Socialists, which makes the argument for solidarity with the Wounded Knee militants holding out against state repression.

AS THIS issue of Workers Power goes to press, federal marshals have been withdrawn from the area of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, which has been occupied by militants of the American Indian Movement for the last 12 days. Although the immediate crisis has been resolved without bloodshed, the government refuses to grant the militants' demands and has convened a grand jury to issue indictments against the occupation. Socialists, working people and the movements of the oppressed peoples in the United States must respond to this situation by building united demonstrations to defend the occupation and support the Indians' demands.

Only the determination and discipline of the Indians, and the fear of unfavorable popular reaction to a "second massacre at Wounded Knee" (the first occurred in 1890 when 300 unarmed Indians were killed by federal troops) prevented the FBI and over a hundred U.S. marshals at the scene from moving to crush the occupation with armed force.

In September 1971, the massacre of prisoners at Attica, New York, served notice that the capitalist state is prepared to resort to mass slaughter to suppress uprisings of oppressed people demanding decent treatment and the rights of human beings. There is no doubt that the government, caught off guard by the recent upsurge of militancy among the Indians, is already laying plans to deal with future "incidents" with the same measures that were used not only at Attica, but also against the Black ghetto rebellions in Watts, Harlem, Newark and Detroit in the 1960s.

AIM activists keep guard during the occupation of Wounded Knee
AIM activists keep guard during the occupation of Wounded Knee

Whatever "settlement" is reached, it is clear that the Indians involved will face arrests, prosecution and massive repression. A movement must be built now to assure that they will be defended, and that they will be able to continue their struggle for basic democratic rights.

A SMOKESCREEN of confusion, distortions and conflicting reports has been created to hide the events at Wounded Knee in recent days and to distract attention from the demands of the Indians. After days of sporadic shooting and issuing several ultimatums, the government claimed that an "agreement in principle" (meaning that in practice, the government would not be bound to anything) had been reached. This occurred only after the failure of the government's attempt to intimidate the Indians into surrender by cutting off talks and threatening to move in with military force. The Indians deny that any such agreement has occurred and claim that their original demands continue to stand.

The Indians' demands are extremely moderate and should have been met immediately. They include an investigation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), a cesspool of bureaucratic corruption and racism which was exposed by the documents liberated at the November sit-in at he Washington BIA headquarter; a Senate investigation to expose the breaking of hundreds of treaties by the government; and the right of the Indians to elect their own leaders.

The present tribal president of the Oglala Sioux, Richard Wilson, has condemned the Indian demonstrations and threatened to use violence again Wounded Knee militants.

For many decades, American Indians have been kept largely outside the "mainstream" of American politics. They are regarded by most Americans as historical curiosities--an image which the government and the press carefully seek to maintain, in order to prevent their demands from being taken seriously by working people generally.

The history of the American Indian has been portrayed as that of a "race of bloodthirsty savages" who were overcome by the heroic efforts of the pioneers and farmers who "won the West" for democracy and civilization.

In real life, however, the destruction of the Indian population was a series of acts of genocide, carried out in the process of American capitalist expansion.

Most of the Indian tribes were hunted down by the U.S. Army and other armed forced supported by the fur companies, railroads and large ranchers.

The Indians' culture, history and racial pride became objects of contempt as they were forced into degradation and squalor on concentration camps known as "reservations."

Not surprisingly, much of the current Indian revolt has taken the form of rediscovery and reassertion of the Indians' history and culture of resistance against the white oppressors.

UNQUESTIONABLY, MANY Indians see the struggle at Wounded Knee as an up-to-date revival of a vital part of their heritage. There are important parallels between the movement and the upsurge of Black racial pride in the last 10 or 15 years.

These parallels include the division with the community between the militants and the "moderate" leadership whose power depends on maintaining good relations with the oppressor.

These leaders, like Wilson, use some external trappings of Indian culture to maintain their own rule. They condemn militants as "outside agitators" who threaten the "purity" of the community, in order to cover up their own role.

There are, however, deeper underlying forces which are driving Indians to revolt--the same economic forces which are shaking the stability of all American society. The historic oppression of Indians as a people is now reinforced by the current economic offensive against all oppressed and working people.

Even as unemployment worsens, social welfare, job training and other programs that have maintained Black, Latin and Indian communities at a bare subsistence level are being destroyed.

These measures will have a devastating effect on American Indians, many of whom suffer all the problems of marginal laborers as well as racial discrimination. The effects will be even worse for the Indians because (unlike Black people) they have not had a well-organized movement capable of winning concessions in the past.

As Workers Power has argued in the past, these attacks reflect the deepening crisis and instability of American capitalism, and will be followed by full-scale attacks on the more powerful organized industrial working class.

American workers, especially Black workers who are already feeling the razor edge of these attacks, must take the lead in defending the Indian movement and helping to unite it with the struggles of other oppressed peoples.

The formation of an independent working-class political party, to defend the interests of workers and oppressed minorities and to fight for a government of and for all working people, is an urgent necessity in this period.

In the coming days and weeks, branches of the International Socialists in many cities will be attempting to collaborate with Black, Latin and working-class organization to build demonstrations and actions of support for the militants at Wounded Knee and the Indian movement.

We urge all such organizations, as well as our readers, to join us in this effort.

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