A Return to the Wounded Knee Occupation, 50 Years Later

The new era of social consciousness and racial activism in the 1970s would play a pivotal role in the events leading up to the 71-day occupation

Two Natives waiting for the fire fight
Two Natives waiting for the fire fight, with the Sacred Heart Church in the background, during the Wounded Knee Occupation (also known as Second Wounded Knee) at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, South Dakota, 7th March 1973. Photo by Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

I remember 50 years ago writing a high school research paper about the Wounded Knee occupation right after it took place. My good friend Jake Reynolds (Southern Cheyenne) had just returned from the occupation and shared his first-hand experiences for my paper. His accounts of smuggling in food under the watch of the FBI, U.S. Marshals, and Tribal Police fascinated me then, and my interest in the topic continues today.

On the 50th Anniversary of the Wounded Knee occupation (February 27-May 8, 1973), many of the famous American Indian Movement (AIM) leaders who spearheaded the occupation are no longer alive to tell their stories in their own words. The occupation at Wounded Knee was, in my memory, the first time an American Indian current event was being followed by national and international audiences. Every night on the evening news all the major news networks reported what had transpired each day—prompted by members of the press accompanying two U.S. Senators from South Dakota, James Abourezk and George McGovern, to Wounded Knee. This level of mainstream coverage signaled a change in the American media landscape produced by various social justice movements during the 1970s.

Painting for war, medicine man Crow Dog (Lakota), a leader of the American Indian Movement (AIM), applies paint to Wounded Knee warriors before a fire fight. Photo by Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

A series of events led to the Wounded Knee occupation, one of the most significant being the Trail of Broken Treaties. The American Indian Movement organized caravans of activists from the West Coast and across the country to travel to Washington D.C. Their objectives were to bring attention to issues such as treaty rights, the abolition of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, federal investment in jobs, housing, and education, and reinstatement of terminated tribes to federally recognized status.

To accomplish this, AIM planned to present the Nixon administration with a list of 20 demands that addressed treaty responsibility. When they arrived in Washington D.C., AIM took over the U.S. Department of the Interior building that houses the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and occupied it from November 3 to November 9, 1972. AIM only agreed to leave the building with the assurance that the White House would address almost all their concerns. An interagency task force was created, to be co-chaired by representatives of the Nixon administration and a promise to involve dozens of Indian organizations. After the BIA takeover, President Richard Nixon signed a law to restore the Menominee Tribe to federally recognized status and supported legislation that offered tribes control over their own operations.

A few months later, February 6, 1973, there was a Lakota (Sioux) protest in front of the courthouse in Custer, South Dakota, over the killing of tribal people and the unbalanced prosecution practices toward Lakota compared to non-Native assailants. The Lakota protesters were met by police resulting in a violent confrontation.

At the same time in Minneapolis, Minnesota, “Slum conditions eventually became the primary purpose for the birth of the American Indian Movement (AIM) along with high unemployment and the police brutality,” said Dennis Banks, co-founder of AIM and a Minneapolis resident at the time. These two groups would eventually join forces to set the stage for the showdown at Wounded Knee. Further confrontations led by AIM resulted in protests following racial killings that occurred in South Dakota and Nebraska border towns surrounding the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

American Indian Movement leaders Floyd 'Red Crow' Westerman (Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota), Clyde Bellecourt (White Earth Anishinaabe), John Trudell (Isanti Dakota) and Dennis Banks (Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe) on the phone, at the original AIM office on Franklin Avenue in South Minneapolis, Minnesota Used with permission from Crow Bellecourt

Following the BIA takeover in Washington D.C., AIM leaders announced a major celebration of victory that would take place on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. In response, then Oglala Sioux Tribal Chairman Richard Wilson proclaimed a state of emergency for the Pine Ridge Reservation and prohibited all AIM gatherings on the reservation. He called in support from United States Marshals to aid his state of emergency. During that time, Chairman Wilson was already at odds with members and supporters of the grassroots Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization (OSCRO).

OSCRO accused Chairman Wilson of corrupt practices of disqualifying political opponents, misusing tribal funds, and inciting violent confrontation under the strongarm of his organization, Guardians of the Oglala Nation, more popularly referred to as GOONS. After failing to impeach Chairman Wilson on their accusations, OSCRO summoned AIM for assistance to deal with Chairman Wilson.

According to Crow Bellecourt (Anishinaabe), son of prominent AIM leader Clyde Bellecourt, “The story that sticks with me that my father told me was they were meeting with the elders of Pine Ridge about what should be done about all the unsolved murders that were taking place on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation at that time and after about a couple of hours of people talking and telling stories an elderly lady by the name of Gladys Bissonnette stood up and raised her fist and my dad said, ” You could see her veins in her wrist and arm.”

She said, “The blood that runs through these veins is the same blood that ran through Crazy Horse's veins. Now haven't you heard enough from everyone here? So, what are you AIM going to do? Are you going to run back to Minneapolis, Chicago, Milwaukee, Denver, and cry in your beer bottles or are you going to stand up for the people?” And my father told me, “When you get challenged by an elder like that, what do you do?” My father then said, “It was a defining moment and there was no turning back.”

I asked Madonna Thunder Hawk (Oohenumpa Band of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe) grass roots AIM member who served as a medic at the Wounded Knee occupation to share something that may have not been widely known about the occupation. She responded, “Our plan wasn’t to have a stand-off with the Feds. We were asked to come to the Pine Ridge community gathering to hear the people's grievances. We were surrounded at Wounded Knee by the Feds … while on our way to the community of Porcupine (South Dakota).”

FBI agents, armed with M16A2 assault rifles, position themselves in an armored personnel carrier and watch as AIM members escort an Iroquois delegation from Wound Knee after they met with American Indian Movement leaders. Photo by Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

On February 27, 1973, approximately 50 carloads of AIM members representing many tribes joined the Oglala Lakota in the small community of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, a site where on December 29, 1890, the 7th Calvary massacred approximately 200 unarmed Lakota of Chief Bigfoot’s band in the original Wounded Knee massacre. The day after AIM’s arrival, in response to Chairman Wilson’s state of emergency, U.S. government and tribal roadblocks were set up at all the major roads leading into Wounded Knee to keep food, guns, and support from reaching AIM. In a highly unusual act, the U.S. Department of Justice also responded by halting the press from entering Wounded Knee to dialog with AIM spokespeople. Reporters were threatened with federal charges if they disobeyed.

After the press were banned from covering the story from within Wounded Knee, AIM agreed to negotiate their demands. AIM wanted the White House to specifically honor all treaties with the Sioux starting with the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty and return a huge tract of territory for the Great Sioux Reservation which included the gold-rich Black Hills, which is still valid. These initial negotiations broke down and fire fights resumed. Food and medical supplies came in from outside suppliers through night smuggling and even an air drop.
Sister and Brother Gina and Louis Gray (Osage) the day before they left the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico to hitchhike to Wounded Knee, South Dakota to join the 1973 occupation. Photo used with permission from Louis Gray

Louis Gray (Osage Nation) was one of the many young Natives from across the Nation who answered the call to come to Wounded Knee. Gray recounted, “As a 19-year-old, I was no leader of any kind. I was assigned to a far western bunker. Which at the time I didn’t realize was a very dangerous assignment. Getting there from the trading post or church meant covering a lot of open space. So, we generally just stayed there night and day. We cooked our meals and kept an eye on movements on federal marshals, GOONS and cowboys. We were also the first to welcome in those walking in overnight cross country. It was brutally cold. I went to my first sweat with Leonard Crow Dog (AIM spiritual leader) in the middle of a blizzard. There was a day we were told the Feds were coming in, they brought in extra troops and Stan Holder (Wichita Tribe, a Vietnam combat veteran) gave us a battle plan for defense which was grim. It was probably all going to be over in minutes. Don’t drop your weapon they will shoot you on the ground. Crow Dog one by one gave us our death paint. It was to happen at 5 PM. At 4:55 PM two jets flew several hundred feet off the ground. I assumed to rattle us, it worked. Were they going to bomb or strafe us? 5 PM passed and we realized that President Nixon called off the invasion called by H.R. Haldeman. Natives like my sister Jacque were calling night and day to ask the White House to not invade Wounded Knee. Their effort saved us.”

When I asked Louis if he would have died for the cause he responded, “This happened during the last days of the Viet Nam Conflict and the question of giving up your life for a cause was asked often. It was asked then. That question was asked before I hitchhiked up there. 'Would you die for your people?' The answer was yes. There was too much wrong and nothing being done about it. As a young man, all I could do for my elders and the vulnerable was to put myself in harm’s way for a better future for them."

In March during the occupation, U.S. Marshal Lloyd Grimm was shot during a firefight resulting in paralysis. This escalated the lethality of the already aggressive tactics of those opposing AIM. On April 17, 1973, Frank Clearwater (Cherokee) became the first Native AIM supporter to be shot and killed while resting in a church. Eight days later, Lawrence “Buddy” La Monte (Oglala Lakota) was also shot and killed in a fire fight. After La Monte’s death, tribal elders called an end to the occupation. On May 5, 1973, both sides reached an agreement to disengage. With this decision, many Oglala Lakota began to leave Wounded Knee during the cover of night. Three days later, the overall siege ended. Wounded Knee was evacuated after 71 days of occupation, two deaths, and hundreds of arrests.

Bobby Onco (Kiowa) and member of the American Indian Movement (AIM), holding up his AK-47 rifle. This photograph was taken after a ceasefire agreement between AIM forces and federal marshals at Wounded Knee, Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota on March 9, 1973. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Though the occupation ended fifty years ago, there have been lasting effects on policing, media, politics, and Indian Country. One little known fact is, the Firearms Unit at the FBI Academy began developing their inaugural SWAT teams in the early 1970s following the Wounded Knee Occupation.

AIM also received support from activists, actors and the Congressional Black Caucus. After the Department of Justice prohibited the media from engaging with AIM inside Wounded Knee, mainstream press attention decreased.

In response, actor Marlon Brando, an AIM supporter, asked Sacheen Littlefeather President of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee, to speak at the 45th Academy Awards on his behalf if he won for his performance in The Godfather. Prior to the announcement of the winner, Littlefeather was told she could not recite Brando’s full speech and was warned she would be arrested if she did. When Brando’s name was announced, she stated that he declined the award due to "the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry...and on television and movie reruns and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee." The speech rekindled the attention of millions around the world concerning the Wounded Knee occupation.

Crow Bellecourt was born after the occupation of Wounded Knee and grew up in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, birthplace of the American Indian Movement. Through his father’s leadership role, he knew many of the original leaders of AIM.

I asked Crow if the Wounded Knee occupation accomplished anything for his generation. He replied, “We (my generation) have benefitted from the Wounded Knee occupation. I see our young people being proud of who they are, I see our traditional ceremonies are not underground anymore. I see our people are not afraid to stand up when they see something is not right. The future of the American Indian Movement is in a good place. Most of our original leaders have made their journey to the spirit world but the fight for our people will continue no matter the issue and I see young AIM people stepping up and continuing on with the good fight.”

Dawne DuShane (Delaware/Shawnee/Sisseton Wahpeton) returned to the site of Wounded Knee to participate in the 50th Anniversary commemoration to honor Wounded Knee Native warriors past and present. Photo used with permission from Dawne DuShane