February 27, 1973
The Pine Ridge Reservation in southwestern South Dakota has never been an easy place to live. Although larger than several states, it is a small remnant of the territory negotiated in the Ft. Laramie Treaty of 1873, as almost any resident could tell you. In 1973, its unemployment rate was between 75% and 90% depending on who measured it. Alcoholism, murder, suicide, domestic abuse, poverty and hopelessness were rampant. This was the poorest county in the United States, where very few homes had telephones, televisions, newspapers or regular news of any kind.
The tribal government was corrupt and brutal. In the surrounding towns there were often incidents of racial brutality. A recent murder of an Indian (Wesley Bad Heart Bull) by white residents had sparked considerable concern. The traditional tribal “chiefs” or “elders” who did not recognize the BIA tribal government as their only leadership had asked the American Indian Movement (AIM) from Minneapolis to come and help them. This group, recent veterans of an occupation on the Island of Alcatraz in San Francisco and the BIA headquarters in Washington, D.C., were respected for their willingness to take risks and talk about sovereignty, dignity and treaty rights. AIM was a collection of Vietnam vets, urban organizers and energetic young people who had already caught the attention of the FBI and its COINTELPRO program.
Richard Wilson, the tribal president said that AIM would not be welcome on the reservation. He said his “supporters,” who were called the Goon Squad, would shoot AIM members on sight. This threat was believed.
AIM members came to town, and the meeting with the elders and chiefs, under the protection of young people calling themselves “warriors” was going to be held at a secret location. After driving around to try to confuse anyone watching them, they arrived in the church in the little village of Wounded Knee. This was not chosen because of its symbolism, being the site of a brutal massacre of innocent families by the 7th Cavalry a hundred years earlier, but because it was a meeting place on a hill where lookouts could be effective.
What happened next is in dispute, but Tribal President Wilson’s men set up roadblocks and fired shots at the people in the meeting. This quickly escalated.
The AIM supporters set up their own roadblocks, returned fire, and there was a standoff. Local people walked, ran and used horses to gather and bring food, clothing, weapons and other supplies. The tribal government asked for and received assistance from the federal government, and soon it was a full blown incident. The Indians said they were under siege, and the government called it an occupation of the village of Wounded Knee. This standoff became one of the major turning points of the Indian efforts to improve their lives in the 20th century. This also was one of the United States’ major historical events of the 1970s.
The siege (or occupation) lasted for 71 days. It included vehicles that looked like tanks (called armored personnel carriers or APCs), daily firefights, the death of two Indians, and the serious injury of one member of the National Guard. While most of the United States was obsessing with Watergate and the winding down of the Vietnam War, Indians and their supporters from all over the country brought food, clothing, medical supplies and other support to Pine Ridge. Most of them were immediately arrested and charged with various federal and state crimes. A few got through.
The Reader’s Digest published a poll that said that 75% of the American people supported the Indians at Wounded Knee, and two books, “Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee” by Dee Brown and “Custer Died for Your Sins” by Vine Deloria, reached the NY Times best-seller list.
I cannot write a history of the siege (or occupation) of Wounded Knee here, there is not time, and other people have already written books, made films and generated much mythology around this. I just want to say that courageous, often scared people survived a very brutal South Dakota winter for over two months living on what food, clothing and supplies could be smuggled past the armed might of the U.S. military, and defended by whatever weapons and ammunition (and volunteer lawyers) could be located.
The legacy of this courage is still around us. The sovereignty movement, which gained momentum here, has brought Indian gaming, the recognition of hunting and fishing rights, much recognition by federal, state and local governments, and considerable international recognition of the existence of Indian Nations within the United States of America.
Over 300 federal indictments were litigated, and the only people who served any time served them for incidents that happened before or after the 71-day occupation. Before, because they had parole revoked for their participation, or after because there were more confrontations over the next several years that were related to the efforts that began at Wounded Knee. People did go to jail for what the government called riots in Custer, S.D., and Sioux Falls, S.D., and for a shootout in Oglala, S.D., which resulted in three people losing their lives and the conviction of Leonard Peltier for murder.
Currently seven of the 10 poorest counties in the United States are in South Dakota, and all of these are on Indian reservations. This includes the county that is the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Many people have spent the last 40 years working on these issues and continue to work on them.
I am about to accompany my 85-year-old father to the 40th anniversary of this siege (occupation). My father, 40 years ago, when he was 45, was the legal head of the Wounded Knee Legal Defense/Offense Committee (WKLD/OC). He recruited lawyers and legal workers, led the development of legal strategy, and worked on the trials and appeals and related legal efforts stemming out of this struggle. He made many lifelong friends, people who were as close as dear family members. He would like to see as many of them as possible while he still can.
This will likely be an emotional, uplifting and sobering trip. There are new generations of leaders who show great promise, and many of the warriors who were in their 20s during Wounded Knee are in their 60s now.
I will write again after our return.