Wounded Knee 1973
Wounded Knee 1973
Even though nearly all of 1973 America knew of the occupation of the little village of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation and came to know of the atrocious conditions under which many of the Lakota people lived out their lives, time has faded memories. As the 40th anniversary of Wounded Knee approaches, many of those who were part of the occupation, or indeed instrumental in it, have died. Appallingly, conditions have not improved in the lives of many of the people who live on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Some of these are the children and grandchildren of the original occupiers. It was thought that much more would have happened; much more would have changed than it has.
Wounded Knee was the brainchild of the American Indian Movement (AIM). This informal organization grew quickly from its 1968 origins in Minneapolis, MN, and developed a strong leadership core of young men and women. They didn’t always agree with one another, and sometimes violently disagreed, but they managed to design a national agenda. In 1972 they filled the highways on the way to Washington, D.C. to talk with the president about 20 points of vital interest. The promised meetings did not materialize, so Wounded Knee, just three months later, was intended to force the U.S. government to make good on its word.
Before nightfall on February 27, 1973, about 250 members of the Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization (OSCRO), residents of Wounded Knee Village, Indians from all over the United States, unaffiliated Vietnam veterans and AIM moved into and occupied the little village. The federal government did not listen to those who went to Washington in 1972. Now the government would have another chance to listen.
Tipped off, FBI agents and U.S. marshals were already there, having been called out to protect the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) building from an attack by AIM. Over time, they would completely surround Wounded Knee and pin the occupiers down in fire that heavily outgunned the occupiers. Armored personnel carriers, overflying jets, and semi-military tactics were used without regard for innocent, unarmed individuals inside the Wounded Knee compound. Had there been only armed men inside the compound against armed groups on the government side, there may have been some justification for the torrent of gunfire. It would later be disputed in court whether the U.S. Army and Air Force had authority to move in on the Indians as they had.
At the end of 73 days, Leonard Garment, counsel to president Nixon reaffirmed a guarantee of a meeting with five White House representatives and Oglala Sioux tribal elders if the occupation would end by May 11. The White House agreed to discuss broken treaties and compensation for lost tribal lands.
The Sioux National Anthem filled the air at sunrise on May 8 and 125 Wounded Knee defenders surrendered to federal authorities in three predetermined groups. The federal authorities overran the village, searching for expected explosives and large weapons. None were found and the marshals drove out empty handed.
The Nixon administration, in a flourish more suited to movie scripting, stated that it wanted to halt Indian militancy. It said Indian militants comprise a “revolutionary Indian element” involved in symbolic actions arising from attempts to redress the bloody Indian past. And further, they are not representative of the Indian population at large, are criminally oriented, and must be stopped by criminal prosecution before they create more havoc throughout Indian America.
But the subsequent trials did not yield the desired Nixon-ion result. Chief defense attorney Kenneth Tilsen wrote in 2012, “Of the 1200 people arrested at Wounded Knee, 99.89% were not found guilty of any offense and only 0.05% were found guilty of an offense serious enough to justify a sentence that required incarceration.”
Editor's Note: Laura Waterman Wittstock has written about AIM in the forthcoming book: We Are Still Here: A Photographic History of the American Indian Movement by Laura Waterman Wittstock, photographs by Dick Bancroft and and an introduction by Rigoberto Menchu Tum (May 15, 2013)