IEN Honors the 50th anniversary of Wounded Knee ‘73 Occupation

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Wounded Knee Occupation, where members of the Oglala Lakota Nation and the American Indian Movement (AIM) occupied the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota for 71 days from Feb 27, 1973 – May 8, 1973. In the years leading up to the occupation, members of the Oglala Lakota Nation had endured years of hardship at the hands of the tribal council and chairman’s misuse of government funding that resulted in even more economic and social hardship for the people. For months before the siege, community meetings were conducted led by the Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization (OSCRO) in secret to address the graft, corruption, and to protect themselves from the violent intimidation tactics used by the tribal chairman Richard “Dickey” Wilson. His orders were carried out on anyone who dared hold him accountable for his crimes against his people by the self-proclaimed Guardians of the Oglala Nation (GOON Squad.) This time period became known as the Reign of Terror. 


On February 27th, at a tribal council meeting, and another attempt to impeach Wilson, all the tensions, anger, and grief over murdered and missing relatives came to a head. The meeting spilled out onto the street where the Oglala community members, chiefs, and leaders of AIM went into action and headed to Wounded Knee, SD on the Pine Ridge reservation to begin the “The Wounded Knee Occupation.” This would become a ‘last stand’ type of event as the days turned into weeks, and law enforcement agencies and military units were dispatched to the site. National and international media networks, journalists, and human rights leaders gathered at the blockaide in an effort to report what was happening inside and bear witness to the actions of the government. The US government brought in federal armored personnel, snipers and even put up roadblocks to prevent food coming in and to starve the warriors. Despite the blockade to prevent supplies from getting to the approximately 200 people who were hunkered down in the church and store on the site, there are stories and reports of the bravery and fortitude that helped to sustain the siege for the 71 day occupation.


There were government representatives dispatched by President Nixon to negotiate a settlement that would peacefully put an end to the siege. However, the US government wanted to end the occupation without agreeing to the demands even though what the People were asking for was already written in the treaties. The treaties, as written, provide the rights for Indigenous Peoples to speak for themselves in all matters related to Indigenous sovereignty, self-determination, and self-governance. Ultimately, the people wanted nothing more than for the US government to stop violating the provisions outlined and codified in the Ft. Laramie Treaty of 1868. Soon after this treaty was signed it was broken when gold was found in the Black Hills. These lands were set aside in that treaty as exclusive to the Lakota Peoples. These are still the sacred lands of the Lakota Peoples, where ancestors were laid to rest and ancient ceremonies and rites were observed for countless generations before the colonizers arrived on Turtle Island. Native warriors at Wounded Knee also took a firm stance to convey to all that Indigenous Peoples’ traditional ways of living and being must not be forgotten because it is the traditional spiritual ways that provide guidance and direction in our lives – then and now. The companion rally-cry during the weeks of the occupation and beyond is that we’re still here and we’re here to stay.  


The first occupation occurred at Wounded Knee in 1890 where over 400 women, children and elders were brutally shot, tortured, and are now buried in a mass grave, known as the Wounded Knee Massacre. Again in 1973, there was bloodshed that took place at the second Wounded Knee occupation. Two Lakota men were shot and killed and several more were wounded by US federal agents. 


For the 71 day occupation, Native warriors joined this act of defiance that reaffirmed Indigenous identity and solidarity from across Turtle Island, many of whom in the following 50 years have now passed onto the spirit world. One of the original Wounded Knee warriors, Leonard “Lenny” Foster (Diné), Board member of the International Indian Treaty Council, and spiritual advisor to Leonard Peltier, shared this, in a recent phone interview with IEN, “There was a lot of frustration and anger by the Indian People towards the United States government and the local law enforcement officials in these border towns. Indian People were being oppressed, there was a lot of racism and discrimination towards Indian People throughout this country. The takeover of this particular historical site demonstrated the seriousness and commitment of the American Indian movement.” 


The occupation of Wounded Knee ‘73 was not an isolated incident for American Indian people taking a stance to assert their sovereignty. In fact there were many other occupations and demonstrations that led up to Wounded Knee, including the almost 2-year long standoff at the old federal prison on Alcatraz island, known now as the Alcatraz Occupation, stand off at Big Mountain, and United Indians of All Tribes retakes  Fort Lawton/Discovery Park to protest the declining state of Native reservations, and others. 


Another demonstration of Indigenous resistance leading up to Wounded Knee ‘73, included the 1972 Trail of Broken Treaties which brought caravans of Native activists to Washington DC to meet with the Nixon administration and BIA Director. The people were ready for this meeting with a 20-point position paper that included critical analyses of the issues they faced to include outlining very clear solutions. Despite this and the powerful resurgence of American Indian resistance that resulted in the BIA takeover, the US government did not make any significant American Indian policy change.


Manny Pino (Acoma Pueblo), IEN Board President and Native Scholar described Wounded Knee as a pivotal moment in contemporary Indigenous history because it “created awareness of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, and Treaty rights in general. It’s really the first time that grassroots Native people took an initiative to really do a content analysis of the [Fort Laramie] Treaty. One of the major things that emerged from the research back then was the impact of gold mining in the late 1800s, and the forced displacement and relocation of the Oglala Lakota people to confinement on reservations. It was gold that was found in the Black Hills that precipitated the United States government to break the initial 1851 Treaty. When the 1851 treaty was rewritten and then renegotiated the 1868 Treaty changed the boundaries and reduced the size of the reservation from the initial borders and boundaries of the 1851 Treaty. The stimulus of gold created for the federal government a process of priority to create Indian reservations. That is one of the major outcomes of that research analysis of the treaty, that it became more public information at the time.”


This timeline of Indigenous resistance and resurgence with the start of the American Indian Movement emerging out of Alcatraz, it is said that the concept of “Red Power” was born from the occupation of Wounded Knee ‘73. Red Power gave Indigenous Peoples new momentum to take on the US colonial system of oppression.


IEN’s Executive Director, Tom BK Goldtooth (Diné/Dakota) shares, “For me, the Wounded Knee occupation was a beginning to find the need to change the US system that did not recognize who we are, to confront the extreme racism in the border towns of our reservations, and the failures of the US government to recognize our Treaties. We knew what the issues were, and how it not only involved the US government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, and other agencies, but was internalized within our Navajo Nation whose elected governmental leadership were singled out and often compromised in supporting coal mining development (and oil.) The standing up of the Oglala Lakota and other Lakota/Dakota/Nakota and Indigenous Peoples from other Tribes helped me and many others feel we had a role to seek a better tomorrow within our reservations and communities. Seeing the grassroots Ikce Wicasa at Pine Ridge, in their historical location of Wounded Knee to stand up against their chairman Dickie Wilson and his goons gave me strength– it gave many Indigenous Peoples strength, it was called Red Power. I saw this was what the colonial government did not want, including the extraction corporations. They wanted to continue to use the tactics of divide-and-conquer. It was a wakeup call for us, our generation at the time. Wounded Knee ‘73 in my mind was about reclaiming our Indigenous lands, our sovereignty, our rights, our dignity – and the rights of the common people (Ikce Wicasa) of the Oglala Lakota people at Pine Ridge. ”


The armed standoff at Wounded Knee laid a course for American Indian advocacy that continues to the present day. The political ideology during this time was not that of other liberation movements because it was at Wounded Knee that leaders exclaimed that our traditional spiritual ways are what provides us with guidance and direction. At the time this was unprecedented. Reviving the warrior spirit was also important, so much so that people were willing to give their lives for the struggle. During this time period, Indigenous resistance was focused on protecting lands and the Peoples connected to that land, and ultimately to take a stand against assimilation and fighting for cultural and spiritual revival.


Lenny Foster shared, “Wounded Knee provided that pride and dignity, it provided that experience where a whole change, or renaissance occurred as a result. Up until that point in 1969-1970, a lot of Indian people were ashamed of being Indian. They didn’t have long hair. It was a real down time, until AIM came onto the political landscape and the leadership that I became acquainted with was very special… people that we may never see like that again. The experience of Wounded Knee brought forth pride, dignity and awareness, and every effort to raise the level of our consciousness was done through direct action and confrontation. It would’ve been much easier to just sit down and negotiate, but the [US] government was not willing to do that. They are still introducing legislation to do away with Indian people. Indian rights are serious business, and that is what Wounded Knee ‘73 is about. We must never forget it.”


Manny Pino also shared, “Wounded Knee made people aware of these historical events that were interpreted from the side of the colonizers, [otherwise known as] U.S history. After that, AIM and actions like Wounded Knee stimulated Indian educators to say ‘we need Native American Studies being taught in colleges and universities; we need American Indian Studies being taught in high school and middle school curriculum. It really stimulated that institutional reaction that we have today like getting a Bachelors, Masters, and PhD degree in American Indian Studies. That didn’t exist before these actions and so-called radical movements that initiated this type of thinking that we have today– not only in scholarship but in mainstream grassroots societies.”


Lenny Foster emphasized, “The new generation must understand this history. Respect this history. Research this and discuss it.” Foster reminds us that during this time, practicing Native cultures, traditions, and ceremonies was outlawed. “Sundance went underground for many years. It was illegal to participate in your own ceremonies… Indian religion was outlawed, Wounded Knee ‘73 and the American Indian Movement revived a lot of that. That is why it is important to remember sacrifices that were made, commitments that were made, the vows that were made at Wounded Knee.”


The fight for Indigenous rights, sovereignty, and self-determination still persists today, as does the need for Indigenous resistance too. Our lands, sacred sites, cultures, languages, and utter existence remain under attack, however, the elders and leaders from Wounded Knee ‘73 remind us that our traditional ways of being and knowing– our traditional spiritual ways– is what empowers us to be warriors, protectors and defenders of not only our people and our lands, but all living things. 


Indigenous Rising Radio

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