Occupy Wounded Knee: A 71-Day Siege and a Forgotten Civil Rights Movement

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The death of Russell Means serves as a reminder of the vision of the American Indian Movement.

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Russell Means, right, beats the drum at a meeting of the Wounded Knee occupation on March 10, 1973. A photojournalist who managed to get inside the cordon made a series of images of the stand-off and negotiations. (Associated Press)

On February 27, 1973, a team of 200 Oglala Lakota (Sioux) activists and members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) seized control of a tiny town with a loaded history -- Wounded Knee, South Dakota. They arrived in town at night, in a caravan of cars and trucks, took the town's residents hostage, and demanded that the U.S. government make good on treaties from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Within hours, police had surrounded Wounded Knee, forming a cordon to prevent protesters from exiting and sympathizers from entering. This marked the beginning of a 71-day siege and armed conflict.

Russell Means, one of AIM's leaders, died yesterday. Means was a controversial figure within the movement and outside of it; as his New York Times obituary put it, "critics, including many Indians, called him a tireless self-promoter who capitalized on his angry-rebel notoriety." After getting his start in activism in the 1970s, Means went on to run for the Libertarian presidential nomination in 1987, and for governor of New Mexico in 2002. He also acted in scores of films, most famously in a lead role in the 1992 version of The Last of the Mohicans.

For all the contradictions of his life, he was no less controversial than AIM itself. The Wounded Knee siege was both an inspiration to indigenous people and left-wing activists around the country and -- according to the U.S. Marshals Service, which besieged the town along with FBI and National Guard -- the longest-lasting "civil disorder" in 200 years of U.S. history. Two native activists lost their lives in the conflict, and a federal agent was shot and paralyzed. Like the Black Panthers or MEChA, AIM was a militant civil rights and identity movement that sprung from the political and social crisis of the late 1960s, but today it is more obscure than the latter two groups.

The Pine Ridge reservation, where Wounded Knee was located, had been in turmoil for years. To many in the area the siege was no surprise. The Oglala Lakota who lived on the reservation faced racism beyond its boundaries and a poorly managed tribal government within them. In particular, they sought the removal of tribal chairman Dick Wilson, whom many Oglala living on the reservation thought corrupt. Oglala Lakota interviewed by PBS for a documentary said Wilson seemed to favor mixed-race, assimilated Lakota like himself -- and especially his own family members -- over reservation residents with more traditional lifestyles. Efforts to remove Wilson by impeaching him had failed, and so Oglala Lakota tribal leaders turned to AIM for help in removing him by force. Their answer was to occupy Wounded Knee.

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Occupiers escort negotiator Harlington Wood (background, in trenchcoat) into the captive town on March 13, in a government attempt to end the crisis. At the time, Wood was Assistant U.S. Attorney General. (Associated Press)

Federal marshals and National Guard traded heavy fire daily with the native activists. To break the siege, they cut off electricity and water to the town, and attempted to prevent food and ammunition from being passed to the occupiers. Bill Zimmerman, a sympathetic activist and pilot from Boston, agreed to carry out a 2,000-pound food drop on the 50th day of the siege. When the occupiers ran out of the buildings where they had been sheltering to grab the supplies, agents opened fire on them. The first member of the occupation to die, a Cherokee, was shot by a bullet that flew through the wall of a church.

To many observers, the standoff resembled the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 itself -- when a U.S. cavalry detachment slaughtered a group of Lakota warriors who refused to disarm. Some of the protesters also had a more current conflict in mind. As one former member of AIM told PBS, "They were shooting machine gun fire at us, tracers coming at us at nighttime just like a war zone. We had some Vietnam vets with us, and they said, 'Man, this is just like Vietnam.' "

When PBS interviewed federal officials later, they said that the first death in the conflict inspired them to work harder to bring it to a close. For the Oglala Lakota, the death of tribe member Buddy Lamont on April 26 was the critical moment. While members of AIM fought to keep the occupation going, the Oglala overruled them, and, from that point, negotiations between federal officials and the protesters began in earnest. The militants officially surrendered on May 8, and a number of members of AIM managed to escape the town before being arrested. (Those who were arrested, including Means, were almost all acquitted because key evidence was mishandled.)

Even after the siege officially ended, a quiet war between Dick Wilson and the traditional, pro-AIM faction of Oglala Lakota continued on the reservation -- this despite Wilson's re-election to the tribal presidency in 1974. In the three years following the stand-off, Pine Ridge had the highest per capita murder rate in the country. Two FBI agents were among the dead. The Oglala blamed the federal government for failing to remove Wilson as tribal chairman; the U.S. retorted that it would be illegal for them to do so, somewhat ironically citing reasons of tribal self-determination.

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Means announces AIM's settlement with the U.S. government as negotiator Ken Frizzell of the Department of Justice and Oglala Lakota chief Tom Bad Cobb look on. (Associated Press)

Today, the Pine Ridge reservation is the largest community in what may be the poorest county in the entire United States. (Per capita income in 2010 was lower in Shannon County, South Dakota, where Pine Ridge is located, than in any other U.S. county.) Reports have the adult unemployment rate on the reservation somewhere between 70 and 80 percent. AIM -- and Means -- drew a lot of attention to the treatment of indigenous people in the U.S. But perhaps more than any other civil rights movement, its work remains unfinished.

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Emily Chertoff is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's National channel.

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