In early 1973, the Oglala were divided: they had impeached their president, to no avail, and his (US) government-backed police force were running roughshod. The American Indian Movement was called in, to assist in actions (protests) calling attention to this situation. The US moved in, perhaps overreacting, and a 72-day siege ensued; the Army ousted the AIM folks. The incident led to the FBI's COINTELPRO treatment, resulting in many AIM deaths and the incarceration of Leonard Peltier.

On February 27, 1973, more than 200 American Indians and activists associated with the American Indian Movement occupied Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge reservation in protest of mistreatment at the hands of the federal government, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, government-backed tribal leaders and others. Federal marshalls, FBI agents, the BIA, state and local law enforcement, the Army and others laid siege to the location and the situation turned into a 71 day stand off. By the time the dust settled, there were two dead American Indians, one paralyzed federal marshall and over half of a million rounds of ammunition fired.

To understand the motivation behind occupying Wounded Knee, there are a couple bits of history that are important. The first one of these is the signifigance of Wounded Knee itself. In spite of sid's excellent write up at Wounded Knee, I'll give a brief summary. On December 29, 1890, soldiers in the 7th calvary (the then deceased Custer's old command) slaughtered over 200 Sioux Indians at Wounded Knee. The dead were mostly women, children and the elderly and their bodies were left to freeze on the ground. The incident is to many people a symbol of the incredible brutality with which the United States military dealt with American Indians at the time.

The second bit is the formation of the American Indian Movement, or AIM. AIM was formed in 1968 and was particularly active during the late sixties and early seventies. They were involved in a variety of protests including the occupation of Alcatraz island, occupations of Mount Rushmore and the Trail of Broken Treaties.

The last really essential bit is about Dick Wilson. At the time of the siege, Dick Wilson was the Chairman of the Pine Ridge Tribal government and a "progressive." What progressive means in this context is that he advocated things like selling uranium mining rights on tribal lands and reaping the benefits. This put him at odds with the traditionalist elements on the reservation. At this point I should say that I've yet to find anything I would call "definitive evidence" proving that Dick Wilson and his goons1 were a regime of corrupt, evil, jack-booted fascists who abused their authority and federal backing to open up Pine Ridge reservation for exploitation and destruction while systematically threatening, intimidating and killing all who would dare to oppose them. However, this is certainly the way they was viewed by the traditionalists on Pine Ridge and is considered common knowledge in many circles. Eventually, traditionalist elements and tribal elders asked AIM to intervine on the Pine Ridge reservation.

The Siege
These and other factors culminated in 200-300 Indians and activists caravaning to Wounded Knee. They dug in, setting up fortifications against the anticipated reaction from law enforcement and local vigilantes. They set up a security headquarters in a museum dedicated to the slaughter at Wounded Knee and occupied the local church and general store. When the FBI arrived on the scene, they delivered their demands. They wanted the Fort Laramie treaty of 1968 and other treaties to be recognized, an investigation into corruption at the Bureau of Indian Affairs and an election at Pine Ridge that was free of intimidation.

There were many people of note who participated in the occupation of Wounded Knee. Russel Means, Dennis Banks, Anna Mae Pictou-Aquash, Pedro Bissonet and Leonard Peltier were among them. Also there was man named Doug Durham who claimed to be a quarter Chippewa. He was exposed as an FBI plant in 1975.

The federal goverment laid siege and both sides frequently shot at each other, occasionally negotiating brief cease fires over radio communications. The Indians were mostly armed with hunting rifles and shotguns, though one Vietnam veteran brought an AK-47 with him. The law enforcement side brough in armored personel carriers, M-16s, M-79 grenade launchers and a variety of other hardware and equipment.

Early on, the protesters declared the area they occupied the Independent Oglala Sioux Nation and claimed sovereignty.

On April 5th, negotiations lead to an agreement and it appeared as though the stand off was about to end. However, the agreement quickly broke down when the law enforcement elements insisted that the Indians give up their weapons and submit to arrest before they would live up to their end of the agreement. The situation began deteriorating again.

On the morning of April 17, three Piper Cherokee planes dropped around 1,500 pounds of food and supplies to those occupying Wounded Knee. The planes had taken off from Rapid City airport and flew just above the tree tops to the site. They then ascended to around 500 feet and pushed carefully prepared duffel bags rigged with parachutes out of the backs of the planes. This air drop, as well as the food being smuggled through the perimeter, kept those in Wounded Knee fed.

Later on the 17th, Frank Clearwater was shot in the head during a period of renewed hostilities. He eventually died of his wounds on April 25th. On April 27, two days after Clearwater's death, Buddy Lamont was shot and killed during a period of particularly heavy fire. The day after, negotiations opened again.

The siege ended on May 7th after negotiations finally succeeded. The federal government agreed to address the grievances and the protestors agreed to give up their weapons and leave Wounded Knee. It was widely seen as a victory for AIM and the Lakota. The government agreed to their demands and they weren't being shot at anymore.

The Aftermath
The terms of the agreement, including an investigation into corruption at the BIA and meetings with the White House in regards to broken treaties were never met. Over 600 people were arrested in connection to the occupation, but not a single one of them was convicted of the original charges filed. The three years at the Pine Ridge reservation following the siege is commonly known as the reign of terror. By 1977, there were more than 60 unsolved murders of AIM activists, traditionalists and their supporters around Pine Ridge.

1: No, really. Dick Wilson's enforcers called themselves "Guardians Of the Oglala Nation." Thus, G.O.O.N.s...

I welcome any comments or corrections to this. If you think I got something wrong, please let me know. One of the problems with collecting information about the siege is that almost everyone who writes about it has an agenda of some sort. For example, I've included nothing about the hostages that are mentioned here. The FBI et. al. claim that hostages were taken, AIM et. al. claim that there were no hostages, or that the supposed hostages were free to leave but couldn't immediately because of the shots being fired. Some even claim that the entire hostage thing was cooked up by the owner of the general store in order to not be accused of cowardice for abandoning his wife and children shortly after the occupation occured. Every angle I could find on it could be traced back to an original source whos agenda was furthered by their version of the story.

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