AIM Occupation at Wounded Knee, South Dakota ends (08 May 1973)


AP Photo/Jim Mone, File
In this March 3, 1973 file photo, a U.S. flag flies upside down outside a church occupied by members of the American Indian Movement (AIM), background, on the site of the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee, S.D. AIM’s occupation of Wounded Knee triggered a violent standoff with federal authorities.


08 May 2018 | Various Sources | Hawkins Bay Dispatch – This Day


This Day – 08 May 1973


AP Photo/Jim Mone, File
In this March 18, 1973 file photo taken in Wounded Knee, S.D., American Indian Movement leader Dennis Banks, left, reads an offer by U.S. government seeking to effect an end to the takeover of Wounded Knee

Native History: AIM Occupation of Wounded Knee Begins

27 February 27, 2014 \ Indian Country Today

On February 27, 1973, about 250 Sioux Indians led by members of the American Indian Movement converged on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation, launching the famous 71-day occupation of Wounded Knee.

Set in the same impoverished village as the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre, the occupation called global attention to unsafe living conditions and generations of mistreatment from federal and local agencies. The occupation, which began during the evening of February 27, is hailed as one of AIM’s greatest successes.

“In a way, it was a very beautiful experience,” said Len Foster, a Navajo man who joined AIM in 1970 and was at Wounded Knee for the entire 71 days. “It was a time to look at the commitment we made and a willingness to put our lives on the line for a cause.”

Formally founded in July 1968, AIM included activists like Russell Means, Clyde Bellecourt and Dennis Banks. The organization, which at one point was labeled one of 50 terrorist groups in the country, actually started more than 200 years earlier, according to a 2013 book published by the Minnesota Historical Society, We Are Still Here: A Photographic History of the American Indian Movement.

More than two centuries before AIM was formed, Sitting Bull, the Hunkpapa Lakota chief who helped defeat Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer in the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn, said American Indians would defend their rights.

“We are poor… but we are free,” Sitting Bull said. “No white man controls our footsteps. If we must die… we die defending our rights.”

Wounded Knee was not the first AIM occupation—or the only one. Members of the movement participated in the takeover of 74 federal facilities, including Mount Rushmore, the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington, D.C., and the replica of the Mayflower. Protesters used the occupations to call attention to Indian rights and demand that the government honor its treaty obligations.

The Wounded Knee occupation began after elders of the Oglala Sioux tribe complained about being ignored by a corrupt tribal government. Unable to impeach Chairman Dick Wilson, who had a private police force on his side, tribal members asked AIM for help. Wilson, along with his armed supporters known as the Guardians of the Oglala Nation, anticipated the occupation and called in FBI agents and U.S. Marshals, who set up a perimeter about a mile outside of the AIM defense line..

Meanwhile, members of other tribes and civil rights groups flocked to the area to offer support. Both sides were heavily armed and federal troops prohibited people from delivering food or medicine to the protesters. Firefights broke out, and two Sioux men were killed.

Foster participated in 11 firefights with U.S. Marshals and FBI agents.

“Each one was very intense, very life-threatening,” he said. “It was an intense, very serious engagement.”

AIM members were young, Foster said. Most were in their early 20s and eager to take a stand against corruption, he said. Federal agents took over the tribe and provided weapons and ammunition.

“Their presence was a sign of oppression,” Foster said. “The traditional peoples’ rights were being ignored.”

Protesters on several occasions were prepared to die during the occupation, Russell Means wrote in his 1995 autobiography, Where White Men Fear to Tread. Prior to taking over the village, the protesters agreed that death was a price they were willing to pay.

“Things could not continue as they were,” Means wrote. “If we didn’t stand up now for our treaty, we would never be able to do so. Our people were ready to die, if necessary, to end the abuse.”

Russell Means, left, and assistant U.S. attorney general Kent Frizzell sign the Wounded Knee settlement on April 5, 1973 in South Dakota. Looking on left is Frizzell's assistant Richard Helstern and AIM leader Dennis Banks.

Russell Means, left, and assistant U.S. attorney general Kent Frizzell sign the Wounded Knee settlement on April 5, 1973 in South Dakota. Looking on left is Frizzell’s assistant Richard Helstern and AIM leader Dennis Banks.

Negotiations were held throughout the occupation with protesters demanding a federal probe into problems on reservations and solutions to long-standing issues of poverty and dependence. The Nixon administration, meanwhile, declared it wanted an end of this “revolutionary Indian element” before it reached other areas of Indian Country.

Nixon’s efforts failed, Foster said. AIM’s occupation of Wounded Knee led to generations of American Indians who get involved in tribal affairs and civil rights.

“Wounded Knee opened a lot of hearts and minds to what oppression we were suffering,” he said. “We were downtrodden, oppressed, made to feel ashamed. We were told to cut our long hair, not to participate in ceremonies, to become Christian and burn our medicine bundles. All the decisions we made at Wounded Knee affect our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”

Protesters surrendered May 8, and federal agents arrested 1,200 people, resulting in 275 cases in federal, state and tribal courts. Among those tried were Means, Bellecourt and Banks, who each faced 11 criminal charges stemming from the occupation. The men were acquitted because of evidence that the FBI had manipulated key witnesses.



Leonard Peltier Statement February 2018

Greetings Family, Friends and Supporters

I am overwhelmed that today Feb 6th is the start of my 43rd year in prison. I have had such high hopes over the years that I might be getting out and returning to my family in North Dakota. And yet here I am in 2018 still struggling for my FREEDOM at 73.

I don’t want to sound ungrateful to all my supporters who have stood by me through all these years. I dearly love and respect you and thank you for the love & respect you have given me.

But the truth is I am tired and often my ailments cause me pain with little relief for days at a time. I just had heart surgery and I have other medical issues that need to be addressed: my aortic aneurysm, that could burst at any time, my prostate and arthritis in my hip and knees.

I do not think I have another ten years, and what I do have I would like to spend with my family. Nothing would bring me more happiness than being able to hug my children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

I did not come to prison to become a political prisoner. I’ve been part of Native resistance since I was nine years of age. My sister, cousin and I were kidnapped and taken to boarding school.

This incident and how it affected my cousin Pauline, had an enormous effect on me. This same feeling haunts me as I reflect upon my past 42 years of false imprisonment.

This false imprisonment has the same feeling as when I heard the false affidavit the FBI manufactured about Myrtle Poor Bear being at Oglala on the day of the fire-fight. A fabricated document used to extradite me illegally from Canada in 1976.

I know you know that the FBI files are full of information that proves my innocence. Yet many of those files are still withheld from my legal team. During my appeal before the 8th Circuit, the former Prosecuting Attorney, Lynn Crooks, said to Judge Heaney. “Your honor, we do not know who killed those agents. Further, we don’t know what participation if any, Mr. Peltier had in it”.

That statement exonerates me, and I should have been released. But here I sit, 43 years later still struggling for my Freedom. I have pleaded my innocence for so long now, in so many courts of law, in so many public statements issued through the International Leonard Peltier Defense Committee, that I will not argue it here. But I will say again I DID NOT KILL THOSE AGENTS!

Right now I need my supporters here in the US and throughout the world helping me. We need donations large or small to help pay my legal team to do the research that will get me back into court or get me moved closer to home or a compassionate released based on my poor health and age. Please help me to go home, help me win my freedom!

There is a new petition my Canadian brothers and sisters are circulating internationally that will be attached to my letter. Please sign it and download it so you can take it to your work, school or place of worship. Get as many signatures as you can, a MILLION would be great!

I have been a warrior since age nine. At 73 I remain a warrior. I have been here too long. The beginning of my 43rd year plus over 20 years of good time credit, that makes 60+ years behind bars.

I need your help. I need your help today! A day in prison for me is a lifetime for those outside because I am isolated from the world.

I remain strong only because of your support, through prayers, activism and your donations that keep my legal hope alive.

In the Spirit of Crazy Horse
Leonard Peltier

If you would like a paper petition please email

The Tragedy of Leonard Peltier vs. the US

On July 27, 2009, I drove west from New York to the old riverside town of Lewisburg in central Pennsylvania, the site of the federal penitentiary where early the next morning I would make an appeal to the parole board on behalf of the American Indian Movement (AIM) activist Leonard Peltier in his first parole hearing in fifteen years. On this soft summer evening, a quiet gathering of Peltier supporters from all over the country had convened in a small park near the Susquehanna River. Despite his long history of defeats in court, these Indians and whites sharing a makeshift picnic at wood tables under the trees were optimistic about a favorable outcome. Surely a new era of justice for minorities and poor people had begun with the Obama administration, and anyway, wasn’t Leonard’s freedom all but assured by the Parole Act of 2005, which mandated release for inmates who had spent thirty or more years in prison? [Read More of this article]

Chief Big Foot (Spotted Elk) lies lifeless in the snow near Wounded Knee Creek following the Wounded Knee Massacre on December 29, 1890. One hundred and twenty-five years following the Wounded Knee Massacre of December 29, 1890, indigenous peoples continue to heal.

The Truth About the Wounded Knee Massacre

30 December 2016 | Patti Jo King  | Indian Country Today

In 1889, the pronouncements of Paiute mystic Wovoka sparked hope of the dawning of a new age among Western tribes; an age that promised an end to Euro-American oppression and a return to tribal autonomy, abundance and spiritual renewal. According to Wovoka, deliverance required participation in a regime of ritual dance and prayer. As word of his Ghost Dance Revival spread, a Lakota delegation visited him, and then carried the Ghost Dance back to their respective reservations.

On the morning of December 29, 1890, Chief Spotted Elk (Big Foot), leader of a band of some 350 Minneconjou Sioux, sat in a makeshift camp along the banks of Wounded Knee Creek. The band was surrounded by U.S. troops sent to arrest him and disarm his followers.

The atmosphere was tense, since an order to arrest Chief Sitting Bull at the Standing Rock Reservation just 14 days earlier had resulted in his murder, prompting Big Foot to lead his people to the Pine Ridge Agency for safe haven. Alerted to the band’s Ghost Dance activities, General Nelson Miles commanded Major Samuel Whiteside and the Seventh Cavalry to apprehend Big Foot and his followers, and the regiment intercepted them on December 28, leading them to the edge of the creek.

While confiscating their weapons, a shot pierced the brisk morning air. Within seconds the charged atmosphere erupted as the Indian men rushed to retrieve their confiscated rifles and troopers began to fire volley after volley into the Sioux camp. From a hill above, a Hotchkiss machine gun raked the tipis, gun smoke filled the air, and men, women, and children ran for a ravine near the camp, only to be cut down in crossfire. More than 200 Lakota lay dead or dying in the aftermath as well as at least 20 soldiers.

The caption says: Famous Battery “E” of 1st Artillery. These brave men and the Hotchkiss gun that Big Foot’s Indians thought were toys, together with the fighting 7th what’s left of Gen. Custer’s boys, sent 200 Indians to that Heaven which the ghost dancer enjoys. This checked the Indian noise and Gen. Miles with staff returned to Illinois. (J.C.H. Grabill/Library of Congress)

J.C.H. Grabill/Library of Congress

The caption says: Famous Battery “E” of 1st Artillery. These brave men and the Hotchkiss gun that Big Foot’s Indians thought were toys, together with the fighting 7th what’s left of Gen. Custer’s boys, sent 200 Indians to that Heaven which the ghost dancer enjoys. This checked the Indian noise and Gen. Miles with staff returned to Illinois.

Although the story of the Wounded Knee Massacre is well-known, its causes and effects are still an enigma 125 years later. For 19th century Americans, it represented the end of Indian resistance and the conquest of the West. For Indians, it represented the utter disregard of the U.S. toward its treaty responsibilities, its duplicity, and its cruelty toward Native people. In the 20th century and beyond, Wounded Knee continues to fuel controversy and debate over the impetus and intent of the government that day, the role of the military, and the conflicting ways the tragedy is remembered today.

Extermination Policy Debate

Dance, a significant aspect of Native cultural expression, has always played a vital role in both utilitarian and religious ritual and ceremony. In the push west in the years after the Civil War, however, Americans viewed Indian dancing as a threat. Fearing an orchestrated Indian uprising, by the 1870s, both the U.S. and Canada had enacted laws banning the performance of cultural or religious rituals, including dancing. Some 19 years later, General Nelson Miles, assigned to investigate the Ghost Dance phenomenon among the Plains tribes, issued a warning that if the practice was not stopped, it could lead to an all-out Indian war. In response, the War Department deployed 7,000 troops to maintain control over the Lakota.

One of the most hotly debated topics among historians today is why deadly military force was used against the tribes to enforce the ban on dancing and whether that force was a byproduct of war or the result of premeditated murder or genocide. Some scholars are working to rewrite the long-accepted version of the frontier wars as advanced by scholars such as Robert Utley, who in his 1963 book The Last Days of the Sioux Nation, called the massacre “a regrettable, tragic accident of war… for which neither side as a whole may be properly condemned.”

According to Catharine Franklin, Indian War expert and assistant professor of history at Texas Tech, the definition of genocide does not fit. “In the last 10 years, I have read thousands of letters by army officers and other federal representatives. There is no evidence of an extermination policy.”

Jeffrey Ostler, professor of history at the University of Oregon argues that 19th century U.S. policy, underscored by imperial and colonial thinking, relied heavily on violent enforcement. He finds no basis for a belief in intentional extermination either, but states that the United States’ penchant for using military power to intimidate and coerce tribes resulted in wholesale slaughter.

Franklin points out that much has been made of the bitter remarks of General William Tecumseh Sherman, Commander of the U.S. Army and Phil Sheridan, at that time Commander of the Division of the Missouri under President Ulysses S. Grant after the 1866 Fetterman massacre, in which, 81 troops were lured to their death by Crazy Horse and Red Cloud. Sherman wrote to Grant, “We must act with vindictive earnestness against the Sioux, even to their extermination.”

“If genocide were the aim, we would expect commanders in the field to then kill Indians indiscriminately when they had the chance, but we know they didn’t. Instead of using the word ‘genocide,’ perhaps it’s best to call it what it was—murder. People were murdered at Wounded Knee,” says Franklin.

It’s also important to note that American Indian policy was originally founded on the goal of civilization-not extermination. Enlightenment ideals on which British-American Indian policy was initially formed, taught that all humans began as savages; primitives with no concept of individual property ownership.

Savages, it was thought, evolved naturally from hunting and gathering to herding, and into a full agrarian lifestyle, which was the Euro-American ideal of civilization. As Thomas Jefferson surmised in his book, Notes on the State of Virginia, once the tribes fully adopted agriculture, they would move west voluntarily to become yeoman farmers. Then, he reasoned, Americans could intermarry with them honorably, and through generations of offspring eventually “breed the Indian out” of them. White Americans would then claim rightful ownership of the continent.

By the crest of the 20th century, however, Americans had revised their thinking on such natural evolution. In the late 1880s, a new federal Indian policy of forced assimilation took precedence, as land-hungry Americans grew impatient waiting for the tribes to evolve to civilization on their own time. Franklin believes that frontier violence escalated in large part as a result of this kind of uneven Indian policy.

“The army was tasked with pushing Indians onto reservations and trying to keep them there. This wasn’t always a violent process. Lakotas, Kiowas, and Comanches had freely moved on and off reservations in the late 1860s and early 1870s without reprisal from the army. We tend to think of the ‘Indian Wars’ as a series of constant conflicts, but that’s not accurate. The military often functioned as a buffer between whites and Indians; for instance, army officers also worked alongside Lakota warriors to force miners out of Paha Sapa.

The caption says: What’s left of Big Foot’s Band. Taken near Deadwood, South Dakota in 1891. (This was after the Massacre of Wounded Knee on December 29, 1890. This was all that remained of Big Foot’s Band.) (J.C.H. Grabill/Library of Congress)

J.C.H. Grabill/Library of Congress

The caption says: What’s left of Big Foot’s Band. Taken near Deadwood, South Dakota in 1891. This was after the Massacre of Wounded Knee on December 29, 1890. This was all that remained of Big Foot’s Band.)

Media also had a great impact on the way Americans began to view Indians as the 20th century approached. Immediately after the Wounded Knee massacre, the incident was widely reported through the press, with most articles echoing the government’s public stance—that the military had put down a dangerous insurrection organized by bloodthirsty Sioux. William Fitch Kelley, a Nebraskan reporter and eyewitness wrote, “I doubt that either a buck or squaw will be left to tell the tale of this day’s treachery. The members of the Seventh Cavalry have once more shown themselves to be heroes.” The New York Times referred to Wounded Knee as a “battle,” mentioning little about the deaths of women and children. In January 1891 however, a Times editorial observed that the event was “almost uniformly treated as a bloodthirsty and wanton massacre” in European papers.

Some of the harshest criticism was aimed at federal policy and came from military officers in the field. Although discouraged by his superiors from doing so, Miles called for a court of inquiry into the massacre, but despite his condemnation, the War Department awarded 20 Medals of Honor to the troops involved and erected a monument to honor their fallen soldiers. Miles subsequently emerged as a prominent champion of justice for wrongs committed at Wounded Knee.

“The military carries out policy as an instrument of the federal government, then as now,” Franklin points out. “There was no coherent Indian policy beyond the vague mandates of Ulysses S. Grant’s broad recommendations—i.e. the so-called peace policy of 1869. In the absence of clear guidelines, army officers had a great deal of latitude in dealing with Indians and their problems. Some officers relied on violence. Others worked for peaceful resolutions.”

As historian David W. Grua details in his book, Surviving Wounded Knee: The Lakota and the Politics of Memory, in the case of Miles, who died in 1925, “his advocacy led to government investigations in 1917 and 1920 through which bureaucrats recorded dozens of statements from the remaining survivors.”

“Although the 1920 inquiry concluded with a modest proposal to compensate the Lakota $20,000 for property stolen from the killing field by artifact seekers, the government took no action. His longstanding opposition to the use of excessive force against Native people and his public condemnation of the Wounded Knee incident were widely quoted in Congress in support of bills designed to ‘liquidate the liability of the United States’ for the massacre,” Grua points out on an Oxford University Press blog.

In 1914, four former Indian fighters, including William Cody (Buffalo Bill), Theodore Wharton, Nelson Miles and Charles King, participated in a film produced by the Buffalo Bill Historical Picture Company. The film, originally titled Wars of Civilization, was renamed The Indian Wars Refought.

A reenactment of four major conflicts between the U.S. and the Sioux, battle scenes, ghost dance, and simulated acts of scalping are interspersed with footage of the capture of Big Foot and the so-called Wounded Knee “Battle.” The purpose of the film, which received wholehearted support of the federal government, was to present a true depiction of the resistance of the Sioux and the events that followed. The film raised even more controversy among U.S. officials who thought it too sympathetic toward the Sioux, and among Indian survivors who claimed the depiction was inaccurate. After being shown in New York City and Denver, it was locked away due to governmental pressure to suppress its “pro-Native American” sentiment.

An advertisement for the 1914 film “The Indian Wars Refought.” (Courtesy Wikipedia)

Courtesy Wikipedia

An advertisement for the 1914 film “The Indian Wars Refought.”

Although agreement may never be reached on the causes or blame for the tragedy, the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee, originally touted as a “battle,” remains a revered symbol of colonial repression and Native resistance for indigenous people throughout the world.

This story was originally published January 1, 2016.



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