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American Indian Movement Siege of Wounded Knee

Photograph

By: Anonymous

Date: March 19, 1973

Source: © Bettmann/Corbis.

About the Photographer: Photograph residing in the Bettmann Archives of Corbis Corporation, an image group headquartered in Seattle, with a worldwide archive of over seventy million images.

INTRODUCTION

The American Indian Movement (AIM) is part of the Red Power civil rights movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. Founded in Minneapolis by a group of Anishinabe Indians, it modeled the confrontational style of the Black Panther Party. In 1973, AIM members undertook a major civil rights campaign in South Dakota that led to the seventy-one day siege at Wounded Knee.

On the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, the recently-installed Oglala Sioux tribal president Dick Wilson sought to establish himself as a dictator. He signed away a large and mineral-rich tract of reservation land in exchange for being allowed by the federal government to set up his feudal barony. Wilson had been provided with federal funds to create a paramilitary organization that called itself the Guardians of the Oglala Nation (GOONs). Heavily armed, the GOONs were employed in an effort to terrorize Wilson's opponents, mostly AIM supporters, into submission. As one example, AIM member and Oglala tribe member Russell Means, who owned land on Pine Ridge, was barred from the reservation by GOONs.

Wilson's opponents obtained enough signatures to call for his removal from office. However, the Bureau of Indian Affairs placed Wilson in charge of his own impeachment. A sixty-man Special Operations Group of U.S. marshals was posted on the reservation to support Wilson. Stymied in their efforts to resolve their grievance by conventional due process methods, the elders (comprising the traditional Oglala leadership) next called upon AIM to intervene. On February 27, 1973, AIM planned to hold a press conference at a site heavy with symbolism. It picked the mass grave containing the remains of 350 Lakotas massacred by the U.S. Army at Wounded Knee in 1890 to expose the situation on Pine Ridge. However, on the night before the press conference, Wilson's GOONs had set up roadblocks on every road by which the press could enter the settlement, simultaneously sealing the AIM people inside. The siege of Wounded Knee had begun.

PRIMARY SOURCE

AMERICAN INDIAN MOVEMENT SIEGE OF WOUNDED KNEE

See primary source image.

SIGNIFICANCE

The siege ended on May 7, 1973 when federal officials agreed to conduct a full-scale investigation of the Wilson regime and to meet with traditional Oglala leaders concerning violations of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty that had legally defined U.S./Lakota relations. AIM had achieved its purpose. The situation on Pine Ridge and the oppressive conditions in Indian country more generally had riveted international attention. Within a year, AIM translated this media attention into the establishment of its diplomatic arm, the International Indian Treaty Council (ITC). The council became the world's first indigenous organization to attain formal consultative status with the United Nations.

During the siege, Wilson publicly announced that AIM would die at Wounded Knee. In the three years between March 1973 and March 1976, at least sixty-nine AIM members and their supporters were murdered on or near Pine Ridge. Another 350 AIM members and supporters suffered serious physical assaults and/or attempts on their lives. The FBI declined to investigate the murders and assaults because it was short of manpower. AIM members and supporters, disputing this claim, charged the FBI with continuing the long American pattern of abusing and suppressing Native Americans.

AIM held its last general membership meeting in 1975. Its last national officer, John Trudell, resigned in 1979 shortly after his entire family was mysteriously murdered on the Duck Valley Reservation in Nevada. There were occasional bursts of AIM activity in subsequent years, but AIM was effectively finished by 1980.

FURTHER RESOURCES

Books

Burnett, Robert and John Koster. The Road to Wounded Knee. New York: Bantam, 1974.

Churchill, Ward and Jim Vander Wall. Agents of Repression: The FBI's Secret Wars Against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement. Cambridge, MA: South End, 2002.

Sayer, John William. Ghost Dancing the Law: The Wounded Knee Trials. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Smith, Paul Chaat and Robert Allen Warrior. Like a Hurricane: The American Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee. New York: New Press, 1996.

American Indian Movement Siege of Wounded Knee

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American Indian Movement Siege of Wounded Knee