This Date in Native History: On May 8, 1973, members of the American Indian Movement surrendered to federal authorities on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation, ending their legendary 71-day occupation of Wounded Knee.
Set in the same impoverished village as the 1890 massacre, the siege began February 27 and is hailed as one of AIM’s greatest successes. About 200 Sioux Indians participated in the occupation, which attracted supporters from dozens of other tribes and called global attention to generations of mistreatment from federal and local agencies.
“People were beaten down and afraid to speak out,” Clyde Bellecourt, one of AIM’s founders, said in the 2013 book We Are Still Here: A Photographic History of the American Indian Movement. “We had to create an organization to represent the people.”
Bellecourt and other activists like Russell Means and Dennis Banks organized AIM in the summer of 1968 as Natives across the country battled abuse in boarding schools or left reservations to chase the government’s promises of education and jobs in urban areas. As Natives arrived in the cities, however, they faced widespread racism, especially among white police forces.
In Minneapolis, where Natives were routinely beaten, the top priority was to halt police brutality. AIM was formed in a crowded room on Minneapolis’s north side as a militant political and civil rights organization.
Labeled one of the 50 worst terrorist groups in the country, AIM staged occupations of 74 federal facilities, including Mount Rushmore, the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington, D.C., and the replica of the Mayflower in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
The occupation of Wounded Knee began after Oglala Sioux elders 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.
AIM members seized control of Wounded Knee and took some of Wilson’s allies hostage. Wilson 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.
Kevin McKiernan, who worked as a freelance journalist for National Public Radio out of St. Paul, Minnesota, embedded with AIM for the last seven or eight weeks of the occupation. Both sides were heavily armed and Marshals prohibited people from delivering food or medicine to protesters.
Much of the occupation was tedious, McKiernan said.
“People were killed, a baby was born, a traditional wedding took place, presided by a medicine man,” he said. “But a lot of Wounded Knee was boring because it was waiting and waiting.”
Firefights broke out and two Sioux men were shot to death. A federal agent was paralyzed after being shot. But protesters agreed ahead of time that death was a price they were willing to pay, Russell Means wrote in his 1995 autobiography, Where White Men Fear to Tread.
“Things could not continue as they were,” he 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.”
McKiernan, the only journalist embedded with AIM, hiked into Wounded Knee from the nearby Rosebud Sioux Reservation. Although he went in as a journalist, he quickly formed connections with protestors.
“Wounded Knee turned out to be a line in the sand,” he said. “It was the first time I had ever seen people say ‘No’ and actually mean it. People were drawn there like they would be to a light.”
Not all Natives agreed with the occupation. Many, especially elders, thought working with the federal and tribal governments was a more favorable way to get answers to longstanding problems.
“A lot of people thought it wasn’t the Indian way, that working through the system was more respectful,” McKiernan said. “By the end of the occupation, most people realized they had accomplished little working through the system. This became a beacon for change. Wounded Knee gave the people I knew pride and hope and a different view of themselves. It was a vehicle for change like none other in the 20th century.”
As the occupation stretched on and supplies grew thin, AIM members agreed to surrender to federal authorities in three predetermined groups. In return, the White House promised to investigate their complaints.
The village woke with the sun on the morning of May 8, McKiernan said. The Sioux national anthem played as 125 defenders surrendered.
About 1,200 people eventually were arrested, resulting in 275 cases in federal, state and tribal courts. Among those tried were Means, Bellecourt and Banks, who each faced 11 criminal charges. The men were acquitted because of evidence that the FBI had manipulated key witnesses.
McKiernan was arrested on charges that he reported news from a blackout zone and interfered with the federal government in the lawful performance of their duties. Those charges were dismissed.
Forty years after the occupation ended—and more than a century after the massacre—Wounded Knee still represents a troubled history and people who would do anything to incite change, McKiernan said.
“The purpose of the 1890 massacre was national, an object lesson delivered on a large scale,” he said. “Then there were dead years when Indian people won the race to the bottom in every possible sociological statistic. That changed with the occupation of Wounded Knee.”