Robert Charles Onco, a member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma and an American Indian Movement activist, passed into the spirit world on January 31 after a long battle with lung cancer. He was 63 years old.
Bobby Onco, as he was known, was immortalized in a photo that became a symbol the 1973 uprising at Wounded Knee. The photo shows Onco holding a raised AK-47 and smiling broadly. It became famous worldwide as a poster with the words “Remember Wounded Knee” and is archived in the Library of Congress.
The uprising at Wounded Knee—the site of the 1890 massacre of hundreds of men, women and children by the U.S. cavalry—began on February 27, 1973, by Oglala Lakota and AIM activists when approximately 200 Indians seized and occupied the town of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The activists were demanding that the U.S. government make good on broken treaties from the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was the beginning of a 71-day occupation and armed conflict with the United States Marshals Service, FBI agents and other law enforcement agencies, who cordoned off the area. The civil rights direct action inspired Indians from all over the country, attracted worldwide media coverage and widespread public sympathy.
Dennis Banks, one of the leaders of the occupation, recalled Onco’s weapon and the relative military strength of the AIM members and the federal government in Ojibwa Warrior: Dennis Banks and the Rise of the American Indian Movement. “One of our men, Bobby Onco… had a AK-47 with a banana clip a souvenir from Vietnam. I don’t think he had any ammo for it; he used it to impress the media and the marshals,” Banks wrote. “Later during the siege we set up a stovepipe, which caused a panic among the feds. ‘Oh my God! Those Indians have a rocket launcher!’ We certainly didn’t have any rockets and almost no ammunition… It was a puny force that faced the mightiest government in the world with its huge arsenal of weapons!”
Onco was born in Hobart, Oklahoma, on May 23, 1950 to Atwater William Onco and Lucille Redbird Onco, both Kiowa. He left Oklahoma in April 1968 to serve in the armed forces during the Vietnam War. “However, he found his true warrior spirit fighting for the American Indian Movement at Wounded Knee in 1973,” his family said an obituary.
Onco loved adventure and enjoyed traveling around Indian Country. His travels earned him the Kiowa name Daum-To-Yai or “Traveller to Other Countries.” But it was his family and home at the Shinnecock Indian Nation Reservation that meant the most to him.
“Of all the things he had done in his life, he always said that his proudest achievement was his family. He married Jacqueline Smith on May 25, 1988 and became stepfather to David Taobi Silva and Adrienne Star Silva. Bobby and Jacqueline had two children together: Robert ‘B.J.’ Tangnaqudo Onco and Lacina Tangnaqudo Onco. Using his skills as a tradesman, he built his family a home. It was the love he had for his family, and for the community, that made Shinnecock his true home,” family members said.
Family members describe Onco as a father, a husband, a grandfather, a brother, an uncle, a friend, and a spiritual leader. “Bobby was the kind of man that made friends with everyone. His amusing sense of humor, loud laughter, and gigantic smile made him a charming man. If you were upset, Bobby would always make you smile. He was someone you could turn to for words of comfort, guidance, and support,” reads his obituary.
Lance Gumbs, former Shinnecock council chairman, said Onco was a spiritual warrior who will always be honored for his days fighting for Indian people’s rights. “I knew him well for many, many years and he was an inspiration to me from that turbulent time in our history. He’s an important part of that era and should not be forgotten.”
Despite his fame as a Wounded Knee warrior, Onco was a modest man who did not seek the limelight. “There are a lot of people that want to be the chiefs. Bobby was okay with just being an Indian,” his stepson David Taobi Silva told Newsday.
Onco is survived by his wife, Jacqueline Onco; sons Silva and Robert “B.J.” Tangnaqudo Onco; daughters, Adrienne Star Silva and Lacina Tangnaqudo Onco; three grandchildren; sisters, Karen Koon and Frances Bradley and their families; brothers Eddy Onco and Bryan Onco; and a host of relatives and friends.
A funeral service was held on February 5 at the Shinnecock Presbyterian Church with Rev. Mike Smith officiating. Interment with military honors followed at Shinnecock Cemetery.