40 Years Later, Wounded Knee is Still Fresh in Our Minds

Laura Waterman Wittstock, Indian Country Today Media Network

Hundreds of travelers left their home areas from points all over the United States and Canada last weekend to meet in the tiny village of Wounded Knee, South Dakota. There, they will observe the 40th anniversary of one of the most unusual military undertakings the United States has ever engaged in—or we could say entangled in—during the 20th century. Wounded Knee is located in the southwestern corner of the 11,000 square mile Pine Ridge reservation.

According to then Senator James Abourezk, when the American Indian Movement arrived in Wounded Knee on February 27, 1973, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and federal marshals were already there on alert for armed activity on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The marshals were there in the event of a civil disturbance that might occur during a possible attempt to impeach the tribal chairman.

There were many issues on the table but two that emerged at the top of the list were the torture death of Raymond Yellow Thunder, which took place in Gordon, Nebraska. Yellow Thunder was from Kyle on the reservation. AIM leaders were incensed at the brutal death and what appeared to be a lack of concern for the victim. The other issue was Pine Ridge tribal chairman Richard (Dick) Wilson’s presumed disrespect of traditional Lakota culture. So strong was the sentiment that Gladys Bissonette and others formed the new organization OSCRO: the Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization.

According to AIM’s national chairman Clyde H. Bellecourt, it seemed that as soon as a meeting with OSCRO and traditional leaders got underway, word of the movement of FBI and federal marshals toward Wounded Knee was taking place and a defense perimeter was needed. By the next morning, an armed standoff began to take shape. There were three governmental groups lined up: Dick Wilson’s GOONS, the federal marshals, and the FBI. The federal group brushed aside Wilson’s government and took over the tribal offices with its only telephone, which made reporters on the scene wait in line for their turn to call in stories.

Newspapers across the country blared headlines about the “occupation of Wounded Knee.” At that time the name “Wounded Knee” was also part of the name of an American best seller by librarian Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. The book title was taken from the poem, “American Names” by Stephen Vincent Benet, and a strong sense of American romanticism attached itself to what was happening at Wounded Knee. Of course distance added much to the élan presumed to be part of the takeover, but a close up showed unarmed women and little children becoming increasingly pinned down with little prospect for food and the daily necessities of life. February was cold and March was no warmer. Blanketed Indians were photographed moving around the compound and it could be seen in Kevin McKiernan’s photographs that nearby cattle were being sacrificed for food.

With little time to plan, all action was about response and reaction. Help poured in as Indians from all over the U.S. came to help, as did Vietnam Vets and the traditional government of the Haudenosaunee of the Six Nations in Iroquoia.

Negotiations began to end the standoff and secure direct communication between the traditional chiefs and the U.S. government. Representatives of the Richard M. Nixon administration, primarily Assistant U.S. Attorneys General Kent Frizzell, were sent to secure a peace. Presumably, an internal fight over how much violence to use against the occupiers was underway, but the president did not want dead unarmed civilians to be among the casualties.

Some help was less evident, such as that of screen star Marlon Brando, who helped the negotiations through support of the work of Hank Adams. These were pre mobile phone and pre Internet days. Official government papers had to be typed out and signed. At one point, between May 3 and 5, Adams was in the process of delivering a letter with terms to the chiefs and it had been decided that the letter would be delivered at the reservation border. The chiefs, headmen and their interpreters numbering 100 feared breaking the government seal until they could carry the letter into Wounded Knee, Adams writes in the Hank Adams Reader.

The invisible hand and pocketbook of Brando helped bring the negotiations to a successful conclusion on the weekend of May 5-6, 1973, and arms were laid down. The Sioux National Anthem filled the air with a heart-filling swell of notes at sunrise on May 8 and around 125 Wounded Knee defenders surrendered to federal authorities in three predetermined groups. Federal authorities then overran the village, searching for arms and explosives. Returning residents were searched. No arms or explosives were found and the marshals went to their cars and drove out of Pine Ridge.

Laura Waterman Wittstock’s book with Dick Bancroft’s photographs, We Are Still Here: A Photographic History of the American Indian Movement, will be released in May, 2013.


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