The Siege of Wounded Knee ‘73

Alex Johnson

Alex Johnson
Content Writer

On December 29, 1890, the U.S. 7th Cavalry division and a group of Lakota natives, with tensions running high, had a catastrophic failure in communication. Basically, the Lakota performed a Ghost Dance to restore their old way of life. The cavalrymen mistook this for a War Dance, panicked, and opened fire with Hotchkiss machine guns. The result was up to 300 Lakota and 31 U.S. dead in Wounded Knee, South Dakota—all because the U.S. felt threatened by dancing.

Among the dead were unarmed Lakota men, women, and children. Twenty of the soldiers who fired upon the Lakota received Medals of Honor for their panicked spray-and-pray machine gunning, despite killing their own men in the crossfire. Apparently, a little chaos and blue-on-blue casualties were a small price to pay for wiping out undesirable natives en masse. 1

The Wounded Knee Massacre was the final nail in the coffin of the struggle of the Plains Indians to maintain their traditional ways of life against the tides of Manifest Destiny. Or, at least, it seemed that way at the time.

Some 80 years later, it would play out again in the same place, as Oglala Lakota tribe activists, along with members of the controversial American Indian Movement (AIM), seized the town of Wounded Knee once again to demand the U.S. government honor its treaties from the last two centuries. But there was a major difference this time: the Lakota held the town for weeks against federal siege—the longest-lasting “civil disorder” action in United States history.

Civil Rights, Native American Style

By the 1970s, generations had come and gone since the Wounded Knee massacre in 1890, but the Lakota were still refugees in their ancestral homes and relegated to economically depressed reservations—the Pine Ridge reservation, in this case—facing racism every time they ventured out into the white-dominated border towns.

Even within the bounds of their reservation, home to the small town of Wounded Knee, many Lakota felt oppressed for being themselves. Tribal chairman Dick Wilson was accused by many Lakota of favoring mixed-race and assimilated Lakota, like himself, over more traditional members. Nearly a century after the massacre, Lakota culture was being erased from within.

Even worse, Wilson had been suppressing the Oglala Lakota victims of racial violence from non-natives, calling for the arrests of bereaved widows, and actively asking for armed feds to put down the protests that resulted. By 1973, Wilson’s demand for an aggressive federal to response had put many of the Oglala Lakota on the reservation in fear of another Wounded Knee massacre.

But this was America, goddamnit, and the 20th century saw the rise of the civil rights movement. If some African Americans could make a hardline stand with militant groups like the Black Panthers to demand respect, then why not the continent’s indigenous peoples?

AIM (the American Indian Movement) served that purpose, and was just as controversial as the Black Panthers, or any other militant minority group looking to make themselves enough of a hassle to the feds in order to catalyze change. 2

A Desperate Protest

With the Pine Ridge reservation under the control of Dick Wilson and the federal law enforcement sent to back him up, many of the Oglala Lakota wanted to take action. On February 26, tribal elders, fed up with Wilson’s antics and the increasing aggression of the US government, officially asked for AIM’s help in forcing a conversation. Their goal was to renegotiate the terms of past treaties made by the United States—only this time, on equal terms.  Tribal elders met and made a decision: they would revive the Independent Oglala Nation as a sovereign entity, which would then renegotiate the terms of past treaties made by the United States—only this time, on equal terms.

Of course, things didn’t go so smoothly. As several hundred Native people made their way to Pine Ridge to support the protests, talks broke down, and tribal groups started closing off their land to outsiders by canceling mining leases. Federal negotiation tactics became more aggressive, and, ultimately, talk gave way to skirmishing.

On March 10, a ceasefire was called to end the hostilities between the Oglala Lakota and AIM on one side, and Dick Wilson’s tribal organization and the feds on the other. The feds thought the protesting Oglala Lakota to be a formless group of radicals who posed little threat. Any leadership they might have had were, at this point, well identified and could later be mopped up via arrest and prosecution. Believing the conflict to be more or less over, federal forces eased the blockades that had prevented people from entering or leaving the reservation.

But the feds underestimated support for the cause. After taking the Pine Ridge reservation off of full government lockdown, more Oglala Lakota supporters entered. The protesters now had reinforcements and a banner under which to fight—the reestablished Independent Oglala Nation.

The first rounds of the conflict ended without the Oglala getting their renegotiations. What they needed was an even clearer act of protest, by force, in order to make themselves heard, and now they had the manpower to do it. At a meeting of Oglala Lakota and AIM members, including Russell Means, they reached a new conclusion: gather up the guns and take Wounded Knee back from the feds, once and for all. 3

This wasn’t just a strategic decision. The U.S. government may have conveniently forgotten about the Wounded Knee massacre, but for the Oglala Lakota, their buried ancestors had made it a sacred place. Their connection with the spirits of those who died there would protect them. And if they didn’t, well, it was still pretty f*cking righteous for morale. 4

This photo of Robert Onco with his AK during the occupation became a famous image for the American Indian Movement, because it’s cool.

Taking a Knee

Things started to deteriorate even more on the night of March 11, 1973. A crack team of Oglala Lakota special forces (or at least, that’s how I’m pitching it in my screenplay), rifles in hand, stopped a group of governmental workers from entering Wounded Knee, fearing the workers were spies. They arrested, disarmed, and detained the men, then later fired on an FBI van patrolling in the area. The exchange of gunfire made one thing clear to the feds: the negotiations had failed. 5

Decked out in their war costumes, the feds returned and re-established their roadblocks, effectively blocking the Oglala Lakota in at Wounded Knee. But the Oglala Lakota and AIM refused to back down or to let any negotiators in peacefully. Their demands for the U.S. government were simple: do all the shit you said you’d do back in the 19th century. When you’re done with that, do the stuff you promised in the 20th century, too. You do these things for us, and we’ll leave the hostages and town in peace. Better late than never, right?

Oh, and before you judge the protesters too harshly for taking hostages at all, remember that there were no hostages involved in the 1890 massacre, which turned into, well, a massacre. AIM and the other occupiers needed to give the feds a reason not to shock-and-awe the whole town. With their collateral in place, AIM and the Oglala dug in for the long haul.

First, they seized the trading post, which held a stockpile of guns ‘n ammo. After that, they took the church, which did not house guns ‘n ammo, but rather the power of Christ, and probably some nice sight lines from the steeple. Also, Wounded Knee is a very small town, so there weren’t too many buildings to seize.

The Oglala Lakota fortified the town with roadblocks of their own and prepared for siege. To paint the picture a little bit, envision lots of dudes with long, black hair; cool bandanas; rifles; bows and arrows; horses; and wood-paneled station wagons, adding some really nice juxtaposition to the whole mise-en-scène. 6

71 Days

In what I imagine was a record low for response time at the reservation, the police surrounded Wounded Knee within hours of its seizure by the Oglala Lakota protesters, and established a blockade to keep anyone from going in and out—protesters, sympathizers, folks trying to bring in supplies—you know, like a real siege. The Oglala Lakota, meanwhile, dug in, literally, constructing trenches and bunkers for an anticipated final stand.

Bespectacled feds announced the official government stance that they would make every effort possible to avoid any bloodshed, which was a noble goal and certainly showed some degree of improvement from the government’s 1890 stance on Oglala Lakota.

This was, of course, followed immediately by the declaration that any bloodshed would be the sole responsibility of the Oglala Lakota occupiers, and the mobilization of militarized authorities. Armored personnel carriers, helicopters, machine guns, mortars, phantom jets, and 250 law enforcement officer surrounded Wounded Knee. It made the 1890 7th Cavalry’s Hotchkiss machine guns look like bullshit in comparison.

View of a March 3, 1973, standoff at Wounded Knee. U.S. Marshals are stationed on the ridge in the background.

In fact, the whole thing was more Vietnam War than wild west. And don’t take that from me, since I wasn’t in either. While things were relatively peaceful during the day, at night, law enforcement riddled the occupiers’ positions with machine gun fire. One former AIM member recalled, “They were shooting machine gun fire at us, tracers coming at us at nighttime just like a war zone. We had some Vietnam vets with us, and they said, ‘Man, this is just like Vietnam.’” 7

Senators flew to South Dakota to negotiate the release of the white hostages, but were rebuffed when said hostages blamed the feds for creating this whole mess, and refused to leave. Russell Means recalls the hostages’ sentiments years later: “Our hostages refused to leave! Hahaha! That’s Indian power, man, that’s Indian power! . . . ‘it’s your fault we’re here! If you’d a took care of them’ . . . it was fantastic, man!”

While that was surely a morale boost for the occupiers, they still prepared for the worst. Traditional warpaint marked Oglala Lakota who were fully prepared to die in a last stand, if necessary. These people were there to make life better for their descendents, but many fully expected they’d meet their ancestors before that ever happened—and possibly join them in the same mass grave.

Here’s an example of the kind of warzone Wounded Knee became during this siege: on the 50th day, a pilot and activist named Bill Zimmerman, from Boston, air-dropped 2,000 pounds of food on Wounded Knee. When the occupiers ran outside to collect the food, federal agents opened fire. It was a small-scale war of attrition. 8

A Kind of Victory

Given the show of force, and the comparisons to the Wounded Knee massacre and Vietnam, it’s some kind of miracle that no massacre happened here. Two of the Oglala Lakota would die over the course of the siege, and one federal agent was shot and paralyzed. These deaths—and the greater number of non-fatal casualties from the rampant gunfire—were tragic, for sure. But they were also amazingly low as compared to the deaths at Wounded Knee in 1890, and given just how long this siege lasted and the active use of, you know, machine guns every night.

Despite many of the Oglala Lakota openly demonstrating a willingness to die, the majority had a change of heart after the death of tribe member Buddy Lamont on April 26. AIM continued to push for enduring hostilities, but they were overruled by the tribe. They began negotiations with the feds, leading to an official surrender on May 8, 1973.

Russell Means announcing AIM’s agreement with the U.S. government to end the siege.

Some of AIM’s members escaped Wounded Knee before they could be arrested by federal agents. Some were captured, however—including Russell Means—but nearly all were later acquitted, after key evidence had been mishandled.

While the Wounded Knee incident ended without turning into the total bloodbath that some expected, it still, maddeningly, changed little about life on the reservation. In the years that followed, the murder rate on Pine Ridge skyrocketed well past the U.S. murder “capital” of Detroit. It was the continuation of a quiet, internal war between the pro-AIM Oglala Lakota, and Dick Wilson’s nontraditional tribal presidency.

Now, decades later, Pine Ridge reservation ranks among the poorest counties in the United States. The protest-siege of 1973 gave the Oglala Lakota something they hadn’t seen perhaps ever: widespread public sympathy (including sympathy from high-profile celebrities, like Marlon Brando) and recognition. But conditions on the reservation never improved and the treaties that the Oglala Lakota fought to have honored were ignored once again.

Eventually, even the protest largely faded from the public’s memory, just another ghost left to wander the plains near Wounded Knee. 9

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Notes 📌

  1. Alanheath3. (2010, December 26) Second Battle of Wounded Knee. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hSmrNXBf-wU
  2. Chertoff, Emily. (2012, October 23). Occupy Wounded Knee: A 71-Day Siege and a Forgotten Civil Rights Movement. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/10/occupy-wounded-knee-a-71-day-siege-and-a-forgotten-civil-rights-movement/263998/
  3. Matthiessen, Peter. (1992, March 1). In the Spirit of Crazy Horse: The Story of Leonard Peltier and the FBI’s War on the American Indian Movement. New York, NY: Penguin.
  4. Alanheath3. (2010, December 26) Second Battle of Wounded Knee. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hSmrNXBf-wU
  5. Chertoff, Emily. (2012, October 23). Occupy Wounded Knee: A 71-Day Siege and a Forgotten Civil Rights Movement. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/10/occupy-wounded-knee-a-71-day-siege-and-a-forgotten-civil-rights-movement/263998/
  6. Alanheath3. (2010, December 26) Second Battle of Wounded Knee. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hSmrNXBf-wU
  7. Chertoff, Emily. (2012, October 23). Occupy Wounded Knee: A 71-Day Siege and a Forgotten Civil Rights Movement. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/10/occupy-wounded-knee-a-71-day-siege-and-a-forgotten-civil-rights-movement/263998/
  8. Chertoff, Emily. (2012, October 23). Occupy Wounded Knee: A 71-Day Siege and a Forgotten Civil Rights Movement. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/10/occupy-wounded-knee-a-71-day-siege-and-a-forgotten-civil-rights-movement/263998/
  9. Chertoff, Emily. (2012, October 23). Occupy Wounded Knee: A 71-Day Siege and a Forgotten Civil Rights Movement. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/10/occupy-wounded-knee-a-71-day-siege-and-a-forgotten-civil-rights-movement/263998/

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