The year is 1973. Nixon is inaugurated into his second term and promises to bring back the “rule of law” to his administration. Offensive action is halted in Northern Vietnam. The Watergate Hearings are in full swing. Egypt and Syria trade punches with Israel in the Yom Kipur War and Henry Kissinger starts his term as Secretary of State.
Lost in the confusion of this troubled time, another tragedy and triumph is unfolding on Indian reservations in Nebraska and South Dakota.
It starts in February of 1972 when a 51 year old Oglala man named Raymond Yellow Thunder is abducted and beaten by two white men in Gordon Nebraska. He is then paraded, half-naked, around an American Legion dance, stuffed into the trunk of a car and later abandoned at a Laundromat.
When Yellow Thunders body is found his attackers are arrested but are released without bail soon after being booked.
In response to the brutal murder, the American Indian Movement leads a 200 car caravan to the Gordon Nebraska courthouse and demands justice on behalf of the victims family.
Throughout 1972 Tension mounts on the reservations and a riot breaks out on the steps of the Custer County Court House. The tension culminates with the election of Dick Wilson as President of the Pine Ridge Reservation. Wilson hates AIM and hires a private army of GOONs or, Guardians of the Oglala Nation, to beat, terrorize and murder any AIM supporters they can find.
In the Spring of 1973, AIM turns the caravan of 200 towards the Pine Ridge Government headquarters, determined to remove the corrupt BIA officials from office.
“Our original thought was to go to the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Pine Ridge and physically throw out the government.” said one AIM leader “We soon realized that this was impossible, because they had the place completely fortified and had Federal Marshals and BIA pigs all around it, and sand-bags on top, machine guns, and fortifications all over the town. So in order to avoid that kind of pitched battle, we decided to come to Wounded Knee, because of its historic significance to our people, naturally, and the fact that it lies right in the heart of the Pine Ridge Reservation. We felt that by coming here, occupying this town, we would be telling the Sioux Nation that they had someone there to fight for them, to help them fight and protect them.”
Cloaked by darkness, the 200 cars wind there way into Wounded Knee South Dakota. Wounded Knee is the site of the 7th Calvary massacre of 300 unarmed Sioux women and children which some people still disgracefully call the “Battle of Wounded Knee”.
Morning dawns with AIM in control of the town. They demand hearings on the Fort Laramie Treaties and the removal of corrupt BIA officials.
The U.S. Government surrounds the town with an army of 300 FBI, BIA, Federal Marshals and local Police. They set up roadblocks and demand AIM surrender the town.
AIM sets up their own roadblocks and dig-in for the siege on Wounded Knee they are armed with .22's, Shotguns, hunting riffles and one AK-47 which a Veteran brought back from Vietnam.
“In the first instance since the Civil War that the U.S. Army is dispatched in a domestic operation, the Pentagon invades Wounded Knee with 17 armored personnel carriers, 130,000 rounds of M-16 ammunition, 41,000 rounds of M-1 ammunition, 24,000 flares, 12 M-79 grenade launchers, 600 cases of C-S gas, 100 rounds of M-40 explosives, helicopters, phantom jets, and personnel, all under the direction of General Alexander Haig.”
Supporters from the surrounding area bypass government barricades and carry food and ammunition in to Wounded Knee on foot or by horse.
For 70 days constant gun-battles, fire-fights and tear gas barrages turn Wounded Knee into a chaotic battlefield. 100's of supporters from all over America sneak their way into Wounded Knee and join AIM in the battle. Doctors and nurses get past barricades to work in the Wounded Knee clinic.
Supporters protest in the streets of many U.S cities and public attention keeps the Pentagon from launching a full-scale military offensive.
On March 10, the Government takes down their roadblocks. They hope the Indians will leave. Instead, the Indians see this as a victory and take the opportunity to strengthen their position. Hundreds of supporters pour into Wounded Knee, bringing food and medical supplies.
The next day, AIM and the Oglala Sioux elders declared the rebirth of the Independent Oglala Nation.
On March 26 the phone lines are cut and the main-stream media leaves. The FBI starts rounding up and arresting supporters nation-wide. Several activists are murdered including Frank Clearwater, an Apache and Buddy Lamont, an Oglala.
On May 4 the White House sends the Indians a letter promising that White House representatives will meet with the Sioux chiefs to discuss the Fort Laramie Treaty. The Indians agree to end their occupation. Over 150 people leave Wounded Knee, slipping past roadblocks with their weapons.
The Nixon White House quickly breaks it's word, saying, “The days of treaty making with the American Indians ended in 1871, 102 years ago”.
69 AIM members are murdered during the violence which follows the siege. Other activists are also murdered. These crimes go unsolved and a media blackout covers Pine Ridge reservation in the years to follow.
“I will stand with my brothers and sisters.” says Pedro Bissonette, during the Wounded Knee trials on June 27, 1973. “I will tell the truth about them and about why we went to Wounded Knee. I will fight for my people. I will live for them and, if it is necessary to stop the terrible things that happen to Indians on the Pine Ridge Reservation, I am ready to die for them.”
Bissonette is killed three months later by police at a roadblock on the Pine Ridge reservation.
Voices From Wounded Knee, by Akwesasne Notes
Agents of Repression: The FBI's Secret Wars Against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement, by Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall
In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, by Peter Mathiessen
Lakota Woman, by Mary Crow Dog
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West, by Dee Alexander BrownTweet