On 27 February 1973 members of the American Indian Movement commenced their 71 day occupation of the site of the 1890 Massacre at Wounded Knee. The American Indian Movement (AIM) is a grass roots movement initially centered in urban areas to address systemic issues of poverty, discrimination, and police brutality against Native Americans. AIM soon widened its focus from urban issues to include many indigenous issues including treaty rights, and preservation of Indigenous culture. Their leaders included Leonard Peltier and the late Russell Means. Peltier, however, spent most of the occupation in a Milwaukee jail charged with attempted murder related to a different protest. He secured bail at the end of April and was on his way to Wounded Knee to deliver supplies when the incident ended. He was acquitted of the attempted murder charge in February 1978, when he was already serving two life sentences for the murder of two FBI officers of which he had been convicted in a highly controversial trial which deserves a separate blog. Peltier became eligible for parole in 1993 but remains incarcerated.
Russell Means Interview during Wounded Knee Occupation, 1973
Part 1 https://youtu.be/EH52OFL36Ro
Part 2 https://youtu.be/RMP2JSQXUHY
Madonna Thunder Hawk was already a seasoned activist when she joined he cousin, Russell Means, at Wounded Knee. It was here that she met Danny Sheehan, which eventually led to the formation of the Lakota People’s Law Project. She recounts her personal experience in an email.
The conflict originated in an attempt to impeach the chairman of the Oglala Lakota Tribe. But as the tribe split into armed camps, tribal police and government, federal law enforcement, and many outside parties became involved. The siege lasted 71 days, resulted in the deaths of two Indians, one Lakota and one Cherokee, and captured national media attention.
Wilson stayed in office and in 1974 was re-elected amid charges of intimidation, voter fraud, and other abuses. The rate of violence climbed on the reservation as conflict opened between political factions in the following three years; residents accused Wilson’s private militia, Guardians of the Oglala Nation GOONs), of much of it. Traditionalists had their own leaders and influence in a parallel stream to the elected government recognized by the United States. The Traditionalists tended to be Oglala who held onto their language and customs, and who did not desire to participate in US federal programs administered by the tribal government. Specifically, opponents of Wilson protested his sale of grazing rights on tribal lands to local white ranchers at too low a rate, reducing income to the tribe, whose members held the land communally. They also complained of his land-use decision to lease nearly one-eighth of the reservation’s mineral-rich lands to private companies. Most did not bother to participate in tribal elections, which led to tensions on all sides.
Angela Davies, Johny Cash and Jane Fonda were there in support. Marlon Brando intended to be there instead of appearing at the Oscars to personally refuse the award his performance in The Godfather. He was protesting against the portrayal of indigenous Americans in films and on TV and thought his time was better spent at Wounded Knee than in Hollywood knees-up. He appointed a young Apache woman, Sacheen Littlefeather, to represent him but she was unable to deliver the the speech he had written for her as she was only allowed one minute to speak and had to be escorted from the hall with threats of violence John Wayne! In June 2022, the Academy sent Littlefeather a statement of apology that was read in full at An Evening with Sacheen Littlefeather on September 17, two weeks before her death on October 2.
Kevin McKiernan, whose work has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, was a rookie reporter and the Wounded Knee Occupation was his first assignment. “I expected it to be over in a weekend, you know. I only brought one pair of pants,” says Kevin. His documentary From Wounded Knee to Standing Rock: A Reporter’s Journey aired on Monday February 27th 2023 – the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Occupation.
Wounded Knee Stand-Off 50th Anniversary https://listen.sdpb.org/arts-life/2023-01-18/wounded-knee-stand-off-50th-anniversary