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The Wounded Knee incident began February 27, 1973 when the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakotamarker was seized by followers of the American Indian Movement (AIM). The occupiers controlled the town for 71 days while the United States Marshals Service and other law enforcement agencies cordoned off the town.


On February 27 the AIM and local Oglala Lakota (Oglala Sioux) of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, who opposed Oglala tribal chairman Richard A. "Dick" Wilson, seized the town of Wounded Knee. The U.S. military and government officers, including the FBI, surrounded Wounded Knee the same day.

It is disputed whether the government forces cordoned the town before, as AIM claims, or after the takeover. According to former South Dakota Senator James Abourezk, "on 25 February 1973 the U.S. Department of Justice sent out 50 U.S. Marshals to the Pine Ridge Reservation to be available in the case of a civil disturbance". AIM, on the other hand, argues that their organization came to the town for an open meeting and "within hours police had set up roadblocks, cordoned off the area and began arresting people leaving town… the people prepared to defend themselves against the government’s aggressions". Regardless, by the morning of February 28, both sides were firmly entrenched.

The sides had been drawn over the previous months in response to the near intolerable conditions on the Pine Ridge reservation, consistently one of the poorest counties in the USA. What little employment and opportunity that existed on the reservation was controlled by the elected tribal chairman, seen by the government as the rightful (and generally obedient) authority. Acting traditional chiefs, operating in the background had quietly ministered to the Oglalas who held onto their language and customs in the face of modern times and the best efforts of "assimilation" programs administered by the government. The local economy revolved around the few jobs and programs Wilson was able to steer towards his friends and family, who were like him mostly of mixed-blood heritage. Grazing rights on tribal lands, held communally were sold to local ranchers at cheap rates, which helped to align the whites with Wilson, as did intermarriage between the two groups. Full blood Lakotas had been marginalized and shunted aside consistently since the start of the reservation system, and most didn't bother to participate in elections either, which led to tensions on all sides.

So called "border towns" just off the reservation were rife with violence in saloons and bars, and recent incidents had hardened both sides in the wake of a race-based murder that led to a riot at the Custer, South Dakota courthouse. Civil rights struggles in the west were hardly non-violent. Wilson and the Marshalls had been expecting conflict, and had made the Tribal headquarters in Pine Ridge into an armed encampment, complete with machine gun emplacements on top of the administration building. Three weeks previous Wilson had survived an impeachment hearing organized by a coalition of locals grouped loosely around the "traditionals, " and organized by both a local civil rights organization and the urban radical AIM members. Wilson manipulated the results of the investigation, the vote and the governing body in charge of the impeachment and after the struggle both sides were fully expecting the next phase would be open combat in the streets, a fight the traditionals and AIM knew it couldn't win. In desperation, a decision was reached to make a stand at the tiny hamlet of Wounded Knee, the site of the last massacre of the Indian Wars in hopes that public sympathy would stay the hand of Wilson's and the government's forces. What might have been a vigilante war quickly became a media circus and guerilla theater instead, albeit violent theater.

Both AIM and government documents show that the two sides traded fire for most of the three months. John Sayer, a Wounded Knee chronicler claims that:

"The equipment maintained by the military while in use during the siege included fifteen armored personal carriers, clothing, rifles, grenade launchers, flares, and 133,000 rounds of ammunition, for a total cost, including the use of maintenance personnel from the national guard of five states and pilot and planes for aerial photographs, of over half a million dollars"

The statistics gathered by Record and Hocker largely concur:Record, I. & Hocker, A. P. (1998). A Fire that Burns: The Legacy of Wounded Knee. Native Americas, 15(1), 14. Retrieved 2007-05-10 from ProQuest.

"...barricades of paramilitary personnel armed with automatic weapons, snipers, helicopters, armored personnel carriers equipped with .50-caliber machine guns, and more than 130,000 rounds of ammunition".

The precise statistics of U.S. government force at Wounded Knee vary, but all accounts agree that it was certainly a significant military force including "federal marshals, FBI agents, and armored vehicles." One eyewitness and journalist chronicled, "sniper fire from…federal helicopters," "bullets dancing around in the dirt" and "sounds of shooting all over town" [from both sides].

AIM claims in its chronology of the occupation that "the government tried starving out the [occupants]" and that they, the occupiers, smuggled food and medical supplies in past roadblocks "set up by Dick Wilson and tacitly supported by the government." Some reports indicate that Wilson and his men, situated between the AIM and U.S. Government lines, fired towards both in the hopes of provoking government forces to retake the town.

In the course of the conflict, Frank Clearwater, a Wounded Knee occupier of either Cherokee or Apache background, was shot in the head while asleep on April 17 and died on April 25. Lawrence Lamont, also an occupier, and a local Oglala Lakota, received a fatal gunshot wound to the heart from a sniper on April 26, and U.S. Marshal Lloyd Grimm was paralyzed from the waist down, again by a gunshot wound.

On March 13, assistant attorney general for the Civil Division of the US Justice Department Harlington Wood Jr. became the first government official to enter Wounded Knee without a military escort. Determined to resolve the deadlock without further bloodshed, he met with AIM leaders for days and, while exhaustion made him too ill to conclude the negotiation, he is credited as the "icebreaker" between the government and AIM. Both sides reached an agreement on May 5 to disarm, and three days later the siege had ended and the town was evacuated after 71 days of occupation; the government then took control of the village.

See also


  1. " Wounded Knee Incident." United States Marshals Service. Retrieved 2007-05-10.
  2. Abourezk, James G. Wounded Knee, 1973 Series. - University of South Dakota, Special Collections Website. Retrieved 2007-05-10.
  3. James G. Abourezk was a Senator at the time of Wounded Knee. He was present at the conflict and even entered the occupied town. Abourezk is also a chronicler of the 1973 incident and has conducted hearings under the "authority of U.S. Senate Subcommittee of Indian Affairs".
  4. Wounded Knee Information Booklet. American Indian Movement. pp 10-18. Retrieved 2007-05-10.
  5. Sayer, J. (1997). Ghost Dancing the law: The Wounded Knee trials. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
  6. McKiernan, Kevin B. "Notes from a Day at Wounded Knee". - Retrieved 2007-05-10.
  7. Public Broadcasting System. American Experience: We Shall Remain. First aired 2009-05-19.

Further reading

  • Bonney, R. A. (1977). "The Role of AIM Leaders in Indian Nationalism" [Electronic version]. American Indian Quarterly, 3, 209-224.
  • A Tattoo on my Heart: Warriors of Wounded Knee 1973. (2004) Badlands Films.
  • Reinhardt, Akim D. Ruling Pine Ridge: Oglala Lakota Politics from the Ira to Wounded Knee Texas Tech University Press, 2007.
  • Mary Crow Dog and Richard Erdoes (1990). Lakota Woman. Harper Perennial (ISBN 0-06-097389-7).
  • Waltz, Vicky. "From Wounded Knee to Comm Ave." BU Today.
  • Paul Chaat Smith and Robert Allen Warrior. 1996. Like a hurricane: The Indian movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee. New York: The New Press.
  • Steve Hendricks (2006). The Unquiet Grave: The FBI and the Struggle for the Soul of Indian Country Thunder's Mouth Press (ISBN-13: 978-1-56025-735-6)

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