Armed members of the American Indian Movement during 1973 siege at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. Note the American flag hung upside down (distress signal), a frequent protest symbol during the late 1960s - early 1970s.
Links to prior posts in this series: --WOUNDED KNEE: Sacred gorund for American Sioux Indians; --WOUNDED KNEE part 1: The closing frontier; --WOUNDED KNEE part 2: 1890 -- The Massacre.
On December 29, 1890, the American Seventh Cavalry committed a notorious massacre, killing at least 150 Lakota Sioux men, women, and children, at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation near Wounded Knee creek in South Dakota. This massacre ended the Indian Wars of that era and any resistance to moving the Plains Indians off their traditional land into reservations. Eighty-three years later, as a protest against decades of poverty, neglect, and broken promises, some 300 descendants of the original Wounded Knee Indians, calling themselves the American Indian Movement (AIM) took up arms and occupied the village of Wounded Knee. For 71 days, they held off the combined force of the US Marshal Service, the FBI, the US military, and state police, until leaders brokered a settlement.
Our Guest Blogger, Marshall Matz, had a unique role in this dramatic stand-off, which he shares with us today for the first time.
Wounded Knee is a small village on the Oglala Sioux Indian Reservation (Pine Ridge), the largest of nine Sioux reservations in South Dakota with a population of 10,000. Wounded Knee has always had special meaning to Indian people as the location of the famous 1890 massacre – their last armed confrontation with the US government. (See: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.)
In February 1973, to dramatize the plight of Indian people and pressure both Washington and the local Indian establishment for change, the American Indian Movement (AIM) took over Wounded Knee in an armed conflict. They seized hostages – local officials – and established an armed military perimeter around the village The US government, in turn, cut off food, electricity, and all roads into the town. Still, a steady stream of Indians snuck in to join the protest.
FBI car shot during Wounded Knee siege. Gunfire between Indians and law enforcement broke out almost daily. The leaders of the 300 AIM members, Russell Means and Dennis Banks, brought in lawyer William Kunstler (then famous for defending anti-Vietnam War protestors in the Chicago 7 case) to represent them. They demanded investigations of corruption both in the tribal governments and the US Bureau of Indian Affairs. Soon, the siege was making headlines around the world, gaining wide support. (That spring, actor Marlon Brando refused to accept his Academy Award for The Godfather in solidarity with the Wounded Knee Indians).
At the time, I was 27 years old and had recently moved to Washington from South Dakota to take a position with Senator George McGovern (D-SD), the recent Democratic presidential nominee, as Counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition which McGovern chaired. The Senator had hired me after he “found me” in South Dakota, as he likes to put it, working as an attorney on the impoverished Indian reservations for South Dakota Legal Services. There, I had represented members of the Crow Creek and Lower Brule Sioux Tribes from an office at Fort Thompson. As a result, I had witnessed first-hand the rising Indian grievances, and Senator McGovern viewed me as one of his staff "experts" on the subject.
After the Wounded Knee siege had already lasted many weeks, the AIM Indian leaders decided to invite a group of Washington officials to help mediate a settlement. They invited the two South Dakota Senators, McGovern and Jim Abourezk (D-SD), and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to make the point that the Reservations were sovereign nations. Secretary Kissinger did not accept the invitation (if he ever received it). Instead, the third seat went to the Senate staff counsel -- me.
I remember vividly being flown by Air Force jet from Andrews Air Force Base, just outside Washington, D.C., to Ellsworth Air Force Base in Rapid City, South Dakota. We were transferred to a helicopter flown directly to Pine Ridge, the “capital” or center of the Oglala Sioux Reservation. Here, the FBI agents took us by car ,across the stark, semi-desert landscape to a point just outside Wounded Knee itself. The FBI and AIM members had both established armed perimeters around the town, and between them was what both sides called “the DMZ” (demilitarized zone), as in the Vietnam War.
At this point, I remember the lead FBI agent telling the Senators (and me, the Counsel) that they could not protect us any further. If we proceeded into occupied Pine Ridge, it was at our own risk. I remember wondering if it was the first time the FBI had told two U.S. Senators that they could not protect them on US soil. For Senator McGovern, who had just recently experienced the heavy security of a Presidential campaign, it was the most striking.
FBI agents gave us a car and we drove forward. I sat in back, with Senator McGovern driving (if I recall correctly) and Senator Abourezk holding a white handkerchief on a stick through the car window to indicate that we were the negotiating team. All the while, I could see armed Indians riding horses on the surrounding hills.
And with that, we drove into Wounded Knee.
Wounded Knee is a small village with only a few buildings….a church, post office and small store (again, if my memory is correct). Wounded Knee was completely armed. All around town we saw young braves with rifles, posted at key locations. Somehow, in all this, I never felt any danger and I don’t believe the Senators did either, but we did not discuss it.
View inside the AIM leadership tent during the siege.
Also, all over town, we ran into newspaper writers and TV crews, many lugging around heavy cameras, lights, and other equipment. (There were only the three major TV networks at the time.) While the Indians kept the FBI out, they made a point to allow the media in, since publicity was a major goal of the siege. They wanted to bring attention to the plight of Indian people and the broken Treaties.
The Indians took us to a farm house for the actual discussions with AIM leaders and their legal counsel, Mr. Kunstler. I remember their starting the session with prayers in the Lakota language as is traditional of all Sioux meetings. Food and coffee was available, not a small point since food shipments had been cut off during the siege.
Once the talks began, both Senators participated in the discussion while I listened and tried to staff them as best I could. While McGovern was better known around the country, Senator Abourezk actually had closer ties to the Reservations having grown up “West River” -- west of the Missouri River where the tribes were located. Senator McGovern is from “East River.”
The Senators promised to use their influence to bring the Indian concerns back to Washington. Ultimately, the siege ended peacefully. As the only staff person present, I served as a liaison to the press and tried to provide some historical understanding to the siege.. After the senators left, I stayed behind for several days, doing what I could to provide a presence and liaison to the Senators.
The Indians ended their siege in early May after 71 days – 38 years ago last month. What had they accomplished? Two of the Indian occupiers had died of gunshot wounds during the siege and a US Marshal was grievously injured. Two years later, on June 26, 1975, two FBI agents were killed near Wounded Knee and Leonard Peltier, an AIM member, was convicted.
The siege of Wounded Knee did provide greater recognition across the country of the difficulties facing modern American Indians. Presidents since that time have all (I believe) recognized the sovereignty of Indian Tribes with Presidential Proclamations pledged to interact with Tribes on a basis of “government to government.”
The sad truth, however, is that not much has changed economically since 1973 to improve the quality of life on American Indian Reservations. Today, unemployment on many Reservations is over 50% and can be as high as 80%. The poorest Tribes in the country are still those in the Missouri River Valley that are the most remote and furthest from major population centers that could allow for gambling or tourism to help the Tribe. This high unemployment cannot help but lead to a breakdown of the social fabric. Alcoholism, diabetes, infant mortality, and violence all far exceed the profile for the rest of the United States.
The United States continues to pay lip service to Indian rights, but has not appropriated the money needed or established the programs necessary to create a private sector economy on the Reservations and break the cycle of poverty. The sad legacy of Wounded Knee will continue until the United States government helps to replace the economy that was lost. The world may be “flat” with a global economy, as New York Times columnist Tom Friedman puts it, but that economy has not reached Indian Country, USA. The United States outsources to India but not to America’s Reservations.
Personally, I have remained involved with the Reservations. My law firm, OFW Law, today has an office on the Lower Brule Sioux Reservation, which we represent in Washington, D.C. The Tribe has given me the title “Ambassador to the United States” and the office of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) is referred to as the Tribal Embassy.
The Lower Brule Sioux Tribe is working hard to bring private business to the reservations as a spur to breaking the cycle of poverty. To do this, as one strategy, we are focusing our energy on trying to pass an Indian Agriculture Act that would bring many of the highly-successful US Government farm and rural development programs, administered by the Department of Agriculture, to the reservations. This, as a spur to private home-grown business, may well be the best hope for finally bringing a happy ending to the sad history of Wounded Knee, be it 1890 or 1973.
Marshall Matz practices law at OFW Law in Washington, D.C. Visit him at OFWLaw.com.