Fifty years ago a protest for civil rights on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota sparked a clash between the American Indian Movement and U.S. Army on the site of a massacre that ended the Indian Wars.

By Claus Biegert in collaboration with Eda Gordon

The name already had a place in the indigenous memory of North America: At Wounded Knee Creek (Chankpe Opi Wakpala) in the U.S. state of South Dakota, the last massacre of Native Americans took place on December 29, 1890. 500 soldiers of the 7th U.S. Cavalry had surrounded a platoon of Lakota who were to settle on the Pine Ridge reservation (formerly Internment Camp No. 344); there were 350 of them, including 120 women and children. When the Indians were disarmed, one warrior, who was deaf, would not give up his shotgun and fired into the air; in reaction, the soldiers let loose with the cannons that had been set up. Only a few Indians survived. After the slaughter, the newspapers reported the “Battle of Wounded Knee,” the so-called Indian Wars were declared over, and twenty soldiers were honored in Washington with the Medal of Honor, the highest military award.

In 1973, the site of the massacre was to become a symbol of new hope, identity and self-determination for Native people. On February 27, members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) occupied the historic site, which consisted of a church, a cemetery and a trading post. It was the idea of the eldest traditional women of the Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization (OSCRO) to call the American Indian Movement activists to their aid in order to stage a protest that would have media impact. The fledgling resistance movement had originated in Minneapolis-St. Paul in the neighboring state of Minnesota; there, AIM had established a patrol to protect the city’s Native American population from police raids.

In Wounded Knee they demanded the removal of Tribal Chairman Dick Wilson, for his corrupt, brutal rule through the force of his goon squad, and an end to colonial, paternalistic policies by the B.I.A. (Bureau of Indian Affairs under the Department of the Interior). The B.I.A. emerged from the War Department in 1824; in 1934 it established so-called Tribal Councils, through which it regulates governmental matters on the 574 Indian reservations, contrary to and disrespectful of the customs of each  tribal society.  The occupation of Wounded Knee also represented a broader protest by the Lakota: against the racism inside and off the reservation, the progressive destruction of agriculture on the reservation, the extreme poverty and unemployment, the abysmal medical care of the Indian Health Service and high suicide rate, the cultural alienation of children fostered by BIA and church-run schools. And last but not least,  the protest was about the theft of their sacred mountains He Sapa, the Black Hills. According to the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868, the mountain range still belonged to the Great Sioux Reservation of united Lakota, Dakota and Nakota tribes. A gold rush had led to the breach of the treaty at the end of the 19th century; meanwhile, it is the mining of uranium that is destroying the sacred mountains.

 The media had trouble categorizing the whole thing. Indians against Indians? On one side are the “progressives”: they run the tribal governments established in 1934, they are paid by the BIA, and they are considered democratically elected. On the other side are the “traditional” of the Oglala Lakota: they are ignored by Washington because they boycott majority rule as a colonial political system. The traditionals contemptuously call tribal members in BIA pay “apples”: red on the outside, white on the inside. On the Pine Ridge reservation, the two factions now face each other. Chairman Wilson saw AIM‘s occupation of Wounded Knee, in the company of spiritual elders, as a terrorist attack.

The U.S. government had no difficulty in classifying the whole thing – the enemy image of yesteryear was immediately at hand again: the protest was classified as an attack on national security, because AIM was already being targeted by the FBI, considered to have “communist infiltration.” Alexander Haig, the vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army, called a special meeting at the Pentagon. Colonel Volney Warner of the Air Force’s 82nd Division and Colonel Jack Potter of the Sixth Army, both with Vietnam experience, were given command. They agree on 17 tanks, plus helicopters and Phantom bombers as needed, 130,000 rounds of M-16 type ammunition, 41,000 of M-1 type, 24,000 flares, twelve M-79 launchers, 600 rounds of tear gas, 100 M-40 type explosive devices.

Deployment of military forces in their own country – this has not happened since the Civil War. There was neither a declaration of war, nor a special order from the U.S. President, whose name was Richard Nixon (and who will soon fall over the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C.). But there was an order from the 1960s, entitled “Garden Plot” and Haig relied on it. Garden Plot was to be applied when the social fabric of the United States is threatened by movements within the country. In this case, the plan was for all defense forces to work together: Army, Navy and Air Force along with the National Guard, U.S. Marshals and Highway Patrol. Allies on the ground now included the FBI (the Federal Bureau of Investigation), reinforced by B.I.A. police and a goon squad under the command of the tribal chairman.

The military moved in, and with it the media. Perhaps, apart from the two deaths on the Native side, there would have been more bloodshed if the siege had not taken place while the whole world was watching. The state of emergency lasted 71 days, during which the “Independent Oglala Nation” was proudly proclaimed on a site that had historically become synonymous with defeat. On May 8, the occupation was ended, the approximately 200 activists surrendered, and U.S. government envoys promised to deal with their list of demands. This never came to pass, because shortly thereafter the fallout from Watergate took up all the space in Washington and in the media. The subsequent criminal prosecution of participants in the Wounded Knee occupation, especially their leaders Dennis Banks and Russell Means, came as a surprise. When Judge Fred Nichols discovered at the AIM leadership trial that all telephone conversations between the defendants and their lawyers had been tapped by the FBI and that the government refused to hand over the transcripts of those Wounded Knee calls to the court, he stopped the proceedings. Nichols said that he had believed in the American Constitution, the flag and apple pie. Now only the apple pie remained.

Washington wanted to make sure that the resistance did not spread like wildfire to other reservations. Beneath the Indian lands lay valuable mineral resources: Oil, coal, gold, uranium. Cooperative tribal governments were needed. If the reservations were controlled by traditionals in the future, unhindered access to the resources would be jeopardized. So FBI units remained on the ground. More than 60 reservation residents died violently, without investigation, and the murders remain unsolved to this day. The “reign of terror” – as the inhabitants call it today – lasted two years. During  that time, the FBI trained 2000 special agents on the reservation. The militancy of the American Indian Movement was cited as justification.

Wounded Knee resonates to this day. Without the protest 50 years ago, there would be no new self-awareness today, no network of independent survival schools, no American Indian colleges, no forum for indigenous peoples at the United Nations. But there is also a permanent reminder of the era of terror and fear; it is embodied by Leonard Peltier, the longest-held indigenous political prisoner in the world, who has been in federal detention for 47 years.  On June 26, 1975 tensions on the Pine Ridge Reservation erupted, leading to a shootout that left two FBI agents and a young indigenous activist dead. Peltier, who has always proclaimed his innocence, was charged and convicted of murdering the agents, and sentenced to two consecutive life terms on coerced testimony and fabricated evidence. After the government’s misconduct was discovered, decades later, the image of the “cold-blooded killer,” which the FBI continues to conjure up to this day, could no longer be legally maintained, and the charge was changed to “aiding and abetting” the murders, though his co-defendants had earlier been acquitted by reason of self-defense. Peltier’s sentence, however, stood. Worldwide calls for his release have gone unanswered. Pope Francis wrote to Presidents Obama and Biden; the lead prosecutor has admitted in a letter urging clemency that “the prosecution and continued incarceration of Mr. Peltier was and is unjust”; even  a former FBI agent close to the Peltier investigation distanced herself in January 2023 from her agency’s campaign of “revenge” and says, “Enough is enough. Leonard Peltier should now be allowed to go home.”

Peltier is now 78 years old and seriously ill with multiple health issues that became further debilitating after he contracted COVID in January 2022. The federal prison where he has been housed does not have a full medical facility in the event of a life-threatening emergency.  In a message to his supporters on February 6, entering his 48th year of incarceration, Peltier wrote:

There is nothing about my case, nothing about the Constitution, which is a treaty between the American people and the government, that warrants my continual imprisonment.  They have historically imprisoned or killed our people, taken our land and resources.  Any time the law was in our favor they ignored the law or changed the law to benefit their agenda.

… In my case as a political prisoner there does not have to be a prisoner exchange.  The exchange they need to make is from their policy of injustice to a policy of justice.

His request: “from my heart to yours, plant a tree for me.”


Eda Gordon is a private investigator who witnessed the reign of terror on the

Pine Ridge Reservation. Presently she is engaged in the campaign to free Leonard Peltier.

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