Siege at Wounded Knee 50 Years Later: the Fight for Self-Determination Continues

Gathering at mass grave for victims the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee. Photo: Gail Sullivan.

The 1973 Siege at Wounded Knee is the longest “civil unrest” in the history of the US Marshal Service. For 71 days, the American Indian Movement (AIM) and members of the Oglala Lakota (Sioux) nation were under siege in a violent standoff with the FBI and US Marshals equipped with high powered rifles and armored personnel carriers.  Two people were killed, over two dozen wounded.  At stake, sovereignty and self-determination guaranteed through treaty rights.

Fifty years have passed but for American Indians the struggle for recognition of the nation-to-nation treaties continues to be seen as survival.  At the end of February, young Indian leaders joined older activists to gather at Wounded Knee to commemorate the violent events that began on February 27, 1973, and renew their call for self-determination and recognition of their treaties.

For older Wounded Knee veterans, this Fiftieth Anniversary year is a time for a ritual passing on of the struggle.  “You are the seventh generation. It’s your time to stand up and protect your water, defend your land,” proclaimed Vic Camp, son of Wounded Knee AIM leader Carter Camp, “Remember your treaty rights, protect those treaties . . .  we have to remind the United States government that this is our land.”

Bill Means, a veteran of the 1973 siege urged people to be clear on the purpose, “Remember, we came here for the 1868 Ft. Laramie Treaty. We didn’t come here just to raise hell. We had to make a statement, to tell the world that Indians are still alive, that this is still our land, and the Black Hills are not for sale!”

For the Lakota this fight for self-determination, the preservation of their nation and its land, were the central demands of the siege at Wounded Knee.  It was a fight for survival. During the negotiations in 1973 the local Oglala leaders were frustrated with the Justice Department’s refusal to grasp the central issue of the Treaty.  Gladys Bissonette, a revered Oglala elder admonished the Government negotiators, “In the past there were a lot of violations of the sacred treaties . . . This is real. We’re not playing here. So all you people that go back to Washington, think real good, because our lives are at stake. It concerns our children’s children, the unborn.”

Much has been written about the aftermath of the 1973 siege, including the murders of 60 AIM sympathizers and activists in the following year, known as the Reign of Terror, carried out by a local vigilante group self-titled “Goons” (Guardians of the Oglala Nation). U.S. District Court Judge Fred Nichols viewed this as the FBI colluding with vigilantes to target AIM sympathizers. The continued imprisonment of Leonard Peltier despite universal calls for clemency – even by the prosecutor – demonstrates the truth of the FBI’s intent to eliminate Indian activists even at the cost of truth.

At the end of the nine-month trial of AIM leaders Dennis Banks and Russel Means the jury polled unanimously to acquit. But an illness of one juror prevented the required courtroom polling. Judge Nichols then just simply dismissed the charges.  “[T]he misconduct by the government in this case is so aggravated that a dismissal must be entered in the interests of justice,” he wrote. “The waters of Justice have been polluted.”

Frank Star Comes Out, Oglala Sioux Tribal President. Photo: Gail Sullivan.

In the fifty years since the siege at Wounded Knee, corporate extraction of critical metals and minerals and the increasing impact of climate change on indigenous lands has brought a new urgency to the fight for self-determination.

In 2015 polluted waters took on a different meaning. The epic struggle by the Standing Rock Lakota/Dakota people, bolstered by thousands of supporters against the Dakota Access Pipeline, evinces that Indian sovereignty is environmental justice. Standing on their rights under the Treaty of 1868, they fought fiercely to protect their land and waters and in doing so became the nation’s “Water Protectors.”

American Indians see their responsibilities under the treaties linked to the health of the land and water.  Lakota leader and Wounded Knee veteran Madonna Thunder Hawk joined the fight at Standing Rock. “When we step up as a people to protect land and water,” says Thunder Hawk, “what we stand on are our treaty rights.”

To understand their struggle, you have to understand the history.

The 1973 Siege at Wounded Knee is rooted in the abrogation of the Ft. Laramie 1868 Treaty between the U.S. Government and the Great Sioux Nation.  This Treaty sets aside a large swath of land west of the Missouri River and designates the Black Hills, sacred land of the Indians, as “unceded territory” for the “absolute and undisturbed use and occupation of the Indians.” The American Indians justly understood the Treaty as the right to self-determination.

But the discovery of gold in the Black Hills by George Armstrong Custer in 1874 followed by the Battle of Big Horn in 1876 galvanized the illegal confiscation of Indian lands and the enforcement of the reservation system.    After failed attempts to convince the Tribes to cede the Black Hills, the Government simply took the land as an Act of Congress via the 1877 Dawes Act.  The Act intended to take more than just land, it intended to eviscerate tribal sovereignty by withdrawing recognition of nationhood and recognizing Indian people only as “individuals”. It was an egregious violation of the1868 Treaty and set the stage for the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, where as many as 300 unarmed Native Americans were slaughtered.  Nearly half were women and children.

Not until 1980 did the U.S. Supreme Court acknowledge that the taking of the Black Hills was illegal, and compelled compensation, today estimated to be at over one billion dollars.

But the Lakota People have rejected the Court’s decision. They are clear. The Black Hills are sacred and not for sale.

Oglala Lakota County is one of the poorest counties in the United States.  The Lakota people live in extreme poverty.  Their life expectancy is nearly six years less than white Americans. The infant mortality rate is a stunning near double that of white Americans. Their children were subjected to cultural genocide through forced assimilation in Bureau of Indian Affairs schools. But they were not poor before their land and resources were taken. The Lakota understand Indian poverty as a direct result of colonialism.

“We know we’re about survival. [We’re] not fighting for civil rights, in our own traditional system we have that. But we are a colonized people. Our fight is against a colonizing nation,” explains Madonna Thunder Hawk.

The new Indian leadership is educated both in traditional ways and at American colleges and universities. They easily traverse both worlds, but they do not accept the label of “American”.  They are members of their respective Indian Tribal Nations. And return of their lands under the treaties remains their priority. They call for solidarity with other colonized peoples of the world. And they identify the continued denial of self-determination and pressure to assimilate as an ongoing strategy of cultural genocide.

Oglala Lakota leader and N.D.N. Collective President Nick Tilsen speaks to the fight for the Black Hills, “The Waters of Justice have absolutely been polluted. The issue of the Black Hills is one of the longest unresolved legal, political, treaty and human rights matters in the History of the United States. This president says he’s about a reckoning with the past and healing forward yet no effort has been made by the White House to have open dialogue about the return of Public Lands in the Black Hills. It’s time to talk about LandBack. If this country wants to authentically engage a restorative and just healing process with this country’s Indigenous peoples it must start with the return of stolen indigenous lands back into indigenous hands. That’s our ask, it’s very clear, return all public lands in the Black Hills to the Lakota. It will halt the mining claims and projects that are polluting the water and destroying the environment and move us all closer to justice.”

These are warriors of a new era committed to the protection of their land, their waters, and their people, and they are fueled by the urgency of climate change.

“The waters of justice have been polluted.”  

The fight continues.

Sand Brim was at Wounded Knee in 1973 and remained as an investigator for the legal defense of the 350 Federal Criminal cases brought against Indian activists. She just returned from the 50 year Commemoration of Wounded Knee. She is a lawyer and has a long history of activism, from anti-war, civil rights, El Salvador, and as a Labor activist for the past decade.  She is the former Director of Strategic Campaigns for the National Nurses United, and was a policy advisor in the 2020 Bernie Sanders presidential campaign.