Tag Archives: Wounded Knee

Fifty Years Ago Today the Wounded Knee Occupation Began

One of the most important events of the modern Indian rights movement began today at the small hamlet of Wounded Knee, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. You should be teaching students in your American History class about Wounded Knee, not as an explosive event, but one with origins reaching back to the nineteenth century.

The occupation, indeed, had deep routes.

Several months after the occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1972, the activism of the Nixon years reignited in South Dakota. In January of 1973, a white man killed a Sioux named Wesley Bad Heart Bull outside a bar in Custer County. Local authorities charged the attacker with manslaughter, nothing more, and AIM, the American Indian Movement, arrived to protest. Led by Dennis Banks, they asked the prosecutor to consider more serious charges. When he refused, a riot broke out. The protestors set the local Chamber of Commerce building on fire; local police and county sheriffs responded with tear gas and violence. Twenty‐two people were arrested, nineteen of them Indigenous peoples. In the aftermath of the Custer riot, elders at the Pine Ridge Reservation invited AIM to aid them in their struggles against tribal chairman Dick Wilson, the head of an Indian Reorganization Act government notorious for its corruption and strong‐arm tactics. THe New Deal era IRA led at times to tribal governments that did not fit with the traditional values of an Indigenous community, and that certainly was the case at Pine Ridge. Wilson maintained a personal police force, for example, the well‐armed GOON squad (Guardians of Ogalala Nation) to control and intimidate dissenters. He had defeated efforts by the Reservation’s residents to impeach him. His authority challenged, he called upon federal authorities for support: federal marshals with automatic weapons came to Pine Ridge, setting the stage for a showdown.

Dick Wilson
Russell Means, left, and Dennis Banks at Wounded Knee in 1973.

Led by Russell Means and Dennis Banks, AIM hoped to bring the attention of the world to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. If they had little familiarity with tribal traditions—both had spent much of their lives in cities—they knew well how to draw the media and generate interest. On February 27, 1973, they and a group of their followers, perhaps 300 in all, occupied the small village of Wounded Knee, the site of the massacre of Sioux Ghost Dancers eighty‐three years before. Most of the occupiers came from the surrounding Lakota reservations, but they received support small numbers of Kiowas, Pueblos, Potawatomis, Senecas, and many others. Two Rappahannocks who had lived in New Jersey traveled west to join AIM at Wounded Knee. The occupiers had a handful of rifles; one of the occupiers had an AK‐47 with an empty banana clip. Some had served in Vietnam and felt keenly the injustice of the colonial system existing at Pine Ridge, where reservation residents had few rights and no redress. Desperate means called for desperate measures. Wilson’s GOONs and federal forces quickly surrounded the occupiers with an impressive array of the latest military technology: armored personnel carriers, high‐powered rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers, and armor. The federal authorities fired off more than 130,000 rounds of ammunition during the occupation. In cities like San Francisco and Washington, the Nixon Administration was willing to exercise restraint in its response to Native American protests. Federal authorities had avoided using a heavy hand during the occupation of Alcatraz and the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C. Not so on a remote reservation in South Dakota.

On March 11, the occupiers issued a statement declaring the independence of the Oglala Nation. “We are a sovereign nation by the treaty of 1868,” the occupiers said, and “we want to abolish the Tribal Government under the Indian Reorganization Act. Wounded Knee will be a corporate state under the Independent Oglala Nation.” They rejected the “reorganized” government of the Pine Ridge Reservation and objected to a corrupt government out of touch with tribal traditions and willing to harass and violently persecute its opponents. Means and Banks attracted a considerable amount of attention but they could not achieve their fundamental goals, for the federal government would not see to the removal of Wilson, or address the fundamental structural causes of so much misery on Indian reservations. The occupation of Wounded Knee lasted seventy‐one days. At its end, two of the occupiers had died, and one federal marshal received a wound that left him paralyzed. Given the number of rounds fired, that so few were killed and injured was something of a miracle.

Always worth a look, Paul Chaat Smith’s excellent Everything You Know About Indians is Wrong

The occupiers left Wounded Knee in May of 1973. According to Banks, “Wounded Knee was the greatest event in the history of Native America in the twentieth century. It was,” he continued, “our shining hour.” Leonard Crow Dog, the spiritual leader and another of the occupiers, agreed that “our seventy‐one-day stand was the greatest deed done by Native Americans.” Still, Crow Dog noted, “we never got our Black Hills back, the Treaty of Fort Laramie was not honored, nor did the government recognize us as an independent nation.” In the words of historian Paul Chaat Smith, “there was a clear‐eyed, if often unspoken, acknowledgment that frequently our elders are lost or drunk, our traditions nearly forgotten or confused, our community leaders co‐opted or narrow,” but “they knew only one thing for sure: business as usual was not working, their communities were in pain and crisis, and they had to do something.” AIM brought considerable attention to the problems Indigenous peoples faced. Thanks to the organization’s efforts, many American people became aware for the first time of their nation’s long history of injustices toward American Indians. These achievements were significant.

Still, federal authorities relentlessly harassed and prosecuted the leaders of AIM. After the occupation, Dick Wilson resumed his campaign of repression against what he viewed as outside agitators. This violence led to the killing of two FBI agents in June 1975. After some shady legal maneuvering, a federal court tried and convicted Leonard Peltier, an AIM member, despite significant doubts about his guilt and procedural irregularities at his trial. Peltier remains in prison today. Protests against Wilson’s regime did little to remove the fundamental problem: the United States, though willing to embrace self‐determination, and to consider piecemeal changes in its policies toward Indigenous peoples, never abandoned the notion that Indians remained wards of the nation. It is important to remember this. The federal government in the second half of the twentieth century favored self‐determination and, in specific cases, implemented programs and policies that addressed historic injustice and the poor conditions under which many Indigenous peoples lived. But it would only go so far. A tension existed, between self‐determination and wardship, between sovereignty and colonialism, that individual Indigenous peoples, tribal, local, state and federal governments, and the federal courts would wrestle with over the coming years. Indigenous peoples survived termination’s direct negation of their political rights, and gained more control over their lives, but the ambiguities created by the conflicting forces of sovereignty and colonialism remained.

The Remove the Stain Act

This past June a congressman from Washington state named Denny Heck introduced the “Remove the Stain Act,” which would rescind “each Medal of Honor awarded for acts at Wounded Knee Creek on December 29, 1890.” This may be old news for many of you, but I have wanted to write about the bill for some time. Deb Haaland and a Republican from California named Paul Cook co-introduced the measure, which was promptly referred to the Committee on Armed Services, where it currently sits. The fate of the bill is uncertain.

A friend who is active in the organization Veterans for Peace told me about the bill, which his organization supports. The Democratic presidential candidates Julian Castro, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, John Delaney, and Marianne Williamson all have expressed their support. Each has joined in calling upon Congress to rescind the nation’s highest military honor from twenty cavalrymen who took part in the massacre at Wounded Knee.

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Wounded Knee was one of those defining moments in the history of the American West, central to so many historians’ understandings of the Plains Wars and the place of native nations in the United States. Think back to Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, a flawed book which nonetheless influenced me greatly in my development as a historian, to the much more recent book by Heather Cox Richardson entitled simply Wounded Knee. Richardson’s book is well worth your time.

I tell the story of Wounded Knee in Native America. It is a story of native peoples searching for answers as they tried to adjust to life under the federal policy of concentration, and the brutal realities of the reservation system. Far out in the west, a Paiute shaman named Wovoka began to preach a message that combined Christian themes with nativist principles that answered their concerns. Wovoka, a messiah, had received visions, and he promised his followers peace if they lived honest lives and performed the Ghost Dance. He called for a return to ritual. The Ghost dance offered a way to restore balance to the world.

Word of the new religion spread rapidly. Native peoples sent emissaries to learn from Wovoka.  Some rejected his teachings. Others found in them important truths, and as they adopted its central ritual, they transformed and altered elements of the original message.  Lakotas, for instance, who returned from visiting Wovoka in March of 1890, taught that performing the Ghost Dance would bring back the buffalo and cause white people to disappear.  The Lakotas had many grievances. Hunger constantly hounded reservation Indians. The government broke up the Great Sioux Reservation in 1889, reducing the lands held by the Lakota and severing the binds connecting communities together. 

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Sensing discontent, federal troops remained a heavy presence in Lakota country.  The Lakota believers wore “Ghost Shirts” that some believed would stop bullets, and this made the federal authorities nervous. They worried that Sitting Bull, the great Lakota leader, would join the movement.  When American authorities and the newly-constituted tribal police tried to prevent this, Sitting Bull resisted arrest. He and seven others died in a gunfight on 15 December 1890.  It is hard to overestimate how crushing his death must have been.

            Another group of Ghost Dancers, led by Bigfoot, and consisting of many women and children, fled out onto South Dakota’s badlands.  The government sent nine thousand troops to South Dakota, and five thousand of these to Pine Ridge. Fully a third of the United States Army, in its largest mobilization since the end of the Civil War, took up positions to suppress this peaceful protest. Federal troops surrounded them at Wounded Knee Creek in advance of moving them back to the Pine Ridge Agency.  When the cavalrymen went to disarm Bigfoot’s followers, a shot was fired, perhaps accidentally, when a deaf young man refused to surrender his weapon. The federal troops opened up with rifles and artillery.  146 Indians died, including forty-four women and 18 children.  It was the last military engagement between native peoples and American soldiers on the Plains, and the Wounded Knee massacre wiped out a religious movement among the Lakota Sioux that offered them hope for the future and a means for making sense of their life on reservations.

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Charles Eastman, the newly-appointed doctor at the Pine Ridge Agency in South Dakota, learned of the massacre at Wounded Knee when the wounded started coming in.  Most were women and children.  “Many,” he wrote, “were frightfully torn by pieces of shell, and the suffering was terrible.” A blizzard blew in, and it took Eastman a couple of days before he could return to the battlefield.  The first physician to arrive at that frozen and bloody ground, the experience affected Eastman deeply. 

He saw the mangled bodies, and did what he could for the small number who had miraculously survived the federal artillery and gunfire.  When he reached the site of Big Foot’s camp, he “saw the frozen bodies of men who had been in council and who were almost as helpless as the women and babes when the deadly fire began.” Eastman struggled to keep his composure.  All about him he heard the “excitement and grief of my Indian companions, nearly every one of whom was crying aloud or singing his death song.” He found a few survivors, all babies.  All were adopted by white people.

The massacre at Wounded Knee received condemnation at the time it occurred. Of the 350 or more native peoples who died, fully two-thirds were women and children. General Nelson A. Miles, he who ran down Chief Joseph’s followers just shy of the Canadian Line more than a decade before, wrote in 1891 that “I have never heard of a more brutal, cold-blooded massacre than that at Wounded Knee.”

When and if the “Remove the Stain” becomes law, the Medals of Honor will be rescinded, and the names of the twenty recipients will be removed from the Medal of Honor Roll. No family members will be required to return their ancestors’ medals to Congress, and the bill states that it “shall not be construed to deny any benefit from the federal government,” but its intent is clear. A symbolic act to be sure, passage of the bill will offer an important statement that in this instance Congress does not consider the slaughter of native peoples in any way to be meritorious, and that the stories told by the government about Wounded Knee are wrong.

It is worth talking about this bill in your classes, for it bears much in common with other, better known, efforts to revise American history. Activists have taken on Columbus Day and are replacing it with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and they have commenced a powerful movement to remove racist commemorations of the Confederacy. They call for renaming buildings dedicated to slave owners and they are trying, I hear so often, to fix other places and spaces with names deemed offensive. The reaction of the right has been predictable. You heard it if you listened to the President’s speech before the United Nations General Assembly several weeks ago. He singled out academics who have launched an all-out assault on American values.

I think it is important to talk about all of this in our history classes. In places we have seen vandalism and destruction, but I would suggest that part of what we are seeing is a desire to fix a story that is broken, to revise and edit and set things right. What some might see as wanton destruction, others might see as an attempt to revise and reinterpret. It is raucous and rude, but it has provoked vital discussions.

Occasionally I will hear one public figure or another denounce “revisionist” history, or historians whose work they dismiss as “politically correct.” You can believe these people if you want to, but if that’s your choice, it is only with a poor understanding of what it is in fact that we historians do. Maybe we need to do a better job of explaining how we work to the public. We are the people, after all, who demand to see the evidence. We are the ones who relish the opportunity to hunt relentlessly for every scrap of relevant information. Never underestimate the tenacity of a historian determined to find what you might prefer to remain hidden. If we do not know where to look, we will figure it out, and we do not care what names you call us. We will debate you and insist on engaging you and we will make sure you understand that we are not in the business of repeating comforting myths or making you feel good about yourself. We look closely at the evidence. We keep receipts. Heck’s bill is a response to calls to set our stories right. It shows that many Americans believe that the time for an accounting is long past due.

Why Dennis Banks Matters

Dennis Banks, one of the most important leaders of the American Indian Movement, or AIM, died last week.  Banks was eighty years old.

The  obituary that appeared in the New York Times, written by Robert McFadden, covered the key points in Banks’ long career, but it has justly been maligned for its resort to stereotype in describing Banks’ appearance (“high cheekbones,” “raven-haired,” “dark, piercing eyes”); its over-emphasis on Banks’ considerable legal troubles without describing the harassment and persecution AIM faced from federal, state, local, and, at times, tribal police officials; and a nasty, judgmental tone when it came to Banks’ family life and large number of children.

If you follow the conversation on Twitter about the Times obituary, you will see that some of these critiques are sensible, others a bit off-base.  Many of the critics suggested that the obituary dishonored Banks by pointing out his criminal troubles and the confrontational and sometimes violent nature of AIM activism.

My own objection to the obituary is a bit different, for it seems to me that McFadden badly misunderstood the goals and the significance of the American Indian Movement and Banks’ role in it.

We should be clear. AIM has, to too great an extent, monopolized discussions of American Indian activism in the second half of the twentieth century.  This is a failing of the historians, and not AIM itself. Native American “activism,” a term that has been used uncritically, at the local and reservation level, and often occurring away from the gaze of national media, long predated AIM.  Still, McFadden questioned the significance of AIM’s activism and, in so doing, much of Banks’ life work.  Banks, he said, brought some attention to Indian causes, but he “achieved few real improvements in the daily lives of millions of Native Americans living on reservations and in major cities” and who continue to “lag behind most fellow citizens in jobs, housing, and education.” He never slayed the dragon.

I am not quite sure what McFadden expected, and what he might have defined as meaningful change or “real improvements.”  His language, which I am willing to believe was unintentional, still struck me as a snide dismissal of AIM and of American reform in general.  If problems still exist after the reformers’ careers have ended, McFadden seems to suggest that it was all for naught.

Of course AIM made outrageous demands that never were going to be fulfilled.  Of course their actions, at time, generated opposition among certain members of the communities in which they worked.  At times, by any standard, AIM members behaved badly.  It would be foolish to expect native peoples to speak with one voice, for factionalism and disagreement are facts of Native American life.  And it would be foolish as well to expect one organization, no matter how charismatic its leaders, to wipe out the enormous injustices and inequalities native peoples faced.

Banks plays a significant role in my present book project, a history of the Onondaga Nation.  After jumping bail in South Dakota, Banks found shelter in California. Jerry Brown, the state’s once and future Democratic governor, refused to honor demands that he be extradited.  But when the Republican George Deukmejian became governor of the Golden State, Banks made his way to New York, where he found “sanctuary” on the the lands of the Onondaga Nation.  He stayed there for much of 1983 and 1984.  The decision of the chiefs and clanmothers at Onondaga to grant Banks sanctuary was part of the Onondagas’ assertion of nationhood that made it, in many ways, the center of discussions about Native American Nationhood in the last quarter of the twentieth century.

Banks missed out on a lot during his sanctuary, was homesick, and at times struggled to keep busy on the small nation territory.  He organized running clubs, took a job, but the evidence in Syracuse newspapers and other sources suggest that not all Onondagas were happy with his residence on the nation territory.  I have much left to learn about Banks’ time on the Onondaga Nation, but it seems that all these things factored into his decision to leave. He surrendered to authorities in the fall of 1984.

McFadden, in an obituary rife with cliches that focused on dysfunction, violence, and alcoholism in Native American communities, could not see the significance of AIM’s work.  He did not understand the toll persecution and legal harassment took on the movement, nor the barriers against which it operated. Nor did he acknowledge how the activism of the 1960s and 1970s, from the Fish-Ins and Alcatraz, to the Trail of Broken Treaties and the occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters in Washington, to the stand-off at Wounded Knee in 1973, and hundreds of other acts of defiance and protest in Native American communities small and large, made American policy makers who previously had hoped to “terminate” Native Americans reconsider their positions.  You can see the shifts in policy beginning under President Johnson, accelerating under Richard Nixon who, despite that whole Watergate thing, was a pretty good president for native peoples.   And it culminated in the significant legislation of 1978, which I discuss in the final chapter of Native America, one of the most important and creative periods in law-making in all of Native American history. Of course Banks and his allies and associates left much work undone, and of course there were significant limitations in what solutions federal authorities were willing to consider, but without the efforts of thousands of native peoples, on their own, in AIM, or in other Native American rights organizations, none of this significant legislation would have been enacted.

Nobody summarized the significance of this activism better than Paul Chaat Smith, whose Everything You Know About Indians is Wrong, is a wonderful introduction to this important subject.  Speaking of this period in Native American history, from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee, Smith wrote that

“It is our people at our looniest, bravest, most singular and wonderful best, and moving beyond words even to those of us who resist cheap sentiment and heroic constructions of complicated and flawed movements.  Yet there it is, over and over again: Indians who objectively have little or nothing in common choosing to join people they often don’t even know who are engaged in projects as bizarre as laying claim to a dead prison on an island that is mostly rock, or picking up a gun to take sides in the Byzantine political struggles of the famously argumentative Sioux.”

McFadden said that Dennis Banks and his partner in so many AIM campaigns, the late Russell Means, were the best known Native Americans since Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.  Maybe so, but Americans seem to know little about Sitting Bull and almost nothing about Crazy Horse except for their names.   Banks’s influence is a significant one, and all one has to do is search the archives of the New York Times to see that.  It is disappointing that McFadden’s obituary is such a disappointing last word on so significant a life.