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Revisiting AIM and 1973's Standoff at Wounded Knee

On a cold day in February 27, 1973, 54 vehicles would travel in route to the site of the “Wounded Knee Massacre” of 1890. Forever imbedded upon the shameful brow of American history, this site where many years before, nearly 300 American Indians, two-thirds women and children lay frozen in the snow, would serve as the perfect place to protest injustice. As Ellen Moves Camp would state later, “We didn’t talk about gong in there and taking over Wounded Knee. That was the furthest thing from our minds. But what choice did the government give us?”

Regardless, of a pre-conceived agenda or otherwise, the group of AIM activists and Indian traditionalists would arrive at 7:30 pm, only with the hopes of asserting a sense of earnestness into their cause and desire for communication. Russell Means, a co-founder of the American Indian Movement demanded that the U.S. Senate launch an investigation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and its handling of all Sioux reservations in South Dakota. AIM also requested that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hold hearings on the numerous Indian treaties broken by the United States government.

In return, Army Vice Chief of Staff Alexander Haig, dispatched 17 personnel carriers, 13,000 rounds of m-16 ammunition, 41,000 rounds of m-1 ammunition, flares, grenade launchers, and gas to curb the Indian rebellion. From the massive display of force, two things were certain. The first realization was, apparently, not much had changed since 1890 and the second was that a war would surely erupt.

The occupation lasted 71 days with a surrender on May 8th, 1973, after officials agreed to hear and acknowledge AIM demands. At that time, two Sioux activists lay dead at the hands of federal agents with many more wounded. Afterwards, many arrests were made and trials ensued.

Read below to learn more about the events surrounding the 1973' Occupation of Wounded Knee!

The Broken Fort Laramie Treaty, 1868

The battle for the Black Hills, the primary goal of the activists, had begun perhaps, a hundred years before AIM was born. The “Bozeman Trail”, an extension of the "Oregon Trail", lay way in 1866 to the heart of gold country in Montana. An easier trek than other known routes, miners would, as it is often depicted, brave the wilds of Indian country to make it to the prospect of gold. Unfortunately, this trail crossed Cheyenne and Lakota territory. After a botched treaty meeting to discuss the Black Hills, which held great religious significance to the Lakota, Chief Red Cloud and a band of 1,000 Lakota, Oglala, Miniconjou, Arapaho, and Northern Cheyenne defeated the troops of the arrogant Capt. William Fetterman. Quoted once as saying, “With eighty men, I could ride through the whole Sioux Nation," It was obvious Fetterman had miscounted.

This defeat of U.S. forces lead to the Ft. Laramie Treaty, congressionally ratified on February 16, 1869. Contained in the treaty was also the sole use of the Black Hills bestowed upon the Indigenous people. Like many others, this treaty was soon broken by the United States government. The loss of the Black Hills would forever haunt the Lakota.

An Indian activist stands guard.

An Indian activist stands guard.

Eisenhower's American Indian Problem

As depicted in the documentary, “The Spirit of Crazy Horse”, what began under the Eisenhower administration in the 1950’s as an attempt to assimilate and fully integrate all Indians would be a guiding force in the initial construction of the American Indian Movement and the reclaiming of Wounded Knee. Attempting to rid of what government officials saw as the complaining, inequality-proclaiming, government-dependent Indian problem, the goal was to eventually “terminate” the reservation way of life. Provided with a clear cut option of reservation life without government assistance or the promise of high city wages and generally a better way of life in urban areas, many Indians opted to leave the reservation for the city. Once in the city, however, a new term began to emerge. The concept of the “Red Ghetto” began to appear. The promises of a desirable way of life were not met. All was as before.

A Cultural Resurgence

By the 1960’s, an awakening occurred, a cultural enlightment so to speak, as numerous groups began supporting human rights and battling for individual freedoms suppressed by dominant powers. Influenced by activism, specifically the “Black Power Movement”, urban Indians began to seek the old ways and re-discover a culture that was lost, allowing AIM to be born. Pine Ridge Reservation became the domicile from which they would counter social as well as political oppressions. Henry Crow Dog was held to high esteem as a Holy Man by the Sioux and helped to push the spiritual reawakening amongst the tribe. He was quoted as saying,“To be fully Indian, the new political movement needs a foundation.” There, on Pine Ridge, the new generation of urban Indians would learn of the significance of the Ft. Laramie Treaty of 1868, which promised the American Indians Wounded Knee, Pine Ridge Reservation, and millions of acres in Nebraska as well as the Dakotas.They would also reclaim old traditions and cultural practices as a source of empowerment.

A Tee Pee at Wounded Knee, 1973

A Tee Pee at Wounded Knee, 1973

GOON Tactics

Beginning in March of 1972, the American Indian Movement protested at the Bureau of Indian Affairs office in Washington D.C. In the press, they were portrayed as being radical and destructive. Dick Wilson, as tribal leader and considered to be the epitome of political corruption and AIM menace was allotted $62,000 to assemble a domestic force to curb AIM insurrections. This force, known as GOONs (Guardians of the Oglala Nation) and its vigilante tactics would only fuel the fire. The following year, Wesley Bad Heart Bull was murdered by a white man who was only charged with involuntary manslaughter. AIM was angered by this while many government-involved Indians, like Wilson, began to fear that the upheavals would threaten their positions. Indeed, the pot was simmering.

An FBI Sharpshooter at Wounded Knee

An FBI Sharpshooter at Wounded Knee

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Trials and Prosecution after the Seige

As the standoff ended, 562 arrests were made including 185 federal indictments. Although so many were blamed for the event that occurred, it would be the trial of Russell Means and Dennis Banks that would become representative of the American Indian Movement. With proceedings beginning in 1974, this would give the government a chance to paint their own picture of the movement through its media driven prosecution of the men. Charged with an array of crimes ranging from theft and arson to assault and the halting of federal proceedings, indeed, the standoff was not over.

Defense lawyers Ramon Roubideaux and William Kunstler, who had represented Martin Luther King and the “Chicago Seven”, served as general counsel for AIM as part of the national defense effort known as “Wickle Dock” or the Wounded Knee Legal Defense/Offense Committee. Most of the time, equipment, and legal assistance were donated from sympathizers. As Len Cavise, a National Lawyer's Guild attorney, expressed in regards to the massive donation of time, “White kids getting no salary, no free time, no independence, and no privacy, but each of whom was treated to the utter exhalation of being involved in something important."

Perhaps the greatest asset to the defense, as John William Sayer details in his book, "Ghost Dancing the Law: The Wounded Knee Trials," was the extensive number of FBI violations, cover-ups, and dramatic escapades that took place prior to and during the trial. It was discovered that law enforcement had federal officers assigned to the area before the siege erupted. In addition, food apparently, was prevented from coming into the reservations by federal officers. Illegal electronic tapping took place during the occupation while letters written from Banks to Roubideaux, at points, had been intercepted and read. Discoveries of the FBI tampering and withholding evidence were made as well. The judge ordered a search of the FBI files concerning AIM which included 5,239 volumes holding 315,981 “serials.” The defense could only look over 200 documents in the weekend the judge allotted, but in the 200 they observed, 100 should have been turned over. The dramatic episodes, in addition to FBI misconduct only added more tension to the trials.

Finally, nearly 10 months after the trials began, the judge dismissed the charges against Dennis Banks and Russell Means, asserting that the commotion of a missing juror, the FBI misconduct, among other elements, would prevent a sound decision to be made. Ten of the sixteen jurors and alternates would later write that they would not had upheld a conviction if the proceedings had continued. By the end of the other AIM trials, the conviction rate was less than 10% .

Dennis Banks speaks with fellow supporters during the occupation.

Dennis Banks speaks with fellow supporters during the occupation.

AIM After The Standoff

Although the dismissal of charges against Means and Banks fared well in bringing the AIM causes into the lives of the American public, AIM would lose its momentum as a driving force in Indian rights. By the end of 1975, the depletion of time, money, and energy aside incorrect media portrayals weakened the organization. Despite the government offering the prospect of constructive, progressive, communication in regards to Ft. Laramie Treaty, it never really panned out. In addition, Dick Wilson, still in office, continued to use his GOONS to reign tyranny upon the citizens of Pine Ridge with bombings, shootings and harassment. The FBI, perhaps also somewhat vengeful, would often let such assaults go unnoticed. In addition, GOONS even admitted to being given weapons by the FBI. Within 3 years after the trial, 60 individuals, being AIM members, affiliates, or sympathizers died on Pine Ridge Reservation. As Wilson was defeated in office, the GOON squad dispersed leaving Pine Ridge to deal with the aftermath of the occupation in addition to the strife that had existed long before.


1. "Agents of Repression: The FBI's Secret Wars Against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement," Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall.

2. Wyoming State Historical Society, "New Perspectives on the Fetterman Fight,"

3. Documentary, PBS Frontline, "The Spirit of Crazy Horse."

4. "Ghost Dancing the Law: The Wounded Knee Trials." John William Sayer, "Aim Takes Wounded Knee,"


Andrew Petrou from Brisbane on November 27, 2017:

Thanks for this article.

We rarely hear about the indigenous people of the USA.

Here in Australia there are also many awful abuses of indigenous rights.

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