Pine Ridge Reservation, 1973: Occupation of Wounded Knee

wounded knee occupation ap

Occupation of Wounded Knee 


In the last election for tribal chairman, Richard Wilson was elected. Less than fifty percent of the people voted. They now want to impeach him, but Wilson postpones his own hearing. In the meantime, an exchange of ugly remarks in a white bar leads to a fight between a Sioux and the whites. The Sioux is struck from behind with a beer bottle. When the police arrive they arrest the Sioux; when other Sioux hear about this they tear apart four other white bars that have a reputation for being abusive to natives. The police arbitrarily arrest forty Sioux, and the people protest.

In this highly charged atmosphere, Sioux leaders ask members of a new organization called the American Indian Movement (AIM) to come onto the reservation and help publicize the situation. AIM is dedicated to reclaiming the civil rights of the native populations and see that the government upholds its past treaty obligations.

The police openly ride around with shotguns in their cars, and vigilante groups form. Dennis Banks and Russell Means, two AIM leaders, promise that they will give the people the protection they need and will help to bring the situation to the attention of the U.S. government.

One of their first actions is to form a caravan of sixty to seventy cars. They stop first at Wounded Knee where a mass grave of the massacre victims lies. As they reflect on the past, they begin to see a way toward the future. The only way to expose their living conditions and sue once more for their rights is to retake Wounded Knee.

They begin their action on February 27.  The first building they occupy is Sacred Hearth Church, beside which is the long trench containing the bodies of the 153 victims of the original massacre. They block the roads and occupy the remaining buildings. They have three demands. They want:

  1. Richard Wilson was removed from office and preferably a return to the traditional way of tribal chiefs,
  2. Dismissal of two BIA officials and a Senate investigation of corruption in the BIA, and
  3. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee to hold hearings of 371 treaties negotiated between the United States and various indigenous nations, few of which have been honored by the United States.


The U.S. government refuses to negotiate and calls in the FBI with automatic weapons, helicopters, gas grenade launchers, tracer bullets, and armored personnel carriers.

The standoff begins. There are intermittent fire fights. Wounded Knee is difficult to defend militarily because it is in a shallow valley surrounded by hills. The FBI places their guns on the same hills where the old Hotchkiss guns were mounted in 1890.

From all over the country, native peoples respond to the occupation by sending supplies or coming themselves. At one point representatives from sixty-five different tribes are present. The FBI tries to block all reinforcements and supplies. Hikers go through the back trails in the dead of night to carry in food. The FBI charges those caught with a felony violation punishable up to five years in prison and a ten thousand dollar fine. As the siege heads into its second month, the food supplies run low and it looks as though the occupiers may have to give up. Then a clandestine airlift drops parachute after parachute of food in a predawn flight.

As the siege goes on, the fire fights increase in duration and intensity. More than ten thousand bullets stream into Wounded Knee from the surrounding hills in just one night of fighting. One of the vigilante goon squads turns off the water supply, leaving the occupiers without sanitation facilities or safe drinking water.

Inside, the occupiers develop a cooperative community. Work is shared. They hold a spiritual gathering, build a sweat lodge, and learn more about their own culture. On March 11 Wounded Knee declares its sovereignty from the United States of America. It is now land controlled by the Independent Oglala Sioux Nation.

A Harris Poll finds that fifty-one percent of the U.S. population supports the Sioux occupation of Wounded Knee. Finally an agreement is reached to allow the AIM leaders to meet at the White House. The meeting never takes place. Once the leaders are out of Wounded Knee, the U.S. government demands that they lay down all of their weapons before there are further negotiations. Remembering what happened when Big Foot gave up his weapons in 1890, the occupiers refuse.

The occupation lasts for seventy-one days. Two occupiers are dead and fifteen others wounded. In the end a group of Sioux elders, the traditional tribal leadership, negotiates with the U.S. government, demanding and receiving assurances on virtually the same set of demands that the occupiers originally made.

Wounded Knee is no longer just the site of a massacre—it is also the site of a victory.  Wounded Knee and AIM become a rallying point for a new spirit of resistance among the native peoples.

-Bill Zimmerman, Airlift to Wounded Knee


See additional sources at:

AIM, Pine Ridge & the FBI

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