On this day in 1971, armed members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) surrender to federal authorities, ending their 71-day standoff at Wounded Knee, site of the infamous massacre of 300 Sioux by the U.S. 7th Cavalry in 1890.
Located on what is now the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, the AIM standoff was orchestrated by AIM founders Russell Means, Dennis Banks and other Native-American leaders as a means to stage militant protests and assert the civil rights of Native Americans. From its 1968 beginnings, AIM had been responsible for several high-profile and controversial demonstrations.
From November 1969 to June 1971, AIM members occupied Alcatraz Island off San Francisco —- site of the former federal prison —- saying they had rights to it under a treaty provision granting them unused federal land. In November 1972, AIM members briefly occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C., to protest programs controlling reservation development.
Wounded Knee was different. The siege grew out of AIM opposition to Oglala Sioux Tribal President Dick Wilson, who had banned all AIM activities. AIM regarded Wilson’s administration as being corrupt and despotic. The occupation was staged as a way to force a federal investigation of Wilson and by extension, the Bureau of Indian Affairs as well as unmet treaty obligations by the U.S. government.
Apart from its place in history, Wounded Knee was selected as the protest site because it was one of the poorest communities in the entire nation. Moreover, it was endemic of the terrible standards of living that were common among the residents of the Pine Ridge Reservation —- which at the time had one of the country’s lowest life expectancy rates.
On February 27, 1973, approximately 200 AIM-led Sioux took control of Wounded Knee. As part of their action, they took 11 allies of Dick Wilson hostage as local authorities and federal agents descended on the reservation. The next day, AIM members traded gunfire with the federal marshals who had surrounded the settlement. They also fired on automobiles and low-flying planes that came within range.
The AIM leader, Russell Means, began negotiations for the release of the hostages by demanding the U.S. Senate launch an investigation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Pine Ridge, and all Sioux reservations in South Dakota, and that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hold hearings on innumerable broken treaties.
The crisis lasted 71 days. By the May 8 AIM surrender, two Sioux men had been killed by federal agents. One federal agent was paralyzed after being shot. AIM members relented after the Nixon administration promised to investigate their complaints. Russell Means and Dennis Banks were arrested, but the charges against them were dismissed by a federal judge owning to the government’s unlawful handling of witnesses and evidence.
Reservation violence continued throughout the 1970s. In 1975, two FBI agents and a Native-American man were killed in a massive shoot-out between federal agents, AIM members and local residents. In a controversial trial, AIM member Leonard Peltier was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to two consecutive life terms. In 1978, AIM disbanded, largely due to the fact that many of its leaders were in prison.
The events of Wounded Knee give us pause to think about the continued plight of Native Americans, but also about political activism and violent opposition to the government. In the aftermath, we see that civil disobedience can be honorable, effective and patriotic. Unfortunately, the specter of violence often seems to undermine whatever valid position any given group might advocate.
With the recent rise of so many fringe groups, particularly those who cloak their true intentions in Second Amendment rhetoric, it’s frequently difficult to know whether principles drive militancy or the other way around. As such, it is more important than ever that we strive to elect people not only of ardent principle, but of wisdom and vision.