The Origins of the American Indian Movement and the Wounded Knee Occupation: A History of Liberation and Defiance

While there are still many unresolved issues surrounding American Indians to this day, including new social and economic ailments to address, the American Indian Movement provided an opportunity for American Indians of all tribes to come together under one unified movement.

As the tumultuous period of civil rights and various other social movements began to take shape in America in the 1960s and 70s, American Indians continued their struggle against a government that had primarily suppressed their voices within the political, social, and spiritual realms of American society. American Indian activism began to firmly take root during this era, culminating in establishing the Concerned Indian Americans (CIA) in 1968 in Minneapolis, Minnesota – within the same year changing its name to the American Indian Movement (AIM).

Focusing primarily on strengthening the areas of leadership, spirituality, and tribal sovereignty within tribal communities, AIM consisted of young, politically conscious individuals, mostly Plains tribes, seeking a return to traditional ways of life and a reaffirmation of treaty rights. AIM would later utilize the historical role of the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890, as a central event towards understanding the relationship between American Indians and the U.S. Government, showcasing the numerous unjust actions perpetrated on American Indians through violent government force.

AIM was a movement primarily concerned with social and political liberation coupled with a necessity to confront past wrongdoings inflicted upon American Indians by the U.S. Government. While many other issues were of concern by the movement, the group ultimately succeeded in making the issue of Indigenous rights an international one, centered around human rights. Bringing to light the plight of the Indigenous population of America and abroad, AIM took a stand towards remedying many of the ailments faced by American Indians living in the United States. They did this by thoroughly exploring and revisiting symbolism revealed through prior events in American Indian history.

One major event for American Indians in the nineteenth century was the Wounded Knee Massacre. On December 29, 1890, the Wounded Knee Massacre saw the ruthless murder of roughly 300 members, mostly women and children, of the Lakota Nation by the 7th Cavalry Regiment of the United States Army. In American history, this event was such a profound revealing of the oppressive relationship between American Indians and the U.S. Government that it would later transform into a symbolic gesture of American Indian defiance and liberation. Peter Iverson, author of We Are Still Here: American Indians in the Twentieth Century, states that “Wounded Knee in time became a metaphor for the struggle between Whites and Indians in the West.” With the advent of the twentieth century, this struggle began to unravel itself slowly.

The American Indian Movements became a starting point for a much broader collection of American Indian resistance and protests, culminating in what is known as the “Native American Red Power Movement” (NARP). They collectively published a document titled the “NARP Eight Point Program.” This program called for the necessity of American Indians to be free to determine their destiny within their reservations and community, for schools to present a more authentic history of Native Americans, to stop the industrial companies and corporations that were actively exterminating natural resources, the violation of treaty rights, the unjust arrests and harassment of Native Americans by the police, and to be free from government restraint. One of the mottos used within the document exclaims that “Red power is coming together to fight for liberation.” Spearheading NARP was the American Indian Movement, bringing together a political and social force for change within Indian Country.

In 1968, AIM member Gerry Gambill gave a speech titled “On The Art of Stealing Human Rights,” at a conference on human rights at the Tobique Reserve in New Brunswick, Canada. His speech showcased the steadily increasing reach that AIM had made across the American continent in activism. Gambill’s speech highlighted how the U.S. Government’s policies to deny American Indians their human rights had been “refined to a science,” enforcing legislation that is detrimental to the very well-being of American Indians and essentially making them wards of the government. The speech also focused on how tribal governments can more appropriately protect themselves from future government policies that could damage their tribes as a whole. By transforming American Indians’ issues into a human rights issue, AIM mobilized to present their movement as one with universal tendencies, offering a broader appeal to their cause.

Due to this universal appeal, AIM progressed towards more public displays of protest to assert their power as a movement and speak more openly about the injustice that American Indians faced. On November 9, 1968, AIM’s first significant protest came from occupying Alcatraz Island in San Francisco, California. With the help of another college-oriented American Indian movement, the United Nations of All Tribes (UNAT), both groups demanded legal elements declared under the Treaty of Fort Laramie of 1868. The treaty states that “Designated and described in this treaty for the permanent home of the Indians, which is not mineral land, nor reserved by the United States for special purposes other than Indian occupation,” with both groups advocating for the return of Alcatraz Island to American Indians. The protesting group further stated that “Indians have owned Alcatraz for thousands of years by right of discovery.” Alcatraz also symbolized American Indians’ struggle to reclaim the land that belonged to them deriving from treaty rights through the government. The group occupying Alcatraz Island lasted nineteen months before government officers removed them, with the protest’s outcome proving to be a success considering the attention it garnered while forcing the detriments of the American Indian experience into a national spotlight.

After the Alcatraz incident, AIM continued to center their efforts in protesting, growing more courageous with each subsequent opportunity to raise the American consciousness on American Indian issues – including land rights and tribal sovereignty. In the autumn of 1972, a cross country protest, “The Trail of Broken Treaties,” took place. A caravan of American Indian activists, including AIM members, made their way to Washington D.C. in protest of dilapidated treaty rights by the U.S. Government. A flyer created on October 31, 1973, states, “The Government of the United States knows the reasons for our going to its capital city. Unfortunately, they don’t know how to greet us.” The idea that the United States Government was supposedly unaware of the erosion of treaty rights shared with American Indians was seen by AIM as an issue to address. In finally reaching Washington D.C., the activists attempted to enter the White House to no avail. They then decided to enter the Bureau of Indian Affairs building, ultimately taking it over. They left their mark in multiple offices and seized hundreds of government documents and files, occupying the premises for seven days before leaving.

What came out of this occupation was precious government documents and files detailing questionable government actions surrounding reservation land rights. Afterward, a twenty-point proposal plan called the “Trail of Broken Treaties” came to fruition. This proposal plan, named after the very protest itself, directly addressed the untrustworthy nature of treaties between American Indians and the U.S. Government. This proposal was considered by President Nixon and his administration, who later rejected all demands for undisclosed reasons.

The protest and occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building once again garnered attention from the national community, and even the presidential administration at the time. While this was a momentous event for AIM, the next event further allowed them to respond to the injustices committed upon American Indians directly.

In Custer, South Dakota, in 1973, a man named Wesley Bad Heart Bull was stabbed to death by Darold Schmitz, a white serve station attendant. As a court case ensued, the judge ruled that Schmitz would receive involuntary manslaughter for the murder, which sparked a massive outcry from the local Indian population who believed the ruling was unjust. The Indian community called upon AIM’s aid in helping to overturn the verdict, with a large caravan of activists heading to the courthouse where the court case occurred. When the procession arrived, activists went into the courthouse to discuss the situation with legal officials. The remaining activists who remained outside for the outcome were met by the police, who told them that they could not assemble on the courthouse’s steps. A ruckus ensued amongst the activists and police, with two police cars overturned and the abandoned Chambers of Commerce building’s burned.

The aftermath of the incident saw twenty-seven activists jailed and the Schmitz case retaining its involuntary manslaughter verdict. The event was considered the first public outbreak of violence between the Lakota nation and government since the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890. AIM’s involvement on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota would be far from over, as the next incident would prove to be their most challenging and famous protest. It would solidify AIM as a prominent force during the 1970s as a political, social, and militant presence worthy of attention worldwide.

Due to the complexity of the Wounded Knee Occupation, it is essential to remember the events leading up to the incident. According to Philip D. Roos, author of the journal article The Impact of the American Indian Movement on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, the eleven months leading up to the occupation found AIM shifting direction. Combining self-determination elements with “more vigor, more militant rhetoric, and a more active and urban style derived largely from the protest movements of the 1960s.” This new approach would prove useful in gathering support from across the Pine Ridge Reservation, eliciting the community to act upon the injustices and failures of their local government and the federal government. This approach would also lead to an escalating conflict between AIM and the U.S. Government, bringing about a deadly confrontation between American Indians and the government not seen since the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890.

Due to the mounting political and social pressures on the Pine Ridge Reservation, the Lakota people were concerned about the deteriorating living conditions of the people who lived there. Dick Wilson was the elected tribal chairman on the Pine Ridge Reservation, although not without controversy surrounding his ascendence. There were reports from the community regarding rampant voting fraud and violence on the part of the Wilson administration, with Wilson publicly assailing AIM’s “destructive actions” and distancing himself from the movement. The community decided to ask for AIM’s help and guidance in addressing their concerns, including assistance in challenging the actions of the corrupt tribal chairman Wilson. Before the AIM’s involvement, many of Wilson’s political opponents already attempted to impeach him but failed. All these factors led to the majority of the Pine Ridge Reservation community wanting to see positive changes made, with AIM being viewed as a strong catalyst to do so.

On February 25, 1973, AIM members arrived at the Pine Ridge Reservation to negotiate with Wilson’s opponents regarding Wilson’s failed impeachment and what to do from there. Within hours of this meeting, the U.S. Department of Justice sent out fifty U.S. Marshals to close off all Wounded Knee access and arrest individuals as they attempted to leave the meeting. Then, on February 27, roughly 200 Oglala Lakota and AIM members decided to seize and occupy the town in defense of what they perceived as unnecessary government aggression.

The protesters immediately advocated for Wilson’s impeachment and restoration of treaty rights from the U.S. Government. They also utilized their situation at the Wounded Knee site as a symbolic gesture towards the Wounded Knee Massacre tragedy that took place eighty-two years prior, highlighting the government oppression that took place on that tragic day. The protesters acquired an assortment of weapons that they would use to protect themselves from outside forces, following the notion of self-defense considering their current predicament. Almost immediately after the occupation started, Wilson cordoned off the town’s area, and agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other law enforcement agencies arrived.

One of the principal elements that made this occupation such a significant event was that many prominent AIM members started to become highly engaged with the press and media. Members, including Russell Means and Dennis Banks, would speak to members of the media in the initial days of the occupation, informing them of their demands and using the press to communicate. This engagement with the media provided a gateway for many Americans to understand better and witness American Indians’ issues. Like the Alcatraz Island incident, the Wounded Knee Occupation became an essential event amongst the international community. The media’s presence provided the perfect opportunity for AIM to reach a much wider audience than ever before.

The popularity of the occupation also brought about a plethora of opinions surrounding AIM’s demands and the actual physical actions of the occupation itself. The widespread public awareness of the occupation was a vital aspect of the movement as a whole, establishing an open discussion on the longstanding issues surrounding American Indians.

During the occupation, violent skirmishes between government agents and the occupiers took place, with each side receiving multiple casualties and losses. Finally, when Lawrence Lamont, a resident, and member of the Oglala Lakota, was shot and killed by a government agent on April 26, tribal elders officially called an end to the occupation. On May 5, 1973, both the government forces and AIM agreed to disarm, and after three days, government forces evacuated the town. The occupation lasted for 71 days, with many of the demands listed by AIM never being met.

After the occupation, Chairman Wilson was able to retain power and was re-elected in 1974 amidst rumored voter fraud and intimidation tactics, with the Pine Ridge Reservation showcasing an even higher rate of internal violence than before. Prominent members Russell Means and Dennis Banks faced criminal charges related to the occupation, with dismissal for both due to prosecutorial misconduct. Despite these rather unfortunate circumstances, the occupation at Wounded Knee provided the most significant opportunity for American citizens to realize American Indians’ plight better. Public opinion was also significantly in favor of the actions that the American Indians took in the occupation of Wounded Knee, showcasing widespread sympathy for their cause.

Although the group’s visibility reached its height during the Wounded Knee Occupation, the group had been able to accomplish many of its goals, one being that activism began to take place in a majority of American Indian tribes across the United States and Canada. By the end of the 1970s, they saw the opening of numerous Native American museums, colleges, study programs, and cultural centers. 

After the incident at Wounded Knee, AIM’s attention shifted away from protesting directly on reservations, with many opposing activities held off reservations. The aftermath of the Wounded Knee Occupation produced a considerable amount of court cases at both the state and federal levels, absorbing much of the movement’s energy and time. The Wounded Knee Occupation also galvanized many non-Indians to join the American Indians’ cause in their discussion of issues, including the United Nations creating a coordinated body called the “United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues,” in 1993.

While there are still many unresolved issues surrounding American Indians to this day, including new social and economic ailments to address, the American Indian Movement provided an opportunity for American Indians of all tribes to come together under one unified movement. And although the trauma associated with the tragic events of Wounded Knee in 1890 was ever-present, AIM effectively utilized this unfortunate event in American history to achieve justice. The occupation of Wounded Knee ultimately became an enlightened and militant expression of liberation and defiance, transforming the suppressed voices of American Indians into a powerful political and social force for Indigenous issues.

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