Remembering Wounded Knee
By Mahtowin

The heroic occupation of Wounded Knee on Pine Ridge Reservation, S.D., took place 25 years ago. To honor that event, the Lakota Student Alliance and the American Indian Movement have drafted a resolution declaring Feb. 27, 1973, a National Day of Liberation for Indigenous Peoples and making this date a National Tribal Holiday for the Oglala Lakota (Sioux) from now on.

The Oglala Sioux Tribal Council passed the resolution.

Support from the tribal council is especially significant. It was a corrupt Pine Ridge tribal council that worked with the U.S. government in the 1970s to conduct a campaign of terror against traditional Lakota people and AIM supporters on Pine Ridge.

On Feb. 27-28, the LSA coordinated a two-day series of events on Pine Ridge Reservation to commemorate the Wounded Knee takeover. Hundreds of people braved a winter storm to attend.

It is especially heartening that the Lakota Student Alliance—many of whose members were not even born in 1973—should lead the way in remembering the Wounded Knee occupation. Youths and students will be the future leaders of Native nations.

How fitting that they want to remember and honor those who went before them, to learn more about the history of struggle and resistance that is their birthright.

The 1890 massacre

Wounded Knee reverberates in the consciousness of all Native people. On Dec. 29, 1890, the U.S. 7th Cavalry massacred over 300 unarmed Native people—most of them women, children and elders—there.

Many were shot in the back while trying to flee. Their bodies were left to freeze in a mass grave.

Soldiers and officers sliced off jewelry, moccasins and other "souvenirs."

Bourgeois historians often refer to this massacre as the "last battle" of the Indian wars on the Plains. It has long been used to represent the "final defeat" of Native people in the United States. After Wounded Knee, Indigenous people supposedly had the fight kicked out of them by the "heroic" Americans.

Indians were supposed to fade away, permitted only to appear as quaint or exotic relics of the past, or perhaps allowed to show up occasionally at the Lone Ranger’s side.

After being forced onto reservations, generations of Native people were punished for their resistance. Hunger was everywhere. Thousands died from tuberculosis and malnutrition.

Thousands of Native children were stolen from their homes, to be raised by white foster families or placed in residential schools run by the government and the churches. At these residential schools, their hair was cut and they were beaten if they spoke their Native languages or practiced Native spirituality.

Abuse—both physical and sexual—was the norm.

Most of the remaining Native lands were parceled out for exploitation by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Department of the Interior. Every treaty that the U.S. government ever made with Native nations was violated.

Some Native nations, such as the Menominee, were "terminated"—that is, the U.S. government told them that they no longer existed.

Thousands of Native people were pushed off the reservations under relocation programs. Ill-equipped for urban life, they lived in the poorest sections of cities like Chicago, Denver and San Francisco.

Discrimination and unemployment were rampant. All too many Native men ended up in prison.

But these years of despair could not continue forever. Conditions were changing. People all over the world, from Cuba to Vietnam, were rising up against colonialism.

Black and Chicano and Puerto Rican people—oppressed nations within the borders of the United States—were demanding justice and power. And so were Native people.

There was a resurgence of Native pride and activism. In the late 1960s, several militant Native organizations, including the American Indian Movement, were formed.

AIM fought against the racist police brutality and discrimination Native people encountered in relocation cities like Minneapolis. It supported many Indian community struggles nationally, such as the defense of Native hunting and fishing rights.

This resurgence in the Native struggle led, in 1969, to a Native takeover of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay.

In 1972, Indian people from all over the country went to Washington as part of the Trail of Broken Treaties. Once there, they occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs building.

Organizing was going on in Indigenous communities across the United States.

Showdown at Pine Ridge

At Pine Ridge Reservation, a corrupt tribal government, propped up by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, terrorized anyone who dared stand up to it. The tribal chairman had created a goon squad of cops who worked hand in hand with white vigilantes and federal agents to assault and intimidate Native people, especially traditional people and AIM supporters.

In early 1973, traditional elders at Pine Ridge met and discussed what had been happening. They sensed that the time had come for someone to stand up against the terrible living conditions and demand that the U.S. government honor the more than 365 treaties it had made with Native nations.

The elders asked AIM warriors to come in and help them. So on Feb. 27, 1973, a couple hundred Native people—men and women, youth and elders—went to Wounded Knee, site of the 1890 massacre.

They had incredible courage, some guns for self-defense and an unshakable belief in the future. They were an army of some of the most downtrodden people in the United States.

They had refused to disappear and instead were rising up to defend Native sovereignty.

Workers World newspaper reported on April 27, 1973, "Through the armed takeover of Wounded Knee, the Indian men and women have changed the memory of a massacre to one of hope and resistance, not only for Native American people but for all who fight the U.S. ruling class."

Support meetings and demonstrations took place all over the world. The solidarity was tangible in its power.

WW reported on March 14, 1973: "The eyes of the entire world are now focused on the tiny besieged village, encircled by U.S. federal agents who are armed to the teeth with armored personnel carriers and machine guns. But the strength of the Native Americans themselves, combined with the sympathy and support their action has won from all oppressed and progressive people, has ... prevented the U.S. government from once again carrying out a massacre at Wounded Knee."

The Wounded Knee occupation lasted 71 days. During that time, two Native men—Frank Clearwater and Buddy Lamont—were killed by the U.S. government. Several other Native people were wounded. A child was born.

Nothing would ever be the same again.

FBI starts campaign of terror

The Wounded Knee takeover and the upsurge in the Native struggle met with severe government repression. Through its campaign called COINTELPRO—Counterintelligence Program—the FBI set out to disrupt from within, smear and attack militant organizations such as AIM.

Many Native warriors were killed. There were Anna Mae Aquash, a Mikmaq woman and mother killed in 1976, and Richard Oakes, a Mohawk leader of the Alcatraz occupation, murdered in 1972.

On Pine Ridge alone, more than three dozen AIM members and supporters were killed between 1973 and 1976.

One result of this repression and of the government occupation of Pine Ridge was that Leonard Peltier, an AIM warrior, would be sentenced to two consecutive life terms on frame-up charges that he shot two FBI agents at Pine Ridge on June 26, 1975.

Twenty-five years after the Wounded Knee occupation, the Bureau of Indian Affairs is still disgustingly corrupt, as are all too many of its tribal governments. The United States still refuses to recognize the sovereignty of Native nations.

Most Native people continue to live in the deepest poverty. The Lakota of Pine Ridge, in 1998 as in 1973, have the lowest life expectancy and lowest per capita income in the country.

Leonard Peltier remains in prison.

But the Indian resistance—sometimes slowly smoldering, sometimes detonating into wildfire—continues throughout the Americas.

This resistance ranges from the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico, who are heroically resisting the Mexican government and its U.S.-backed death squads, to struggles from Nova Scotia to Big Mountain, from British Columbia to Ward Valley, Calif., and Plymouth, Mass.

The victory of the Native struggle is as inevitable as the tide and the dawn. Feb. 27 should be a national holiday—not only in the Oglala Lakota nation, but everywhere.

As WW wrote back in 1973, "Whatever happens at Wounded Knee ... it will be remembered by oppressed people everywhere as a heroic battle in the continuing fight for the self-determination of a people who have refused to be crushed by U.S. imperialism."

Remember Wounded Knee!

(Copyright Workers World Service: Permission to reprint granted if source is cited. For more information contact Workers World, 55 W. 17 St., NY,NY 10011; via e-mail: For subscription info send message to: Web:

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