With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

The Siege of Wounded Knee was a Beginning for Renewed Native Resistance

Sometime toward the end of the eighteen-eighties, a Paiute holy man named Wovoka had a vision that promised the rebirth and renewal of Indigenous nations on the North American continent. His prophecy called for the practice of the Ghost Dance, which would connect the living and the dead and reverse the tide of white conquest. The Ghost Dance began to spread among the Lakotas and other Western tribes. As it did, the United States Department of the Interior, which had implemented a reservation order prohibiting Indigenous ceremonies and dancing, requested that federal troops track down and arrest many of the movement’s leaders.

Among those who were said to have encouraged the movement was Tatanka Iyotake, or Sitting Bull, a Lakota leader whose renown had grown after the defeat of George Custer in the Battle of Little Bighorn. Late in 1890, Sitting Bull welcomed a band of Mnicoujou Lakota Ghost Dancers to the Standing Rock Agency. On December 15th, Indian police tried to arrest him, and, when he resisted, an officer shot and killed him. The Ghost Dancers, led by Unpan Gleska, fled, and, in the days after Christmas, the Army caught up with them, near Wounded Knee Creek, on what is now the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. On the morning of December 29th, during a negotiated surrender, soldiers in the U.S. Seventh Cavalry—Custer’s old regiment—opened fire on Unpan Gleska and his camp, killing some three hundred Lakotas, including many starving women and children.

In popular history, the massacre at Wounded Knee would come to stand for the end of the Plains wars—and of Indigenous resistance more broadly. “A people’s dream died there,” read the closing lines of “Black Elk Speaks,” an anthology of interviews with the Lakota religious leader Black Elk, edited in 1932 by the poet John Neihardt. “The sacred hoop was broken and scattered.” But this was authorial sleight of hand—a decision, by Neihardt, to close the curtain on a mournful, elegiac note. The U.S. Census Bureau had declared the Western frontier officially closed in 1890, and, at the time, the American Indian population was believed to have reached its lowest point in known history. But Black Elk also said, when reflecting on the enduring power of the Ghost Dance and what happened in 1890, “The tree that was to bloom just faded away, but the roots will stay alive, and we are here to make that tree bloom.”

Fifty years ago, Wounded Knee again became the setting for a confrontation between the U.S. government and a nascent movement of Indigenous resistance. Early in 1973, a local group called the Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization (oscro) came together to protest the corruption of Dick Wilson, a despotic tribal president. Wilson had recruited a private police force, known as the “goon squad,” which collaborated with the F.B.I. to intimidate his political opposition. A year into his tenure, four impeachment petitions had been brought against Wilson by Oglala Sioux tribal members for circumventing normal council procedures and siphoning tribal funds for his own use. But Wilson oversaw his own impeachment hearings, and avoided a real airing of his misdeeds.

The members of oscro turned to the American Indian Movement for help. “We decided that we did need the American Indian Movement in here because our men were scared, they hung to the back,” Ellen Moves Camp, a community-health representative and Oglala leader who lost her job for opposing Wilson, said. aim, which was founded in Minneapolis, in 1968, had grown from a community-patrol outfit into a national organization pressing for federal recognition of treaty rights and American Indian sovereignty. The movement had drawn national attention by staging occupations of several regional Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters, by confronting off-reservation vigilante violence against Native people, and by organizing the cross-country Trail of Broken Treaties, in 1972.

Wilson had banned all aim activity, real or imagined, in Pine Ridge, going so far as to outlaw large public gatherings. oscro invited aim anyway, and at a meeting on February 27, 1973, the aim leaders Russell Means, Dennis Banks, and Clyde Bellecourt joined hundreds of others at a community hall on the reservation. There, they discussed staging a symbolic liberation of Wounded Knee, with the idea of reasserting the Lakotas’ traditional system of governance, based on the word of elders and the consensus of treaty councils rather than the rule of a single leader like Wilson. “And when we kept talking about it,” Moves Camp explained, “then the chiefs said, ‘Go ahead and do it, go to Wounded Knee.’ ” A fifty-four-car caravan carrying entire Native families and armed protesters drove past tribal headquarters, to a small village, situated in the hills where the 1890 massacre took place.

The meeting at the community hall had been closely monitored by both F.B.I. agents and Wilson’s paramilitaries; gunshots erupted as soon as the cars trickled into the village. By nightfall, F.B.I. agents and U.S. marshals had surrounded the area, setting up roadblocks and making arrests. The standoff that began that day had been hastily planned and spontaneously coördinated. It “was just a spark,” Madonna Thunder Hawk, a Lakota from the Cheyenne River Reservation who went to Wounded Knee that night with her ten-year-old son, Phillip, said. “From that we had flames.”

Read entire article at The New Yorker