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‘We Were in a War Zone’: The History of the 1973 Standoff at Wounded Knee

In February 1973, Stephanie Autumn of the Hopi tribe was a college student in California when a friend suggested she leave school and go get a different sort of education somewhere else: Wounded Knee, a hamlet in South Dakota which was about to be taken over by 200 American Indian movement (AIM) activists.

“He told me, ‘You have the rest of your life to get your degree, but this is an opportunity for you to learn who you are,’” Autumn recalls in a recent phone conversation.

Soon, she found herself on the security detail for a newly formed encampment of Native American protesters, using a radio donated by Vietnam Veterans Against the War and checking to make sure people in the bunkers were safe. “It was like we were in a war zone within our own country,” Autumn says. “Gunfire every day. At night, it got worse.” She celebrated her 19th birthday with a candy bar and a taste of freedom—what it felt like to be “independent from the United States government,” she says. “That was one of the happiest times of my life.”

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Fifty years ago, on May 8, 1973, a 71-day standoff between Native Americans and the U.S. government ended, when the Native Americans agreed to disarm and the government agreed to discuss the state of treaties with the groups. The AIM activists had occupied Wounded Knee beginning on February 27, 1973 with multiple motives, TIME reported in its March 19, 1973 issue: “They call for everything from control of reservation lands and mineral rights to restoration of ancient tribal customs and the power to specify curriculums in Indian grade schools.” There were also internal divisions among the Native Americans; many of the activists involved in the occupation were calling for the ouster of Oglala Sioux tribal head Dick Wilson, whom they saw as more aligned with the U.S. government than members of the tribe.

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At one point, as many as 300 FBI agents and U.S. Marshals were stationed around Wounded Knee with M-16 rifles and gas masks. At least three people died, and more than a dozen were wounded during the occupation. According to Indian County Today, the standoff resulted in more than 1,200 arrests and 275 cases in federal, state and tribal courts. AIM leaders Russell Means, Clyde Bellecourt, and Dennis Banks faced 11 criminal charges but the cases were eventually dismissed.

The occupation drew attention to the issue of indigenous rights in an unprecedented way. TIME described the historical significance of the ongoing standoff in the March 12 issue: “The tiny junction settlement (pop. 40) is the site of the infamous massacre of some 300 old men, women and children of the Sioux nation by the U.S. Cavalry in the winter of 1890. It was overrun one night last week by roughly 200 armed members of the American Indian Movement (AIM), a militant group best known for its week-long occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington last November. Thus a drama began to unwind at Wounded Knee deep in an area where there is open tension between mostly impoverished Indians and whites.”

TIME correspondent Ken Huff spent a night inside the Native Americans’ encampment. “The warriors, perhaps 150 of them, seemed perfectly willing to die,” Huff observed. “A Sioux spiritual leader named Leonard Crow Dog struck up a chant in the Lakota language. As each warrior passed by, he blessed him and painted a slash or a circle of red powder under the left eye. Each warrior then stepped into a white tepee, making a holy sign over the bleached skull of a buffalo head.”

Madonna Thunder Hawk, one of the AIM activists, was a medic during the Wounded Knee occupation who tended to those wounded in firefights as flares lit up the night sky. “We didn’t have any change of clothes,” she says in a recent phone conversation. “We weren’t prepared for 70-some days.”

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The standoff was the latest in a series of dramatic demonstrations by Native American activists who were galvanized by the 1960s civil rights movements and protests against the Vietnam war; just a couple years prior, from 1969 to 1971, Native American activists occupied Alcatraz Island off San Francisco. Kent Blansett, a historian of Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Shawnee, and Potawatomi descent at the University of Kansas, says the daily news coverage of the occupation put indigenous rights on the radars of non-indigenous American households. “A lot of people were saying, ‘Wait a second. I turned on the TV, and I thought we were watching a gunfight in Vietnam, but this wasn’t Vietnam,” Blansett says. “This is in our backyard.’”

The Wounded Knee occupation even stole the spotlight at the biggest night in Hollywood, when on March 27, 1973, Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather went onstage at the Academy Awards in place of Marlon Brando and refused to accept his Oscar for best actor in the Godfather; instead she voiced his support for activists at Wounded Knee while slamming the film industry’s unequal treatment of Native Americans.

Robert Warrior, co-author of Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee, argues that Wounded Knee was effective for Native Americans “because it took getting shot at by the U.S. Army to be noticed.” The daily news coverage in the television showed “this wasn’t a Hollywood Western,” he continues. “This was happening to real people.” He also believes that the occupation reminded non-indigenous people, more than any other Native American demonstration, that Native Americans were not just “a thing of the past.”

Blansett also considers the occupation “incredibly successful,” arguing, “The point of this was to really draw attention to a lack of indigenous rights. Did it do that? Yes it did. Did it lead to further legislation being passed that would promote indigenous rights? Yes it did.” The American Indian Movement’s victories during the 1970s included the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, which protected Native Americans’ rights to practice their traditional religions, and the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, which gave tribes greater autonomy over the federal programs serving their communities.

In the decades since Wounded Knee, Native Americans have never stopped fighting to maintain their land. Thunder Hawk wants future generations of indigenous people to learn about the Wounded Knee occupation as “part of this long history of fighting to get your land back, land that was stolen.”

Autumn says many of those involved in the occupation 50 years ago are still Native American rights activists today. The standoff “changed our lives,” she says, “in terms of our responsibility to come back and serve our community—to fight against racism and to fight against policies that are hurting our people.” She would go on to devote her career to prison reform and efforts to reduce disparities in the justice system for indigenous people. “Our communities are like third world countries, compared to how the rest of America lives,” Autumn says. “We are the most invisible population in the United States of America.”