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August 23, 2014

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Letter to the editor:

Recalling Wounded Knee occupation 40 years later

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It’s been 40 years since American Indian activists ended their occupation of Wounded Knee, S.D., but thanks to them, life has improved in Indian country.

In February 1973, activists in the American Indian Movement came to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to protest against a corrupt tribal government and to call attention to the U.S. government’s record of breaking treaties with tribes.

The decision to take Wounded Knee also was significant because it was the site of a historic massacre. In 1890, more than 150 Lakota women, men and children were ambushed and slaughtered by the 7th Cavalry.

For 71 days in 1973, about 200 Indians occupied Wounded Knee — holding off U.S. marshals and FBI agents who surrounded the town.

Throughout the siege, the national media kept the story on the front page. In no small way, newspapers became daily diaries on the modern plight of Indians. And network news helped by bringing the images into living rooms.

Previous attempts to call attention to the government’s injustices against American Indians were staged at Alcatraz Island in 1969 and through the takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington in 1972.

But it was Wounded Knee that captured the American public’s imagination. Not since the Indian Wars of the 19th century was there such a critical military confrontation between the U.S. government and American Indians.

The occupation also stirred something long lost among most Indian people: pride.

The American Indian spirit, which had been demoralized for generations, began to rise out of ashes as the siege dragged on. Many from Indian Country journeyed to Wounded Knee to join the cause.

On May 8, the American Indian Movement ended its occupation after water and food supplies began to run low. During the siege, one U.S. marshal was paralyzed by a bullet and eventually died. And two Indians were killed.

Among those arrested were the movement’s leaders: Russell Means and Dennis Banks. Their cases were eventually thrown out of court because of prosecutorial misconduct.

In the decades that followed the siege, tribal governments began to assert their sovereignty — calling on the U.S. government to start honoring treaties. Corruption, for the most part, has ended its rule at the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Also, education and health care have steadily improved in Indian Country. While poverty, high suicide rates and high unemployment continue on Indian reservations, things would be a lot worse had it not been for the occupation of Wounded Knee 40 years ago.

Since then, Native Americans have asserted their rights, winning victory after victory in court. They also can take pride in the great works of literature and film that Native Americans have been producing.

The spirit of Wounded Knee lives on.

Mark Anthony Rolo is a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians. He is the author of the memoir “My Mother Is Now Earth” and teaches at the White Earth Tribal & Community College in northern Minnesota. He wrote this for Progressive Media Project.

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  1. Who were the "illegals?" The Indians who were already here or the Americans who subsequently came?

    Carmine D

  2. Illegal immigrants invading America since the 1700s..

  3. Not quite, Wedo. L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland was established about 1000 CE but those illegals were successfully deported. The first permanent-resident group of illegals arrived in the late 1400's.

    Of course, the FIRST immigrants go back to at least 14,000 BCE - but there were no prior residents to take umbrage at their arrival so they weren't quite "illegal."

  4. Read the book many years ago. It made me ashamed to be white, so I looked into my family's history, since we've been here since at least the 18th century. It was good to discover a great-great grandfather as the marshal for the Utah territory was a peacemaker with the Utes.

    "Fear is the foundation of most governments." - John Adams "Thoughts on Government" (1776)