Wounded Knee

Historical Context

A landmark treaty between the U.S. government and the Lakota Nation, the Fort Laramie Treaty, was signed in 1868. The Fort Laramie Treaty guaranteed to Indians "absolute and undisturbed use of the Great Sioux Reservation"—or five percent of the aggregate landbase of the 48 contiguous states. The area centers upon the Paha Sapa (Black Hills) region, a place central to Lakota spirituality and concepts of national identity.

The Treaty also stated that "...No treaty for the cession of any portion or part of the reservation... shall be of any validity or force unless executed and signed by at least three-fourths of all the adult male Indians"—a clause in the Treaty that still has importance today.

Transgressions on the reservation by miners and the railroads continued and the U.S. government sought to take possession of Paha Sapa using a treaty the Indians refused to sign. ("One does not sell the land on which the people walk," Crazy Horse declared.) The government simply took what it wanted, however, and eventually declared the Fort Laramie Treaty invalid. The Great Sioux Reservation, secured by the Indians "in perpetuity," was separated into the seven reservations that exist today. The rest of the land was turned over to the new states of North and South Dakota. The Indians fought back, winning two major battles in a ten-year period, but, by 1878, their plight was a hopeless one. Those who continued to resist were declared "hostile," hunted, and forced to live in areas close to the government's forts. As was once observed, the purpose of the reservation system was to reduce "the wild beasts to the condition of supplicants for charity." Life on the reservation was very harsh and the dependent Indians were threatened with starvation to force them to cooperate.

After the killings of Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, Big Foot—now the leading traditional chief—set out with his people on a long winter trek across the Badlands, seeking safety with Red Cloud's people at Pine Ridge. On December 29, 1890, Big Foot and two hundred or more unarmed Minnecojou men, women, and children, with a few fugitives from Sitting Bull's Hunkpapa band, were slaughtered by the Seventh Cavalry at Wounded Knee. Custer's former regiment, decimated by Indians at the battle of The Greasy Grass (Little Big Horn), was avenged. For this barbarous and cowardly act, 20 soldiers received Congressional Medals of Honor.

The 1973 Takeover

Even before the Trail of Broken Treaties, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had been alerted to the presence of a new radical element among the Indians.

In February 1972, an Oglala from Pine Ridge Reservation named Raymond Yellow Thunder, aged 51, was severely beaten for the fun of it by two white men, then stripped from the waist down and paraded before a patriotic gathering at an American Legion dance in Gordon, Nebraska. The injured man was thrown into the street, after which his attackers stuffed him into a car trunk and rode him around town before dumping him out at a Laundromat.

The next week, Yellow Thunder's body was discovered and his attackers were arrested, then released without bail. Yellow Thunder's family called American Indian Movement (AIM) leaders, who led an enormous caravan of two hundred cars across the Nebraska line to Gordon. A large force of sheriff's deputies, state troopers, and FBI agents capitulated to the Indian demands that serious charges be filed against the white men responsible for Yellow Thunder's death. This action gained AIM the lasting respect of the Pine Ridge traditionals.

Tensions on Pine Ridge increased when in January 1973 a young man named Wesley Bad Heart Bull was stabbed to death. Like the murderers of Raymond Yellow Thunder, Bad Heart Bull's murderer was charged with involuntary manslaughter. The officials were uneasy when they heard that AIM was mobilizing and brought heavy police support to a meeting with the Indians in the courthouse in Custer.

On February 6, the more than two hundred Indian people who had arrived for the meeting were told by officials that the open meeting was postponed and only their spokesmen—Russell Means, Dennis Banks, Crow Dog, and a young Choctaw named David Hill—were allowed inside to talk to officials. When Sarah Bad Heart Bull, mother of the victim, attempted to enter, she was seized and beaten on the courthouse steps by two police officers. Those Indians who tried to intervene were tear gassed and beaten. A riot broke out throughout the courthouse. Although no one was killed, the Custer courthouse riot was an historic event, the first outbreak of violence between white men and Lakota since the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890.

On February 27, 1973, members of AIM, together with a number of local and traditional Native Americans, began their 71-day occupation of Wounded Knee in South Dakota. Their goal was to protest injustices against their tribes, violations of the many treaties with the United States government, and current abuses and repression against their people. There were no "radical" demands made. All that was asked was that the government follow its own laws.

The Response

The U.S. government responded to the occupation of Wounded Knee with a military style assault. Two brave warriors—Buddy Lamont and Frank Clearwater—died during the siege where over 200,000 rounds of ammunition were fired at the protesters. The use of military force by the federal government was later ruled unlawful.

To end the siege, various officials promised hearings on local conditions and treaty violations. These hearings were never convened.

The Wounded Knee Trials

After the 1973 siege of Wounded Knee, the FBI caused 542 separate charges to be filed against those it identified as "key AIM leaders." This resulted in only 15 convictions, all on such petty or contrived offenses as Interfering with a Federal Officer in the Performance of His Duty.

The pattern of government misconduct seen in the Peltier case first emerged during these prosecutions. For example, the long trial of Dennis Banks and Russell Means in 1974 for charges stemming from the occupation at Wounded Knee was marked by discovery that the defense team had been infiltrated by a government informant, and perjured testimony was presented and evidence withheld by the prosecution. Judge Alfred Nichol criticized the government for being "more interested in convictions than in justice." Nichol spoke with particular severity of the FBI. "It's hard for me to believe," he remarked, "that the FBI, which I have revered for so long, has stooped so low."

Addressing the court, Nichols said: "The fact that incidents of misconduct formed a pattern throughout the course of the trial leads me to the belief that this case was not prosecuted in good faith or in the spirit of justice. The waters of justice have been polluted, and dismissal, I believe, is the appropriate cure for the pollution in this case."

All charges against the defendants were dismissed.

Learn More

Peter Matthiessen

In the Spirit of Crazy Horse

Meticulously researched, this courageous book is the definitive work on the Peltier case. The author successfully defended against lawsuits brought in three different states, surviving an eight-year litigation designed to block the book's publication.

Jim Messerschmidt

The Trial of Leonard Peltier

Foreword by William Kunstler. A well-documented and researched study, this book examines the orchestration by the federal government of the wrongful conviction of Native American activist Leonard Peltier.

Leonard Peltier

Prison Writings: My Life Is My Sun Dance

Edited by Harvey Arden. Peltier chronicles life in prison. Peltier explores his suffering and the insights it has borne him in the context of American Indians and their struggle to survive.


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