The 1973 Wounded Knee incident, in which Oglala Sioux militants occupied the South Dakota town of Wounded Knee for 71 days, is often remembered as a protest as part of the larger civil rights movement happening in the United States at the time. However, the event does not fit cleanly into that description. It is often described as a protest, a revolution, or an act of war depending on what context it is being used in. An article by Elizabeth Rich discusses how “Wounded Knee” has come to be synonymous with Native American issues and how it served to “balance the representations” of American Indian events in American history to combat a “lopsided” version of Native American history. I would like to add onto Rich’s research by incorporating mainstream media reactions from the time in order to understand how this lopsided view came about. By researching diaries and interviews of the people involved both written at the time and described in later interviews, and then comparing them to media coverage of the event, the two can be contrasted in order to understand the occupation’s anomalous position in North American history and the way that different groups attempt to naturalize it.
I’ve broken down my research on Wounded Knee into two major parts: documents produced at the time of the incident by AIM and mainstream media coverage of the event NBC. I’ve also used scholarly research written in the decades after the event and diaries written by people involved to further inform the primary research. Documents produced by AIM in the 60s and 70s are available through organization American Indian Cultural Support. They include flyers, columns written by AIM members, and summaries of the legal proceedings that happened after Wounded Knee. I’ve compared these documents to news coverage from the time presented by NBC as well as footage from the 1973 Sacheen Littlefeather Oscar’s speech and its later discussion on television at the time and in the 2009 documentary Reel Injun.
A common thread running through AIM documents is a theme of militarism and war. The document “Wounded Knee: The Longest War. 1890-1973” begins by making it clear that the United states’ war against the Native Americans “has never ceased.” It goes on to say “In 1973 the government again mustered its forces against the Indian people of the Pine Ridge Reservation who had gathered at Wounded Knee to protest the continuing injustices to their people and the government’s violation of their treaty rights under the 1868 treaty.” This document lays out the intentions of the people involved in Wounded Knee clearly. It says that the government mustered their forces “again,” emphasizing the connection between Wounded Knee 1973 and the massacre that occurred in 1890, drawing further parallels to war (“Wounded Knee: The Longest War”). And it gives two specific reasons for the occupation: protesting injustices to the people and the government’s violation of the 1868 treaty. The treaty itself is available through AICS. Main points taken from the treaty are available in a second document that was used in legal defense after the 1973 occupation. It begins by stating that the treaty will be the “basis” of their defense (“The Treaty of 1868” 1).
In another document, “Statement by Lakota Woman who participated in Liberation of Wounded Knee,” the author starts with the same sentiment as “The Longest War” document, saying “The longest war that the United States government has ever waged has been against the American Indians. The war has never ceased” (Statement by Lakota Woman). The document speaks of Indians running their own hospital, school, and enforcing their own borders at Wounded Knee, showing that unlike other civil rights protests at the time, the purpose of the occupation was not an attempt at recognition by the United States government but rather an attempt to distance reservations from U.S. control by asserting their sovereignty. To suggest that this is a civil rights movement would be to suggest that the movement is seeking action on the part of the United States citizens and government when in reality–according to this quote–the movement wants to completely denounce the government’s authority to make any decision regarding reservations regardless of the intent. The photo at the bottom of the document is of a fist holding a tomahawk raising out of a crowd. This image of the raised fist with a tomahawk is used in other AIM documents, such as the “Indigenous Voice of Resistance” newsletter, which features the raised fist with the tomahawk shackled to a chain, continuing the war imagery (“Indigenous Voice of Resistance”).
Another important issue that led to Wounded Knee was the election and failed impeachment of tribal president Richard Wilson. In the AIM document “Chronology,” the writer argues against B.I.A. control of reservation by saying that they do not recognize sovereign control of reservations and that their election process is “equally anti-Indian.” Wilson is accused of rigging the election by bringing in non-residents to vote for him. Those who opposed him “lost their jobs and suffered periodic harassment” (“Chronology” 1). In his impeachment proceedings on February 12th 1973, Wilson opened the hearing with a film that argued that the civil rights movement was part of a communist plot. Paul Chaat Smith and Robert Allen Warrior argue in their book Like a Hurricane that Wilson believed that AIM was also part of this conspiracy (Smith 192). This is before the occupation has even begun and flimsy parallels to the civil rights movement are already being drawn.
The reports given by the mainstream media at the time, however, skirt the issues of the 1868 treaty and the tribal election in favor of addressing the occupation under the broader title of “Indian Problems.” NBC Evening News aired a report about the incident on March 1st, 1973, five days after the incident began on February 27th. The layout of the piece is an on-location report given by NBC reporter Fred Briggs. Briggs introduces the group as the American Indian Movement, and also refers to them as “militants.” The first interview in the segment isn’t from a member of the organization, but from Agnes Gildersleeve, the white owner of the “trading post,” or grocery store, who the Native American protesters had taken hostage after burglaring her store. In her brief interview, Briggs asks about the financial implications of the incident, to which Gildersleeve responds “it breaks us.” Gildersleeve later claimed that she had never been taken hostage to avoid kidnapping charges being levelled against AIM, and there were attempts to reimburse her for the damages at the store, which runs contrary to NBC’s narrative of her capture (Lyman 158). Briggs describes the robbery by saying “what hasn’t been destroyed has been pilfered.” Briggs also says that “the takeover… is an attention-getting device,” which is a patronizing way of describing any protest, violent or otherwise. (Briggs).
Briggs then has another brief interview, this time with a member of the movement, Russell Means. “We’re the original land-owners. We are the sovereign native people of this western hemisphere… we are throwing our lives on the line to get [the white man] to look and listen” says Means (Briggs). This statement again puts the incident at odds with other civil rights protests. The fact that the reservations are intended to be sovereign nations makes any appeal to the US government not a request for a change in policy, but rather to honor the treaties that are already in place. Briggs finishes his segment with the members of the movement trying to meet with government officials. He says, “What the Indians wanted now was some sort of an official sign from… some government personage that he is interested in this and he is interested in talking with them about the indian problems.” Describing the conflict as “indian problems” is a vague way to end the segment and it suggest that the news media weren’t quite sure how to classify the incident.
The book Wounded Knee 1973: A Personal Account by Stanley David Lyman who served as BIA superintendent during the occupation (Smith 192) provides a similar view to Russell Means’. The first paragraph of foreword by Alvin M Josephy, jr. contains a good contrast to the NBC news report. It reads “The episode, deeply rooted in the tortuous history of federal Indian relations, was the explosive climax of a series of attempts by American Indians, led frequently by the militant leadership of AIM, to attract the attention of the general American population, an indifferent United States government, and the whole world to the continued frustrations and injustices of their daily lives” (Lyman vii). The passage about attracting the attention of the general American population describes the event much more seriously than the way NBC did by referring to it as an “attention-grabbing device.” The foreword also describes the incident as a “revolution,” which is even further removed as a description from the NBC portrayal (ix). But to call Wounded Knee 1973 part of a revolution has its own problems. As stated in a document produced by AIM in November 1973, part of their mission was to enforce treaties the American government made with Native Americans granting them their sovereignty (AIM Statement on Wounded Knee). It can’t be a revolution if the government they are revolting against already officially recognizes them as their own nation. So, it’s difficult to say they’re waging a war with the US if their intent is to enforce the United States’ own treaties. Because of that, if it is categorized as an act of war, AIM can’t be viewed as the aggressor since it is only retaliating against a century’s worth of aggression and breaking of the original treaty. The FBI, however, gave a different reasoning. FBI agent Norman Zigrossi said that “ “The [Lakota] are a conquered nation, and when you are conquered, the people you are conquered by dictate your future,” completely ignoring any precedence that the treaties would have had and giving a completely different perspective on the occupation (Gump 427).
NBC aired another segment on March 1st about the Wounded Knee incident. This segment is hosted by reporter Dick Kay. He interviews Roger Harper, director of the local “Indian Center” in Chicago. Harper gives his opinion on the incident, saying, “Our contributions fall tremendously, each time something of this nature, vandalism, destruction, the taking of hostages, and shots being fired, our income takes a tremendous dip down… brothers and sisters, I agree with your aims and your goals. But i think that the methods you’re using in an attempt to achieve these ends and goals is damaging to not only the american indian center of chicago but to all urban indian organizations across the country” (Briggs). Here, Harper is claiming to share the goals of AIM. However, if AIM’s message is truly about a military revolution, as Lyman suggest, then it would be impossible to separate that ideology from the type of goals Harper endorses. Harper’s Chicago-based organization helps with Native American residents of the city. It is not involved in any struggle for sovereignty. What, then, are the “goals” that Harper agrees with? Is he talking about the 1868 treaty? The impeachment of Wilson? Like the NBC reporter, he remains vague about what exactly he believes the motivations for the incident are. Despite the imprecise and ambiguous way the media described the event, it was instrumental in viewing the occupation as a success, with some commentators going so far as to suggest that AIM was using the media to purposefully deceive people into supporting their cause. One writer argued that the occupation was a “media coup” and“an example of a new and expanding strategy of political manipulation that neatly circumvents the ordinary process of government [and] makes a direct and powerful appeal to the public through the mass media” (D’arcus 416).
Elizabeth Rich describes Wounded Knee as having become metonymy for Native American issues. This means that it is used as a symbol to represent wider issues far removed from the Pine Ridge Reservation and the treaty rights and impeachment hearings that created it. The event that most exemplifies this usage is Sacheen Littlefeather’s speech at the 1973 Oscars and the discussions it spawned. The 2009 documentary Reel Injun covers the portrayal of Natives Americans on film and the impact of those depictions on Native American communities and the cultural issues surrounding them. The presenter, Adam Beach, begins the segment about Wounded Knee by saying “This is Wounded Knee. For me and many natives, this is sacred ground. What happened here in 1973 would change the image of natives in Hollywood forever.” His voiceover is overlaid with color footage of the event. American Indian Movement member John Trudell goes on to describe the incident. “The American government fought a war against us. From the tanks that they used at Wounded Knee to the way they used the FBI as paramilitary and National Guards, we were fighting for our lives. Our death casualty went quite high.” While this interview accurately represents the violence of the occupation, there is no mention of treaties, Dick Wilson, or any of the major events that led to the incident. This is not to say, however, that this makes the segment unsuccessful or in any way misleading, but it is a perfect example of using the occupation as a jumping off point or metonymy to discuss issues that never initially related to it.
The segments then switches to an interview with Sacheen Littlefeather, who famously rejected the award for Best Actor on behalf of Marlon Brando at the 45th Academy awards on March 27th 1973, because of the depiction of Native Americans by the media as well as because of the ongoing Wounded Knee incident. At this time, the Academy Awards were being broadcast on NBC who, as well as airing the previous Briggs segment, were currently airing several programs with stereotypical depictions of Native Americans, such as Bonanza. This segment includes footage of the modern interview with Littlefeather as well as original footage of the ceremony. Intercut with this footage is Russell Means describing how he and the other AIM members at Wounded Knee reacted to the live Academy Awards speech.
Sacheen Littlefeather was unable to deliver the whole speech due to threats from the producers of the Academy Awards, but the text was later released by the New York Times. A passage read “I felt that perhaps I could be of better use if I went to Wounded Knee to help forestall in whatever way I can the establishment of a peace which would be dishonorable as long as the rivers shall run and the grass shall grow” (Brando). This speech, had it been read in its entirety, would have had a significantly different impact. It directly endorses “forestalling peace,” suggesting that any peace that could be reached in the incident would only perpetuate the current treatment of Native Americans by the United States.
Brando doubles down on his own interpretation of the occupation in a June 12 1973 hour-long interview on the Dick Cavett Show, explaining that the reasoning behind his speech was that “since the American Indian hasn’t been able to hear his voice heard or have his voice heard anywhere in the history of the United States… I felt that it was a marvelous opportunity for an indian to be able to voice his opinion to 85 million people.” Throughout the interview, Brando uses Wounded Knee exactly as Rich describes it being used in her article. She says “the words Wounded Knee come to stand for the many underhanded, crippling, and unjust actions and policies, practiced by the United States government for over two hundred years” (Rich 71). In fact, Brando doesn’t mention Wounded Knee until after the halfway point in the interview when Dick Cavett asks him why he didn’t honor his earlier decision to visit Wounded Knee during the occupation. Brando again focuses on the violent aspect without mentioning the motivations, saying that Wounded Knee was surrounded by “federal officers, marshals… anybody who wanted to hold a gun and make himself feel good.” He explains that he feared that if he visited Wounded Knee, he would be arrested by deputized Native Americans working with the police forces and that headlines would then read “Indians reproach Brando at Wounded Knee” (Cavett).
These examples show how different groups attempt to explain the occupation in different ways depending on their own biases and agendas, even if they are well-meaning. While using Wounded Knee as metonymy as Rich describes it has been shown to be a successful tool for persuasion as shown in Reel Injun and the case of the 1973 Oscars, it runs the risk of allowing the multiple meanings and usages of the event to metastasize, resulting in the actual history of the occupation being misunderstood or forgotten. When an event like Wounded Knee becomes so lionized that its details cease to be important to the discussion, then it becomes reduced to a symbol. This symbol can be an effective way of bringing discussion around an issue, but it allows for such broad interpretation that the true historical facts can become easily overlooked. This is dangerous because it makes it possible for meaning to be attributed to areas where it doesn’t really exist and also for true meaning to be replaced with revisionism. Wounded Knee 1973’s unique place in North American history as a complicated and difficult to penetrate event make it prime for being used this way and because of this it is essential that the true history be accounted for when it is used as part of a larger persuasive message.
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