American Indian activists took over the tiny village of Wounded Knee on South Dakota's sprawling Pine Ridge Indian Reservation on Feb. 27, 1973, in what would become a 71-day, fatal standoff with FBI agents that attracted national attention to the impoverished reservation and the plight of local tribes.
On Wednesday, the occupation's 40th anniversary, some of the protest's central figures — most notably the American Indian Movement's charismatic leader, the late Russell Means — will be noticeably absent from a commemoration at the reservation. But organizers hope the events remind people of the struggles that led to the standoff and problems still reverberating throughout Indian Country, as well as changes the protest helped spark.
"They need to remember how far the anti-Indian policies had pushed us to the point that the only way to fight back was to pick up arms," AIM co-founder Dennis Banks said. "Of course, that's not a way to resolve any issue, but we were pushed to that. That was our last degree of how we could struggle back."
"It just caused a complete awareness all over the world about Indian people and the struggle they'd been going through here in our own country," added Clyde Bellecourt, who also helped found the AIM movement in the late 1960s. "A lot of good things have happened since then. People across the country are practicing their sovereignty ... You know (tribes) have casinos, they have their own clinics, their own schools, junior colleges."
Demanding the federal government honor its treaties with their tribes, nearly 200 American Indian activists took over the village —the same place where, 80 years earlier, soldiers slaughtered an estimated 300 Native American men, women and children. Means stood at the center of the protest as he sought to restore pride in tribal culture, and he became the first nationally known advocate for American Indians.
Means died in October at age 72 after batting throat cancer, a day before the passing of former U.S. Sen. George McGovern, who had traveled to the reservation to try to facilitate an end to the hostilities. Former South Dakota Gov. Bill Janklow — who had prosecuted AIM members involved at a riot a few weeks before the Wounded Knee occupation — died in January 2012, after fighting brain cancer.
"It means my circle is getting smaller. They're going to have a roll call of men, women and children who were at Wounded Knee and a lot of them have passed on," Banks said. "It'll be sad, particularly for me because Russ and I were close all those years."
Means will be remembered Thursday as part of the events surrounding the anniversary. Several hundred AIM supporters, tribal leaders and spectators are expected.
During the 1973 occupation and throughout the previous decade, members of AIM and their backers fought with then-tribal President Dick Wilson and his supporters, as well as the FBI, which has jurisdiction on tribal land. Two Native Americans were killed, another went missing, and a federal agent was wounded in the standoff.
The conflict ended on May 8, after the occupiers agreed to disarm once they secured a letter saying White House representatives would meet with Oglala Sioux tribal leaders to discuss broken treaties and compensation for lost lands. Wilson, who the activists alleged wasn't traditional enough to lead the tribe, remained in power and later re-elected to a second term.
Means and Banks were charged in 1974 for their role in the occupation, but a judge eventually threw out the charges on grounds of government misconduct. But it didn't end the tensions, or the violence.
Suspecting she was an FBI informant, at least two AIM members fatally shot Annie Mae Aquash on the Pine Ridge reservation in 1975, allegedly on the orders of someone in AIM's leadership. Her murder went unsolved for decades until two activists were convicted or murder; a third suspect was never charged.
That, according to the FBI special agent in charge of the region at the time of Wounded Knee, reflects the violent side of the AIM that the media and history books don't talk enough about.
"The untold story, of course, is that most of the residents there were Indians who lost everything. They had their homes invaded, broken into and personal possessions stolen," said John Trimbach, who along with his father, former FBI special agent Joseph Trimbach, wrote a book about the time period called "American Indian Mafia."
For people who took part in the occupation, on either side, the 40th anniversary is a time for reflection and hopefully committing to better understanding what Wounded Knee meant, said Harry Thompson, executive director of the Center for Western Studies at Augustana College in Sioux Falls.
"I think it means different things to different people, and people with different experiences," said Thompson, whose university recently hosted a conference examining the 40th anniversary and brought together many of the occupation's central players.
But, he added: "We're not probably far enough away from it to know its total significance."
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