On 27 February, 1973, members of the American Indian Movement (AIM), seized the small Indian reservation outpost of Wounded Knee, in South Dakota.
On 27 February, 1973, members of the American Indian Movement (AIM), seized the small Indian reservation outpost of Wounded Knee, in South Dakota. Their seizure of the post was intended to draw attention to the poor living conditions still endured by many Red Indians throughout the United States.
The occupation lasted for 71 days, during which time two Indians were killed by rifle fire, and six were wounded. A Federal Marshal was also seriously wounded. The two ring-leaders, Russell Means and Dennis Banks seriously wounded. The two ring-leaders, Russell Means and Dennis Banks, were later charged with assault,conspiracy and theft. They were set free last september after an eight-month trial when the judge threw out all charges against them. He accused the United States Government of misconduct in prosecuting the case.
During the siege of the small township, the militant Indians, numbering about two hundred, barricaded themselves in and cut the telephone wires. The township was immediately surrounded by Government troops and police. Most of the injuries and deaths were caused during outbreaks of sporadic shooting between the two sides, and the situation became very tense when the besieged Indians looked like running out of food. The Federal authorities had agreed to let supplies through until a settlement was reached, but reservation Indians opposing AIM set up their own road-blocks.
The siege came to an end on Thursday (5 April) when the authorities signed an agreement with the leaders of the militants, to hold talks in Washington on the Indians' grievances. The Nixon Administration also promised to set up a Presidential Commission into the Indians' problems, which would act with the hereditary Indian chiefs, and not the white-appointed tribal governments. The promise was later broken when the White House announced that such a commission could not be carried out on the President's authority alone. Congress would have to authorise it.
The Red Indians are used to receiving such treatment at the hands of the white man. Wounded Knee itself is a reminder of white America's appalling record of murder and deceit in relation to the country's indigenous people. It was the scene of the last big massacre of Indians, when in 1890 United States soldiers killed 300 men, women and children of the Sioux tribe.
The site has become a shrine and a symbol for the Red Indians. Their feelings about it were eloquently expressed by one of the survivors of the massacre, Black Elk, earlier this century when he was an old man. "I did not know the how much ended. When I look back now from this high... hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered woman and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people's dream died there."
Since then new generations of Indians have begun to realise what was lost at Wounded Knee. In the sixties Indian militancy became a new reality of American life. Such movements as AIM had plenty of statistics to support their case for a "new deal" for the Red Mana. Negro militancy had pointed the way, for however, many grievances the negro community had, the Indians had many more.
The suicide rate of Indian males between 15 and 24 years of age is ten per cent. The average Indian man has a life expectancy of only 42 years, compared to the U.S.A.'s national average of 67. The income of the national family average is 8,500 dollars a year. The official poverty level is 3,500 dollars a year. Moreover, the number of Indian children who die in infancy is five times the national average.
When the white man arrived in America, the Red Indian's only wealth was the land off which he lived. The white man has taken it from him over the last two hundred years. In the early years of this century treaties with the Indians, that had been ratified by Congress, gave them 130 million acres They now have only 50 million acres of reservation, and 80 per cent of that land is leased out by the United States Government to oil and mining companies without the consent of the Indian tribes.
It is not surprising, therefore, that with the help of such notable white sympathisers as the later Senator Robert Kennedy, the Indian rights movement gathered momentum during the nineteen sixties. In May 1968 poor Indians, together with 200 negroes and Spanish Americans, stormed the Supreme Court in Washington. They were protesting at a new court ruling which forbade them to fish for salmon with nets in the State of Washington.
Nevertheless, the ruling stayed, and the following year, six Indians were arrested for violating the fishing laws in Lake Superior. They had previously informed the authorities that they intended to test the new fishing laws.
The following month (November 1969) fourteen Indians invaded Alcatraz Island, and held it for 19 hours in the name of their people. They offered to buy back the island from the United States Government for 24 dollars, some glass beads and some red cloth -- the original price paid to the Indians.
In 1970 these demonstrations of Indian grievances took on a more serious tone, when a group of 77 militants tried to invade the Washington military establishment of Fort Lawton in Seattle. Supported by Jane Fonda, the actress, they claimed that the one-thousand acre site, should be used for an Indian cultural centre as it was due to be declared surplus Federal property. Eventually it was acquired by Seattle Corporation for use as a park.
The Indians' claim that the authorities treated them as second-class citizens, was highlighted on 7 February 1973 -- shortly before the occupation of Wounded Knee. More than two hundred members of the Sioux tribe, attacked the Custer County Courthouse in South Dakota, armed with petrol bombs. They were protesting at the stabbing and killing of an Indian named Charles Bad Heart Bull. The Indian community was infuriated that the white man, accused of killing the Indian, had only been charged with manslaughter -- not murder.
It was that incident that consolidated AIM's determination to carry on the occupation of Wounded Knee to the bitter end. The fact that the siege lasted over two months, ensured that the Indians' cause received the maximum of world-wide publicity, and the public conscience was stirred throughout the country.
The tide may be turning in favour of the native people of America. In March last year members of the Navajo tribe near Flagstaff, Arizona, won an appeal to the local Land Zoning Commission, to prevent development of their sacred mountain. They were opposed by the property developer who said that he had already invested substantial sums into the project, and the Flagstaff Chamber of Commerce, who said they welcomed the scheme. The Indians' only argument was that it would be "an attack on our religion, the very essence of our being".