‘Trail of Broken Treaties’: How the 1973 Wounded Knee Occupation Came To Be
Adrienne Fritze says she still suffers from the traumatic events that occurred as the youngest of 11 people taken hostage during the 1973 Occupation of Wounded Knee.
“We were hostages the entire time we were there,” said Fritze, now 62 and the only one of the original eleven hostages still living. “I can't remember what report it was, but there was one person who had said, ‘Well, you know, they were coerced when they were in front of the news camera.’”
The leaders of the American Indian Movement were known as being able to captivate listeners and knew how to get their message out through the media, according to Sean Flynn, chair of the History Department at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell.
That wasn’t the case for Fritze and her family.
“We had no power and we certainly had no voice at all,” said Fritze, who is a part of the Ojibwa tribe from the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota. “My grandfather and my great uncle and my great aunts, they weren't sophisticated when it comes to media. They were just people of the earth.”
That lack of media savvy and ability to share their story is why Fritze says the story about what happened during the 71-day occupation is lacking.
“It's not a balanced story that's out there, for sure. It's not balanced… I totally get why it was so one-sided in terms of the storytelling,” she said. “They had the power.”
It has been 50 years since members of the American Indian Movement occupied the small South Dakota hamlet of Wounded Knee with the goal of changing the way the Oglala Sioux Tribe governed themselves from an American-style government to a more traditional way of Tribal governance.
But the group also sought to raise the profile of Native American Civil Rights through the symbolic occupation of Wounded Knee – the scene of one of the nation’s worst massacres of Sioux children, women and men at the hands of cavalry soldiers near the end of the 19th Century.
Years of government failure
“America is going through what you might call a ‘collective public guilt’ in the late '60s about the treatment of American Indians,” said Flynn, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. “For the first time the white American public has kind of awakened to this idea of these, the millions of Americans who've died because of diseases, the military campaigns against American Indians, the seizure of Indian lands and a trail of broken treaties.”
Robert Warrior, the Hall Distinguished Professor of American Literature and Culture at the University of Kansas and a member/citizen of the Osage Nation, said that multiple attempts by the government to address Native American issues would often fail and be met with resistance.
“I think certainly the history of various forms of resistance on the Great Sioux Nation, reservations, going back to the 19th century were very strong and, in many ways, certainly challenged at various times,” said Warrior, co-author of the book, ‘Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee.’ “People were trying to come up with what they hoped were sophisticated responses to what was being proposed to them.”
In trying to give Native Americans greater self-governance with their own independent governments, the federal government forced the Tribes to do so in a way that modeled constitutionalism, according to Flynn.
This created a rift among Native American communities between holding onto traditional ways of life or giving in to colonialism, which meant losing some of their cultural ways such as language and traditions, according to Warrior.
Flynn said it’s fair to say that regardless of whether the people believed in the new form of government or the traditional style, what was happening wasn’t working.
That led to events such as the 19-month Alcatraz Occupation in 1969 seeking to raise the profile of Native American rights.
Around the same time in Minneapolis, the American Indian Movement was formed by George Mitchell, Dennis Banks and Clyde Bellecourt, then later Russell Means.
“(AIM) was committed to cultural nationalism. In other words, advancing and raising awareness about traditional American Indian values, traditional American Indian institutions, raising awareness about the American Indian consciousness and view of world affairs,” Flynn said.
AIM established patrols, which monitored how police and the courts treated Native Americans to help curb racial profiling in Minneapolis. They took to protests and other occupations such as seizing a replica of the Mayflower on Thanksgiving in 1970 in Boston Harbor, which they declared a national day of mourning.
In 1970 and 1971, protesters camped at and occupied Mount Rushmore, in protest of the seizure of the sacred land left with the Lakota people in the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie.
“All of the dysfunction that was happening around us as children on the reservation, that was a direct result of the destruction of many people's (lives),” Fritze said. “And the American Indian Movement came up out of that as its only response.”
Then came the death of Raymond Yellow Thunder, of Kyle, South Dakota, who was murdered in Gordon, Nebraska, on Feb. 13, 1972, by two white men who had allegedly bragged earlier in the day about beating a Native American.
Yellow Thunder had been kidnapped, beaten, stripped, humiliated, left for dead and died a couple of days later due to a brain hemorrhage. His murder sparked outrage across the Native American community.
Brothers Leslie and Melvin Hare admitted to everything except the beating which led to Yellow Thunder’s death.
Leslie would serve two years in prison; Melvin would serve eight months after each was found guilty of manslaughter. Bernard 'Butch' Lutter, who was also a part of the kidnapping, turned state’s evidence and testified against the Hare brothers according to Stew Magnuson in his book, 'The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder.'
Members of AIM called for a new investigation and more severe charges through protests and boycotts, thrusting the racial tensions and inequalities of the time into the national spotlight.
“(The protests) kind of legitimized the organization,” Flynn said. “It was seen as a mainstream civil rights organization practicing nonviolent civil disobedience, protests and boycotts.”
Following the protests over Yellow Thunder’s murder, AIM led a march of approximately 500-800 people to the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington D.C. Called the march the Trail of Broken Treaties, it lasted six days.
The march was meant to bring attention to the failures of the U.S. government in honoring past treaties with Native Americans.
“We wanted them to know the conditions we lived in. We wanted them to know the downright blatant persecution of the government of Native Americans,” said Sid Mills, one of the leaders of the takeover of the bureau in 1972, according to the Washington Post.
A little over a year after Yellow Thunder’s death, 20-year-old Wesley Bad Heart Bull, of Pine Ridge, was stabbed and killed by Darld Schmitz in Buffalo Gap after Schmitz and a friend visited an area bar, according to reports from 1973.
Three days after Bad Heart Bull’s death, Schmitz was arrested and charged with second-degree murder, the lowest degree of murder a person could be charged with in South Dakota at the time.
Custer County State's Attorney Hobart Gates told the Associated Press he would "prosecute to my fullest ability" on the charges of second-degree murder.
AIM and many others demanded a first-degree murder charge arguing some witness accounts said Schmitz made comments earlier in the day he was going to kill a Native American and therefore met the criteria for premeditated murder.
Schmitz was scheduled for a preliminary hearing on Feb. 6. AIM leaders including Dennis Banks and Russell Means organized a demonstration outside the Custer County Courthouse to sway Gates to increase the charges.
Banks told the press at the time, if the roles had been reversed and a Native American murdered a white man, he would be charged with first-degree murder. "There is no justice for Indians in South Dakota," he told the Associated Press ahead of the demonstration.
Several eyewitnesses, including Trina Bad Heart Bull, Eddy Clifford and Francis Means, all of whom were present in Buffalo Gap the night Wesley Bad Heart Bull was murdered, tried to convince Gates.
But Gates said he didn’t have the evidence to increase the charges.
While the initial cause is unknown, the protesters clashed with law enforcement at the courthouse which resulted in the Custer County Chamber of Commerce burning down, other buildings being damaged, and even gasoline bombs being thrown.
Three demonstrators and eight officers were injured in the chaos, according to reports from the time.
Rallies, protests and riots continued to take place mostly in Rapid City until one night they just stopped.
Demands for change
Richard “Dick” Wilson was elected Chairman (also called President) of the Oglala Lakota people on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1972.
“Wilson is one of the figures that come along, he's particularly polarizing, and also definitely has a personality that, in many ways, comes to compete with the larger-than-life presence of people like Russell Means, whose family's from Pine Ridge,” Warrior said. “This becomes part of a battle royale between those like Russell Means and the people like Richard Wilson, who reject (each other’s) form of politics.”
Quickly into Wilson’s term accusations of nepotism and suppressing political opponents began.
As a result of the BIA takeover in Washington, D.C., Wilson was granted authority by the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council "to take whatever action he felt would be necessary to protect the lives and property and to ensure the peace and dignity of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation."
Wilson created the Guardians of the Oglala Nation, which many considered a private militia for the chairman and came to be dubbed the “GOON squad.”
The accusations against Wilson would lead to an impeachment effort that ultimately failed.
“In fact, the reason AIM is invited to the Pine Ridge reservation is a group called the Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization or OSCRO. They invite AIM there to help them in their effort to impeach Dick Wilson, for nepotism, for corruption, for allowing his police to use roughhouse tactics, police brutality, and things of this nature. And they fail,” Flynn said. “And Wilson's government becomes even more determined not to allow anything like that to happen.”
Some of the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council members filed impeachment charges against Wilson for nepotism and misappropriation among other charges.
On Feb. 22, after the hearing began, the presiding officer declined to allow the prosecution more charges. This caused much of the audience and several council members to walk out in protest.
The remaining council voted 14-0 to close the hearings and leave Wilson as council chairman.
Several hundred people protested the decision and Wilson was placed in protective custody by U.S. Marshals.
On Tuesday, Feb. 27, 1973, frustrated with a lack of results in trying to remove Wilson from office, a group of anti-Wilson supporters met in Calico. There they decided more needed to be done.
And from Calico a convoy went north to the village of Wounded Knee.
“I really thought that the meaning of Calico Hall, where people decide that they would go to Wounded Knee, I think people got a really strong sense from those traditional Oglala, Lakota people, who were debating and deliberating on what do we do next,” Warrior said. “They decided we're going to go to Wounded Knee. That was just an incredibly dramatic moment, because it wasn't just symbolic, it was dangerous.
“This is an armed standoff between different people… this didn't have nearly the sort of romantic moments of some of the earlier things that had happened where gunfire was almost non-existent.”
Arriving in town, the protesters began to take over. The trading post was raided for guns, ammunition, food and other supplies and hostages were taken.
In his book ‘Wounded Knee 1973: Still Bleeding,’ Magnuson said Russell Means attempted to halt the raid on the trading post but by the time he arrived it was too late.
In a March 1, 1973 article, Walter Fisk — who had been in South Dakota since the death of Bad Heart Bull for the U.S. News Service — gave a first-hand account of what he had seen as he had tagged along with those protesters seeking the removal of Wilson.
Fisk said he observed preparations made by those that had taken over the village to be that of a defensive measure.
A total of 11 hostages, ranging in age from 12 to 82, were taken in the town of Wounded Knee: Rev. Paul Manhart, Clive Gildersleeve, Agnes Gildersleeve, Wilbur Riegert, Girlie Clark, Bill Cole, Mary Pike, Adrienne Fritze, Jean Fritze, Guy Fritze and Annie Hunts Horse.
“My grandfather, mom and I were able to stay in my uncle's cabin. But they took the rest of the family up to the church in the basement, and they were threatened,” Fritze said. “And I don't know that there was physical abuse per se, except for people in their faces spitting on them, yelling, pointing guns and knives at them.”
While at the small church, Fisk talked with AIM leader Russell Means about why they had taken over the village.
Means told Fisk that AIM and the Oglala people on the reservation decided to occupy Wounded Knee after consulting with and getting the support of several chiefs and medicine men of the Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Liberties Association, an all-Oglala organization on the reservation.
Fisk asked Means what caused AIM to declare war on the United States. Means replied, “There has always been a state of war existing between the federal government and the Indians because of broken treaties. We are here in Wounded Knee today because of the 1868 treaty which states western South Dakota from the east bank of the Missouri River to all of western South Dakota, including parts of North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming and Nebraska, belong to the Teton Sioux of which the Oglala Sioux are a part.”
The day after the Wounded Knee occupation began, the first gunfire broke out between AIM and federal agents.
Russell Means began negotiations for the release of the hostages, demanding that the U.S. Senate launch an investigation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and all Sioux reservations in South Dakota, and that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hold hearings on the scores of Indian treaties broken by the U.S. government.
“Wounded Knee. Those two words meant something,” Flynn said. “The average American knew enough about the events surrounding the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee to know that it had symbolic significance… and Wounded Knee becomes a media event because it's already symbolic of what the public is thinking about in terms of the failure of American Indian policy.”
The morning following the takeover, South Dakota Sen. James Abourezk caught wind of the hostage situation. He called a home in Wounded Knee which turned out to be a house where members of AIM had set up. Abourezk convinced his fellow congressional leader and senior Senator George McGovern to join him in trying to negotiate the release of the hostages.
Members of AIM told the press they had no intentions of hurting the hostages.
While Abourezk and McGovern met with AIM leadership on March 1, they claimed they had secured the release of the 11 hostages that same day, but stated "the 11 were staying because their homes are in the tiny hamlet," according to a March 2, 1973 New York Times article.
“That's what they reported. But that's not what happened,” Fritz said. “The reason my family didn't want to leave is they'd spent their entire life there. So no, we did not — not become hostages, we were still subjected to violence.”
Fritz said she, her mom and grandfather were allowed to leave around the seventh day of the takeover and the rest a couple days later.
“At the beginning of the siege, it's an international news event. It's not just a national news event. It's an international news event. Because people in Europe, in many ways, are more interested about our Native American heritage than we are…,” Flynn said. “Neil Young and John Lennon are talking about Wounded Knee. It's the '70s, we're still in the midst of the anti-establishment, grassroots, minority consciousness, feminist consciousness movement of you stand up to the establishment. So, they have that kind of sympathy. They had sympathy from editors, they had sympathy from journalists, they had sympathy from liberal activists, they had sympathy from entertainers.”
And despite attempts by the federal officers on site, members of AIM would sneak the press past the roadblocks to get their messages out.
Actor Marlon Brando refused to accept his Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in The Godfather in protest of Hollywood’s treatment of Native Americans. Instead, Brando sent a Native American civil rights activist named Sacheen Littlefeather to decline it on his behalf.
As the weeks passed, attempts to broker a cease-fire failed repeatedly, and calls for Wilson’s ousting continued.
Wilson refused to budge and announced he would run for re-election in 1974.
“It’s my opposition that’s out there hiding behind the skirts of civil rights. This is primarily what they are after, to get me out. Unfortunately, my vice president (David Long) is a member of the American Indian Movement and those people need a governing body to operate through. If they could oust me then they’d have it,” Wilson told the Journal’s Lyn Gladstone in a March 8, 1973 article.
A March 19 petition led by AIM garnered a reported 1,400 signatures from residents of Pine Ridge asking for a new election to dissolve the present Tribal Constitution and select a new form of government for the Oglala Sioux Tribe, a March 20 Associated Press article said.
As a result, the relationship between AIM and Wilson remained tense.
In Magnuson's book, he explains FBI Special Agent in Charge Joe Trimbach, who by his own admission was in over his head, saw himself at times as the only thing standing between Wilson and those in the village.
The different federal branches on scene, the FBI and U.S. Marshals, struggled to agree as to who was in charge of the government’s position.
In Washington, D.C., members of the Nixon Administration knew the historical significance of Wounded Knee and the implications of what might have been if an attack was ordered upon the small village.
AIM attorney and primary negotiator Ramon Roubideaux said the failure of the talks was because the government didn't realize action at Wounded Knee wasn’t simply just a takeover of land but a symbol of the demand by all Native Americans for national reform, according to a March 10 Associated Press article.
In their attempts to force an end to the occupation, federal officials implemented a blockade that was largely successful in preventing supplies and food from reaching the camp.
While talks continued but failed, gunfire would break out and each side would blame the other. The residence of an AIM supporter in Pine Ridge was firebombed on Thursday, March 1, according to reports.
Until March 26, the most severe injury was one Native American man shot in the hand.
But on that Monday afternoon, in a gunfight to regain control of the main road into Wounded Knee, U.S. Marshal Lloyd Grimm was shot and paralyzed in what was described as the heaviest exchange of fire between the two sides since the confrontation started, according to the New York Times.
While the government continued its blockade, interest from national media began to fade.
“The idea was, wait them out, it's cold, they only have so much food, they're going to get tired of being in the situation after a while. Let them make their political points,” Flynn said. “But that ran its course and different news stories begin to appear. This whole thing about Watergate, people start to become a little bit more interested and all of a sudden, Wounded Knee, it's page two, it's page three, it's page five, it's page seven.”
On April 17, Frank Clearwater would be shot during a confrontation with federal authorities at Wounded Knee and would be airlifted to Rapid City where he later died on April 25.
The next day, Lawrence "Buddy" Lamont was shot and killed by federal agents.
The death of Lamont is said to have spurred those at the camp to find a resolution to the stand-off.
The occupation officially ended on May 8, 1973 with some of the occupiers surrendering to federal officials while others managed to escape the town before arrest.
Warrior, whose book 'Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee' was published in 1996, said for those who took part in activism the reason why often came down to their own stories.
“It often came to personal stories of grandparents, parents being involved in what you could think back on as activism in their own time,” Warrior said. “Whether it was 30 years before or 40 years before, taking up some sort of protest or some sort of resistance to what was basically being dished up for them.”
“My brother had gotten a U-Haul and came in and we got what we could in a little U-Haul. Just what few possessions the family could gather together, but by and large, we lost everything,” Fritze said. “There really was nothing to go back to after they were done after those 71 days.
“They burned down the store. Our houses were trashed. I mean, it was just, it was horrible. Everything was destroyed and desecrated.”
Most of those who had been arrested for their involvement in the occupation were acquitted due to prosecutorial misconduct.
Confrontations between Wilson and those who were pro-AIM continued for several years even after Wilson’s successful re-election campaign in 1974.
The actions of both federal agencies and those in the occupation have been met with mixed criticisms but there is a general consensus that AIM brought attention to the struggles and mistreatment of Native Americans to a global audience, Flynn said.
“I grew up in a home where we took an enormous amount of pride in our South Dakota history, but also in the great, rich, Native American contribution to that history. But I grew up here and ugly things were said about Native Americans that you don't hear said today,” said Flynn who is a direct descendant of Lakota Chief Spotted Tail. “I grew up hearing ugly stereotypes about American Indians, not my home by God, we'd get our mouth washed out with soap. But I heard my friends and elders say these things.
“And just a generation of young people today, they don't talk that way. They don't see things that way. And that is a lasting legacy you might say of the American Indian Movement — trying to shape a different narrative about who American Indian people are so that whites would see American Indian people the way American Indian people see themselves.”
contact Matt Gade at firstname.lastname@example.org
Spread the word