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Wounded Knee and Today’s Fight for Treaty Rights

Fifty years have passed but for American Indians the struggle for recognition of the nation-to-nation treaties continues to be seen as survival.

A child leans against the Wounded Knee Memorial on Feb. 27, 2023, in South Dakota after joining marchers commemorating the 50th anniversary of the occupation of the town of Wounded Knee.,Stewart Huntington/ICT

The 1973 Siege at Wounded Knee is the longest “civil unrest” in the history of the US Marshal Service. For 71 days, the American Indian Movement (AIM) and members of the Oglala Lakota (Sioux) nation were under siege in a violent standoff with the FBI and US Marshals equipped with high powered rifles and armored personnel carriers.  Two people were killed, over two dozen wounded.  At stake, sovereignty and self-determination guaranteed through treaty rights.

Fifty years have passed but for American Indians the struggle for recognition of the nation-to-nation treaties continues to be seen as survival.  At the end of February, young Indian leaders joined older activists to gather at Wounded Knee to commemorate the violent events that began on February 27, 1973, and renew their call for self-determination and recognition of their treaties.  At the Commemoration Wounded Knee veteran leader Bill Means emphasized that the failure to honor these treaties stems from “continued acts of colonialism.”

The Lakota Indians are not fighting for civil rights. Their fight is for their land and those guaranteed rights of self-determination agreed to in the 1868 Ft. Laramie Treaty. As one Wounded Knee veteran put it, “We were trying to get out of the system.”

American Indians see their responsibility under the treaties linked to the health of the land and water.  Lakota leader and Wounded Knee veteran Madonna Thunder Hawk explained, “When we step up as a people to protect land and water, what we stand on are our treaty rights.”

To understand their struggle, you must understand the history.

The 1973 Siege at Wounded Knee is rooted in the abrogation of the Ft. Laramie 1868 Treaty between the U.S. Government and the Great Sioux Nation.  This Treaty sets aside a large swath of land west of the Missouri River and designates the Black Hills, sacred land of the Indians, as “unceded territory” for the “absolute and undisturbed use and occupation of the Indians.” The American Indians justly understood the Treaty as the right to self-determination.

But the discovery of gold in the Black Hills by George Armstrong Custer in 1874 followed by the Battle of Big Horn in 1876 galvanized the illegal confiscation of Indian lands and the enforcement of the reservation system.    After failed attempts to convince the Tribes to cede the Black Hills, the Government simply took the land as an Act of Congress via the 1877 Dawes Act. It was an egregious violation of the1868 Treaty and set the stage for the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, where as many as 300 unarmed Native Americans were slaughtered.  Nearly half were women and children.  

Not until 1980 did the U.S. Supreme Court acknowledge that the taking of the Black Hills was illegal, and compelled compensation, today estimated to be at over one billion dollars.

But the Lakota People have rejected the Court’s decision. They are clear. The Black Hills are sacred and not for sale.  

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For the Lakota this fight for survival, the preservation of their nation and its land, were the central demands of the siege at Wounded Knee.  During the negotiations the local Oglala leaders were frustrated with the Justice Department’s refusal to grasp the central issue of the Treaty.  Gladys Bissonette, a revered Oglala activist admonished the Government negotiators, “In the past there were a lot of violations of the sacred treaties . . .This is real. We’re not playing here. So all you people that go back to Washington, think real good, because our lives are at stake. It concerns our children’s children, the unborn.”

Oglala Lakota County is one of the poorest counties in the United States.  The Lakota people live in extreme poverty.  Their children were subjected to cultural genocide through forced assimilation in Bureau of Indian Affairs schools. Their life expectancy is nearly six years less than white Americans. But they were not poor before their land and resources were taken. The Lakota understand Indian poverty as a direct result of colonialism.

Much has been written about the aftermath of the 1973 siege, including the murders of 60 AIM sympathizers and activists in the following year, known as the Reign of Terror, carried out by a local vigilante group self-titled “Goons” (Guardians of the Oglala Nation). U.S. District Court Judge Fred Nichols viewed this as the FBI colluding with vigilantes to target AIM sympathizers. The continued imprisonment of Leonard Peltier despite universal calls for clemency - even by the prosecutor - demonstrates the FBI’s intent to eliminate Indian activists even at the cost of truth.

At the end of the nine-month trial of AIM leaders Dennis Banks and Russel Means the jury polled unanimously to acquit. But an illness of one juror prevented the required courtroom polling. Judge Nichols then simply dismissed the charges.  “[T]he misconduct by the government in this case is so aggravated that a dismissal must be entered in the interests of justice," he wrote. “The waters of Justice have been polluted.”

The new young Indian leadership is educated both in traditional ways and at American colleges and universities. They call for solidarity with other colonized peoples of the world. And they identify the continued denial of self-determination and pressure to assimilate as an ongoing strategy of cultural genocide. They easily traverse both worlds, but they do not accept the label of “American”.  They are members of their respective Indian Tribal Nations. And return of their lands under the treaties remains their priority. Oglala Lakota leader and N.D.N. Collective President Nick Tilsen adds, “ “The Waters of Justice have absolutely been polluted. The issue of the Black Hills is one of the longest unresolved legal, political, treaty and human rights matter’s in the History of the United States. This president says he’s about a reckoning with the past and healing forward yet no effort has been made by the White House to have open dialogue about the return of Public Lands in the Black Hills. It’s time to talk about LandBack. If this country wants to authentically engage a restorative and just healing process with this country’s Indigenous peoples it must start with the return of stolen indigenous lands back into indigenous hands. That’s our ask, it’s very clear return all public lands in the Black Hills to the Lakota. It will halt the mining claims and projects that are polluting the water and destroying the environment and move us all closer to justice.”
Corporate extraction of critical metals and minerals from American Indian lands and the growing impact of the climate extremes give impetus to their demands for the return of their lands.  
These are warriors of a new era committed to the protection of their land, their waters, and their people, and they are fueled by the urgency of climate change.

“The waters of justice have been polluted.”

The fight continues.

[Sand Brim was at was at Wounded Knee 50 years ago. She stayed two years on the reservation collecting evidence for the Federal Trials. She just returned from the 50 Year Commemoration.]