WOUNDED KNEE: Sacred ground for American Sioux Indians. Our June feature.

Red Cloud (on right with feather head-dress), chief of the Oglala Lakota Sioux, who defeated the US Cavalry in several encounters 1866-1868 (Red Cloud’s War) resulting in the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, that gave the Sioux rights of “absolute and undisturbed use and occupation” of the South Dakota Black Hills and surrounding territories.  

It’s an old story, retold many times, but never enough for its full importance to sink in. 

When Christopher Columbus landed in the Western Hemisphere in 1492, the place was already thriving with tens of millions of native Americas, great civilizations covering continents north, south, and central.  Over the next 400 years, waves of Europeans would come and systematically settle the land,  dispossessing native people of their traditional homes along the way, often through brutal violence.  In no place was this done more forcefully than in the USA, and the final stroke, breaking the last resistance, came at a small creek on the South Dakota Sioux reservation called Wounded Knee.

We remember Wounded Knee today mostly for two events: First is the December 29, 1890, massacre of between 150 and 300 Indian men, women, and children, as the men were being disarmed en route to the reservation — often portrayed as the final climax of the Plains Indian Wars of the 1800s.  Then, three generations later, in 1973, came the second event, a siege mounted by 300 descendants of the original Wounded Knee Indians (calling themselves the American Indian Movement) who, in an attempt to protest decades of poverty, corruption, and broken promises, took up arms and seized the town of Pine Ridge on the Reservation.  They held it for 71 days against US marshals, FBI, and military support.

Over the next few weeks, Viral History is proud to bring you a series of posts about Wounded Knee, setting the record straight on this history and updating it to the 21st Century.  

  • Part I: The Closing Frontier, from Red Cloud’s War, to the Little Bighorn, to the events setting the stage for 1890;   
  • Part II: 1890 — The massacre
  • Guest Blogger Marshall Matz on the 1973 siege.  Matz, as a young staff lawyer to US Senator George McGovern (member of a delegation brought to Wounded Knee to negotiate an end to the 1973 siege), had a unique close-up view of those events that he shares for the first time,
  • A take by Johnny Cash on the 1890 massacre.  Cash, the great country singer & song-writer, visited South Dakota after the 1973 siege and wrote a beautiful song about the 1890 episode, which we share here;  
  • WOUNDED KNEE EPILOGUE- Karla Fetrow on the incarceration of Leonard Peltier. A big thank you to our friends at online magazine SUBVERSIFY for this post where Karla Fetrow brings the saga into the 21st Century with the tale of Indian activist Leonard Peltier who in 1975 was accused of murdering two FBI agents under questionable circumstance and who remains in prison today.
  • Finally,  a digression to the famous 1876 battle of Little Bighorn in nearby Montana and a facet that I have always found haunting –  the story of Major Marcus Reno, Custer’s second in command.  Reno survived the battle but came home to accusations of cowardice, two military Court Martial prosecutions, bouts of drinking, a broken marriage, and an early death.  Who paid the bigger price? Custer, who “died with his boots on” in Montana?  Or Reno, who had to come home and face defeat?  

Why Wounded Knee?  Why now?  Yes, this spring marks the 38th anniversary of the 1973 siege.  And, yes, this summer will mark the 135th anniversary of the Little Big Horn battle.  But this story has an importance beyond these dates.  Today in 2011, the descendants of Sitting Bull, Red Cloud (photo above), Crazy Horse, and the other great Sioux chiefs and warriors still live on those same South Dakota reservations in terrible conditions, with unemployment reaching over 50 percent and all the related social problems of intense poverty — too far away from population centers to base an economy on casinos or tourism.  And despite decades of talk, there seems little hope for the next generation without change. 

The legacy of Wounded Knee lives on, and with it the responsibility to make things right.

So stay tuned during June as the drama unfolds.  Enjoy.  

GUEST BLOG: Wounded Knee Epilogue – Karla Fetrow on the incarceration of Leonard Peltier.

Leonard Peltier.

A big thank you to our friends at online magazine SUBVERSIFY: An alternative subversive perspective to Mainstream Media, which ran this piece last Friday (July 1) and gives us permission to share it here.  Karla Fetrow brings the Wounded Knee saga into the 21st Century with the tale of Indian activist Leonard Peltier, a member of the American Indian Movement (AIM) that conducted the Wounded Knee 1973 uprising, who in 1975 was accused of murdering two FBI agents under questionable circumstance (described below), and who remains in prison today.    

 Links to prior posts in this series:

                  —WOUNDED KNEE: Sacred ground for American Sioux Indians;
                  —WOUNDED KNEE part 1: The closing frontier;
                  —WOUNDED KNEE part 2: 1890 — The Massacre;
                  —GUEST BLOGGER: Marshall Matz on Indian uprising at WOUNDED KNEE, 1973
                  —WOUNDED KNEE: 1890, a take from Johnny Cash. 

The Elements of Special Prosecution

June 26th. marked the anniversary of one of the greatest infamies committed in contemporary times by the U.S. Government against its own First People. On that day, in 1975, federal agents entered the Sioux Reservation, purportedly to question a crime suspect. Their invasion dissolved into mayhem and overt violence. Their primary motivation, however, was as it has been since 1870; to coerce or persuade the property owners to sell their land for industrial and natural resource development; primarily in heavy minerals, including Black Hills gold. A gunfight broke out and two of the F.B.I. agents were killed. Three of the inhabitants were later arrested and charged with murder. Two of the defendants were acquitted through a self-defense plea. One was not. He was tried, found guilty, and given two consecutive life sentences. His name was Leonard Peltier.

Attempts to free Leonard Peltier of the charges that occurred under the same circumstances with the same anxiety to defend his own life, have repeatedly failed. His initial arrest and confinement caused a flurry of interest in Native American affairs. “Free Leonard Peltier” posters decorated the homes of political activists, protests lined the streets of major Universities, and a copy of “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” lay on the coffee table of every informed household.

What does the book, which is a historical account of the 1870′s US Government’s battle with the Sioux Nation have to do with Leonard Peltier? Quite a bit. In the late 1960′s, frustrated by decades of discrimination and intrusive federal policies, Native American community activists led by George Mitchell, Dennis Banks, and Clyde Bellecourt met with 200 other tribal members to discuss these issues and the means of taking over their own destiny. Together, they created a new entity, a powerful voice speaking out against slum housing, joblessness and racist treatment among the First People. They became the foundation for the American Indian Movement (AIM).

The American Indian Movement opened the K-12 Heart of the Earth Survival School in 1971, and in 1972, mounted the Trail of Broken Treaties march on Washington, D.C., where they took over the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), in protest of its policies, and with demands for their reform.

Photo of Wounded Knee during 1973  protest/takeover.

According to the Minnesota Historical Library, “The revolutionary fervor of AIM’s leaders drew the attention of the FBI and the CIA, who then set out to crush the movement. Their ruthless suppression of AIM during the early 1970s sowed the seeds of the confrontation that followed in February, 1973, when AIM leader Russell Means and his followers took over the small Indian community of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in protest of its allegedly corrupt government. When FBI agents were dispatched to remove the AIM occupiers, a standoff ensued. Through the resulting siege that lasted for 71 days, two people were killed, twelve wounded, and twelve hundred arrested. Wounded Knee was a seminal event, drawing worldwide attention to the plight of American Indians. AIM leaders were later tried in a Minnesota court and, after a trial that lasted for eight months, were acquitted of wrongdoing.”

Wounded Knee is part of the eight district Pine Ridge Ogala Lakota Reservation. Leonard Peltier traveled to the reservation in 1975 as an AIM member to help try and bring a peaceful end to the violence. He became caught up in the conflict when the two FBI agents entered the reservation in search of a Pine Ridge resident named Jimmy Eagle, who was wanted for questioning in a robbery and assault.

The invasion of federal officers, which lasted well into the late nineteen seventies, continuing after the arrest of Peltier, is referred to by the Lakota tribe as the reign of terror. Fifty-six names are listed on a memorial page honoring the Pine Ridge members who had lost their lives during this modern day battle with US Government sponsored land grabbers. Fifty-six names that did not make the headlines, whose deaths were not investigated to discover the culpable, whose voices were not heard by the American public. The fight Leonard Peltier joined in was the same as the seventy-one day siege at Wounded Knee, the same as the one that silenced forever fifty-six members of his community, the same as the one in which two other men were arrested on charges of murder and later acquitted through a self-defense plea.

According to the Leonard Peltier Defence Committee website, “Key witnesses were banned from testifying about FBI misconduct and testimony about the conditions and atmosphere on the Pine Ridge Reservation at the time of the shoot-out was severely restricted. Important evidence, such as conflicting ballistics reports, was ruled inadmissible. Still, the U.S. Prosecutor failed to produce a single witness who could identify Peltier as the shooter. Instead, the government tied a bullet casing found near the bodies of their agents to the alleged murder weapon, arguing that this gun had been the only one of its kind used during the shootout, and that it had belonged to Peltier.

Later, Mr. Peltier’s attorneys uncovered, in the FBI’s own documents, that more than one weapon of the type attributed to Peltier had been present at the scene and the FBI had intentionally concealed a ballistics report that showed the shell casing could not have come from the alleged murder weapon. Other troubling information emerged: the agents undoubtedly followed a red pickup truck onto the land where the shoot-out took place, not the red and white van driven by Peltier; and compelling evidence against several other suspects existed and was concealed.”

The Poet Behind the Bars

Leonard Peltier is behind bars, but his voice has not been silenced. His book, “Prison Writings; My Life is My Sun Dance”, has received International acclaim, attracting even the attention of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth of Britain. Archbishop Desmond Tutu called it: “A deeply moving and very disturbing story of a gross miscarriage of justice and an eloquent cri de coeur of Native Americans for redress and to be regarded as human beings with inalienable rights guaranteed under the United States Constitution. We pray that it does not fall on deaf ears. America owes it to herself.”

His list of achievements has been extraordinary:

  • In 1992 he established a scholarship at New York University for Native American students seeking law degrees.
  • Instrumental in the establishment and funding of a Washington (state) Native American newspaper by and for Native young people.
  • Has been the sponsoring father of two children in Childreach, one in El Salvador, and the other in Guatemala.
  • Has worked to have prisoners’ artwork displayed around the country and the world in art galleries in hopes of starting art programs for prisoners and increasing their self-confidence.
  • Has sponsored several clothing and toy drives for reservations.
  • Distributes to Head Start and halfway houses, as well as women’s centers.
  • Every year he has sponsored a Christmas gift drive for the children of Pine Ridge, SD. Organized and emergency food drive for the people of Pohlo, Mexico in response to the Acteal Massacre.
  • Serves on the board of the Rosenberg Fund for Children.
  • Donates his artwork to several human rights and social welfare organizations in order to help them raise funds. This most recently includes the ACLU, Trail of Hope (a Native American conference dealing with drug and alcohol addiction), World Peace and Prayer Day, the First Nation Student Association, and the Buffalo Trust Fund.

One of Leonard Peltier’s paintings: Grandma Jumping Bull.

By donating his paintings to the Leonard Peltier Charitable Foundation, he was able to supply computers and educational supplies such as books and encyclopedias to libraries and families on Pine Ridge.

By donating his paintings to the LPCF, he was also able to raise substantial supplies for the people of Pine Ridge after last year’s devastating tornado hit and caused a multitude of damage on the reservation.

He has been widely recognized for his efforts and has won several human rights awards, including the North Star Frederick Douglas Award, Humanist of the Year Award, and the International Human Rights Prize.

America’s Third World Citizens

Understanding Peltier’s passion requires understanding the conditions of the Pine Ridge Reservation. The 11,000-square mile (approximately 2,700,000 acres) Pine Ridge Reservation is the second-largest Native American Reservation within the United States. It is roughly the size of the State of Connecticut. According to the Oglala Sioux tribal statistics, approximately 1,700,000 acres of this land are owned by the Tribe or by tribal members.

The topography of the Pine Ridge Reservation includes the barren Badlands, rolling grassland hills, dryland prairie, and areas dotted with pine trees.

The Pine Ridge Reservation is home to approximately 40,000 persons, 35% of which are under the age of 18. The latest Federal Census shows the median age to be 20.6 years. Approximately half the residents of the Reservation are registered tribal members of the Oglala Lakota Sioux Nation.

The median income of the Pine Ridge Reservation is $2,600 to $3,500 a year. The unemployment rate averages around 83-85% and can be higher in the winter when travel is difficult or even impossible. The average life expectancy for women is fifty-two years, for men, it’s forty-eight. The rate of diabetes and tuberculosis are eight hundred times the U.S. National average. The rate of cervical cancer is five hundred times the U.S. National average.

It is reported that at least 60% of the homes on the Pine Ridge Reservation are infested with Black Mold, Stachybotrys. This infestation causes an often-fatal condition with infants, children, elderly, those with damaged immune systems, and those with lung and pulmonary conditions at the highest risk. Exposure to this mold can cause hemorrhaging of the lungs and brain as well as cancer.

A Federal Commodity Food Program is active but supplies mostly inappropriate foods (high in carbohydrate and/or sugar) for the largely diabetic population of the Reservation. A small non-profit Food Co-op is in operation on the Reservation but is available only for those with funds to participate.

In most of the treaties between the U.S. Government and Indian Nations, the U.S. government agreed to provide adequate medical care for Indians in return for vast quantities of land. The Indian Health Services (IHS) was set up to administer the health care for Indians under these treaties and receives an appropriation each year to fund Indian health care. Unfortunately, the appropriation is very small compared to the need and there is little hope for increased funding from Congress. The IHS is understaffed and ill-equipped and can’t possibly address the needs of Indian communities. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Living conditions are crowded. As many as seventeen people live in two and three bedroom homes, while homes built to contain six to eight people will have up to thirty inhabitants. Many of the homes lack adequate furniture, use their cooking stove for heat, and some have only dirt floors. Thirty-nine percent of the homes are without electricity. Sixty percent of the reservation families have no land-line telephones. Computers and Internet connections are rare.

Efforts to improve their living conditions by investing in businesses have been met with frustration. Currently there are no movie theaters, only one grocery store, one motel and a few scatter bed and breakfast arrangements. Several of the banks and lending institutions nearest to the Reservation have been targeted for investigation of fraudulent or predatory lending practices, with the citizens of the Pine Ridge Reservation as their victims.

Many wells and much of the water and land on the Reservation is contaminated with pesticides and other poisons from farming, mining, open dumps, and commercial and governmental mining operations outside the Reservation. A further source of contamination is buried ordnance and hazardous materials from closed U.S. military bombing ranges on the Reservation.

Scientific studies show that the High Plains/Oglala Aquifer which begins underneath the Pine Ridge Reservation is predicted to run dry in less than 30 years due to commercial interest use and dryland farming in numerous states south of the Reservation. This critical North American underground water resource is not renewable at anything near the present consumption rate. The recent years of drought have simply accelerated the problem.

Scientific studies show that much of the High Plains/Oglala Aquifer has been contaminated with farming pesticides and commercial, factory, mining, and industrial contaminants in the States of South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas.

Silent No Longer

The conditions of the Sioux reservation are not unique. To varying degrees, these conditions exist on nearly all the U.S. reservations. It is to this plight that Peltier and others like himself would address our attention. It’s not an appeal to assimilate into a society that rejects their cultural heritage, but an appeal to accept them complete with their culture. It is not an appeal for hand-outs but for fair business practices. It’s not an appeal based on abandoning their old ways, but one of incorporating modern technology and education for a new nation. For over a hundred years, Pine Ridge has defended itself against self-interested groups that sought to establish themselves from within. Now they are encroached upon by these same interest groups from without. They have been harmed. They have lost their means of livelihood, their health, their clean water, and yet they keep gathering. The community grows as their urban cousins leave the cities to join them. They gather because they must. Their desperation is a call to all who have been swept aside as unimportant, unsubstantial, inconvenient. They will be heard.

                     Silence, they say, is the voice of complicity.
                     But silence is impossible.
                     Silence screams.
                     Silence is a message,
                     just as doing nothing is an act.

                                            -Leonard Peltier-
 Leonard Peltier was born September 12, 1944. In 1977, at the age of thirty-three, he was sentenced to prison. In 2009, he was granted a full hearing before the United States Parole Commission. His parole request was denied. Peltier’s next scheduled hearing is set for July, 2024. Should he live that long, he will be eighty years old. He has already spent more than half his life in prison for a crime that began as a crime against the Native American people and that amounts to selective prosecution, suppression and the concealment of vital evidence. In the time he has spent behind bars, he has contributed more to the good of his country than most of our Senators, Representatives, Congressmen, diplomats, business owners and billionaires. He is a humanitarian, yet the humanitarian compassion of the US public has not freed him. He is an author, a poet, a craftsman, a spokesperson for human rights. History will not remember him as a murderer, but as a man who sought equality. The wounded hearts, suffering under the tyranny of corruption, will embrace him.

Whatever debts he owed society, Peltier has more than adequately paid them. Society owes him a debt in return. It owes him the safe guarding of the rights of America’s First People to thrive. It owes him recognition of his worth, which cannot be measured in terms of war against the Government of the U.S., or in personal wealth, but in his deeds. It owes him his freedom.

Karla Fetrow is head editor at Subversity.comClick here to enjoy a few more of her recent pieces.







WOUNDED KNEE: 1890, a take from Johnny Cash.


Links to prior posts in this series:

               —WOUNDED KNEE part 1: The closing frontier;
               —WOUNDED KNEE part 2: 1890 — The Massacre. 

Before leaving Wounded Knee, here’s one more take on the 1890 story — from country singer Johnny Cash.   He recorded this song during a visit to South Dakota shortly after the 1973 American Indian Movement siege at Pine Ridge.  “Bigfoot,” whom Cash refers to, was another name for Sioux Chief Spotted Elk who led the Indians at Wounded Knee that day in 1890 and was one of the first killed in the encounter.   I’ve included the full lyrics below.   Enjoy.

Johnny Cash – 1974  
But the land was already claimed by a people when the  
cowboy came and when the soldiers came. 
The story of the American Indian is in a lot of ways a story 
of tragedy like that day at Wounded Knee, South Dakota.  

Bigfoot was an Indian Chief of the Miniconjou band,  
a band of Miniconjou Sioux from South Dakota land. 
igfoot said to Custer, stay away from Crazy Horse, 
but Custer crossed into Sioux land, and he never came back across. 
Then Bigfoot led his people to a place called Wounded Knee, 
and they found themselves surrounded by the Seventh Cavalry.  

Big Chief Bigfoot, rise up from your bed, 
Miniconjou babies cry for their mothers lyin’ dead.  

Bigfoot was down with a fever when he reached Wounded Knee, 
and his people all were prisoners of the Seventh Cavalry. 
Two hundred women and children and another hundred men 
raised up a white flag of peace, but peace did not begin. 
An accidental gunshot, and Bigfoot was first to die, 
and over the noise of the rifles you could hear the babies cry.  

Big Chief Bigfoot, it’ s good that you can’t see, 
revenge is being wrought by Custer’s Seventh Cavalry.  

Then smoke hung over the canyon on that cold December day, 
all was death and dying around where Bigfoot lay. F
arther on up the canyon some had tried to run and hide, 
but death showed no favourites, women, men and children died. 
One side called it a massacre, the other a victory, 
but the white flag is still waving today at Wounded Knee.  

Big Chief Bigfoot, your Miniconjou band 
is more ‘n than remembered here in South Dakota land.  
Big Chief Bigfoot, your Miniconjou band 
is more ‘n than remembered here in South Dakota land.

GUEST BLOGGER: Marshall Matz on Indian uprising at Wounded Knee, 1973.

Armed members of the American Indian Movement during 1973 siege at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. Note the American flag hung upside down (distress signal), a frequent protest symbol during the late 1960s  – early 1970s.

Links to prior posts in this series:
               —WOUNDED KNEE part 1: The closing frontier;
               —WOUNDED KNEE part 2: 1890 — The Massacre.

On December 29, 1890, the American Seventh Cavalry committed a notorious massacre, killing at least 150 Lakota Sioux men, women, and children, at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation near Wounded Knee creek in South Dakota. This massacre ended the Indian Wars of that era and any resistance to moving the Plains Indians off their traditional land into reservations. Eighty-three years later, as a protest against decades of poverty, neglect, and broken promises, some 300 descendants of the original Wounded Knee Indians, calling themselves the American Indian Movement (AIM) took up arms and occupied the village of Wounded Knee. For 71 days, they held off the combined force of the US Marshal Service, the FBI, the US military, and state police, until leaders brokered a settlement.

Our Guest Blogger, Marshall Matz, had a unique role in this dramatic stand-off, which he shares with us today for the first time.

Wounded Knee is a small village on the Oglala Sioux Indian Reservation (Pine Ridge), the largest of nine Sioux reservations in South Dakota with a population of 10,000. Wounded Knee has always had special meaning to Indian people as the location of the famous 1890 massacre – their last armed confrontation with the US government. (See: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.)

In February 1973, to dramatize the plight of Indian people and pressure both Washington and the local Indian establishment for change, the American Indian Movement (AIM) took over Wounded Knee in an armed conflict. They seized hostages – local officials – and established an armed military perimeter around the village The US government, in turn, cut off food, electricity, and all roads into the town. Still, a steady stream of Indians snuck in to join the protest.

FBI car shot during Wounded Knee siege.

Gunfire between Indians and law enforcement broke out almost daily. The leaders of the 300 AIM members, Russell Means and Dennis Banks, brought in lawyer William Kunstler (then famous for defending anti-Vietnam War protestors in the Chicago 7 case) to represent them. They demanded investigations of corruption both in the tribal governments and the US Bureau of Indian Affairs. Soon, the siege was making headlines around the world, gaining wide support. (That spring, actor Marlon Brando refused to accept his Academy Award for The Godfather in solidarity with the Wounded Knee Indians).

At the time, I was 27 years old and had recently moved to Washington from South Dakota to take a position with Senator George McGovern (D-SD), the recent Democratic presidential nominee, as Counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition which McGovern chaired. The Senator had hired me after he “found me” in South Dakota, as he likes to put it, working as an attorney on the impoverished Indian reservations for South Dakota Legal Services. There, I had represented members of the Crow Creek and Lower Brule Sioux Tribes from an office at Fort Thompson. As a result, I had witnessed first-hand the rising Indian grievances, and Senator McGovern viewed me as one of his staff “experts” on the subject.

After the Wounded Knee siege had already lasted many weeks, the AIM Indian leaders decided to invite a group of Washington officials to help mediate a settlement. They invited the two South Dakota Senators, McGovern and Jim Abourezk (D-SD), and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to make the point that the Reservations were sovereign nations. Secretary Kissinger did not accept the invitation (if he ever received it). Instead, the third seat went to the Senate staff counsel — me.

I remember vividly being flown by Air Force jet from Andrews Air Force Base, just outside Washington, D.C., to Ellsworth Air Force Base in Rapid City, South Dakota. We were transferred to a helicopter flown directly to Pine Ridge, the “capital” or center of the Oglala Sioux Reservation. Here, the FBI agents took us by car ,across the stark, semi-desert landscape to a point just outside Wounded Knee itself. The FBI and AIM members had both established armed perimeters around the town, and between them was what both sides called “the DMZ” (demilitarized zone), as in the Vietnam War.

At this point, I remember the lead FBI agent telling the Senators (and me, the Counsel) that they could not protect us any further. If we proceeded into occupied Pine Ridge, it was at our own risk. I remember wondering if it was the first time the FBI had told two U.S. Senators that they could not protect them on US soil. For Senator McGovern, who had just recently experienced the heavy security of a Presidential campaign, it was the most striking.

FBI agents gave us a car and we drove forward. I sat in back, with Senator McGovern driving (if I recall correctly) and Senator Abourezk holding a white handkerchief on a stick through the car window to indicate that we were the negotiating team. All the while, I could see armed Indians riding horses on the surrounding hills.

And with that, we drove into Wounded Knee.

Wounded Knee is a small village with only a few buildings….a church, post office and small store (again, if my memory is correct). Wounded Knee was completely armed. All around town we saw young braves with rifles, posted at key locations. Somehow, in all this, I never felt any danger and I don’t believe the Senators did either, but we did not discuss it.


View inside the AIM leadership tent during the siege.


Also, all over town, we ran into newspaper writers and TV crews, many lugging around heavy cameras, lights, and other equipment. (There were only the three major TV networks at the time.) While the Indians kept the FBI out, they made a point to allow the media in, since publicity was a major goal of the siege. They wanted to bring attention to the plight of Indian people and the broken Treaties.
The Indians took us to a farm house for the actual discussions with AIM leaders and their legal counsel, Mr. Kunstler. I remember their starting the session with prayers in the Lakota language as is traditional of all Sioux meetings. Food and coffee was available, not a small point since food shipments had been cut off during the siege.


Once the talks began, both Senators participated in the discussion while I listened and tried to staff them as best I could. While McGovern was better known around the country, Senator Abourezk actually had closer ties to the Reservations having grown up “West River” — west of the Missouri River where the tribes were located. Senator McGovern is from “East River.”

The Senators promised to use their influence to bring the Indian concerns back to Washington. Ultimately, the siege ended peacefully. As the only staff person present, I served as a liaison to the press and tried to provide some historical understanding to the siege.. After the senators left, I stayed behind for several days, doing what I could to provide a presence and liaison to the Senators.

The Indians ended their siege in early May after 71 days – 38 years ago last month. What had they accomplished? Two of the Indian occupiers had died of gunshot wounds during the siege and a US Marshal was grievously injured. Two years later, on June 26, 1975, two FBI agents were killed near Wounded Knee and Leonard Peltier, an AIM member, was convicted.

The siege of Wounded Knee did provide greater recognition across the country of the difficulties facing modern American Indians. Presidents since that time have all (I believe) recognized the sovereignty of Indian Tribes with Presidential Proclamations pledged to interact with Tribes on a basis of “government to government.”

The sad truth, however, is that not much has changed economically since 1973 to improve the quality of life on American Indian Reservations. Today, unemployment on many Reservations is over 50% and can be as high as 80%. The poorest Tribes in the country are still those in the Missouri River Valley that are the most remote and furthest from major population centers that could allow for gambling or tourism to help the Tribe. This high unemployment cannot help but lead to a breakdown of the social fabric. Alcoholism, diabetes, infant mortality, and violence all far exceed the profile for the rest of the United States.

The United States continues to pay lip service to Indian rights, but has not appropriated the money needed or established the programs necessary to create a private sector economy on the Reservations and break the cycle of poverty. The sad legacy of Wounded Knee will continue until the United States government helps to replace the economy that was lost. The world may be “flat” with a global economy, as New York Times columnist Tom Friedman puts it, but that economy has not reached Indian Country, USA. The United States outsources to India but not to America’s Reservations.

Personally, I have remained involved with the Reservations. My law firm, OFW Law, today has an office on the Lower Brule Sioux Reservation, which we represent in Washington, D.C. The Tribe has given me the title “Ambassador to the United States” and the office of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) is referred to as the Tribal Embassy.

The Lower Brule Sioux Tribe is working hard to bring private business to the reservations as a spur to breaking the cycle of poverty. To do this, as one strategy, we are focusing our energy on trying to pass an Indian Agriculture Act that would bring many of the highly-successful US Government farm and rural development programs, administered by the Department of Agriculture, to the reservations. This, as a spur to private home-grown business, may well be the best hope for finally bringing a happy ending to the sad history of Wounded Knee, be it 1890 or 1973.

Marshall Matz practices law at OFW Law in Washington, D.C.  Visit him at OFWLaw.com.  


WOUNDED KNEE: part 2, 1890 — The massacre.

Photo taken shortly after the massacre/battle, showing defeated Sioux chiefs guarded by a cavalry soldier.
Links to prior posts in this series:
               —WOUNDED KNEE part 1: The closing frontier;
               —WOUNDED KNEE part 2: 1890 — The Massacre.

What happened on the snow-crusted plain near Wounded Knee Creek at day-break, December 29, 1890, has been described variously as a battle, a massacre, or a one-sided rout.  In truth, both sides fired gunshots and took casualties — but it was hardly even.

Numbers tell the story.  Of the 500 US cavalry engaged that day, 23 died in the encounter, dozens were wounded,  and twenty received the Army’s Medal of Honor (more than the number given to all the South Dakotans who served in World War II).   Of some 350 Sioux Indians, over 150 were killed, including 44 women and 18 children, and another 50 were wounded.  Some estimates put the Indian deaths closer to 200.  For the next century, arguments would rage over why it happened at all.

Why the Fight
Some basic facts are clear.  The day before, soldiers of the US Seventh Cavalry under Major Samuel M. Whitside, a veteran officer who had served in the Civil War, were patrolling the Dakota Badlands area and came across a large band of Sioux under a chief named Spotted Elk. (also known as “Big Foot”).  The army had issued orders that all nomadic Indians must be brought to the nearby Pine Ridge reservation, and Major Whitside, following these orders, decided to escort the Indians in that direction.  They camped along the way by Wounded Knee Creek. 
Artist Frederick Remington captures opening gunfire at Wounded Knee.

But rather than disarm the Indians immediately, which could start a fight, Whitside had decided to wait for reinforements, which came later that night with a heavily armed column under Colonel James W. Forsyth, another veteran officer with both Indian and Civil War experience.  Forsyth’s and Whitside’s combined force now totalled some 500 men, and included four Hotchkiss guns (similar to Gattling machine guns) that they mounted around the Indian encampment.

At this point, in late 1890, feelings against Indians in America had boiled over.  General Philip Sheridan, famous for his quip “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead,” served as Lieutanant General of the Army.  The public still fumed over the killing of General Custer and his soldiers at the Little Bighorn in 1876.  The original reservation granted the Sioux under the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie had been sharply cut to barely a quarter its original size, stripped of the Black Huills and other choice land.  In 1879, when General George Crook — a well known Indian fighter — negotiated a surrender of Apaches in the southwest, Washington immediately dismissed him from his command for being too lenient.
Nowhere did anger against the Sioux over Custer’s defeat at Little Bighorn still linger more strongly than among the Seventh Cavalry, Custer’s old command, that lost almost 300 dead that day. 
The Shooting
And so on the morning of December 29, 1890, at daybreak, Colonel Forsyth ordered his Seventh Cavalry troops to gather the Indians in their camp, separating men from women, and demand they surrender their guns.  Both sides seemed itching for a fight.  By one account, a Sioux medicine men named Yellow Bird began to perform the Ghost Dance — a mystical ritual that many Sioux believed made them bulletproof.    Forsyth demanded he step, but the medicine man refused.  
Then another Indian named Black Cayote, known to be deaf, apparently failed to hear the order to disarm.  When soldiers approached him, he grew agitated and pulled out his rifle.  Two soldiers grabbed him from behind.  In the struggle, his gun went off.  At that moment, dust flew in the air — parhaps part of the Ghost Dance — and a handful of Sioux pulled rifles they had concealed inside blankets.  They began firing at the soldiers.    [Click here for a detailed account by Colonel Forsyth’s Indian interpreter that day: ]
A photo of Indian survivors after the Wounded Knee massacre.
Once it started, the soldiers immediately raised weapons and returned fire full force at close range.  Dozens of Indian men fell in the first volleys, including Chief Spotted Elk.  The Indian gunfire quickly ceased, but the soldiers kept shooting (and many soldiers ended up falling to  friendly fire).  The Sioux women and children, originally separated from the men, ran from the camp toward some nearby ravines for safety.  In the confusion and excitement, several cavalry soldiers jumped on horses, chased them down and shot them.  The Hodgkiss machine guns joined the melee by raining bullets into the Indian tents.   
The whole affair ended in barely a few minutes.  The chasing and killing of those who ran off to nearby ravines,  mostly women and children, lasted perhaps another hour.   When it was over, the land was covered with bodies.  Four Sioux infants were discovered still alive in the arms of dying or dead mothers.  
The Reaction
Back east, in cities like New York and Philadelphia, newspapers quickly told the story about a great battle in the Dakotas.  Public sentiment stood solidly behind the soldiers, reflecting both support for US troops in the field and continuing bitterness at hostile Indians threatening settlers.  

The only apparent strong objection at the time — outside the Indians themselves — came from within the Army.  General Nelson Miles, another longtime Indian fighter and Civil War veteran who’d won the Medal of Honor for his role in the 1863 Battle at Chancellorville, had recently been named Major General and senior officer for the Dakota Territory.  Miles loudly complained that Forsyth had allowed his soldiers at Wounded Knee to break discipline and commit an unneeded massacre.  He relieved Forsyth of his command and convened an Army Court of Inquiry into the matter. 

Americans at that point, howver, were in no mood to second-guess the soldiers.  The Court of Inquiry criticized Forsyth, but it exonerated him of any wrongdoing.  The Secretary of War — at that point a former Pennsylavania congressman named Alexander Ramsey — ultimately bent to public demands and reinstated Forsyth to his command, promoting him to Major General.
Map showing carveup of the original 1868 Sioux
reservation by later treaties.

The December 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee (along with a fight the next day at nearby Drexel Mission) marked the last major encounter of the great Plains Indians Wars of the 1800s.  The Sioux give up any organized resistance and, for the next 83 years, would stay on their reservations.  Later treaties would strip away more lands as poverty and social conditions continued to deteriorate.  It would take decedes for the US government to grant the Sioux basic elements of citizenship,  decades more for basic constitutional civil liberties, and still more for the right to vote in elections.  

Large sums of money promised to the tribe members under treaties vanished in the bureaucracy of the US Bureau of Indian Afffairs and inefficient or corrupt local leaders.

Americans would tend to forget about the Sioux and other Indians after the 1890s — at least the real life ones — except as colorful villains in western movies, novels, and TV shows.  

Until the next major act of the drama — the Wounded Knee uprising of 1973.

WOUNDED KNEE, part I: The closing frontier.

Lakota Lake, Black Hills, South Dakota.
Click here for other parts of this series:
Wounded Knee is a stark, remote place in western South Dakota with freezing winters, blazing hot summers, and hard, rocky ground tough for raising crops.  Wounded Knee Creek itself is a narrow, shallow, twisting stream  — barely 100 miles start to finish — that snakes across the barren landscape through today’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation before vanishing into another stream just south of Badlands National Park.  
This creek never held much appeal for the Lakota Sioux Indians.  But just north sat something much better, the Black Hills, a natural wonder of peaks and streams, lush grasslands and deep forests, rich with game — bison, deer, and bighorn sheep.  This was land worth fighting for.   The Sioux — a loose confederation of tribes — had already dominated the North American plains for two centuries by the 1770s when they first moved into this area, captured it from the Cheyennes, and made it central to their culture, religion, and survival.  
By the time white settlers began reaching this area in the early 1800s, they found Sioux tribes — Lakota, Oglala, and others — covering vast stretches from Minnesota to the Dakotas, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, and as far west as Montana and Wyoming.  (Note: This wasn’t all their land; Sioux constantly fought with other tribes and permanent borders or settlements had little meaning on this frontier.)   At first, relations between Indians and this handful of white settlers were calm.  Tribes signed dozens of treaties with settlers during the 1820s and 1830s, setting vague boundaries and promising friendships.   But as the trickle of settlers began to grow, demands for land increased.  In 1851, the US government agreed to pay the Lakota Sioux $1.6 million for the entire Iowa territory plus large chunks of Minnesota in the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux.  (Click here for full text.)   Many Sioux objected to this rich deal — ceding 24 million acres in one stroke — but tribal chiefs insisted. 
Red Cloud’s War

The surge of white settlers after the Civil War — prompted in part by gold discoveries in Montana — finally pushed tensions over the edge.  Red Cloud was chief of the Oglala Lakota Sioux in Montana when he joined with Cheyennes and Arapaho in 1866 in a two-year wave of strikes against settlers and cavalry throughout Montana and Wyoming.   It was a bloody guerilla war and culminated in the Battle of the Hundred Slain (or “Fetterman Massacre” to the cavalrymen) when Red Cloud’s warriors managed to wipe out an entire 81-man detachment from Fort Kearny led by a Captain William J. Fetterman.  Red Cloud had used a decoy — the already prominent Crazy Horse — to lure the cavalrymen into a massive ambush. 

Battle of the Hundred Slain (Fetterman Massacre) — by artist Harold von Schmidt.

After this, the US government sought peace and signed the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie click here for full text.  This treaty gave Red Cloud’s Lakota Sioux perpetual rights of “absolute and undisturbed use and occupation” covering a swath of land — far too big to call simply a “reservation” – that included not just the Black Hills but virtually all western South Dakota.  For the foreseeable future, so long as both sides kept promises, it seemed to create a workable peace — enough good land for the Sioux, and enough good land for the settlers.   

The great Sioux War

Contemporary 1875 cartoon of Red Cloud turning
down Grant’s offer of meaningless trinkets.

But it wasn’t good enough.   In 1874, prospectors found gold in the Black Hills, bringing yet another new wave of settlers into Sioux territory.  By now, the mid-1870s, migration from the East had become a torrent. Over 120,000 white settlers would move into the Dakotas during the 1870s, plus hundreds of thousands more into the nearby new states of Iowa and Nebraska.  These settlers, in turn, were followed by over 50,000 miles of new railroad track laid across the west between 1865 and 1875.  The great herds of buffalo — staple food for the Sioux – began to disappear and cavalry forts dotted the landscape.  

Red Cloud himself led a delegation of Sioux leaders to Washington, DC, in 1875 to meet President Ulysses Grant and ask him to keep the US government’s 1868 treaty promises.  Instead, they received an ultimatum from the US Congress — a draft treaty demanding they leave the Dakotas in exchange for a one-time payment of $25,000 and the right to resettle in “Indian Territory” (today’s Oklahoma).   Red Cloud and the others refused to sign it.
This was this spark that led to the Great Sioux War of 1876-77, climaxed by its signature battle in which warriors under Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse annihilated General George Armstrong Custer and much of his Seventh Cavalry at the Little Bighorn.  (More on this later.)  
The roundup
Winning this battle and killing Custer ultimately meant doom for the Sioux.  The American public, shocked by the Little Bighorn massacre, rallied around the fallen cavalrymen and turning General Custer into a martyred hero.  They found totally unacceptable the whole idea of armed, hostile frontier tribesmen killing soldiers and settlers while blocking national expansion.  The warring Sioux had to be disarmed and neutralized — immediately.  Within weeks after Little Bighorn, the US government forced Sioux chiefs to sign a new treaty (click here for text) drastically cutting back the size of Red Cloud’s reservation, stripping it of the Black Hills and Badlands, requiring it be crossed by roads, and making most aspects of Indian daily life totally dependent on largesse from the US government.  At the same time, the US Cavalry began a concerted effort to round up in all the remaining nomadic tribes.  

Over the next few years, as more and more Indians were crowded into the reservations and circumstances grew desperate, many Indians began looking for salvation through a cult called the Ghost Dance,which alarmed many white settlers and soldiers.  Cult followers believed they were bulletproof during the dance, and new violence seemed inevitable. 

Things reached a head in December 1890.  By this time, Crazy Horse had been killed by soldiers, Sitting Bull had recently been killed during an arrest, and Red Cloud, still on the reservation, was growing increasing frustrated trying to negotiate with Washington.  One day that month, after a brutal winter storm,  soldiers from the Seventh Cavalry happened to come across a group of about 350 Sioux wandering near the Dakota Badlands, led by a chief named Spotted Elk.  All but about 120 of the Indians were women and children.  

The cavalrymen, under Major Samuel Whitside, decided to escort the indians to the nearby Pine Ridge Reservation — a small southern carveout from the original 1868 treaty lands.  Rather than try to disarm the Indians immediately, Major Whitside decided to wait for reinforements.  He ordered his cavalrymen to march together with the Indians for about five miles, then camp by Wounded Knee Creek.  

Later that night, a heavily armed column of cavalrymen under Colonel James Forsyth joined Whitside, bringing the cavalry total to some 500 men, including four Hotchkiss guns (similar to Gattling machine guns) which they mounted around the Indian encampment.  The next morning, December 29, they planned to disarm the Indians and deliver them to the reservation.

It would not be peaceful.


Jacques Cousteau

Faces. By age 40, we each have the one we deserve. So said George Orwell.
Here are links to faces I’ve posted here, belonging to people I liked or disliked enough to profile. Some are current. Most are historical. All are interesting.

Click on the names and look in their eyes. Then decide if you’d want them home for dinner.


Trouble makers:



Cops – Good and Bad:


Artists (all types):