by Ron Jacobs 

The American Indian Movement’s (AIM) best known and most controversial protest began in February 1973 in Wounded Knee, South Dakota, a small town on the Pine Ridge reservation. Wounded Knee Two began as a conflict within the Oglala Lakota (Sioux) tribe between the supporters of the tribal Chairman Richard Wilson and other tribal members who considered him to be a corrupt puppet of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Like many other such conflicts, it had simmered for a while. In 1973, the disagreements between the two segments of the Pine Ridge Lakota Sioux created so much anger and division that both sides ended up arming themselves. The forces allied with Wilson, along with Federal law enforcement officials and US military, entered into a 71 day siege of the AIM forces. The AIM group included local citizens, national AIM members, prominent entertainment figures, and members of national philanthropic, religious, and legal organizations. National news organizations covered the entire 71 days of the siege and its aftermath.

When the siege ended on May 9, 1973, two Native American members of AIM were dead and an unknown number were wounded on both sides. Richard Wilson remained in office and was challenged in the next election. Many AIM members spent the next years in litigation, in exile, and in prison. Several more armed conflicts erupted in the wake of the siege, in large part due to continuing counterintelligence programs and vigorous prosecutions that targeted AIM members. The most well-known of these cases is that of Leonard Peltier who remains in prison because of an at-best questionable conviction in the death of an FBI agent in 1975.

Although I was living in Germany at the time, the occupation came close to home. A classmate of mine whose family was connected to Pine Ridge left his senior year in early March to participate. His father was supportive, despite his rather contradictory role as part of the US Army’s infantry. Indeed, it is likely that while he was in Vietnam he participated in campaigns named after earlier military actions against his own people. As anyone who heard about the US Navy’s killing of Osama bin Laden knows, the practice of naming military actions after indigenous Americans continues; that operation was code-named “Geronimo.” Some US Army helicopters are called “Apaches.” Furthermore, some of the most studied generals at West Point are those who got their start, or even made their name, killing Native Americans.

So, it has been forty years since the second face-off at Wounded Knee between members of the Lakota nation and the United States government. To be fair, the 1973 engagement was much more of a face-off than the first intrusion. If one is unfamiliar with that incident, let me tell you about it. Early in the morning of December 29, 1890 US troops went into a camp at Wounded Knee Creek to disarm the Lakota staying there. After a scuffle or two, the 7th Cavalry opened fire and killed men, women, and children, as well as some of their own fellow troopers. Those few Lakota warriors who still had weapons began shooting back at the attacking troopers, who quickly suppressed the Lakota fire. After the shooting had stopped, at least 150 men, women, and children of the Lakota Sioux had been killed. Some believe the number of dead was closer to 300. Twenty-five troopers also died, and 39 were wounded. Many of the dead troops were the victims of friendly fire. At least twenty troopers were awarded the coveted Medal of Honor.

It’s been a long time since I was in South Dakota. The last time was in 1979. A group of friends and I were driving a VW bus across the country on our way to the San Francisco Bay Area. While traveling across the state, we stopped near the Pine Ridge Reservation to buy gas. While paying for the gas, the driver purchased a bottle of rubbing alcohol from the clerk in the store connected to the gas tanks. She looked at his long hair, his hairless face (his mother was part Cherokee) and refused to sell it to him. He told her he needed it to clean the heads on the car’s cassette player. She called him a liar, stating that she wasn’t going to allow him to drink it and poison himself. Not wanting to argue (the area is pretty remote, after all), he paid for the gas and left the store. After explaining what had happened, I went back into the store. The clerk looked at my full beard, made me promise I wouldn’t let any “Indians” drink the alcohol, and sold me the same bottle of rubbing alcohol she had refused my friend. We spent a good part of the next hundred miles wondering what her motivation could have been. Did she hate “Indians”? Was she doing her Christian duty? Was she just afraid that my friend was going to drink the alcohol and then his family would sue her store?

The situation of America’s indigenous people continues to be tenuous. On both continents in the hemisphere, indigenous people’s homelands and livelihoods are threatened. Gambling casinos and resource extraction operations in northern America siphon away native cultures and resources; making money for some members while furthering impoverishing others. In southern America, peoples lands and lives are threatened on a very real fundamental level, thanks to fossil fuel exploration and farming and ranching operations designed to supply other people near and far. Recently, a movement of native peoples (known as First Nations in Canada) calling itself Idle No More arose in Canada. The impetus for the movement is the Canadian government’s Omnibus Bill C-45. This bill seems designed to further abrogate treaty rights assigned to First Nations in order to expand resource exploration and extraction. The movement is slowly spreading to the indigenous nations of the northern United States, which have seen their lands ravaged numerous times over the course of history in the name of resource extraction. Most recently, this has meant opening these lands to the fracking and the construction of pipelines across the continent. Despite the ongoing attempts to destroy the culture and well-being of America’s First Nations, they continue to battle despite the odds. Their struggle remains an important part of the struggle for humanity’s survival.
Ron Jacobs Author - Source

Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way The Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground. He recently released a collection of essays and musings titled Tripping Through the American Night. His latest novel The Co-Conspirator's Tale, is published by Fomite. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. The third novel in this trilogy is due out in Spring 2013. Read other articles by Ron.

Responses to "The Trail of Broken Treaties: From Wounded Knee to Idle No More"

  1. Laurel says:

    Has anyone in the First Nation considered an appeal to the United Nations for assistance, and/or filing legal action in the World Court? They will certainly continue to be ignored by Harper and his backers, but internationally, Indigenous people might have a better chance through diplomatic means, and the shame it will place on the current Canadian leadership. They certainly need more influential help in the fight against the greedy bullies who are grabbing and destroying their 'granted by Treaty' lands.

  2. Anonymous says:

    the dog that bites you will someday be bitten themselves. those people that write these words ,surly know how to rearrange the definition of those words .placing words on paper is just a formality .a man's heart is where truth come from .money is the cause of all the wrong that has happen to our people in the past and will into the future. it's hard to keep a wolf from a died bull carcass .graywolf ''

  3. Rubbing alcohol is not made for ingestion. Alcoholism in the American Indian community is a scourge. Only alcoholics drink running alcohol, and may die or are blinded, etc. from the substance. I am willing to believe that the clerk was compelled by good intention, albeit potentially steeped in discrimination, whatever. I honestly question the author's reference to an incident involving alcohol in proximity to a community (Pine Ridge) with third world conditions (and the socioeconomic plights assoc. with such conditions) in the context of indigenous identity.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I agree with PJ Reed. Alcoholism is a scourge among American Indians, and the clerk at the store near the Pine Ridge rez was compelled by good intentions. There is not a family in the Pine Ridge rez that is not affected by the consequences of firewater (I have lived there). The sale and possession of alcoholic beverages is forbidden on the rez, by a regulation enacted by the tribal government itself. However, the rez is surrounded by stores kept by wasicus (whites) established there specifically to sell beer and other booze to the rez residents. Those stores are in places where the non-native market for such stuff is virtually non-existant. Those stores are a scandal and should be closed down. The life expectancy on the Pine Ridge rez is 48 years. It is about the same in other reservations I have been to. Alcohol is much to blame for this dreadful state of affairs. It is not just people drinking themselves to death, it is car accidents caused by driving under the influence, and drunken fights ending in homicide. There are other causes than alcohol to the life expectancy figure, including malnutrition (food available on the rez is the worst of the worst American junk and processed food), diabetes, substandard health care, exceptionally high suicide rates, the lot driven by a sense of despair and helplessness.

    I have read somewhere that Indians metabolize alcohol more slowly than people from the "Old" World, so the effects are stronger and last longer. Except for a few tribes from the SE USA that made weakly fermented drinks from corn (maize)or some cacti-type plants, alcohol was unknown to Amerindians prior to contact with Europeans. Perhaps, if the metabolism effect is true, this is the result of Indians not having had the time to evolve a better resistance to alcohol, whereas natural selection has had millennia in which to operate in Europe. Firewater was introduced to American Indians by the traders associated with the fur trade, before they were overrun by the settlers and the US army. Their regrettable fondess for the stuff predates the anomia caused by conquest, the loss of their lands and culture, but the despair and helpessness caused by the destruction of their culture and way of life has encouraged further alcohol abuse.

    Erik Abranson, in France

  5. I am not interested in the metabolics, per se', even if some of those theories are legit. I have serious issues with alcohol's role in relation to persons across all spectrums of human culture, and most concernedly with respect for its impacts in very specific socioeconomic settings. You've got the Irish, you've got Appalachia, and so on; it's less about metabolics than it is about economics and class distinctions. As in, those areas and subcultures most markedly disenfranchised, economically etc., where you will find substance abuse and other like factors at the highest risk. Alcoholism today permeates all aspects of modern American society, but also does have a particularly ugly history in retain to indigenous culture. In my first posting, I almost included mention of the vendors who ply their trade on the outskirts of Indian country, you see it all over the west. The fact is, the industry is where the problem lies, the industry and its dominance over American culture in a the broader sense today.

  6. Anonymous says:

    The Australian Natives has a bounty on their actual heads that would be paid upon presentation of a head to the local Police until 1938.

    This is a telling statement of naivety," The fact is, the industry is where the problem lies, the industry and its dominance over American culture in a the broader sense today."

    While there is some reference to other indigenous peoples it is scant. I am white, I have no rights to any lands any where, that was taken away some time way back, way back.

    Look, the alcohol issue is planet wide, and has been used as means of destruction of dissenters/resisters since so called modern man arrived on the scene.

    Let all the people of Earth unite as we are all indigenous people, not just you in America. When WE/YOU can recognise that it is almost whole planet's people being attacked then we can do some thing about it, together. Then we have the numbers and strength.

    Back in the sixties/seventies the cry was think globally act locally. There in lies our resolve; to include all people being set upon by a small group who are hell bent on taking out not just you, taking out me, taking out them, but taking out themselves. They must be named, made known planet wide by name, and isolated in captivity some where, and closely guarded until we can work out how to cure them of their madness.

    But to my sadness all I see every where is "America this" and "America that" is being done to them. Wait a minute, get on the internet and see it is not just America, who recently have lost their title as the USA, it is the whole planet and almost all the people who are being attacked.

    Think globally, act locally!

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