Native History: AIM Occupation of Wounded Knee Begins
This Date in Native History: On February 27, 1973, about 250 Sioux Indians led by members of the American Indian Movement converged on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation, launching the famous 71-day occupation of Wounded Knee.
Set in the same impoverished village as the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre, the occupation called global attention to unsafe living conditions and generations of mistreatment from federal and local agencies. The occupation, which began during the evening of February 27, is hailed as one of AIM’s greatest successes.
“In a way, it was a very beautiful experience,” said Len Foster, a Navajo man who joined AIM in 1970 and was at Wounded Knee for the entire 71 days. “It was a time to look at the commitment we made and a willingness to put our lives on the line for a cause.”
Formally founded in July 1968, AIM included activists like Russell Means, Clyde Bellecourt and Dennis Banks. The organization, which at one point was labeled one of 50 terrorist groups in the country, actually started more than 200 years earlier, according to a 2013 book published by the Minnesota Historical Society, We Are Still Here: A Photographic History of the American Indian Movement.
More than two centuries before AIM was formed, Sitting Bull, the Hunkpapa Lakota chief who helped defeat Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer in the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn, said American Indians would defend their rights.
“We are poor… but we are free,” Sitting Bull said. “No white man controls our footsteps. If we must die… we die defending our rights.”
Wounded Knee was not the first AIM occupation—or the only one. Members of the movement participated in the takeover of 74 federal facilities, including Mount Rushmore, the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington, D.C., and the replica of the Mayflower. Protesters used the occupations to call attention to Indian rights and demand that the government honor its treaty obligations.
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