AP Photo
This image of Robert Onco and his rifle from the Wounded Knee occupation in 1973 became famous after it was put on an American Indian Movement poster. Onco walked on January 31 after battling lung cancer. He was 63.

Bobby Onco, Wounded Knee Warrior, Walks On

Gale Courey Toensing

Robert Charles Onco, a member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma and an American Indian Movement activist, passed into the spirit world on January 31 after a long battle with lung cancer. He was 63 years old.

Bobby Onco, as he was known, was immortalized in a photo that became a symbol the 1973 uprising at Wounded Knee. The photo shows Onco holding a raised AK-47 and smiling broadly. It became famous worldwide as a poster with the words “Remember Wounded Knee” and is archived in the Library of Congress.

The uprising at Wounded Knee—the site of the 1890 massacre of hundreds of men, women and children by the U.S. cavalry—began on February 27, 1973, by Oglala Lakota and AIM activists when approximately 200 Indians seized and occupied the town of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The activists were demanding that the U.S. government make good on broken treaties from the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was the beginning of a 71-day occupation and armed conflict with the United States Marshals Service, FBI agents and other law enforcement agencies, who cordoned off the area. The civil rights direct action inspired Indians from all over the country, attracted worldwide media coverage and widespread public sympathy.

RELATED: A Tour of Wounded Knee: Why It Matters, Why It Hurts

Dennis Banks, one of the leaders of the occupation, recalled Onco’s weapon and the relative military strength of the AIM members and the federal government in Ojibwa Warrior: Dennis Banks and the Rise of the American Indian Movement. “One of our men, Bobby Onco… had a AK-47 with a banana clip a souvenir from Vietnam. I don’t think he had any ammo for it; he used it to impress the media and the marshals,” Banks wrote. “Later during the siege we set up a stovepipe, which caused a panic among the feds. ‘Oh my God! Those Indians have a rocket launcher!’ We certainly didn’t have any rockets and almost no ammunition… It was a puny force that faced the mightiest government in the world with its huge arsenal of weapons!”

RELATED: Dennis Banks on the AIM Era: ‘I Regret That It Ended too Soon’


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Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
Wounded Knee - the site of so much sorrow and pain, and now to add insult to injury the owner is considering selling it. How would White people felt if NDNs sold a Civil War battlefield? Anyway, prayers go with Bobby and his friends and relatives. The warrior spirit lives on because of men like him.

bullbear's picture
Submitted by bullbear on
I read that Bobby settled in the eastern part of the country and made his home with the Shinnecock Nation. He helped many by conducting traditional healing ceremonies and always maintained a sense of humor. (The iconic photo captures his lighthearted demeanor) His stepson described his stepfather as someone who did not covet glorification and instead was ok with being an Indian as opposed to the many who wanted to be chief. More than forty years has passed since the siege and yet the spirited fight for all tribal nations lives on within reservation front lines, courtrooms, and legislative floors. Although, like most tribal members, I was not there with the men and women at the siege. However, our family who lived in an Arizona small town setting puffed up our chests when we watched the tv broadcasts of the small band of warriors who defied a nation whose shameful historic treatment of Native America was brought to the national stage. Thank you men and women warriors of Wounded Knee for firmly planting a powerful chapter in the history books that will never be forgotten.

BarbaraByrne's picture
Submitted by BarbaraByrne on
I remember when 4 of us were driving back to Pine Ridge from Rapid City at about 5 a.m. and Bobby sang the Morning Song. I also remember him saying "I went to Vietnam to defend my country -and came to Wounded Knee to defend my country." His kind and intelligent life made our lives better.