AP Photo/Jim Mone, File
In this March 3, 1973 file photo, a U.S. flag flies upside down outside a church occupied by members of the American Indian Movement (AIM), background, on the site of the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee, S.D. AIM's occupation of Wounded Knee triggered a violent standoff with federal authorities.

Native History: AIM Occupation of Wounded Knee Begins

Alysa Landry

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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Wiyaka Zi Wicasa's picture
Wiyaka Zi Wicasa
Submitted by Wiyaka Zi Wicasa on
Wiyaka Zi Wicasa February 3 To ALL the Oglala who were in Wounded Knee in 1973, or who have Family who were there. I just received word that Bobby Onco has crossed. Funeral services Wednesday. Bobby Onco - One of the few men I honor and respect. (3 photos) Bobby Onco - Vietnam Veteran and Veteran of Wounded Knee 1973. Wiyaka Zi Wicasa February 5 It was a good service for Bobby Onco this afternoon. He's one of the few men that I have honor and respect for. He is a Vietnam Veteran, joining in 1968, Special Forces. He's a Veteran of Wounded Knee 1973. I can only wonder why New York AIM didn't show some honor and respect for this man with representation at his service(s). Respect and honor to the military honor guard who were in attendance. Wiyaka Zi Wicasa February 6 And not a single AIM member showed up to his service or to his funeral. Where was New York AIM?! That White woman who is supposed to be Indian, couldn't go, or send another wannabe AIMster?! They sure do go to these candy ass Pow Wows, posing for pictures, in their denim jackets and AIM patches. How much you want to bet AIM suddenly remembers him at the Wounded Knee Anniversary in a few weeks?! Wiyaka Zi Wicasa Fathers Day To Men In My Life June 16, 2013 at 1:09pm I want to remember the father figures and mentors in my life. You are my uncles, and grandfathers, my friends and family. You are family even if not by blood. You took the time to sit and listen while sharing the knowledge that you had with a child and young man. I sat with uncles and grandfathers as they sang the stories of the wars they were in and of their brothers who were lost. I learned that no matter how weak I became that there was always the strength to stand again. I stood with blood streaming from me and with broken bones where others could not rise. I was taught to use tools, to build and destroy, starting with my hands and feet. Most importantly, how to use my head and to think. Yes, like you, I have blood on my hands. You watched as I made my journey and I'm here today because of your teachings. Thank you.

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
We need an A.I.M. for modern times! There are too many controversies and scandals for one small, northern-based group to handle it all. With the sale of Wounded Knee, the NFL Racist scandal and the Keystone Pipeline modern NDNs have a lot to think about. Will the new generation stand up and make their elders proud? Can AIM ever be a national organization instead of a small group of concerned people?

John Andrews
John Andrews
Submitted by John Andrews on
I respect what Len Foster is doing for indigenous prison inmates, but he does not give the whole story. Yes, the traditional elders invited AIM to Wounded Knee, but when they saw all the non-traditional behavior of AIM members, including the rapes, drug abuse, and destruction of property, they asked them to leave. AIM refused to leave. He also doesn't mention the murders perpetrated by AIM at Wounded Knee, including an African American man, who had marched with Martin Luther King, Jr.

William Shelton
William Shelton
Submitted by William Shelton on
John Andrews, Your comment is bullshit. It's obvious you weren't there. I was.

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Occupation of Wounded Knee
Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890