What Was the Larger Impact of the Wounded Knee Occupation?

This is Part One of a weekly blog that will take a look at several aspects of the Wounded Knee Occupation as the 40th anniversary of the controversial 71-day event continues from Feb. 27 to May 5. Next week: Who was Frank Clearwater?

Forty years after members of the American Indian Movement and its local allies occupied the village of Wounded Knee on Pine Ridge Reservation, controversy swirls around the 71-day event.
Much of the debate centers around what did or didn’t happen as the federal government laid siege to the village.
Perry Ray Robinson, a black civil rights activist, made his way inside Wounded Knee, and was never seen alive again.
The Trimbachs — former special agent in charge on the scene Joe, and his son John — are the leading critics of AIM leaders and of the occupation itself. They publicly claim that AIM leaders were responsible for several deaths inside — including two men who were allegedly felled by government bullets, Frank Clear aka Clearwater and Buddy Lamont, as well as five other bodies they say are buried there.
Tim Giago, the founder of several local newspapers, has been out front over the past four decades in pointing out that the occupation destroyed a community. Oglalas, white and mixed-blood residents — were run out of their homes, which were later looted and destroyed, with none of them ever receiving compensation for their losses.
AIM leaders at the Dakota Conference at Augustana College in Sioux Falls last year brushed aside these criticisms and made a case that the occupation changed things for the better in Indian Country. AIM founder Clyde Bellecourt in particular said everything from the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 to the rise of tribal casinos and the economic power they wield, were a direct result of the change in attitudes toward Native Americans brought on by AIM and the occupation.
Of course, it is hard to say whether this is true, or not, and there are arguments to be made both ways.
The late Russell Means, in his biography, Where White Men Fear to Tread, said, “What Wounded Knee told the world was that John Wayne hadn’t killed us all. Essentially, the rest of the planet had believed that except for a few people sitting along the highways peddling pottery, there were no more Indians. Suddenly, billions of people knew we were still alive, still resisting.”
‘Billions? Well, aside from that probably inflated figure, I think there is a kernel of truth there.
Putting the occupation in context, it was widely covered by the mainstream media. The first armed insurrection on U.S. soil since the Civil War made headlines everywhere. This was still during the Cold War, and the Soviet Bloc countries sent reporters along with CBS, NBC, NPR, the wire services and all the major newspapers. The media relished this story. Yes, here were Indians resisting the U.S. government.
Were viewers watching or reading about it angry at AIM, or the U.S. government? It was undoubtedly a mix of both, but for those who root for the underdog, certainly they sympathized with the occupiers.
This was also a time when Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was a number one bestseller. That book opened the eyes of a lot of Americans to the injustices perpetrated on Native Americans in the 19th century. For many, Indians had only been the bad guys in Westerns, who scalped the poor innocent settlers. Historians continue to criticize the book, but it had an enormous impact in its day.
Now, here was a group of radicals who had another story to tell. Love them or hate them, Means and AIM co-founder Dennis Banks, were charasmatic and ever quotable. The occupation started out as a protest against the tribal government of Dick Wilson, but it grew into something more as the weeks wore on.
AIM leaders spoke of many failed 20th century policies. Relocation, when the Bureau of Indian Affairs tried to depopulate the reservations by giving incentives to families to move to big cities, was one. Termination sought to take away some tribes’ legal standing. Boarding schools were havens for child abusers, whose purpose was to destroy Indian culture and language.
The land, the source of power in the countryside, had been slowly taken away from tribal hands thanks to the Dawes Allocation Act. The Indian Reform Act of 1935 imposed Western democracy on tribes, and in the case of Pine Ridge, created a schism between traditionals and non-traditionals that scholar Akim Reinhardt argues led to the occupation.
These stories by 1973 had largely escaped the attention of most Americans. If they knew any Indian history at all, their knowledge probably stopped at the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890.
Reservations were — and some still are — places of horrific poverty. But how did they get that way?
Until 1973, that story had not been widely told.
Did the occupation by itself usher in a new day? There are no before and after public surveys that I know of that could tell us with certainty. But one can say that many positive developments did happen afterwards.
I don’t think AIM can take complete credit for all of them. The Native American Rights Fund, which has been instrumental in fighting many important legal battles in the Indian law realm, was founded in 1970. That is just one example of others who had a role to play.
But to say AIM and the occupation had no impact on the public’s awareness of Native American issues at all, I think, would be wrong.

Stew Magnuson is the author of Wounded Knee 1973: Still Bleeding, published by the Now & Then Reader. It is available as an eBook on Kindle, Nook, Kobo and iTunes.