A What-If Examination of an Assault on the Occupied Village of Wounded Knee

This is Part Six 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: A rundown of the Wounded Knee Occupation books available.

Former Wounded Knee resident Adrienne Fritze recently posted a historic picture of her uncle Clive and aunt Agnes Gildersleeve, which was taken after the end of the Wounded Knee Occupation. Piled up against a car were dummy assault rifles that AIM had left behind the destroyed village.
Those, along with manikins also found afterwards, were used by the occupiers to make their defenses against the feds look more robust than they actually were.
The photo brings to mind an interesting what-if question.
What if higher-ups in Washington, D.C. had approved plans to end the occupation through force?
The final resting place of Buddy Lamont at Wounded Knee
We live in a country that has a number of well-armed fringe groups that occasionally run afoul of federal laws. See what happened in Waco, Texas, with the Branch Davidians in 1993. Fifty died in an assault on this group’s compound. How law enforcement responds to such scenarios is worth looking at and examining the government’s response at Wounded Knee is an important case study.
Former Special Agent in Charge Joseph Trimbach brings this up in the book, American Indian Mafia. He states that the FBI agents, traditionally crime investigators, were ill-suited for this military-style operation. The U.S. marshals on the scene normally tracked down and transported federal fugitives and guarded courthouses. They also did not have the training to invade an armed village.
Trimbach in his book asserts that the only organization in the federal government at the time able to clear out the village would have been the military.
Army advisors were on hand and wanted nothing to do with such an operation, as Wounded Knee II, by Roland Dewing notes. To do so would have run afoul of the Posse Comitatus Act.
Going into the act’s gray areas and roots would take up too much space in this column. Wikipedia has a fairly good explanation about it for those wanting to know more. Posse Comitatus — at its heart — prohibits the military from taking part in domestic law enforcement missions.
Basically no military officer, up to an including the service chiefs, would have given the order for their troops to attack the fortified village.
Authorizing the military to take part in such a mission would have required an act of Congress, according to the law. The president, the commander in chief, Richard M. Nixon at the time, might have had the authority, but that is a gray area as well.
The Army had a trained civil disturbance unit, most likely to be used for base security. But the advisors on hand wanted no part of an assault. The stated reason was that the occupiers weren’t going anywhere or a threat to any neighboring communities. However, the unstated reason should be obvious. The Army wasn’t going to be involved in a second Wounded Knee Massacre. The site is where the Army’s Seventh Cavalry in 1890 gunned down Chief Big Foot and some 150 to 300 of his people.
Strategically speaking, dead Indians, soldiers, and possibly FBI agents and marshals would have been a disaster for the Nixon administration, already embroiled in the Watergate scandal. Recall that the Ohio National Guard in 1970 had shot and killed four unarmed anti-Vietnam student protestors at Kent State. This horrific incident was fresh in the minds of the public and the government.
Tactically, the feds could have taken the village — at a price. They had at their disposal armored personnel carriers, which are basically rolling bunkers and protected them from small arms and Molotov cocktails, but you have to leave the APC eventually. And as many have noted, Wounded Knee sat in a large bowl-shaped area, and feds controlled the high ground.
Meanwhile, the occupiers had in their ranks seasoned Vietnam War veterans such as Carter Camp, Stan Holder, Bob Yellow Bird, along with many others who were manning bunkers. If they chose to, they could have put up a good fight for awhile and inflicted casualties.
Head of the marshal service Wayne Colburn, after entering Wounded Knee early in the siege, came to the same conclusion and estimated 10 percent casualties.
Feds on the ground drew up plans to end incident through force in the latter part so the occupation, but no one in Washington would approve them, according to the Dewing book. There were also hotheads among Tribal President Dick Wilson’s Guardians of the Oglala Nation, GOONs, and white vigilante types in the border towns of Gordon and Crawford, Neb., who were volunteering to “clean out the radicals,” but the law enforcement officials would never have let that happen, and one suspects it was a lot of hot air anyway.
In hindsight, the Nixon administration’s wait-them-out policy was probably the best course of action, although it came at a high price for some. The policy also allowed the feds to return fire. Hundreds of thousands of rounds were exchanged between the two sides.
U.S. marshal Lloyd Grimm was shot and remained paralyzed for life. Frank Clear, aka Clearwater, and Buddy Lamont died from gunshot wounds in the final days, and civil rights activist Perry Ray Robinson possibly lost his life in the occupied village as well.

Stew Magnuson (stewmag (a) yahoo.com) 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.
 Magnuson will discuss the book April 27, 11:30 a.m. at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D., and April 28, at 12:30 p.m. at the Bookworm, 87th and Pacific Street, in Omaha.

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