Wounded Knee’s Radical Legacy

In 1973 rookie reporter Kevin McKiernan smuggled himself onto the Pine Ridge Sioux Reservation in the trunk of a car, hoping to cover the takeover of Wounded Knee, South Dakota. Embedded with activists of the American Indian Movement (AIM)—who clamored for control of their communities and an end to slum conditions, McKiernan filmed their conflicts with Tribal Chair Richard (“Dickie”) Wilson, his armed supporters who called themselves Guardians of Oglala Nation (GOONs), and the government agents backing them. Despite a media blackout, McKiernan sat in on AIM negotiations with the Nixon administration, earning on-camera glares from negotiator Kent Frizzell. As a settlement was hammered out between the groups, McKiernan buried his film in a hole and smuggled himself out of the encampment. Arrests followed, his included. Six weeks later, he returned to Wounded Knee to recover his footage.

In his 2019 documentary, which combines the footage of the seventy-one-day occupation with interviews conducted decades later, McKiernan crisply narrates these events, during which government agents shot and killed two Indigenous activists and wounded many more. McKiernan tracks down FBI agents who admit, on camera, a number of shocking but long-suspected claims: that penetrating groups like AIM, getting members to fight each other, and using secret informants to prod them to commit crimes and bury their leaders in litigation—not to mention framing or goading them to kill one another—were all aims of the Bureau’s Counterintelligence Program, COINTELPRO.

The enthralling film, From Wounded Knee to Standing Rock: a Reporter’s Journey, has been screening on local PBS affiliates this year, and it recalls how effective AIM was in galvanizing U.S. institutions to roll back destructive Cold War policies that exacerbated Indigenous poverty, violence and incarceration. From AIM’s glorious five-year heyday emerged two decades’ worth of reforms. And while these reforms helped restore tribal sovereignty, the history of AIM’s achievements, as the Wounded Knee occupation turns fifty, has dimmed—so much so that the United States is backsliding, through official law enforcement repression and paramilitary violence against Indigenous activists and other environmentalists, who are treated as terrorists for petitioning for sustainable policies.

In the early 1970s, McKiernan was an aspiring (white) journalist in his twenties, struggling to mourn “a string of political assassinations and war tearing up my generation.” After an Oglala Sioux tribal member was killed in Custer, South Dakota, in early 1973, McKiernan profiled American Indian Movement founder Dennis Banks. Tribes were reeling from two decades of policies of forced assimilation enacted to erode Native sovereignty, rights and culture. Under the Truman and Eisenhower administrations came Termination (ending the federal recognition of tribes and placing them under states’ jurisdiction) and Relocation (forcing tribal members off reservations into large Western cities). Postwar conservatives depicted these policies within an anti-communist framework. “We are spending billions of dollars fighting communism. . . [and] perpetuating the system of reservations and tribal governments, which are natural Socialist environments,” Montana Senator George Malone cried.

109 tribes were terminated during the period, several of which, like the Mishewal Wappo Tribe of Northern California, were never reconstituted–their land taken, their funding discontinued. After this sustained assault on tribal sovereignty, poverty and violence became pervasive on remaining tribal lands. Indigenous people relocated to Western U.S. cities often fared worse. In Minneapolis’s Southside neighborhood, tribal members lived in “tenement housing, [in] slum conditions,” Banks recalls. “Rats were all over the place.” Just as Black Power emerged in African-American communities in the face of poverty and a lack of social supports, poverty become “a primary purpose for the birth of the AIM. That, along with high unemployment and also the police brutality” members endured.

First started by Native inmates in a Minnesota penitentiary, AIM went on to organize protests in Minneapolis to expose and publicize bigotry against Tribal members. It urged that church collections for Native charities go directly to Natives (rather than to church coffers), attacked racist depictions in school textbooks, and delivered legal aid to incarcerated tribal members, which swiftly reduced the disproportionately high arrest rate of Natives in Minneapolis. The movement spread to Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. “Years of abuse,” including sexual violence against Native women, “that’s what started the AIM,” Banks tells McKiernan.

From November 1969 to June 1971, members of AIM and other Red Power groups went national when they occupied the federally governed Alcatraz Island, invoking the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie. Signed between the U.S. and the Lakota Nation, the activists claimed that the treaty decreed that retired, abandoned, and out-of-use federal land—like Alcatraz—be returned to the tribe who once occupied it. Amidst rampant Native deaths in Nebraska and South Dakota, the Movement organized a cross-country march, “the Trail of Broken Treaties,” in October 1972. Arriving in Washington in November, activists seized the Bureau of Indian Affairs wing of the Department of the Interior, holding it for a week (a week that spanned Nixon’s re-election for a second term). Criticized by some tribal members for its militant tactics and the theft of public records (which mostly concerned land deals that were unfair to Natives), this was confrontation politics at its most spectacular.

After the BIA occupation, AIM fatefully announced that it would hold a celebration at Pine Ridge, South Dakota, where U.S. policies were dividing the tribe. There, the Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Commission, OSCRC, was struggling to impeach Tribal Chairman Dickie Wilson, fraudulently elected and covertly tied to the federal government and its COINTELPRO. In peaceful protests, OSCRC accused Wilson of misusing tribal funds and firing and strong-arming political opponents using armed supporters, Wilson’s GOONs.

After protesting Wilson’s policies, OSCRC formally voted to impeach him. Presiding over the matter himself, Wilson moved immediately to trial (guessing, shrewdly, that the plaintiffs’ case was not yet ready). His ploy worked; then it backfired. When they lost, OSCRC appealed to AIM, who were already heading toward Pine Ridge from their Washington march.

On February 27, 1973, an estimated fifty carloads of AIM activists alighted on Wounded Knee. Wilson declared a state of emergency. The following morning, Wounded Knee was encircled by a small army of FBI agents, Bureau of Indian Affairs Police, and U.S. Marshals. On the afternoon of February 28, agents started shooting and AIM members returned gunfire. Each shot was fired on hallowed ground.

In the original Wounded Knee massacre, in late 1890, government forces killed more than 250 Lakota men, women and children. Survivors, such as medicine man Black Elk, recalled how it started after tribal members’ weapons were confiscated as punishment for performances of the Ghost Dance, a grieving rite in which ancestors lent the living strength to overcome the white onslaughts the Lakota had faced for decades. When Wilson started blocking food to activists, Banks drew a through line, remarking that the government had “been trying to starve us out since 1849.” This time, though, the Lakota and their allies would keep their weapons.

As “Indians from scores of tribes from across the country and Canada” poured into Pine Ridge, McKiernan recounts his good luck in scoring a press pass from Minnesota Public Radio. But he soon heard that reporters who tried to enter the besieged town would be arrested on federal charges. One asked officials: “Is it your contention that the Justice Department may regulate the press whenever it chooses?”

AIM cofounder Russell Means saw the press ban as foreboding, a waiting game until the press gave up and went home, “so that they can come in here and massacre us.” One federal agent seemed to confirm Means’s fears, asking, “How can you invoke a hundred-year-old treaty. . . shoot guns at FBI agents, and expect to come out. . . alive?”

McKiernan, too, understood the urgency of press coverage and the possibility that it might offer some protection. He enlisted Lakota guide Arthur Chips to smuggle him into Wounded Knee, hiding in the trunk of Chips’s car as it navigated secret back roads at night and led him successfully into the compound—despite the two tripping thermal sensors installed by the FBI in the process.

Between Wilson’s actions, the government ban on the press, and the surveilling and shooting at AIM activists, tensions were high inside Wounded Knee. Willard Carlson, a Yurok tribal member, recalled the distrust at general assembly meetings each night. “If you didn’t know the person sitting next to you, he or she could possibly be an informant, a Fed. So you had to be careful.” Though McKiernan didn’t know anyone, Banks says, “We’d come to trust Kevin.”

Meanwhile, President Nixon appointed Assistant Attorney General for the Environment and Natural Resources Dale “Kent” Frizzell as the administration’s lead negotiator. Frizzell heard long-held grievances repeated in negotiations. At one meeting, McKiernan is spotted taking notes and recording–and he captures cold stares from Frizzell on camera. At a press conference before the banned journalists, Frizzell justified the media ban, implying that it fostered candor in negotiations. And it appeared that the negotiations were working. AIM wanted a meeting with the White House to discuss broken treaties, and the negotiators wanted the activists to turn in their weapons. The administration initially said yes. It was agreed that once Means and three other AIM leaders began their meeting at the White House, Means would telephone colleagues at Wounded Knee to prompt AIM to draw down its arms. Both sides approved of the deal, which was followed by a one-hour photo op of the signing of the agreement. Yet as AIM leaders celebrated the deal on a flight in a government helicopter, Nixon reneged.

On day forty of the occupation, the administration, also bogged down in Vietnam at the time, clarified its position: it would not negotiate with guns still pointed at federal agents. A swift buildup began. Federal bunkers and armored personnel carriers inched closer to the village. Electricity and water were cut. Activists worried about another massacre at Wounded Knee. It emerged later that the U.S. Army was secretly—illegally—running the military operation there. Firefights increased; more people were wounded. Then both sides dug in and waited.

Boredom set in. AIM leaders worried that the lull might tempt activists to leave. AIM member Anna Mae Pictou planned to marry Nogeeshik Aquash after the standoff. Banks nudged them to get married in the village. On April 12, 1973, Wallace Black Elk, grandson of the legendary medicine man, conducted the ceremony, overseeing the couple’s exchange of vows.

Black Elk’s grandfather had “walked through the same spot after the historic massacre,” he says, “and was afraid this was the end of the Indian race, that the tree of life was dying. But he soon had another vision—that of a tree sprouting another root. Thanks to this stand, the tree of life was alive.”

On Easter morning, the FBI allowed Chief Fools Crow and a translator through the blockade. One held up a Denver Post headline about White House Counsel John Dean’s agreeing to testify in the widening Watergate scandal. “See,” he said, laughing, “the government is weakening.” A group of antiwar protestors delivered food to the AIM activists; federal agents fired on those who scrambled to recover the supplies.

The firefight made forty-seven-year-old Frank Clearwater, who had arrived shortly before to support AIM, sit up in bed. He took a bullet in his head, marking him as the first to be killed by government agents. Ken Tiger, a Seminole veteran of the war in Vietnam, recalled, “We had a limited amount of ammunition to begin with, unlike the government. So we were not shooting as much. . . But if you stuck your head up, a bullet might whizz by.”

Lawrence Buddy La Monte, an Oglala Sioux Vietnam veteran, was killed on day sixty. His mother Agnes had a great aunt and uncle killed at Wounded Knee in 1890. (Her mother had also been there, though she was just twelve years old.) On day sixty-nine, federal agents opened the roadblock to let LaMonte’s body and his relatives proceed to the famous graveyard. The loss demoralized activists.

On May 7, 1973 (day seventy), the night before their surrender, AIM leaders, expecting to face charges, packed up, held ceremonies with their medicine men, and hiked out of Wounded Knee, “hoping to pick their way through FBI lines,” McKiernan recalls. Knowing the government would confiscate it, McKiernan wrapped, then buried, his film. He reports that assistant U.S. Attorney General Richard Hellstern had “personally ordered [his] arrest.” The FBI handcuffed him, confiscating his cameras and tape recorder, and charged him with interfering with federal agents in the lawful performance of their duties. Given the irregularities of U.S. behavior, his and many similar cases were dropped. Mass arrests of AIM leaders followed. Among the government’s arsenal of tactics, expensive, time-consuming trials proved particularly effective, keeping the Movement too busy to organize.

Two months after Wounded Knee, McKiernan ran into Anna Mae Aquash, the activist who got married during the occupation, in Minneapolis. When he called out her name, she corrected him. “My name is Joanna now.” Had she gone underground? he wondered. This stayed with him, as his footage remained unused.

McKiernan’s film is a thrilling, intimate window into already dramatic events, even if he doesn’t get everything right. At one point he argues that SWAT, the police Special Weapons and Tactical unit, was created during the occupation. Pine Ridge, he adds, home of Red Cloud and Crazy Horse, was chosen as its training grounds. But in 1973, SWAT units had existed for nearly a decade. Still, scoops abound in From Wounded Knee to Standing Rock.

McKiernan interviews one former federal agent who, in retirement, admits that the FBI worked with the GOONs, Wilson’s private militia. GOON member Duane Brewer boasts on camera of the relationship, admitting the FBI gave him both information and armor-piercing ammunitions. Why? “To deal with AIM, who we were at war with.” Paid illegally through government poverty alleviation funds, GOONs vowed to “restore order” on the reservation. With impunity guaranteed through federal protection, GOONs and Feds are believed to have killed so many activists that, from 1973 to 1976, the homicide rate at Pine Ridge was among the highest in the nation.

Another McKiernan scoop comes during the aftermath, when he was in Pine Ridge two years later to interview Banks at an AIM encampment on the Jumping Bulls’ family ranch. His visit was well timed. On June 25, 1975, McKiernan left to cover another event in the Black Hills, when he heard on the radio that a shootout had begun at the Jumping Bulls’ ranch. Racing back, he witnessed two FBI agents and an AIM member being killed in a shootout from the agents’ car. The room where he’d slept the night before was pierced with bullet holes. Some twenty Indians escaped into the hills, prompting “the largest manhunt in FBI history.” (The hunt for the Unabomber beat the record two decades later.)

Special Agent George O’Clock describes for McKiernan how, after the FBI lost the two agents (whom he calls “family members”), “You want to get the individual who did such a thing, and get ‘em fast.” Former senator James Abourezk of South Dakota has a different response. “When an Indian is killed, it’s hardly investigated. When an FBI agent is killed, they put two hundred more agents out to find out who did it. If that’s not a double standard, I don’t know what is.”

Eventually three members of AIM were charged for the shooting deaths of the agents: Leonard Peltier, Robert Robineau and Darryl Butler. The latter two were acquitted for firing in self defense, after plainclothes agents fired at them. Peltier fled to Canada, but was arrested in 1977 and extradited to the U.S. After moving Peltier’s case to a less sympathetic (all-white) jurisdiction, the government wrangled a woman named Myrtle Poor Bear, who claimed to be Peltier’s girlfriend at the time of the shootout, to sign affidavits attesting to his guilt.

In fact, she had never met Peltier and later admitted she was coerced into signing the affidavits. Asking to recant at trial, she was ultimately blocked. FBI agent David Price had threatened her at gunpoint with explicit death threats, she later said. The judge ruled her incompetent on the question of why she signed, otherwise allowing the affidavits as evidence.

Though Amnesty USA and more than fifty members of Congress criticized the affidavits and called for a new trial, Peltier was sentenced to life in federal prison. Even as a U.S. appeals court upheld the verdict, it criticized federal prosecutors. Appeals Court Judge Donald Ross suggested the FBI had falsified the affidavits. “And if they are willing to do that,” he added, “they must be willing to fabricate other evidence.” Judge Gerald Heaney of the Eighth Circuit went further. Though he previously denied Peltier’s legal appeal, he argued in 1991 for presidential clemency to free Peltier from prison. He suggested authorities should have put their weapons down and “listened to the legitimate grievances” of AIM activists.

When Agent Price appears at a public forum about Wounded Knee years later, McKiernan is in attendance, and—in the documentary’s most thrilling segment—raises his hand and reminds Price that Judge Ross deemed the extradition of Leonard Peltier from Canada on the basis of false testimony an example of government misconduct. Listening, Price’s face, in closeup, hearkens toward faraway thought. One can almost imagine him contemplating flight, literal or metaphorical.

Agent Price: I don’t know how to begin this, so I’ll try to begin. . . 

McKiernan: Didn’t Myrtle Poor Bear say. . .

Agent Price: Hold it, hold it. I know where. . . what you’re. . . you want to go off in a little hole, which can be answered, and has been answered in court many times and I quit paying attention to it.

McKiernan: Well, she claimed that Peltier confessed the murder to her, is that correct?

David Price: Not quite.

McKiernan: Was the court wrong in blaming the FBI as well as AIM for those years?

David Price: Yes.

McKiernan: The FBI’s hands were clean?

David Price: Yes.

Though the exchange is satisfying, it nevertheless falls short of an anticipated confession. For this, an exchange with another agent will do.

Douglass Durham, an FBI informant, managed to become head of security for the AIM–even becoming the personal bodyguard of AIM cofounder Dennis Banks. Durham is a reminder of how rampant informants were in the days of COINTELPRO, Black Panthers and AIM. (Malcolm X’s head of security, Gene Roberts–the man who gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation in the Audubon Ballroom–was an informant in NYPD’s Bureau of Special Services and Investigations (BOSSI) unit.) But he is not the star of McKiernan’s final scenes.

When McKiernan gets an interview with former FBI Special Agent Tom Parker, McKiernan asks if the goal was to sow paranoia in the New Left movements it penetrated. Parker agrees. “That certainly would be one of the objectives,” he replies. “I’m being a little coy with you here.”

McKiernan: I know you are. But it was not accidental? The FBI was trying to make people paranoid?

Parker: That was certainly a way to cause disruption and dissension and disorganization, and certainly [it] was talked about as one of the goals of what we were trying to do.

McKiernan puts a pin in this, circling back to the woman he couldn’t stop thinking of, whose wedding he filmed. In late March, 1976, McKiernan learned by telephone that Anna Mae Aquash had died. The government ruled exposure as the cause; she had frozen to death. But a doctor saw blood on the back of her head. A rancher who found her described it to McKiernan.

“After cutting off her hands and sending them to Washington for analysis,” McKiernan reports, “the FBI buried her as a Jane Doe in a pauper’s grave.” Her family suspected foul play and hired a private pathologist, who found a bullet in the back of Anna Mae’s head. With this, the backstory is relit.

Some time after Durham’s cover was blown, Anna Mae entered a relationship with Banks. Through that time, the FBI tried to make her look like an informant, showering her with attention in public and waving to her ostentatiously in front of AIM members. “A snitch jacket,” it’s called in Bureau circles. In her last letter, she wrote her family: “they’re out to get me. They’ll kill me.”

As Agent Parker returns to his nonchalant confession, he admits that the FBI believed targets like Anna Mae could be goaded into killing each other. “That certainly is one of the possible outcomes, that the dissension would grow to the point that there was violence between the people there,” he says in neutral-sounding jargon.

McKiernan: So you would kill an informant?

Parker: That certainly was in the realm of possibility. Ok? And I can say, at that point we weren’t real concerned about that type of thing if that happened: the same as with any criminal situation. Say if you had two hostages and they ended up shooting each other, which happens. That’s the way it goes.

Since then tribal members have fought for redress of the government’s war on Indigenous activists. McKiernan interviews Tom Poor Bear, recent Vice President of the Oglala Tribal Council, who in 2019 continued his push to reopen cold cases from the 1970s, which saw “almost seventy uninvestigated deaths during the reign of terror” of Nixon’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, DOJ and FBI. Before he died of COVID-19 in 2020, Poor Bear called for a review of misconduct by the FBI.

The Wounded Knee occupation ended in the late spring of 1973, fifty years ago. That same year, the Senate Subcommittee on Indian Affairs Hearings convened. A year later, the International Treaty Council followed. In 1975, the Indian Self-Determination Act was signed, and the Council of Economic Resource Tribes and the American Indian Policy Review Commission formed. In 1978, the Indian Freedom of Religion Act and the Indian Child Welfare Act both passed.

The 1979 Supreme Court Ruling on the Boldt Treaty Decision in Northwest Fishing Cases followed. The 1980 U.S. Supreme Court Decision on the Black Hills was followed by the 1982 Indian Mineral Development Act, 1988’s Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, and 1990’s Native American Languages Act, as well as the Native American Grave Protection & Repatriation Act (which has been in the news recently due to museums’ lack of enforcement of it). In autumn of 1996, President Clinton declared November to be Native American Heritage Month, as presidents before him had.

The throughline from the 1960s and ‘70s occupations and the reforms that followed was offset by what Sioux author Nick Estes calls the United States’ ongoing “dirty war” against Indigenous activists. Late in the film, McKiernan interviews tribal members present at Wounded Knee who also worked to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline slated for Standing Rock, North Dakota. In 2016, stakeholders in the Dakota Access Pipeline called in a private army, who hired Joel McCullough to pose as a “water protector” among those protesting the pipeline. A former special forces officer, McCullough’s cover was blown when slides were leaked to The Intercept in 2020 showing McCullough to be part of private contractor TigerSwan’s scheme to treat environmental protestors as “jihadis,” bait them into crimes, and have them charged as terrorists. Throughout From Wounded Knee to Standing Rock, media commentators can be heard describing Wounded Knee occupiers as “militant Indians,” which may have done similar work as “jihadi” to cast the activists as unreasonable and violent. The protesters at Standing Rock were unarmed. The Pipeline began operation in April 2017.

Meanwhile, police violence against Native Americans remains rampant. Since George Floyd’s 2020 murder by police, the CDC tracks such violence. Its data show that police kill tribal members at a rate six times higher than whites. South Dakota, Estes writes, remains an especially “anti-Indian” state, with incarceration rates ten times higher than the national average.

Atop this backdrop is where the triumph of McKiernan’s film becomes clear. The value of the documentary, and the fact that the footage it includes survived in the first place, is that it creates a record of the tactics deployed by the state to destroy the AIM in Wounded Knee—and the resilience of the movement’s activists in spite of it.

We can only speculate as to whether his presence at Wounded Knee offered them protection from the FBI’s violence at the time, as McKiernan hoped. Nevertheless, the film that emerged from it, and the history of the fifty years since the events in South Dakota, together tell an important story: the American Indian Movement’s “militant” tactics worked. In the years after the standoff, much-needed reforms bolstered tribal sovereignty. Today, as state and corporate forces use tactics honed during COINTELPRO to defang Indigenous protest movements, AIM’s actions read like case studies in Indigenous radicalism: testaments to the concrete political power that could be won by committing to an absolute assertion of sovereignty. What was birthed during the Wounded Knee occupation, recalls McKiernan, was “the spirit, the flickering hope of a few that sparked a small prairie fire: the budding flame of unity.”

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