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Wounded Knee, the Ghost Dance, and the American Indian Movement

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Russell Means shakes hands with Assistant Attorney General Kent Frizzell as AIM signs a treaty to end the occupation of Wounded Knee; National Guardian Photographs; PHOTOS 213; box 9; folder 26; Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University.

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American Indian activist at Pine Ridge, March 16, 1973; National Guardian Photographs; PHOTOS 213; box 9; folder 25; Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University.

“The white man says that the 1890 massacre was the end of the wars with the Indian, the end of the Ghost Dance. Yet here we are at war, we’re still Indians, and we’re Ghost Dancing again.”
-Russell Means, Pine Ridge Reservation, 1973 [1]

On this day in 1973, Native American activists surrendered to government officials, ending the Native occupation of the Pine Ridge reservation and Wounded Knee. Though the American Indian Movement was founded in 1968 to support the Native American community, the path to the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee started long before the 1960’s. In 1890, approximately 300 Lakota men, women, and children were killed by American troops at Wounded Knee in South Dakota. The 1960’s and 70’s saw a rising Native activism, what one historian called the shift from termination to self-determination.[2]

The National Guardian was a radical leftist weekly newspaper published in New York City between 1948 and 1992. The Tamiment Library holds the photography files for the publication, which are a rich source of materials on activism, civil rights, politics, and Cold War America. The newspaper published many stories on AIM and the occupation of Pine Ridge, following the activists through the 1960’s into the turbulent 70’s and beyond.
By 1970, few businesses and little farmland on the Pine Ridge reservation were Lakota-owned. Partly as a result, poverty rates were high for the Lakota on the reservation and national AIM activism sparked local action. On February 27, 1973, several hundred Native people, Oglala Lakota leaders, and AIM members made demands at Wounded Knee on the Lakota Pine Ridge Reservation as a part of what is known as the Trail of Broken Treaties, a traveling American Indian protest that started on the west coast in 1972 with a 20 point manifesto to be delivered to the United States Government.[3]

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The Walk to Wounded Knee, 1973; National Guardian Photographs; PHOTOS 213; box 11; folder 41; Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University.

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Native American women protest in support of Wounded Knee, February, 1974; National Guardian Photographs; PHOTOS 213; box 9; folder 26; Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University.

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Reflection by graves of Aquash and Stuntz, Oglala Pine Ridge Reservation, 1985; National Guardian Photographs; PHOTOS 213; box 11; folder 41; Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University.

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Woman gives salute, March 1, 1973; National Guardian Photographs; PHOTOS 213; box 11; folder 41; Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University.

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Wounded Knee Demonstration; National Guardian Photographs; PHOTOS 213; box 9; folder 29; Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University.

The points were largely aimed at the restoration of Native American land, the enforcement or repeal of previous treaties, Bureau of Indian Affairs overhaul in light of corruption, and other legal safeguards to ensure Native sovereignty and authority. The federal government did not acquiesce to AIM’s 20 point manifesto, but instead rejected the organization’s claim to speak for Native American interests.[4]

A 71-day standoff between activists and the United States government ensued, during which scores of Native activists were arrested on criminal charges such as arson and theft. Russell Means, an Oglala Lakota and one of the activist leaders prosecuted by the US government as a result of the events, stated during the Pine Ridge occupation that, “The white man says that the 1890 massacre was the end of the wars with the Indian, the end of the Ghost Dance. Yet here we are at war, we’re still Indians, and we’re Ghost Dancing again.”[5]

The 1890 Ghost Dance was a syncretic Native American prophetic religious practice that spread throughout the West and the reservation system, in many ways uniting American Indians in a common tradition in the face of a tide of settler colonialism aimed at dispossessing many peoples. In a time of the aggressive widespread implementation of the reservation system, assimilation programs, and tragic massacres throughout the west, the Ghost Dance provided and, as this quotation shows, continued later to provide a spiritual language of resistance and solidarity.

The lasting impressions of pan-Native identity began with a Nevada-born Numu man whose message would spread across Native America and extend to this day. On January 1, 1889, the Ghost Dance prophet Wovoka experienced his first vision during a solar eclipse. He began to preach across the west and his teachings, historians have noted, were adapted by different Native peoples to incorporate traditions from any Native group. Though regional interpretations of Ghost Dance prophecies differed, some people believed that they heralded the end of Euro-American settler colonialism.
Gregory Smoak, Historian of the Ghost Dance and Native identity found that an American investigator recorded a Paiute’s Ghost Dance-based belief that when, “Old Man [God] returned, all the Indians would climb up into the mountains to escape the flood that killed all the white people.” [6] A poster held here at the Tamiment from the Mohawk Nation at Akwesasne included a similar sentiment in a run of identity politics-oriented publications during the 1970’s and 1980’s saying that, “There will come a time when we will take refuge in the mountains to escape the burning fires on the plains and there we will plan our return to that charred ground.” [7]

Smoak argues that the Ghost Dance, the massacre at Wounded Knee, and larger continuing trends of Native American identity and ethnogenesis are inextricably linked, saying that, “The Ghost Dances and Wounded Knee have become synonymous. Yet the Ghost Dances did not necessarily lead to Wounded Knee, nor did they die there. The religion was far more than a tragic coda to the autonomous life that native peoples enjoyed before their dispossession. Ghost dances became part of a common process of identity formation that took place at different times and in different ways in Native communities across the United States.” [8] In 1973 at Wounded Knee, AIM and the Pine Ridge activists invoked the language of the Ghost Dances to assert Native American identity and sovereignty.

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A Native woman sits drinking a cup of hot broth from the Red Cross the day Wounded Knee activists surrendered to government officials. Woman at Pine Ridge, May 8, 1973; National Guardian Photographs; PHOTOS 213; box 11; folder 41; Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University.

On May 8, 1973, the protesters at Wounded Knee surrendered to federal officials. Trials and protests continued, but the occupation ended in a ten point treaty. The effects of Native activism from the 1960’s and 70’s, notably the continued imprisonment of AIM activist Leonard Peltier, reverberate to this day. Peltier was convicted of killing two federal officers in a standoff at Pine Ridge two years after the occupation. Activists argue that evidence was tampered with in the case and the trial itself was unfair. Peltier’s case remains a rallying point and symbol for AIM and for their supporters everywhere.

Peltier supporters rallied in New York after a 12 day and 710 mile run from Buffalo to draw attention to activists’ presentation before the UN Commission on Human Rights and Foreign Relations on Peltier’s behalf.

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Leonard Peltier Rally, New York, September 12, 1981; National Guardian Photographs; PHOTOS 213; box 11; folder 41; Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University.

For more information on AIM, please visit their website.
[1] Sayer, John William. Ghost Dancing the Law: The Wounded Knee Trials. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1997. 7.
[2] Ibid, 3.
[3] American Indian Movement. “Trail of Broken Treaties 20-Point Position Paper – An Indian Manifesto.” AIM Archvies. American Indian Movement. Web.
[4] Sayer, 31.
[5] Ibid, 7.
[6] Smoak, Gregory E. Ghost Dances and Identity: Prophetic Religion and American Indian Ethnogenesis in the Nineteenth Century. Berkeley: U of California, 2006. 168.
[7] Ghost Dancing, Akwesasne Notes; Tamiment Library Poster and Broadside Collection; GRAPHICS 002; NPA90-8; Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives.
[8] Ibid, 191.
Today’s entry is written by Sarah Moazeni, a Graduate Reference Assistant working in the Tamiment Library and Wagner Labor Archives.

2 thoughts on “Wounded Knee, the Ghost Dance, and the American Indian Movement”

  1. reed crow says:

    Are there any plans for a ghost dance on next years solar eclipse, if not there should be.

  2. yahdi siradj says:

    helpful information that you provide comrade. continue working to provide information that is current, reliable and useful to all. thanks

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