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James G. Abourezk, Wounded Knee 1973 Series

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Collection Summary

Title  James G. Abourezk, Wounded Knee 1973 Series
Span Dates 1970-1983
Bulk Dates (bulk dates, 1970-1983)
Quantity 4 linear ft.
Printed Material The Printed Materials are in Box 4.
Location     Archives and Special Collections, University Libraries, University of South Dakota.


American Indian Movement 

The American Indian Movement (AIM) originated in 1968, arising from the concerns of Native Americans in Minneapolis, Minnesota. AIM focused on changing the life of Indians in the urban environment. Members coordinated a neighborhood patrol to circumvent unjust arrests and police mishandling of American Indian residents. AIM leaders extended their concern to include the reform of Indian and federal government relations. They believed Native Americans lacked representation in political and funding organizations. Clyde Bellecourt and Dennis Banks, Chippewa from Minnesota, assisted in the creation of AIM. Later, Russell Means, an Oglala Sioux, became one of the more aggressive leaders of the organization.

As a vehicle to highlight their concerns, AIM members sponsored the Trail of Broken Treaties. Approximately 900 people, traveling from Seattle and San Francisco, stopped at reservations throughout the west to delineate Indian grievances towards the U.S. government. The Trail of Broken Treaties ended in Washington, D.C., with the takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) building from 2 November through 8 November 1972. Negotiations between the White House administrators and AIM members resulted in an agreement that included a pledge to deal with economic, social, and educational grievances of Native Americans and to provide return travel money to individuals that comprised the Trail of Broken Treaties.

Following the death of Raymond Yellow Thunder in February of 1972, AIM members protested in Gordon, Nebraska because of potential discrepancies in the case. During the protest, AIM supporters took over the Gordon community hall. Leaders declared a victory after local officials proposed the establishment of a human relations board to investigate grievances. On 21 January 1973, in Buffalo Gap, South Dakota, Harold Schmidt killed Wesley Bad Heart Bull. Prosecutors charged Schmidt with involuntary manslaughter. In Custer, South   Dakota, AIM members confronted local law enforcement and protested against the charges. During the protest, the courthouse and chamber of commerce burned to the ground. The U.S. government viewed AIM as a militant group and increased surveillance of its activities.

On the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota Oglala Sioux leaders requested the assistance of AIM in order to provide strength in their opposition to tribal president Richard Wilson, elected in 1972. Opponents of Wilson accused him of mishandling tribal funds, misusing authority, and disregarding rules of the tribal council. In February of 1973 the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council unsuccessfully filed impeachment proceedings against Wilson. On 25 February 1973 the U.S. Department of Justice sent out 50 U.S. Marshals to the Pine Ridge Reservation to be available in the case of a civil disturbance. 

Wounded Knee Takeover 

AIM leaders and about 200 supporters enroute to Porcupine, South Dakota, stopped at the village of Wounded Knee and took over the trading post, museum, gas station and several churches. The involved in the takeover considered Wounded Knee historically significance and deemed the village an appropriate location from which to voice the concerns of AIM and the Oglala of the Pine Ridge Reservation. The takeover, on 27 February 1973, marked the beginning of a conflict between AIM and the U.S. Government that lasted until 8 May 1973.

The goals outlined by AIM leaders included support for the reformation of tribal government as well as bringing attention to Native American grievances. Means, as an AIM spokesperson, requested congressional investigations into conditions on all reservations and the corruption of the BIA. Means specifically wanted a hearing to take place concerning treaties and treaty rights, along with an investigation of the BIA and the Department of the Interior at all agency and reservation levels. 

U.S. Government Reaction 

News of the takeover reached U.S. Marshals at Pine Ridge and prompted immediate action. Government security forces placed roadblocks at all entrances to Wounded Knee to prevent access to the area. U.S. Marshals and FBI agents maintained a total of six roadblocks, along with five observation points, throughout the occupation to keep people from entering or leaving Wounded Knee. AIM members and supporters entered the area by overland routes, bringing in food and supplies by backpack. Federal forces did not allow Wounded Knee property owners or residents to return to the village once they had left. Several individuals and families, displaced by this policy, found lodging in homes and churches on the Pine Ridge reservation.

The White House, the Department of Defense (DOD) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) coordinated efforts throughout the Wounded Knee occupation. The military organized weapons, personnel, and equipment supplied by the DOD. Law enforcement groups consisted of the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the BIA. The federal government held jurisdiction over the reservation and therefore state and local forces did not assist in law enforcement but provided support by prohibiting unauthorized people from traveling onto the Pine Ridge Reservation, especially those suspected of carrying food and ammunition. 

Events at Wounded Knee 

Ralph Erickson, Special Assistant to the Attorney General and the ranking DOJ official at the time, first evaluated the takeover at Wounded Knee. Wayne Colburn, Director of the United States Marshal Service, and Joseph Trimbach, an FBI agent, also provided assistance. William Clayton, the U.S. Attorney General of South Dakota, learned of the takeover while at Pine Ridge. These men determined that the primary objective included preventing injuries or deaths while arresting people violating the law and releasing any potential hostages.

Sporadic gunfire between U.S. forces and AIM security marked the first days of the occupation. AIM forces fortified the area by building trenches, setting up road blocks, and establishing foot patrols. AIM security forces developed and maintained a defensive perimeter around Wounded Knee that included a total of nine bunkers. AIM relied on the experience of several Vietnam veterans to establish security.

Within one day of the occupation, senators James Abourezk and George McGovern arrived in Wounded Knee to negotiate the release of any hostages. On the night of the occupation, while making random phone calls to Pine Ridge and Wounded Knee, Abourezk connected by chance to Russell Means. According to the senator, Means stated that the occupation would end if AIM requests were considered and a meeting took place to discuss grievances. On 1 March Abourezk and Senator McGovern, along with two aides from Senator Ted Kennedy's office, flew out to Pine Ridge and drove into Wounded Knee. Abourezk stated to the press that negotiations would not take place if potential hostages were threatened. The senators agreed that congressional committees hearings would be held on specific issues and grievances. They also assured AIM leaders that BIA officials would be transferred, specifically Stanley Lyman and Wyman Babby. Abourezk and McGovern returned to Washington believing the conflict had been resolved. At the same time Ralph Erickson developed three options for the U.S. government and forces to follow -- they could pull back, remain established with the original force of about 250 men, or increase manpower to cut off the area. Officials decided to continue roadblocks to limit entrance into the area.

AIM leaders made a statement on 4 March declaring they would leave Wounded Knee if the U.S. government would also leave and allow the Oglala to work out any conflict among themselves. Erickson countered this proposal by stating that if the occupiers would leave Wounded Knee by 8 March, abandon weapons, and identify themselves, they would not be subject to immediate arrest. Only Wounded Knee residents or property owners evacuated the village at this time. At Pine Ridge, the tribal council ordered all non-members of the Oglala tribe off the reservation. In order to implement this decision Richard Wilson organized a special police force that became known as the "goon squad." Wilson and his forces maintained several road blocks outside of the federal perimeter and participated in gunfire exchanges on several occasions.

By 10 March, both factions agreed upon and rejected a variety of negotiation settlements. Erickson and Colburn withdrew all government roadblocks. Both men assumed that occupiers would leave the village if they were given the opportunity to do so without being arrested. Instead, Aim leaders viewed the lifting of the roadblocks as a victory and stated this to the press. AIM supporters and members of the Oglala preferred not to leave without consideration of the outlined grievances. With the removal of the roadblocks, people in support of AIM entered Wounded Knee and brought supplies and food.

On 11 March four postal inspectors entered the village to inspect postal property and check for violations. AIM security confiscated their weapons and detained the workers because they believed the inspectors had entered the village to gain information. After four hours the men were allowed to leave the village in their own vehicles. Following their release all roadblocks were reinstated. On the next day, FBI agents pursued a van that attempted to enter the village. The U-Haul van had been reported as stolen. FBI and BIA police cars followed the vehicle and during the pursuit, gun shots fired from both vehicles. FBI agent Curtis Fitzgerald took a wound in the wrist. No conclusive evidence existed in regard to who fired the first shot during this incident.

In order to assist AIM and the Oglala Sioux, supporters created the Wounded Knee Legal Defense/Offense Committee (WKLDOC). The WKLDOC dealt with any arrests that occurred and raised funds for AIM. On one occasion, the committee obtained a temporary restraining order that allowed six lawyers, each with a carload of food, to enter Wounded Knee each day from 26 March through 31 March. All law enforcement surrounding Wounded Knee agreed to abide by the restraining order. Richard Wilson and his police responded by placing roadblocks outside of those set up by federal forces and seizing all food from the cars.

Gun-fire exchanges between forces occurred sporadically throughout the conflict. Both sides established, violated, and reinstated cease-fires. AIM security, U.S. forces and, on occasion, the tribal police force instigated gunfire exchanges. On 26 March heavy firing occurred between the AIM and government perimeters. Wilson placed a tribal roadblock outside of the federal perimeter and his forces allegedly participated in the exchange. During this exchange, U.S. Marshal Lloyd Grimm received a wound that paralyzed him from the waist down. As a result of increased gunfire, two deaths occurred at Wounded Knee towards the end of April. During one exchange Frank Clearwater received a fatal wound while asleep on a cot in an occupied church. AIM supporters evacuated Clearwater from the village and he died in hospital on 25 April. Lawrence Lamont, a resident of Pine Ridge Reservation, received a fatal gunshot wound on 26 April. Both forces concurrently established a cease-fire after his death. 


Negotiations began during the first days of the takeover and continued throughout the 71 days that AIM occupied Wounded Knee. AIM and the U.S. government developed several proposals that were rejected by one side or the other depending on the contents. The negotiations often became stymied due to the interjection of new demands by AIM leaders. Additional difficulties with negotiations included miscommunication between the opposing groups and between the various U.S. agencies.

The Community Relations Service (CRS), part of the DOJ, existed as an intermediary between AIM and the U.S. government throughout the Wounded Knee occupation. CRS assured AIM leaders that negotiations would not take place without the presence of AIM lawyers. Subsequently Ramon Roubideaux attended all negotiation sessions. The occupiers reiterated previous demands concerning the BIA and meetings with government administrators. AIM leaders also wanted tribal president Richard Wilson removed from office, suspension of the tribal constitution, a return to government as it existed under the Indian Reorganization Act, and negotiations based on the 1868 treaty.

On 11 March the Oglala Sioux announced the creation of the Independent Oglala Nation (ION). The ION established a provisional government and reverted to the treaty of 1868 as its basis. Leaders stated that the ION would negotiate with the United States, nation-to-nation. The ION declaration helped to unite the AIM leadership and supporters at Wounded Knee. AIM leaders, the ION and Wayne Colburn and Harlington Wood from the U.S. government made arrangements for negotiations on 13 March. Wood introduced a proposal that included meetings with Department of the Interior and Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs at Sioux   Falls. Government forces hoped that once the meetings convened occupiers would leave Wounded Knee and submit to arrest. Wood included limits on bail and addressed the need for medical care at Wounded Knee. The ION rejected the new proposals and developed a counter-proposal that requested a presidential emissary to come to Wounded Knee to discuss issues. The proposals included several compromises but no resolution.

At the end of March, Kent Frizzell replaced Harlington Wood as the ranking official at Wounded Knee. Frizzell initiated contact with Dennis Banks and offered to have Justice Department personnel hear civil rights complaints. Leaders from the Civil Rights Division and six FBI agents met with AIM and Oglala leaders to discuss the misuse of tribal funds, and complaints of harassment from Wilson's forces. These negotiations lasted for several days and on 5 April, the U.S. government and AIM leaders signed a dispossession agreement. The terms of the agreement stated that Russell Means should submit himself for arrest and be taken into custody and arraigned at Rapid City. On 7 April, at 7 a.m., AIM leaders were to lay down their arms. Any individuals with an outstanding warrant would be arrested. A meeting would take place between AIM leaders and a representative of the White House to discuss the possibility of a presidential committee to look into the matter of Indian treaties. U.S. government forces arrested Means as he left Wounded Knee, after which he posted bond and left for Washington, D.C.

The 5 April agreement proved faulty as the terms had been agreed upon orally and had not been written out. Frizzell's interpretation of the dispossession agreement conflicted with the understanding held by AIM leaders. On 8 April, Means publicly stated that the Wounded Knee occupiers never agreed to lay down arms until the conclusion of a White House meeting. AIM preferred a proposal that called for disarmament rather than dispossession. AIM believed the agreement allowed for arms to be placed in a tipi with a sacred pipe across the door while government forces pulled back. Following the surrender of arms, the Washington, D.C., meeting would take place and the terms of the agreement would be initiated. The government rejected this interpretation because it did not include terms regarding dispossession. Stanley Pottinger, the ranking DOJ official, met with AIM leaders in order to salvage the effort towards a resolution. Pottinger believed that the lack of leadership at Wounded Knee caused the impasse. Pottinger returned to Washington without any further progress made toward a solution. By 24 April, Frizzell returned to Wounded Knee to head the negotiating team. The U.S. government still preferred to negotiate with AIM forces rather than resort to any aggressive action.

From 28 April through 5 May, several negotiation sessions took place between Frizzell, government officials, Oglala elders, the ION, and AIM. Frizzell focused on a presidential treaty commission and other substantive points. Colburn and Richard Hellstern attempted to arrange a dispossession. On 5 May, Leonard Garment, Consultant to the President, sent a letter to Franks Fools Crow. The letter stated that White House representatives would meet with the Teton Sioux in order to examine the 1868 treaty. This meeting would not take place until the dispossession of Wounded Knee occurred. Both forces signed the dispossession agreement on 5 May. The agreement contained specific steps to be implemented on 9 May at 7 a.m. All persons were to leave Wounded Knee and identify themselves, and those with outstanding warrants would be arrested. The government would pull back from its position as the occupiers abandoned their position and residents of Wounded Knee would be escorted back into the community. Government forces would then search the area and destroy all bunkers. A residual force would be left behind to prevent further incidents and protect militants from reprisals. 


By 8 May half of the AIM community had left Wounded Knee. According to the timetable agreed upon, CRS entered Wounded Knee to collect all weapons and transport remaining AIM supporters to the government roadblock. Defense Committee lawyers remained at the government roadblock to witness the processing procedure. Out of the129 people processed, 110 were American Indians. Federal forces destroyed AIM security bunkers along with government bunkers and completed the evacuation of Wounded Knee by the end of the day.

Several issues influenced the AIM decision to end the occupation. Of primary importance was the lack of food, electrical power, and medical supplies. The occupation had lasted 71 days and both factions believed that morale and support were waning. The increase in the lack of support from the press as well as the general public may have influenced the decision of AIM leaders. AIM members also believed that the government attitude towards the occupation would eventually harden. 


Senator Abourezk, under the authority of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee of Indian Affairs, conducted hearings on the events and issues that lead to the confrontation and occupation at Wounded Knee. Tribal president Richard Wilson voiced his concerns at the hearing held at Pine Ridge on 16 June 1973. The following day at Kyle, South   Dakota, Russell Means aired his grievances towards the tribal government. On 17 July Abourezk proposed a Senate Joint Resolution in order to establish an Indian policy review committee. Its purpose included a review the legal relationship between Native Americans and the U.S. government and to provide support for the development of more effective policies.

During 1974, Russell Means lost a campaign against Richard Wilson for the of tribal president at Pine Ridge. Means was concurrently on trial in St. Paul Minnesota on charges from the Wounded Knee incident. The trial lasted for over eight months and resulted in the dismissal of all charges against both Means and Dennis Banks. The judge ruling in the decision decided to dismiss all charges rather than declare a mistrial following the hospitalization of a member of the jury. The defense did not accept an eleven member jury. 

Wounded Knee, December 29, 1890

By the year 1890, American Indians living on the Great Plains no longer retained their dominance over the land. Their traditional self-reliance shifted to increasing dependence on the U.S. government. White settlement of the west forced the Sioux nations to relinquish more and more of their land. Policies designed to "civilize" instead threatened the tribe's cultural heritage and traditional ways. The majority of the tribes lived on reservations without weapons and buffalo herds that had previously been vitally important to their existence. The tragedy at Wounded Knee marked the end of the Great Sioux Wars as well as the end of the traditional lifestyle of the Lakota and Sioux tribes.

In 1890, the teaching of an Indian holy man, Wovoka, spread throughout reservations in Dakota Territory. Wovoka's peaceful message held many precepts similar to Christian thought. When the word reached the Lakota, still smarting from their experience with the duplicity of the U.S. government, the teachings took on a more militant tone. Wovoka preached that dancing the Ghost Dance would make the Indian nations strong again -- the white man would disappear and the buffalo would return. Wovoka's teachings revitalized the Lakota while the U.S. army and agents on the reservations became increasingly concerned about its implications.

Sitting Bull supported the message of Wovoka and his people actively participated in the Ghost Dance. In order to combat the influence of dance, reservation agents decided to arrest Sitting Bull. In the process he was shot and killed. Members of his tribe, believers in the Ghost Dance, left the reservation and connected with the Minneconjou band of Big Foot. After hearing of Sitting Bull's demise, Big Foot and his band left Standing Rock reservation in northern South   Dakota, and traveled towards Pine Ridge Agency in order to seek protection. Unaware of his motives the U.S. Army sent five hundred men from the Seventh Cavalry to arrest Big Foot. The cavalry intercepted the Minneconjou band, which surrendered a few miles north of Wounded Knee Creek on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

On the morning of 29 December 1890 military forces issued rations and counted the Minneconjou band, comprised of approximately 120 men, and 230 women and children. Colonel James Forsythe took command of the cavalry regiment. Forsythe ordered the warriors to create a semi-circle facing the cavalry camp, and requested the surrender of their weapons. Initially, the men surrendered old and unserviceable weapons as they did not want to relinquish their means to gather food. The colonel sent men to search the entire camp, which produced only a few additional weapons. Forsythe ordered that the warriors be personally searched at which point a rifle fired. Immediately soldiers and warriors stood face-to-face and fired at each other. Terrified Indians remaining in the camp, including woman and children, fled from the area. The cavalry used Hotchkiss guns, which had been stationed above the camp the night before, to eliminate firing from the camp. Women and children, along with warriors, ran from the camp and towards a ravine for protection. The cavalry chased down and killed those fleeing.

After all gun fire ended, those involved in the tragedy stood surrounded by the dead and wounded. Survivors transported Indians and soldiers still living to make-shift hospitals in Pine Ridge. The bodies of those killed were left on the ground and covered by a blizzard that night. On 1 January 1891, army officials at Pine Ridge sent a civilian detail to recover and bury the dead. Although an exact count of the total Indian casualties could not be ascertained, the detail buried approximately 146 bodies at Wounded Knee, including men, women and children. The cavalry regiment lost about 25 men.

The tragedy that occurred at Wounded Knee irrevocably affected the Lakota and the Sioux people. The event's significance and memory has not diminished throughout the hundred and more years since it occurred.

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