Reign of Terror After 1973 Wounded Knee

Resistance Stories of the Lakota People

By Debbie Lang

Revolutionary Worker #1039, January 23, 2000

In the spring of 1973, hundreds of Indian people and their supporters occupied the village of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. They demanded an end to the U.S.-government-backed murder and intimidation of American Indian Movement (AIM) supporters and traditionals on the reservation. And they demanded that treaties signed by the U.S. be honored that gave the Lakota people (also known as the Sioux) the right to self-rule and to the land surrounding the Black Hills.

Federal authorities surrounded them with an army of over 300--which included the U.S. Army, FBI, Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) agents, U.S. Marshals and state police. The Indians refused to back down. They used weapons to defend themselves and held off the government forces for 73 days. The courage and militancy of the fighters at Wounded Knee grabbed the attention of people all over the world and helped build powerful support for the struggle of Native peoples. Wounded Knee--the site of the massacre of 300 Sioux men, women and children in 1890--became a symbol of renewed Indian struggle and resistance.

After this siege, the U.S. government unleashed an intense, murderous repression against the people of Pine Ridge. They wanted to eliminate AIM's influence and terrorize the traditional people in order to carry out their plans to steal Lakota land, which is rich in uranium, coal and oil. Traditionals were those members of the Lakota people who generally took a hostile stance toward the U.S.-government-backed authorities and tried, as much as possible, to uphold the traditional ways and beliefs of their people.

When the people of Pine Ridge came under such murderous attack, the word went out that they needed support. AIM members came to the reservation from all over the U.S. Many of them were not Lakota, but members of other Indian peoples. It was as part of this AIM operation that Leonard Peltier came onto the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1975.

On July 26, 1975, in an FBI raid on the AIM camp at Oglala, two FBI agents and one AIM activist were killed. In 1977 Peltier was framed-up for the murder of the agents and railroaded into prison--where he has now spent 23 hard years. He is respected around the world as a voice for Native people and an inspiring political prisoner who refuses to be broken.

November 1999 was Leonard Peltier Freedom Month. Thousands of people traveled to Washington, DC to demand freedom for Leonard Peltier--including people who took part in the Wounded Knee occupation and the Pine Ridge struggle. This article is based on conversations RW. reporter Debbie Lang had with these veteran fighters.

"Over 500 innocent people lost their lives through the FBI's misconduct, the FBI's lawlessness. Today the FBI admits there are over 60 plus unsolved political murders in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, people who believed in sovereignty, people who resisted total U.S. colonization of indigenous people."

Edgar Bear Runner of
Pine Ridge reservation

"Our treaty says that we should own half of South Dakota, part of Montana, part of Wyoming, a little bit of Nebraska. It's a big area including the Black Hills. That right there is the very purpose of the genocide, because they're hoping that there's going to be a generation that's going to forget these things."

Jean Roche, survivor of the
shoot-out at Oglala

After the armed occupation of Wounded Knee, the government struck back at the people with a vengeance. Hundreds of indictments were handed down. Many AIM leaders and members were in jail or tied up in trials. AIM member Carter Camp described the situation at Pine Ridge:

"The federal government just went crazy on the reservation. We have 66 uninvestigated murders of AIM people at that time. They wiped out our secondary leadership on the reservation, our cadre of supporters there, and intimidated everyone else. All this happened post-Wounded Knee. A reign of terror happened on the reservation and it went on until about 1980.

"The government don't like people fighting for freedom. That's an anathema to this kind of government. So they put it upon themselves now to destroy the American Indian Movement and stop the movement towards freedom in Indian Country. They got some of our own people to help them and they funded them and they gave them weapons and taught them assassination techniques, the kind of thing that the CIA and FBI are good at. And these people called themselves the Guardians of the Oglala Nation or the GOON squad. And this GOON squad was just very vicious. They kept them supplied with drugs and alcohol so they could be in that kind of a mood. And the reservation now, it was like a civil war. We couldn't drive at night. You couldn't get in the car and drive down the road or there was going to be a roadblock there. If you had long hair and looked like an Indian, they were gonna drag you out. If you're a traditional person or an elder, they're just going to beat the hell out of you and leave you laying in the road. If you were an AIM person they were gonna kill you."

From 1973 to 1975 government-sponsored death squads operated freely on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The FBI brought in four times the number of agents it had had in the area and stationed a 10-man FBI SWAT team in the tiny village of Pine Ridge.

In their book, Agents of Repression: The FBI's Secret War Against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement, Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall write: "This concentration of agents, maintained for more than two years and again tripled during the first half of 1975, afforded the FBI in western South Dakota the highest ratio of agents to citizens anywhere in the United States." Some of these were agents that specialized in counter-intelligence aimed at silencing political dissidents. The FBI and U.S. Marshals service allowed the GOONs to set up their roadblocks. They supplied them with intelligence and weapons, including military M16 assault rifles. Some BIA officials led GOON squads. The U.S. government backed tribal president Dick Wilson with $24 million a year in federal funds. Wilson was allowed to use tribal funds to finance the GOONs--which he did with the knowledge of the highest ranking government authorities, including then President Nixon. According to Agents of Repression, the repression on Pine Ridge was directed by the government based on a Pentagon plan for domestic counterinsurgency code-named "Garden Plot." Wilson intensified the repression of traditional religious ceremonies such as the Sun Dance and fought to get the tribal council to sell the Lakota people's treaty rights to the Black Hills, an area they considered sacred. The GOONs rampaged across the reservation--they illegally searched people's homes, shot into and firebombed houses with people inside, beat hundreds, and carried out a campaign of murder that killed well over 70 people, sometimes for being organizers, sometimes just because they wore their hair defiantly in the long traditional style. The exact number of dead is unknown and some accounts report as many as 200 dead.

Victims of the Pine Ridge Death Squads

Arlette Loud Hawk is a small woman with a quiet yet powerful voice. Arlette came up in Oglala, in a family of traditionals who supported AIM.

She was a young teenager during the reign of terror. She said, "We learned as children as soon as we heard gunfire, you hit the floor and you crawl--that was survival." Over the course of several hours, we cried together as Arlette told me her story and talked about some of the people who were murdered on Pine Ridge:

"There was this lady named Jeanette Bissonette. She's driving down the road, her and her children, and a sniper killed her. I have a friend, we were eighth graders. He had real long hair. His name was Ellison Little Spotted Horse. He was walking down the road. Somebody just shot him dead. And we were grade school children. So the GOON squads, they started killing children. I thought I was invincible, that I would live forever and for some reason, that as a child, I had all this protection in the world. And here now they're killing children. I always remember my friend because nobody remembers him. Nobody even cares to mention his name. But he's one of the children that died in those times, all because he had long hair.

"And Ellison had a sister named Mona. Mona killed herself--another child--because they killed her brother. She couldn't handle Ellison being gone because they were only a year apart. They were like twins, brother and sister. So she took an overdose and died because she can't go on in life without her brother. They were raised by their father. So there's a sad father. And he died, too.

"I have a grandpa nobody talks about either. In 1975 when the military helicopters came out of the sky he had a heart attack and died because the helicopters were so intimidating to him. His name was James Brings Yellow. There's a lot of things the government did that nobody tells stories about and nobody cares to mention these names. But to me they had a right to live.

"They had a right to their place. Sometimes my heart hurts. The only thing they wanted to see was all of us dead. I looked at my family, I looked at other families--I understood that we were targets of the U.S. government, that our lives really didn't mean very much. But to each individual, we are of value. We value our lives and we value our nation and we value the land so much. That's what this whole struggle is, it's always over land.

"Sometimes I can't believe all I've gone through. You just like to kind of block it out. You don't want to walk down memory lane because memory lane's going to be painful. But I walked through a lot of pain. I walked through a lot of hardship. Sometimes I joke about it. I say `Hey, did you see that movie called Little Big Man?' At the beginning of the movie there's this old man walking through the battle, but he goes throughout the battle unscathed. That's kind of like me. There's many times that I think I should have got killed or I should have been dead. As a family we learned to stick together. We learned to be together because we've all had many near-death experiences."

Everyone had stories about victims of the death squads. Ellen Moves Camp said: "That Ten Fingers boy that was found on the inside of the school, remember, on that back road. They found his body. His name was Lilian. There was quite a few of them like that."

Rosaline Jumping Bull told me: "After Pedro Bissonette, there's a lot of people that somebody shot 'em and they don't know who did it. They were scared to say who done it. Women were getting killed. Even little kids were shot. A lot of old people, they harassed them. And then some of them are so sick that they just die. One night one of the boys, I don't know what happened, but they found him dead on the road. Somebody ran over him. Things happened like that, people would run over them, you know? And those are probably the GOONs in their pickups. They have big pickups. They could kill you cause they're the ones that carry the guns. And the BIA helps them and they're on their side. And they get away with it. A lot of people died. They went over to one house and kicked the door open. So the wife, she had a heart attack and she died. That's when the elders said this has to stop. AIM's gotta come back and help us cause everybody left and we're here all alone and there's no way you can't fight back cause they're too strong. So that's when Leonard Peltier came in 1975."

None of the murders on Pine Ridge Reservation has ever been investigated by the government. Ellen Moves Camp told me: "There's never going to be an investigation because they're the ones that are doing it."

The Resistance Continues

"My brother went to the Vietnam war. His name was Sam Loud Hawk. Instead of going one tour he went two tours because he believed in this great United States of America. My brother got a Bronze Star. He got all kinds of medals for being a soldier of fortune. My brother said, `Arlette, you know what? I went to the Vietnam War believing that I was fighting for my land and my people and I come back to the United States and the very government I fought for is killing and fighting my own people.' So he grabbed all his medals and he threw them outside. He said. `I hate this United States of America. I fought for them and here they're waging war on my people, the Oglala Lakotas. And I believed in them.' My brother was crying when he was telling me all that and throwing all those medals out. And he said, `Fuck Uncle Sam, man. Fuck him. When Uncle Sam comes to my reservation, my people are waging war on him.' So from that day on my brother was not an army man. He became a Lakota warrior again where he was going to defend his land and his people."

Arlette Loud Hawk, resident of Oglala, Pine Ridge Reservation

Even in the face of such intense repression people continued to resist and once again they called on AIM for help. Edgar Bear Runner is a lifelong resident of the Pine Ridge Reservation who comes from a family of AIM supporters. He was in his early 20s during Wounded Knee and the reign of terror. He told me: "Our elders, our parents and grandparents in our community had called on this family, known to us as the American Indian Movement. The American Indian Movement was invited by the traditional community from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to provide aid, to provide a sense of security for people who felt that the law had abandoned them. People felt a sense of security when the American Indian Movement arrived on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. There was not only a sense of security, there was also a sense of Lakota-ism. There was a sense of aspiration of pride, of being who we really are. After all, it's beautiful to be Lakota. These were the feelings among the young people."

Ellen Moves Camp was a member of the Oglala Civil Rights Committee and one of the people responsible for calling in AIM. Rosaline Jumping Bull and many members of her family were AIM supporters. As supporters of AIM, traditionals and activists for the rights of the Lakota people, they were being watched all the time. Yet they continued to hold their outlawed religious ceremonies and to have political meetings. Rosaline Jumping Bull told me: "Dick Wilson said no more dancing, no more gatherings. People will have to be inside their houses at nine o'clock. There's no lights, no yard lights, no electricity. They shot out our outside lights. It's pitch black all over. GOONs patrolled the streets to make sure we were in bed. And if you have a gathering, the GOONs will go there and break it up. So we used to follow each other around at that time without lights and have meetings. Just one car would go and then we all followed. And we'd hide from them. We had to whisper when we'd go someplace. Wilson really punched us after the AIM people left, you know? And if we go to town, they're there. They're standing outside when you come up. They'll say things to us or they'll cuss us up, call us names. They were really getting bad. Even the police officers were right in there with them."

During the days I spent in Washington, DC talking with the survivors of the reign of terror, I was very moved by their courage and determination to continue to struggle for Leonard Peltier's freedom--and for liberation of their people. More than one person I spoke with said that their job or their life could be in danger for coming to Washington to speak out on Leonard's behalf. Arlette Loud Hawk said: "In my heart and the way I see things I feel that we, the people of the Oglala and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and all Native people of this land, we owe a lot to the Leonard Peltiers, the people who sit in jail. We're on the outside. We're indebted to those people. And to me, I feel that we should all get together, come together, thousands of us and demand that he get out."

The victims of the government-backed death squads were alive in the thoughts and actions of all the people I met. There was a vigil for the victims where a sign representing each person murdered was held facing the White House. Many people told me those who were murdered lived on in their struggle. Arlette Loud Hawk said: "I remember my relatives and I talk about them because they didn't die in vain. They died because they was Indian and they liked the Indian way of life. And to me, they did the ultimate sacrifice just by the way they lived and for choosing to live on the reservation. I believe that life beyond the reservation is better, but as Lakota we don't want to go away. We want to stick with our families. We want to live upon the land and we just want to stay together. And we don't bother nobody. But we're so bothersome to everybody else. What they want is our land. Before they wanted our gold so they took the Black Hills away. They're still trying to take our reservation away. And it's the land that holds the people together. If we don't have a reservation, if we don't have a land base our nation will have to go to the cities. Pretty soon we won't remember who's relative to who. We won't have no place to go back to and call home because home will be in every city, every ghetto.

"We have a treaty and we have a land base. The government has kept the people in lies and ignorance but the younger generation, they're not going to be so ignorant. You're not going to lie to them so easily. These young children, they're going to be a power force. That's the way I see it. I see hope and I believe that the children are always going to make that difference. They're going to say, `I'm tired of living this way. I don't want to live this way.' My parents and my grandparents, they didn't give them no options. They didn't give them no choices. There's really no freedom. They said that this is the land of the free. That's a big lie. That's such a big lie sometimes it's a joke. But who's laughing? We're all crying. My grandfathers have come to this Washington, D.C. over and over. All they ever did was tell them lies and that's all they'll ever do in my time, I believe. But I have a son and I raised him in such a way where he ain't gonna be so humble and humbly ask, `Can I have the Black Hills back?' The next generation of children coming up, they're not going to humbly ask nor are they even going to ask. Some day soon I see thousands of us Indians walking back to the Black Hills. Some day we're going to say, `We have come home and you're not going to take us out of here."'

Previous parts of this series "Resistance Stories of the Lakota People" appeared in RW #1031 and 1038. They are available on RW Online at

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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