AIM’s Stand at Wounded Knee (by Claire Brickson)


This lesson will help students understand how the obstacles that American Indians faced in the 20th century led to the dramatic events at Wounded Knee. Through the statements of AIM and participants in the Wounded Knee occupation, students will interpret the goals of the occupation and its success as well as analyze the incident’s effect on Native Americans living on the Pine Ridge Reservation and elsewhere.


After being presented with background information on the subject, students will be asked to analyze two primary documents. They will have to interpret the documents in context and judge their similarities and differences. Along with facilitating an understanding of the occupation of Wounded Knee, this exercise will help develop critical analysis skills. Finally, students will be asked to write a few paragraphs in response to what they have learned. They will need to synthesize information from several sources to draw independent conclusions.


The American Indian Movement was successful in using the occupation of Wounded Knee to draw national attention to the issue of Indian rights.


1. What precipitated the Wounded Knee incident?

2. What were AIM’s goals for the Wounded Knee incident?

3. What did tribal leaders hope to achieve through the occupation?

4. How did the government respond to Wounded Knee?

5. How did Wounded Knee change the conditions on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation?

6. In what ways was Wounded Knee successful?


Militant (adj.) – vigorously active or aggressive, especially in support of a cause

Self-determination – freedom of the people of a given area to determine their own political status; independence.

Sovereignty – supreme power or freedom from external control: autonomy

Indian Termination – the governmental policy that ended the formal recognition of many Indian tribes, based on the belief that Native American would be better off if they assimilated into mainstream society. The policy ended tribal sovereignty, disintegrated Indian land trusts, and eliminated any special status of tribes designated by law.

Assimilate– to absorb into the culture of mores of a population or group

Trust– a property title held by entity for the benefit of another


 Since its inception, the U.S. government has been in conflict with Native Americans over self-determination, tribal sovereignty, and treaty rights. American Indians have sought government recognition of Indian tribes’ unique status as independent nations able to make their own decisions. Furthermore, they have demanded protection for their lands and culture, both of which have been endangered by mainstream America 1. The U.S. government has signed treaties with Indian tribes granting them many of these rights, although the treaties have often been violated and ignored by the U.S. government.

The Office of Indian Affairs was created in 1824 and renamed the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) in 1949. Its purpose is to provide American Indians with services and manage their land that is held in a trust by the United States. Early in the 20th century BIA policies, influenced by Roosevelt’s New Deal, aimed at preserving American Indian lands and culture. By the 1950’s, however, BIA policies focused on forcing Native Americans to assimilate by encouraging them to move off reservations, forcing Native American children to attend American boarding schools, and enacting termination policy. Indian termination was an unpopular policy where the U.S. government ended its legal recognition of Native American tribes and separated Indian reservations into fragmented, privately owned sections of land. These policies were destructive to both American Indian lands and culture and led to a wave of Indian activism 2.

One result of the U.S. government persuading Native Americans to relocate from reservations to cities was a growth of urban activist groups that worked for Indian rights. One such group, the American Indian Movement (AIM), was founded in 1968 to serve as an advocate for the large Indian population living in the Minneapolis area 3. AIM’s leaders, Dennis Banks, Clyde Bellecourt, and Russell Means, worked hard to get AIM national attention. By 1972, AIM made a name for itself as a radical, politically savvy organization that used direct action to draw attention to Indian rights.

The 1934 enactment of the Indian Reorganization Act demanded that tribes instate tribal councils to govern Indian reservations 4. While the council members were elected democratically, many Indians saw the councils as a “white man’s” system and refused to participate in elections 5. This caused divisions on many reservations between tribal councils and those who support them and “traditional” Indians, who see the tribal council as an alien system. Native Americans living on Indian reservations in the 1970’s were often discontent to begin with, as they faced poverty, poor health care, and low standards of education.

This rift was particularly prominent on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota in the early 1970’s. There, BIA-supported tribal council president Dick Wilson was thought to favor mixed-blood over full-blood Oglala for reservation employment and prevented his political opponents from acquiring jobs and services. His opponents were also harassed by his “goons,” a group of men under his employment who carried out his political orders.

Wilson’s opponents formed the Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization (OSCRO) and tried to impeach Wilson but were unsuccessful. Some Indians living on Pine Ridge were familiar with AIM’s activism and asked the organization to help them make a stand against Wilson 6. In response, AIM decided to occupy, or “liberate,” the small village of Wounded Knee, the site of a massacre of Native Americans in 1890. The events that followed will be the subject of this lesson.


News Clip


Statement by Oglala Chiefs

AIM Statement on Wounded Knee

Excerpts from We Will Remain Transcript


This lesson plan is designed to take place over the course of two (roughly) 50-minute class periods. The first day will focus on what took place at Wounded Knee and the second will focus on AIM’s purpose in occupying Wounded Knee and how the outcome can be interpreted.

Note: Students are expected to have some familiarity with Native American history through the 19th century, including the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee.

Day 1:

Begin by asking students for any knowledge they have about the life of American Indians in the 20th and 21st centuries. Have a 5-10 minute discussion about students’ responses. If students have little to say, emphasize the fact that the current life and recent history of Native Americans is rarely talked about. This discussion may go in many directions. The purpose is to assess any background knowledge that students may have and, if appropriate, make students aware of their lack of knowledge.

Watch news clip starting at 2:12 and ending at 5:16.

Ask students to discuss their reactions to the clip in small groups. Specifically address the following questions:

  1. Did you find the news clip surprising? Why or why not?
  2. According to the news clip, what occurred on the Pine Ridge Reservation and why did it occur?
  3. How did the story make you feel about the group that took over Wounded Knee?

The purpose of this exercise is to give students a brief introduction to what took place at Wounded Knee and give them insight into how the public many have responded to media coverage of the event. Students should spend about 10 minutes discussing in small groups and another 5-7 sharing their responses with the whole class.

Present the information given in the introduction section of this lesson. This can be done through lecture, or any other way that the teacher sees fit.

Pass out the timeline of the occupation of Wounded Knee and ask students to read it for homework.

Day 2:

At the start of class, verify that students looked over the timeline and clarify any questions they may have.

Hand out “Statement by Oglala Chiefs” and ask the students to read it and write down a summary of its demands

Hand out “AIM Statement on Wounded Knee” and ask students to read it, highlighting any sentences/phrases they find particularly important or have questions about. Afterwards, ask the students to write (1) a short summary of the document, noting the evidence from the text that supports their conclusion and (2) one of AIM’s goals for the occupation of Wounded Knee, based on the document.

After students have read the two documents and written their responses, have a discussion with the whole class about the similarities and differences between the two documents. What is the tone of each document? How are the messages similar or different? What can this tell us about how AIM viewed the occupation vs. how Oglala leaders viewed the occupation? Make it clear that the first document was written by Oglala chiefs at the beginning of the Wounded Knee occupation and the second was written by AIM leaders after the occupation was over. Ask students to share the goals they wrote down from the AIM statement and the demands they wrote down from the Oglala chiefs’ statement. Make two lists on the board based on students’ responses: one of AIM goals and one of Oglala chiefs’ demands. Try to make a comprehensive list of the responses, so if two students share similar goals, combine their responses on the board. If the students fail to mention them, bring up the following AIM goals:

  1. AIM wanted to make a dramatic stand to draw attention to Indian rights.
  2. AIM wanted the U.S. government to honor their treaty rights

At the end of the activity, share the following three demands that the Indian chiefs stuck to during negotiations throughout the occupation:

  1. Removal of Dick Wilson from office with either new elections to replace him or a restructuring of the tribal government that would give authority to the tribe’s chiefs and headmen.
  2. The dismissal of the two ranking BIA officials on the Pine Ridge Reservation and an investigation into corruption in the BIA.
  3. Hearings by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on 371 treaties negotiated between the United States and Indian tribes.

Ask students to write down the lists of goals and demands generated by the class.

Have students read the following quotes provided in “Excerpts from We Shall Remain.”

As homework, ask students to consider the impact of the Wounded Knee occupation. Have them refer to the lists of goals and demands they generated during class and write a few paragraphs answering the following questions:

Which goals did AIM accomplish? Which demands by Oglala chiefs were satisfied? In what ways was the Wounded Knee occupation successful? In what ways was it unsuccessful? How do you think the lives of Native Americans in the United States changed after Wounded Knee?


Dewing, Rolland. Wounded Knee: The Meaning and Significance of the Second Incident. New York: Irvington Publishers, 1985

 Josephy Jr., Alvin M., “What the Indians want; Wounded Knee and all that,” New York Times, March 18, 1973, accessed May 5, 2013,

Smith, Paul Chaat, and Robert Allen Warrior. Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee. New York: New Press, 1996.

 Smith, Sherry L. Hippies, Indians, and the Fight for Red Power. New York: Oxford, 2012.

 Zimmerman, Bill. Airlift to Wounded Knee. Chicago: Swallow Press, 1976.


Reading Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies 6–12

Key Ideas and Details

1. Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.

2. Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas

7. Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.

9. Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.

History-Social Science Content Standards for California Public Schools

Historical Interpretation

1. Students show the connections, causal and otherwise, between particular historical events and larger social, economic, and political trends and developments.

3. Students interpret past events and issues within the context in which an event unfolded rather than solely in terms of present-day norms and values.

4. Students understand the meaning, implication, and impact of historical events and recognize that events could have taken other directions

1Sherry L. Smith, Hippies, Indians, and the Fight for Red Power (New York: Oxford, 2012), 15.

2Paul Chaat Smith and Robert Allen Warrior, Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee (New York: New Press, 1996), 6-7.

3Ibid., 99.

4Smith, Hippies, Indians, and the Fight for Red Power, 185.

5Alvin M. Josephy Jr., “What the Indians want; Wounded Knee and all that,” New York Times, March 18, 1973, accessed May 5, 2013,

6Smith, Hippies, Indians, and the Fight for Red Power, 186.

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