“Power in the Hands of the Indian People”: The Occupation of Wounded Knee (by Lily Spang)


The goal of this lesson is for students to increase their understanding of the Native American movement and especially the role played by women by critically analyzing and discussing the Wounded Knee protest.


In this lesson students will learn about the occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973. The students should already have an introduction to the struggle for Native American rights and the American Indian Movement (AIM). This lesson will ask students will explore the history, motivation and goals of the Wounded Knee protest in its relation to the movement. They will also examine the critical role played by women and the gender dynamics in the movement. Students will empathetically engage with primary sources, analyzing and interpreting them within their historical context.


The Wounded Knee protest was a critical event in the fight for Native American rights that brought to attention their demands for the government to respect their treaties and land rights, and exemplified their struggle for sovereignty and the preservation of their culture. The protest was notably led by female activists, who also had to fight for respect as women.


1. What were the goals of the movement?
2. How were the Native Americans being treated unfairly by the government?
3. What was the aim of the protest? What tactics did were used?
4. What was the significance of the Wounded Knee protest?
5. How did the Native Americans’ history inform the movement?
6. What role did women play in the movement? What challenges did they face, and how did they address them?


The American Indian movement that began in the 1960’s grew out of a climate of intense political activism that saw the organization of many radical groups and movements, such as Black power, Brown power, Red power, as well as radical feminism. The Native American movement was an expression of the frustration resulting from hundreds of years of oppression from the United States Government including broken treaties, conflict over land, and forced assimilation. While influenced by other movements, given their unique history and circumstances the American Indian’s struggle differed from other movements in their goals and tactics. Unlike other movements of the time, their focus was not on civil rights or integrating with the dominant society, but instead on preserving their culture and way of life. The Native American movement was also unique in that it focused on empowering the tribe, rather than the individual.

The occupation of Wounded Knee is seen as the culmination of the movement, following the takeover of Alcatraz and the March of Broken Treaties. The protest began at Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in 1973. The people of Pine Ridge were unhappy with the government of tribal chairman Richard Wilson, who actively opposed AIM and its supporters, and whose private militia, called “goons,” contributed to the extreme violence and poverty on the reservation. After failing to impeach him, on February 26, 1973, the Civil Rights Organization on the Pine Ridge Reservation met to discuss their grievances with Wilson as well as the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and unjust treatment from the federal government. The opposition against Wilson was led by women elders, who also requested the involvement of AIM. At the suggestion of the women, they moved their protest to Wounded Knee, the site of the 1890 massacre and a place symbolic of the mistreatment of Indians since the European invasion.

Federal response to the occupation was immediate and forceful, developing into a siege lasting seventy-one days and involving the FBI, BIA police, US Marshalls, and National Guard units. Gunfire was exchanged on both sides, resulting in the death of two Native Americans and injury of a federal agent. The protest was high-profile and brought the Native Americans’ struggle to international public attention, resulting in significant outside support. The negotiations with the federal agents were primarily conducted by female leaders. The protesters’ demands included upholding broken treaties, such as the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, meeting with White House officials, removing and investigating Richard Wilson, and recognition of traditional Oglala government. On April 5, the Native Americans and government came to an agreement, and the protesters were promised a meeting in Washington. The government went back on their promise, however, and a new agreement was not reached until May 8. Rather than receieving the the re-examination of treaties or recognition of tribal government, however, 565 were arrested and 317 charged.

Eighty-five of those charged after Wounded Knee were women, and two major trials were of women leaders. The protest served to bring attention to the issue of sexism and male opportunism, although the women received much less media coverage and organizational support than the men. The media promoted the stereotype of the male warrior, while even the male leaders admitted that women had been the real warriors. The Native American women had a unique approach to sexism within their community, arguing that sexism was a result of assimilation to white culture, and a result of ignorance of Indian traditions.

The occupation was a means for the Native Americans to assert their sovereignty and take power into their own hands. The protesters were forcing the government to make the choice to either negogiate, or attack and kill men, women and children. In the AIM statement, they express their determination to regain power and agency in the face of the oppression and lack of respect from the United States government. Wounded Knee provided the opportunity to take a stand against the tyranny and deception they had experienced from the government throughout history.


“AIM Statement on Wounded Knee November 1973”, Michigan State University Library, 1999. http://www.aics.org/WK/wk011.html.

“Statement by a Lakota Woman who Participated in Liberation of Wounded Knee,” Michigan State University Library, 1999. http://www.aics.org/WK/wk012.html.


Cronology of Wounded Knee, Michigan State University Library, 1999 http://www.aics.org/WK/wk021.html., http://www.aics.org/WK/wk022.html., http://www.aics.org/WK/wk023.html.

Main points of 1868 Treaty as Used in Legal Defense, Michigan State University Library, 1999: http://www.aics.org/WK/wk001.html.

Langston, D. H. “American Indian Women’s Activism in the 1960s and 1970s.” Hypatia, 2003. 18:114–132. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1527-2001.2003.tb00806.x/full

Roberson-Kitzman, Joseph. “The Massacre of a Movement: The 1973 Federal Siege at Wounded Knee and Its Sociopolitical Significance” https://esirc.emporia.edu/bitstream/handle/123456789/2149/Roberson-Kitzman%20Vol%2039%20Num%201.pdf?sequence=1.


Begin with a brief lecture providing an overview of the events at Wounded Knee and the struggle of the protesters. Pass out the AIM Statement on Wounded Knee and Statement by a Lakota Woman Who Participated in Liberation of Wounded Knee and have students read them, and ask them to identify key words and phrases. Divide students into small groups and ask them share their key points and discuss the following questions:

1. What goals/visions for the Native American people are expressed in the documents?
2. How were the protesters reacting to the history of their treatment by the government?
3. What was the importance of the events of Wounded Knee in historical context?
4. What was the impact of Wounded Knee both on the protesters and on the movement?
5. What does it mean that Wounded Knee will “expose how America practices its founding philosophy”? What do you think it says about America?

Have each group also come up with a question of their own for the class. Have each group lead a brief discussion of one of the questions, as well as ask the class their question.

In remaining class time, or as homework, have students write a brief response to one of the statements, empathetically engaging with the source and relating it to the context of the movement.

An additional homework assignment would be to have students research the current situation with Wounded Knee and bring a news article to share with the class, and discuss the situation and struggles of Native Americans today.


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.
3. Evaluate various explanations for actions or events and determine which explanation best accords with textual evidence, acknowledging where the text leaves matters uncertain.
4. Students compare the present with the past, evaluating the consequences of past events and decisions and determining the lessons that were learned.
5. Students analyze how change happens at different rates at different times; understand that some aspects can change while others remain the same; and understand that change is complicated and affects not only technology and politics but also values and beliefs.
6. Students relate current events to the physical and human characteristics of places and regions.
7. Students show the connections, causal and otherwise, between particular historical events and larger social, economic, and political trends and developments.
8. 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.
9. Students understand the meaning, implication, and impact of historical events and recognize that events could have taken other directions.

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