Wounded Knee, 1973 – the American Indian Movement (AIM) and the Impact of the Media (by Kelly Nguyen)


This lesson is designed to examine the Wounded Knee incident in 1973 in the context of the actions of the American Indian Movement (AIM) and the role of the media during the event.  Students will not only learn about the incident itself, but also the impact that mass media can have, even on relatively small social movements such as AIM.


The primary goal of this lesson is to make students more aware of the importance of the media in a historical context, particularly in association with one of the major actions of the activists of the American Indian Movement (AIM).  Through the analysis of primary sources, students will examine not only the incident at Wounded Knee, but the reactions to the event as well.  It is important to recognize that while the efforts of activists are important, the ability of outside forces, such as the media, to change the course of a social movement cannot be undermined.  To observe this point, students will first learn about AIM’s actions at Wounded Knee in 1973 through a video viewing, followed by a close reading of primary documents directly involved with the occupation.  Students should be able to think critically about the value of primary sources and the different forces that affect movements for social justice.  A movement is not simply two sides opposing each other – it has bystanders and events that can help or hinder the movement’s progress.  Students should leave the lesson with a better understanding of the Indian social justice struggle, AIM, and the impact the media had on AIM’s attempts at demonstration and activism.

Essential Understanding:

The media played an important role in the spread and influence of AIM and the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee, giving the activists wide-spread publicity and changing the course of the incident by exposing it to the general public.

Essential Questions:

  1. What was the significance of the Wounded Knee incident in 1973?
  2. What was the role of the media at Wounded Knee in 1973?
  3. How did AIM utilize the presence of the media and the increased publicity from their presence?
  4. How did the media present the incident at Wounded Knee – the events of the occupation, the people involved, etc.?
  5. How can media coverage help or hinder a movement for social justice, such as those propelled by activists like those in AIM?
  6. How did the public respond to the incident at Wounded Knee?


  • the American Indian Movement (AIM): an activist group (self-defined as a movement, not a group) formed for the promotion of Native American social rights that tended to focus on the proper enforcement of land treaties and maintaining Native American culture.
  • Pine Ridge Indian Reservation: a Lakota Indian reservation in South Dakota, U.S.A. that contains Wounded Knee, location of both the 1890 massacre and the 1973 incident.
  • Massacre at Wounded Knee, 1890: a conflict between the Lakota and the United States military that resulted in the deaths of more than one hundred Lakota men, women and children.  It was met with an increasing amount of controversy as people questioned the killing of so many Native Americans.


The American Indian Movement (AIM) was most prominent in the second half of the twentieth century.  Led by a variety of activists, the movement was directed at various causes surrounding the issue of equal rights for Native Americans – the proper handling of land treaties with the United States government, sovereignty (or at least increased power) on reservations, and the preservation of tribal culture.  Although AIM generally lacked large-scale organization, they managed to get themselves noticed repeatedly and eventually garnered a reputation for being somewhat radical in their actions.

One of AIM’s most famous exploits was the incident at Wounded Knee in 1973.  AIM occupied the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation (location of Wounded Knee), originally choosing it for its historically symbolic value (due to the massacre at the same site in 1890).  Protesters seized control of the main town on the reservation on February 27, 1973, taking willing hostages temporarily and declaring the reservation an independent Oglala nation.1 2 Their main concerns were broken treaties and corrupt tribal governance on the reservation.  AIM remained on the reservation while the U.S. government sent military forces to deal with the protesters.  Around halfway through, officials made a truce with the activists: the government would investigate corruption on Pine Ridge and organize Congressional hearings on treaty rights in exchange for the protesters surrendering and laying down arms.  This may be worked out, except that there was disagreement over which action would happen first – disarmament or government action.3 Once those negotiations failed, the occupation continued until a final agreement to surrender was made with government forces on May 8, 1973, seventy-one days after it began.

The conflict was mapped out extensively by the national media, who flocked to the reservation to observe the ongoing siege.  With the increasingly wide-spread use of television and other technologies as media sources, the situation received day-to-day coverage that exposed it to the wider public.4  This had different effects for both sides.  The AIM activists used the presence of reporters to spread their ideas – they read complaints and demands to reporters, preaching to the cameras and making sure that they were generally visible.5  They worked to make their image acceptable for the general public; in particular, they wanted to appear relatable to all Native Americans – urban and reservation residents alike.6  They attracted attention from people around the country, even encouraging some to come and join them on the reservation.7

There was a very different story for the government.  With the occupation on the national stage, the government was forced to address the issue directly.  However, they could not simply remove the protesters by force.  The way the incident was handled reflected on the government, so they opted for suppression tactics – such as cutting off roads, supplies, and other resources – which drew out the occupation. 8  As a result, government officials kept a close eye on the media and public reactions and planned their movements accordingly.  Eventually, they even attempted to block the media from accessing the reservation, refusing reporters access to keep exposure to a minimum.  Unfortunately, this had a tendency to backfire, as the public perceived this as censorship.9

The media vastly complicated the occupation of Wounded Knee by putting the occupation on the national stage.  Even if people did not have a direct connection to the events, many enjoyed the drama and excitement of a public display of defiance.10 Public polls showed general support for activists on the reservation, if not at least sympathy for their ideas and situation.11  This vastly changed how the government reacted, and helped demonstrate the influence that the media has over the progression of social movements.


“AIM Indians with ‘Story to Tell’ Made Wounded Knee the Medium” by James Parsons (1973)

“Notes from a Day at Wounded Knee” by Kevin Barry McKiernan (1973); additional pages of this document can be located through the following links:

Page 2
Page 3
Page 4
Page 5
Page 6
Page 7

We Shall Remain Episode 5: Wounded Knee from PBS


Part 1

Begin the lesson by giving the topic of the class as the Native American social movement in the 1970s.  Ask students to brainstorm as a class what they know about the history of Native Americans in the United States (if the Indian relations were already covered in class during the year, this would be a good opportunity to briefly review old material).  Introduce the students to the topic of Wounded Knee and AIM by either presenting the introduction above or having them read it on their own or in small groups.

Show the video We Shall Remain Episode 5: Wounded Knee, which is also included above.  The video link provided is from Hulu; if this is not preferable or not available, the video can be streamed or purchased from similar providers such as Amazon or purchased from the PBS website itself.  If the video proves exceptionally unavailable, the transcript is included and selections from Day 6 (p.12) to Day 32 (p.18) may be read aloud instead, perhaps as an interactive group activity with students taking particular roles.  Additional passages may be included at one’s discretion.  Use the video as an introduction to AIM and the issues brought forth at Wounded Knee.  The video may be cut off as necessary for time constraints, but the section from approximately 35:00 to 58:30 should be viewed.  If there is time remaining at the end of the class, have students discuss the video.  If facilitation is necessary, use questions such as the following:

  1. What was the purpose of Wounded Knee?  Did AIM succeed in their goals?  Was there a “winner”?
  2. Was the media presence at the occupation important?  Why or why not?
  3. How does public attention change the dynamics of a particular event?

As a follow-up and lead-in to the next day’s lesson, ask students to write a summary of the video, more specifically a few ideas they found most interesting about the incident at Wounded Knee.  Ask them to focus on excerpts concerning media coverage of the occupation, and what they think may or may not have happened had the media not been present at Wounded Knee.

Part 2

Break the students into at least four groups: two groups should be selected as the “white” population and two groups as the “Native American” population.  If there are enough students such that a larger number of groups is preferable, a third group type focusing on racial minorities other than Native Americans can be formed as well.  In those small groups, students should share what they wrote for the previous night’s homework.

Give one group of each type one of the two selected primary sources, “Notes on a Day at Wounded Knee” by Kevin Barry McKiernan or “AIM Indians with ‘Story to Tell’ Made Wounded Knee the Medium” by James Parsons. Be sure that no two groups with the same distinction get the same article (i.e., the two “white” groups will get different documents to read).  Have the students read the articles individually and then come together as groups to discuss the readings.

Each group will then create a short presentation based on their group distinction.  Students must consider how their racial group would have reacted to their particular article.  Have them consider questions such as the following:

  1. Would this article provoke readers of your societal group?  How might it have affected them?
  2. How would this article have changed someone’s perception of the Indian activists?  Of the United States government?
  3. If your group was already sympathetic to the Native American movement, would they have taken action?  Why or why not?

Have students compare the reaction of their group to the two different articles, as well as comparing how different groups might have reacted to the same publication.  Encourage friendly, academic discussion between students if there are disagreements or differing opinions that come up during any presentation.

Finally, as a closing activity, have students reflect on the impact of the media on the incident at Wounded Knee and the prominence of AIM by writing a short paragraph on what they have learned and discussed.  As part of this assignment, ask the students to consider how the media affects how people perceive events today – what is the influence of the media on the spread of social events and movements in the modern world?  Ask each student to come up with at least three examples.  This will help connect the ideas of the lesson to the social environment they are used to, increasing the applicability beyond the scope of Wounded Knee itself.

Additional Sources:

Churchill, Ward, and Jim Vander Wall.  Agents of Oppression: The FBI’s Secret Wars Against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2002.

D’Arcus, B.  “Contested boundaries: native sovereignty and state power at Wounded Knee, 1973.”  Political Geography 22, 4 (May 2003): 415-437. ScienceDirect, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0962-6298(02)00107-5.

Fuller, Alexandra.  “In the Shadow of Wounded Knee. (Cover Story).”  National Geographic 222, 2 (August 2012): 30-59.  Academic Search Premier, EBSCO host, http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=78036975&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

Reinhardt, Akim D. Ruling Pine Ridge: Oglala Lakota Politics from the IRA to Wounded Knee.  Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech University Press, 2007.

Sanchez, John, and Mary E. Stuckey.  “The Rhetoric of American Indian Activism in the 1960s and 1970s.”  Communication Quarterly 48, no. 2 (2000): 120-36. Social Sciences Full Text (H.W. Wilson). EBSCOhost, http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ssf&AN=507692083&site=ehost-live&scope=site.


– 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.

– 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.

– Evaluate various explanations for actions or events and determine which explanation best accords with textual evidence, acknowledging where the text leaves matters uncertain.

– Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including analyzing how an author uses and refines the meaning of a key term over the course of a text (e.g., how Madison defines faction in Federalist No. 10).

– Evaluate authors’ differing points of view on the same historical event or issue by assessing the authors’ claims, reasoning, and evidence.

– Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea

1 We Shall Remain. PBS. 2009.  Transcript. 5-6.

2 Ibid. 15-16.

3 Ibid. 19.

4 D’Arcus, B.  “Contested boundaries: native sovereignty and state power at Wounded Knee, 1973.”  Political Geography 22, 4 (May 2003): 416. ScienceDirect, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0962-6298(02)00107-5.

5 We Shall Remain. 12.

6 Sanchez, John, and Mary E. Stuckey.  “The Rhetoric of American Indian Activism in the 1960s and 1970s.”  Communication Quarterly 48, no. 2 (2000): 120-36. Social Sciences Full Text (H.W. Wilson). EBSCOhost, http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ssf&AN=507692083&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

7 We Shall Remain. 12-14.

8 D’Arcus, B. “Contested boundaries: native sovereignty and state power at Wounded Knee, 1973.” 417.

9 Ibid. 423-424.

10 Ibid. 419-421.

11 We Shall Remain. 18.

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