44 years ago this month, Indigenous activists began a cross-country journey on foot to defend treaty rights.
In the wake of the federal crackdown on Indigenous activism that characterized the late 1960s and early 1970s, eleven bills which sought to restrict the rights guaranteed to tribes and tribal members in treaties were introduced in Congress. In response, Native leaders mobilized activists to set out on The Longest Walk - a nearly-3,000 mile journey of nonviolent resistance to threats against tribal sovereignty. Symbolizing the forced removal of Indigenous Peoples from their traditional lands throughout history, the Walk began on February 11th, 1978 with the aim of calling attention to the proposed bills and the ongoing injustices faced by Native communities.
Thousands of Indigenous people and supporters participated in the five-month walk from San Francisco to Washington D.C. Along the way, organizers engaged in teach-ins in towns across the country to raise public awareness around Indigenous cultures, broken treaties, and the continued persecution of Native peoples. Upon the Walk's arrival to the nation's Capital on July 15th, 1978, tribal elders and movement leaders met with government officials to discuss the proposed legislation. All eleven bills which the Walk had protested were subsequently defeated in Congress. While The Longest Walk was the final major event of the American Indian Movement (AIM), its legacy continues to inspire Native advocacy today.
Pictured: A tipi sits opposite the White House as some 30,000 demonstrators gather in the Capital at the close of The Longest Walk. Photo credits to Daniel Luna, Roots Of Plenty and Plenty International.
The Longest Walk is not the only major AIM demonstration with a February anniversary- Sunday, February 27th marks 49 years since the occupation of Wounded Knee by the American Indian Movement.
Often referred to as Wounded Knee II, the occupation began after the failed impeachment of then-chairman of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, Richard “Dick” Wilson. Wilson's leadership was divisive on the reservation, stoking tensions between mixed-heritage, culturally-assimilated Oglalas such as himself and more traditional Oglala people living on Pine Ridge. These tensions, combined with conditions of poverty and racism faced by tribal members and the ongoing failure of the US Government to honor treaties, came to a head as 200 American Indian Movement members and Oglala Lakota activists entered and occupied a trading post in Wounded Knee on the evening of February 27th. After news of the occupation reached authorities, federal marshals and FBI agents began to surround the area. The ensuing armed conflict between protestors and federal forces would last 71 days.
Demonstrators and federal agents alike sustained injuries amidst regular exchanges of gunfire, and two Native activists were killed over the course of the conflict, which came to an end on May 8th, 1973. Dick Wilson remained in power as tribal chairman until 1976, and the years following the occupation, referred to by some as the "Reign of Terror," were characterized by retaliation from Wilson and his private police force against those connected to the American Indian Movement and the siege at Wounded Knee. Dozens of murders from this era remain unsolved today.
Pictured: An armed protester guards a checkpoint at Wounded Knee during the 1973 occupation. Photo credits to NPR and the Associated Press
Pansy Weasel Bear, treasured friend and partner of the Tipi Raisers, suffered the loss of her brother during this period of violence. We recently spoke with Pansy about what life on Pine Ridge was like at the time of the occupation and the years that followed:
"I would go with my older sister to AIM gatherings, rallies. I used to think it was fun; I didn't realize it was dangerous." Pansy was around 12 years old at the time of the occupation of Wounded Knee. Her parents, she explained, used to cook meals for AIM supporters late at night during the occupation. AIM members would quietly enter their home, retrieve the food, and carry it back to Wounded Knee to feed the activists, whose access to food was limited due to the federal blockade surrounding them. Following the murder of her brother, she recalls pleading with her father to let she and her siblings attend the funeral. Her father had believed it would be too dangerous for them to accompany him due to the tense atmosphere amidst the conflict between AIM supporters and Wilson's private police, but ultimately allowed them to go.
When her family returned from the funeral the next evening, her father noticed blood stains across the door knob and doorway of their home; a woman had been murdered nearby, and her killer must have attempted to enter the home while escaping. In another incident, Pansy's father was accosted at work by supporters of Wilson: "They broke three of his fingers and said 'let that be a reminder that you don’t support the American Indian Movement. We know where you live, we know you’re supporting AIM, and we’ll come get you.'"
In order to keep his family safe, Pansy’s father trained her and her siblings to handle rifles and had the children practice an emergency escape plan, should they be attacked at home in the midst of the turmoil on the reservation. On one particular evening, the plan which they had repeatedly rehearsed had to be rapidly put into action. "One night cars were flying toward our house and that was different. [...] I told my sister, 'it's time to go!'" Pansy, still a young child at the time, followed the escape plan down to the letter, retrieving the rifle and ammunition her father had carefully trained her to use, escorting her siblings to the bunker near their home, and firing into the sky to scare away the people who had begun breaking into the house.
It was a time of extreme turmoil and loss for tribal members on Pine Ridge, but the legacy of the Wounded Knee Occupation and the American Indian Movement lives on today. The siege at Wounded Knee had opened the eyes of the world to broken treaties, the continued oppression of Indigenous Peoples, and the resilience of Native communities. On the lasting impact of AIM and the activists at Wounded Knee, Pansy expressed: "They fought for our rights to be recognized and to be treated as people.”
We are immensely grateful for Pansy and her willingness to share these powerful stories. It is a privilege to be able to hear and learn from firsthand accounts of this deeply important history.
Pictured: Tipi Raisers’ Tokala Society volunteer and dear friend, Pansy Weasel Bear.
Additional resources on the American Indian Movement, the Longest Walk, and the Occupation of Wounded Knee listed below.
On the American Indian Movement:
“The radical history of the Red Power movement's fight for Native American sovereignty” from National Geographic:
A comprehensive digital exhibit on the American Indian Movement from the Libraries at the University of Georgia:
A collection of primary sources on the American Indian Movement from Christopher Newport University:
On The Longest Walk:
“Native Americans walk from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. for U.S. civil rights, 1978” a case study of The Longest Walk from the Global Nonviolent Action Database:
“The Longest Walk 1978” from Roots of Plenty: https://rootsofplenty.org/stories/the-longest-walk-1978/
“Longest Walk II reaches Washington” from Indian Country Today:
On the Occupation of Wounded Knee:
Episode 5: Wounded Knee of We Shall Remain | American Experience from PBS:
“Native History: AIM Occupation of Wounded Knee Begins” from Indian Country Today:
“Occupy Wounded Knee: A 71-Day Siege and a Forgotten Civil Rights Movement” from The Atlantic:
Sources for this blog post include: Resources on these topics from Indian Country Today, the National Library of Medicine's Native Voices Initiative, Histories of the National Mall, Plenty International, the Global Nonviolent Action Database, the Willson Center Digital Humanities Lab, PBS, NPR, the Atlantic, the Zinn Education Project, and MPR News.
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