The Trail of Broken Treaties and the Occupation of Wounded Knee

Through Daniel Cobb, Ph.D., University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

When the occupation of Alcatraz ended, another organization, the American Indian Movement or AIM, emerged. Founded in July 1968 in Minneapolis, AIM initially focused on urban issues, including access to social services and adequate housing, racism in the workplace and at school, and police brutality. The reach of his activism, however, quickly expanded.

Native Americans formed movements like the Trail of Broken Treaties to defend their rights. (Image: TORWAISTUDIO / Shutterstock)

Let’s focus on two of AIM’s most crucial endeavors: the Broken Treaty Trail in 1972 and the 71-day occupation of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota shortly after the Broken Treaty Trail. .

The twenty points

The trail of broken treaties began in October 1972, as caravans of protesters bound for Washington, DC, left Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles. It was a motley bunch in run down cars and running on a shoestring. By the time the three trailers converged in St. Paul, Minnesota, however, they were 600 people. There, Hank Adams, a former member of the Indian National Youth Council who played a central role in the struggle for Pacific Northwest fishing rights, helped draft a set of demands that the group had the intends to present to President Richard Nixon upon their arrival in Washington, DC.

The claims, called twenty points, among others, wanted the restoration of treaty making, which Congress ended in 1871; an annual summit where Indigenous leaders addressed Congress; the return of the 110 million acres of land that had been lost since the era of allotments; the restoration of suppressed tribes and the abrogation of state jurisdiction; and the establishment of a new federal-Indian relations office.

This is a transcript of the video series Indigenous peoples of North America. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Broken Treaties Trail

The trail of broken treaties, however, did not go as planned. The protesters arrived just a week before the national elections, and most members of Congress were campaigning in their home countries. To make matters worse, no logistical arrangements had been made.

A photo of the Capitol at night
Members of Congress were not in Washington when the Trail of Broken Treaties group reached Washington. (Image: Lucky-photographer / Shutterstock)

This led to the quick decision to go to the Bureau of Indian Affairs building, located on Constitution Avenue, a few blocks from the White House. In a short time, some 1,000 Indigenous people filled the BIA auditorium, while others worked with federal officials to find alternative housing.

However, when riot police arrived unexpectedly, protesters braced for a siege. To emphasize the sovereign status of the tribal nations, they quickly unfurled a banner indicating the Native American Embassy in plain view outside the building.

Occupation of the BIA building

The unexpected and tense occupation of the BIA building lasted from November 3 to 9, when a federal court upheld the government’s right to expel protesters if they did not leave alone. As soon as this news broke, the demonstrators upset the contents of the building.

Paul Chaat Smith and Robert Warrior, in their classical work Like a hurricane describes what happened during the Trail of Broken Treaties as follows:

The looting and looting was so widespread, so deliberate, that it showed hatred on the part of many Indians for the documents because they were documents; documents that must be destroyed because of what they and the building that housed them represented.

Hank Adams, who had worked so hard to build the intellectual foundation of the Broken Treaty Trail, lamented: “For some, we had defeated the building; for others, the building had defeated us. In the days and weeks that followed, the twenty points were not addressed by the Nixon administration. And the media seemed more concerned with the damage to the building than what the building represented to Indigenous people.

Learn more about the Indian New Deal.

Occupation of the injured knee

Flag of the Oglala Sioux nation
Richard Wilson was the tribe of the Oglala Sioux nation. (Image: Walden69 / Public domain)

Now let’s move on to the 71-day occupation of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The problems began after a man named Richard “Dickie” Wilson was elected president of the Oglala Sioux tribe at Pine Ridge, by a narrow margin, in 1972. He took the reins of a government that was already considered unrepresentative by many traditional Lakota.

To make matters worse, Wilson had taken unpopular positions on two important issues concerning tribal lands and was also accused of nepotism and corruption. When Lakotas began pushing for impeachment hearings, Dickie Wilson responded by assembling a private militia called the Guardians of the Oglala Nation, or GOON, to intimidate and harass his critics.

The impeachment initiative failed in February 1973. For fear of reprisal, Wilson’s opponents invited AIM to Pine Ridge to protect them. The meetings between community members, which had organized at the Civil Rights Organization Oglala Sioux and AIM ended with a decision to act.

Learn more about Indian termination policy.

The end of the occupation of the injured knee

On February 27, 1973, some 200 people occupied the hamlet of Wounded Knee, the site of the devastating massacre of hundreds of Lakota by the American cavalry in December 1890. After the failure of a first compromise, the militants proclaimed the creation of the Independent Oglala Nation.

The response from the federal government has been almost unbelievable. Federal Marshals, FBI agents and Dickie Wilson’s GOONs have surrounded the hamlet. They were armed with .50 caliber machine guns and M16 rifles and supported by 17 armored personnel carriers and Phantom planes. The occupation ended on May 8, 1973, after 71 days of tension, hours of negotiations and the deaths of two native men.

Dickie Wilson not only remained in power, but also ushered in a reign of terror that contributed to unprecedented levels of violence in Pine Ridge. At the same time, lawsuits, internal strife and FBI infiltration crippled the American Indian Movement.

Common Questions on the Trail of Broken Treaties and the Occupation of Wounded Knee

Q: What was the purpose of the Trail of Broken Treaties movement?

The Broken Treaties Trail began in October 1972. The movement was made up of a group of Native Americans who demanded their rights from Richard Nixon. They drew up a list of demands with the help of Hank Adams, and they called it the twenty points.

Q: What did the Broken Treaty Trail do?

When the Broken Treaties Trail group arrived in Washington, most members of Congress campaigning for the next election. So the group decided to go to the Indian Affairs Office building and prepared for a siege.

Q: How did Paul Chaat Smith and Robert Warrior describe The Trail of Broken Treaties in their book?

In their classic work Like a hurricane Paul Chaat Smith and Robert Warrior describe the Broken Treaties Trail this way: Richard Nixon did not respond to their requests. In addition, the media were more concerned about a damaged building than the Native Americans.

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