Stephanie Autumn was a college freshman in Los Angeles when she and several other Native Americans joined the call of Oglala Lakota people in February 1973 to help occupy Wounded Knee, S.D., in a stand for their sovereign rights.
The daughter of a white mother and Hopi father, Autumn grew up in foster homes half her life and was trying to reconnect to her roots as an Indigenous woman.
Upon reaching Wounded Knee, she said, she felt a sense of family she never had. She volunteered at the security desk and assisted with radio communications from the bunkers where Native people engaged in daily firefights with federal authorities surrounding the town.
Autumn, who now lives in Woodbury, and other Indigenous people from Minnesota and across the nation are returning to Wounded Knee to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the occupation. The 71-day standoff with federal agents — which Minnesotans helped lead — brought international attention to the American Indian Movement, also known as AIM.
"What the occupation of Wounded Knee did for Native people was the resurgence of our voice, that resurgence of our rights to be who we are as Native people, to our language, to our life ways, to our land," Autumn said.
Many veterans of the Wounded Knee occupation are no longer alive. Most who will attend ceremonies on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation on Feb. 24-27 only know of the occupation through their elders. They have grown up in an era when Native Americans have more control over their institutions and feel more freedom to speak out about treaty rights. But they are fighting similar battles to protect their air, water and land — whether at the 2016 protest at Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota over oil pipelines or in ongoing fights against mining in the Black Hills of western South Dakota.
"These issues are not new — they're continuing," said Madonna Thunder Hawk, 83, who volunteered as a medic for the Wounded Knee occupation. She recalled gold mining in the Black Hills as a major issue since she was a girl on the nearby Cheyenne River Reservation. "There's no new story here. It's just a new generation."
Taking a stand
The 1973 occupation followed decades of the U.S. government's violations of treaty rights protecting Indigenous land and resources — and efforts to force Native Americans to assimilate into mainstream society by denying them the right to practice their religion and sending children to boarding schools to be stripped of their language and culture.
AIM formed in Minneapolis in 1968 to fight police brutality and racism. The group later expanded into a broader movement for Indigenous civil rights, grabbing headlines for seizing Alcatraz Island and taking over the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) in Washington.
A group of Oglala traditionalists on the Pine Ridge reservation called on AIM for help after impeachment proceedings against tribal President Richard Wilson failed. His opponents accused him of aligning with white and federal interests over those of traditional Native people and unleashing a violent police force on opponents.
On Feb. 27, 1973, when several hundred Native dissidents seized Wounded Knee — site of the 1890 massacre of 300 Lakota by the U.S. Cavalry — Wilson called in federal authorities to remove them. Marshals and FBI agents encircled the town as AIM leaders took 11 hostages for two days, calling for investigations into the BIA and Sioux reservations, along with congressional hearings on the treatment of Native people and treaty violations by the U.S.
Five participants recently described to the Star Tribune what followed over the next two months: nightly firefights, supplies smuggled in by allies crawling on their stomachs to avoid detection, food rationing, the federal armored personnel carriers and parachute flares searing the sky.
Bill Means was already reckoning with having fought in the Vietnam War for the military that killed his ancestors.
"When I came home, I realized the United States government … they were stealing our land and our minerals and desecrating the Black Hills while we were over there fighting for America," said Means, a resident of the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
So, Means said he began working in security at the perimeter of Wounded Knee, exchanging gunfire with the authorities as his eldest brother Russell Means helped lead the occupation.
Means said the most profound aspect of it all was the solidarity of its participants and supporters — he said the Irish Republican Army even sent food and telegrams. After a month, he began traveling around the country to raise money for the Wounded Knee legal defense and supplies. He returned when his friend Buddy Lamont was killed by federal gunfire, 10 days after a stray bullet fatally struck another Native man, Frank Clearwater, as he slept.
Other people were wounded: U.S. Marshal Lloyd Grimm was shot while inspecting a roadblock and paralyzed from the waist down. No one was charged. Grimm, who died in 2000, told reporters he had no ill feelings toward the occupiers.
It was Lamont's death that led to the end of the occupation. On May 8, the occupiers agreed to stand down and leave Wounded Knee.
AIM co-founder Dennis Banks, an Ojibwe leader from Minnesota, recalled in his book "Ojibwa Warrior" that his allies feared authorities would kill him if he surrendered at that time. So Lenny Foster, who had joined the occupation as a college student from the Denver chapter of AIM, agreed to help Banks escape on the night of May 7.
Now 75, Foster recalled to the Star Tribune how he led their group of five over miles of rough terrain, gullies and ravines as they ran in crouches to elude the searchlights and flares of federal agents. Foster's account parallels a section in Banks' book that told how Foster would run ahead over each hill to ensure the group was in the clear before finally finding a paved road that led them to safety.
In one close encounter, wild reservation dogs confronted a federal team's German shepherd and diverted the authorities' attention.
After an eight-month trial in St. Paul, a judge dismissed charges against Banks and Means because of prosecutorial misconduct.
Radical to mainstream
Foster said he still gets chills — and anxious — thinking about his time fighting in the Little Big Horn bunker at Wounded Knee, but he looks forward to returning to the site this week.
Foster said the occupation brought pride and dignity to his people and showed everyone has an obligation to care for Mother Earth. Foster noted the environmental fights are continuing. Foster is Diné (Navajo) from Arizona, and the Navajo Nation has a case before the U.S. Supreme Court asserting its treaty rights to water from the Colorado River.
Russell Means died in 2012, and Banks in 2017. It was men like them and AIM co-founder Clyde Bellecourt, who died last year in Minneapolis, who drew the public's attention. Yet AIM succeeded, Thunder Hawk said, because it was a movement of families.
The media were interested in "guns, guns, Indian men, warriors," she said, but it was mostly women negotiating with the U.S. government on behalf of the occupation.
"We didn't need the male-dominated press to validate us," Thunder Hawk said. "We knew ... what we were doing and how effective we were."
Afterward, Wilson won re-election as tribal president; violence skyrocketed amid division between his allies and AIM members. But Thunder Hawk said AIM's ideas have become mainstream with the younger generation.
"They grew up on terms like treaty rights, sovereignty," she said. "Those kinds of words were considered radical AIM talk in my day — everybody was under the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and they were afraid to lose their jobs, afraid of their own shadow."
Autumn remembers being struck by the sight of three Oglala women leaders — Ellen Moves Camp, Gladys Bissonette and Geraldine Janis — stepping out of a car and walking into a tipi for negotiations with the U.S. government.
"It imprinted on my spirit that's what I want to be, that's what I pray I could have just a little bit of what they have, to be able to stand up when I need to stand up, to be able to use my voice for my people," recalled Autumn, 68.
She was arrested upon leaving Wounded Knee, but charges against her and hundreds of others were dropped.
Autumn worked for AIM in Oklahoma and South Dakota, and moved to the Twin Cities in 1984 to work with the movement. She became an activist in Indigenous social justice and prison reform, and is the founder and executive director of the American Indian Prison Project and the director of the Tribal Youth Resource Center.
She has made presentations at the United Nations in Geneva and New York on the rights of incarcerated Indigenous youth and adults and advocating for the release of Leonard Peltier, who is serving a life sentence after his conviction for the 1975 killings of two FBI agents at Wounded Knee.
"The president of Ukraine is trying to keep Russia out of Ukraine," Autumn said. "What Wounded Knee was about was trying to keep the U.S. government off the Lakota land, away from the natural resources.
"It was no different, but it's hard for Americans to conceptualize that because they're the conquerors, they're the colonizers."