Bitter Tears: a Photographic Perspective on the Wounded Knee Occupation

On Sunday, November 15 from 2-5pm, Special Collections will be exhibiting a series of 15 photographs of the Wounded Knee Occupation donated to the department by Kent Frizzell. The exhibit is available to view at the Woody Guthrie Center and is presented in conjunction with a viewing of Johnny Cash’s film Bitter Tears. The event is free and open to the public. 

This blog post providing historical context and analysis of the Wounded Knee incident is written by Brian Hosmer, H.G. Barnard Chair of Western American History, University of Tulsa. 

On 27 February 1973, more than 200 members of the Ogalala Lakota Nation and members of the American Indian Movement occupied Wounded Knee Township on the Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota.  For 71 days, and surrounded by U.S. Marshals, FBI agents and local law enforcement personnel, Indian activists held their ground.  Meanwhile, as Americans watched events unfold on television, images of armored personnel carriers, helicopters and jet planes racing overhead competed with shots the small church that headquartered the activists and Indians standing guard.  Perhaps more than any other event of its kind, the occupation of Wounded Knee symbolized “Red Power,” and introduced Americans to conditions on remote Indian Reservations.  Looking every bit as if the Vietnam War had come to the northern plains, Wounded Knee proved a signature event in a decade of protest, linking struggles for human rights to the anti-war movement.

Special Collections at the McFarlin Library has a stunning collection of photograph documenting those 71 days.  Tulsa resident Kent Frizzell was appointed by President Nixon as Assistant Attorney General of the Land and Natural Resources Division in January 1972, and in this capacity became chief government negotiator over the course of the incident.  In 1973 he became Solicitor of the U. S. Department of the Interior. In 1978, during his time as a University of Tulsa law professor and the Director of the National Energy Law and Policy Institute (NELPI), Frizzell donated his files and photographs covering the events at Wounded Knee to Special Collections.  It is an incredible collection and genuine treasure.

Background for the Occupation:

As a place, Wounded Knee holds immense historical and cultural significance.  Site of the massacre of more than 250 Mineconju and Hunkpapa Lakota men, women and children by members of the U.S. Army’s 7th Cavalry on 29 December 1890, Wounded Knee came to symbolize the brutality of American colonialism. Largely unarmed Indians were surrounded and cut down by Hotckiss Mountain guns, bodies were left to freeze in the snow before being thrown into a mass grade, and more than 20 Army men received Congressional Medals of Honor for what they called a ‘battle’ against a supposed ‘outbreak’ of Sioux followers of the Ghost Dance, a religious movement promising renewal and deliverance the misery of reservation life.

For decades before 1973, Oglala Lakotas had suffered from crushing poverty made worse by a corrupt and neglectful tribal government.  Though selected democratically, tribal leaders, though selected by vote, were widely seen as subservient to Washington and local non-Indian interests.  Patronage corrupted politics and ‘in groups’ consolidated control over meager resources and used their influence to isolate and punish opponents. A language of ‘blood’ or authenticity shaped political discourse on Pine Ridge. Supporters of tribal government regarded themselves as culturally (even racially) superior to “full bloods.” In return, ‘full bloods’ seized the mantle of tradition, describing themselves as ‘real Indians” in contrast to “half-breeds”, “apples,” and, referencing older patterns of receiving and accepting patronage from whites, ‘hang around the fort Indians.”

Chairman Richard “Dick” Wilson embodied everything traditional Oglalas hated about the BIA-supported tribal government.  Politically conservative, sporting a crew cut and noted for his combative and divisive rhetoric, Wilson openly and with impunity, rewarded friends and punished opponents.  He ruled with intimidation, employing a private militia known as Guardians of the Oglala Nation.  Opponents preferred the acronym “GOONs” but this was no joke as Wilson’s followers were heavily armed, often with surplus equipment supplied by National Guard and U.S. army.

A failed effort to remove Wilson from office set the reservation on edge; and at the same time, a series of racially tinged murders and assaults escalated tensions. One example was the early 1973 murder of 20-year old Wesley Bad Heart Bull outside a bar in Buffalo Gap, a notoriously violent town bordering the reservation.  AIM organized a demonstration outside the Custer County courthouse, hoping to generate publicity for civil rights violations. They also asked for murder charges against the suspect, and then held for second-degree manslaughter.  Riot police met the crowd, tensions exploded, and protesters burned down the chamber of commerce building, damaged the courthouse and destroyed two police cars, and vandalized other buildings.

At this point, Oglala Lakota elders decided to invite AIM to the reservation. As American Indian Studies scholar Robert Warrior aptly phrased it, drawing on AIM represented ‘a roll of the dice’ as this organization had already established for itself a reputation for political theatre, and excess.

Red Power

Activists living in Minneapolis founded the American Indian Movement in 1969 as an expression of urban Indian identity, and inspired by youth-driven protest movements like Black Power and the anti-Vietnam War movement.  More specifically, it grew out of frustrations felt by urban Indians who faced high rates of unemployment, impoverished neighborhoods, and were subject to police brutality. Its leaders, like Clyde and Vernon Bellacourt and Dennis Banks earned a reputation for their skillful use of television, and their message of “Red Power” catapulted AIM to front lines of Indian activism.

In truth, the history of Indian political activism is more complex, and reaches back before the beginning of 20th century.  AIM, in some sense, drew upon the activities of multiple post-WWII groups, from National Congress of American Indian’s opposition to Termination policy and various violations of treaty rights, and the National Indian Youth Council, which emerged in 1961 and under the fiery leadership of Clyde Warrior (Ponca) out of impatience with what they saw as the NCAI’s ineffective leadership. By middle 1960s, had dramatized the systematic violation of treaty-protected rights.  Meanwhile the Seneca’s fight to prevent the flooding of their homelands by the Kinzua Dam earned attention of the New York Times and liberal Americans.

AIM drew upon these lessons and seized upon the invitation to join the struggle at Pine Ridge.  Dennis Banks and Russell Means also saw this opportunity to reconnect urban Indians with the cultural and spiritual foundations of Indian life, through the advice and support of Lakota elders.


The occupation of Wounded Knee initially worked to AIM’s great advantage.  The spectacle of young, charismatic Indians announcing the creation of a “Sovereign Oglala Nation” captured the attention of Americans who knew little of conditions across Indian country.  Televisions stations and newspaper reporters flocked to the scene and Indians from across the country, notably Carter Camp, a Ponca from Oklahoma, made the pilgrimage to the site.  Supporters also included the Congressional Black Caucus and public figures like Marlon Brando, Johnny Cash, Angela Davis, Jane Fonda, attorney William Kunstler and newspaperman Tom Wicker.

This alarmed a Nixon administration that had worked to cultivate American Indians, partly to quell criticism of its stance on Black Power.  Worried that the incident would drag on indefinitely, perhaps resulting in violence, and determined to support Dick Wilson, the government-recognized chief, they dispatched Kent Frizzell as chief negotiator.  Frizzell proved an able, if controversial, envoy.  On the one hand, he established relationships with activists by drawing upon his western heritage and, in particular, his horsemanship.  On the other hand, Frizzell expelled television reporters from the site, ‘cutting off their oxygen.” He also prevented the ferrying in of supplies to support the embattled occupiers.

Ultimately, this combination wore the activists down, and Means agreed to surrender in exchange for a government review of conditions that spurred the movement in the first place.  But the result failed to meet Means’ expectations.  But by that time, the occupation had ended, and the movement dissipated.


The results of Wounded Knee are complex.  Violence accelerated on Pine Ridge as Wilson’s followers took out revenge upon Lakota supporters of occupation.  It was in this context, a ‘reign of terror,” that murder of two FBI agents led to the arrest and conviction of Leonard Peltier, and his sentence to two life terms, to be served consecutively.  Despite questions about the reliability of testimony and evidence, he remains there still.

In some ways, Wounded Knee proved the pinnacle of AIM”s influence.  A hastily organized march on Washington, D.C. known as the “Trail of Broken Treaties” ended in chaos and the destruction the Bureau of Indian Affairs offices. This damaged AIM’s reputation.  Meanwhile, a series of criminal charges embroiled AIM leadership in lengthy court battles, sapping the organization of funds and direction.  Even though the organization continued, and exists today, its high point had come to an end.

About Melissa Kunz

Melissa Kunz is a Special Collections Librarian. She holds a Masters in Library and Information Studies and a J.D. from the University of Oklahoma, and a Bachelor of Arts in English from Hendrix College in Arkansas.
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