The Trail of Broken Treaties and Occupation of Wounded Knee


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

As the occupation of Alcatraz wound down, another organization, the American Indian Movement or AIM, came to the fore. 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 schools, and police brutality. The scope of its activism, however, expanded swiftly.

Silhouette of two Native Americans at sunset
Native Americans formed movements like the Trail of Broken Treaties to pursue their rights. (Image: TORWAISTUDIO/Shutterstock)

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

The Twenty Points

The Trail of Broken Treaties began in October 1972, as caravans of protestors bound for Washington, DC, left Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. It was a rag-tag group in ramshackle cars and operating on a shoestring budget. By the time the three caravans converged in St. Paul, Minnesota, however, they were 600-strong. There, Hank Adams, a former National Indian Youth Council member who was central to the Pacific Northwest fishing rights struggle, helped draft a set of demands the group intended to present to President Richard Nixon upon their arrival in Washington, DC.

The demands, called Twenty Points, among other things, wanted the restoration of treaty-making, which Congress ended in 1871; an annual summit in which Native leaders addressed Congress; the return of the 110 million acres of land that had been lost since the allotment era; the restoration of terminated tribes and the repeal of state jurisdiction; and the establishment of a new office of Federal-Indian relations.

This is a transcript from the video series Native Peoples of North America. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Trail of Broken Treaties

The Trail of Broken Treaties, however, didn’t go as planned. The protestors arrived a mere week before the national elections, and most members of Congress were out campaigning in their home states. To make matters worse, no logistical arrangements had been made.

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

This led to the snap decision to go to the Bureau of Indian Affairs building, located on Constitution Avenue, just blocks from the White House. In short order, some 1,000 Native people packed the BIA auditorium, while others worked with federal officials to find other accommodations. 

When riot police unexpectedly showed up, however, protestors prepared for a siege. To underscore the sovereign status of tribal nations, they soon unfurled a banner that read Native American Embassy for everyone to see on the outside of the building.

Occupation of the BIA Building

The tense unplanned occupation of the BIA building lasted from November 3 to November 9, when a federal court affirmed the right of the government to evict the protesters if they didn’t leave on their own. As soon as that news hit, the protestors turned the contents of the building upside down. 

Paul Chaat Smith and Robert Warrior, in their classic work Like a Hurricane, described what happened during the Trail of Broken Treaties this way:

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

Hank Adams, who had worked so hard to construct the intellectual foundation for the Trail of Broken Treaties, lamented, “To some, we had defeated the building; to others, the building had defeated us.” In the days and weeks that followed, the Twenty Points went unaddressed by the Nixon administration. And the media seemed more concerned about damage visited upon the building than what the building represented to Native people.

Learn more about the Indian New Deal.

The Occupation of Wounded Knee 

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

Let’s turn now to the 71-day occupation of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The trouble started after a man named Richard “Dickie” Wilson was elected tribal chairman of the Oglala Sioux 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 stances on two important issues involving tribal lands and was also charged with nepotism and corruption. When Lakotas began pressing for impeachment hearings, Dickie Wilson responded by assembling a private militia called the Guardians of the Oglala Nation, or GOONs, to intimidate and harass his detractors. 

The impeachment initiative failed in February 1973. In fear of retaliation, Wilson’s opponents invited AIM to Pine Ridge to protect them. Meetings between community members, who had organized at the Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization and AIM ended with a decision to take action.

Learn more about the Indian Termination policy.

The End of the Occupation of the Wounded 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 United States cavalry in December 1890. After an early compromise fell apart, the activists proclaimed the establishment of the Independent Oglala Nation.

The federal government’s response was almost unbelievable. Federal marshals, FBI agents, and Dickie Wilson’s GOONs surrounded the hamlet. They were armed with .50-caliber machine guns and M16 rifles and supported by 17 armored personnel carriers and Phantom jets. The occupation ended on May 8, 1973—after 71 tense days, hours of negotiations, and the deaths of two Native men.

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

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

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

The Trail of Broken Treaties started in October 1972. The movement consisted of a group of Native Americans that sought their rights from Richard Nixon. They drafted a list of demands with help from Hank Adams, and they called it the Twenty Points.

Q: What did the Trail of Broken Treaties do?

When the Trail of Broken Treaties group arrived in Washington, most members of Congress were out campaigning for an upcoming election. So the group decided to go to the Bureau of Indian Affairs 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 described the Trail of Broken Treaties this way: Richard Nixon failed to address their demands. Moreover, the media showed more concern about a damaged building than Native Americans.

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