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Remembering the Wounded Knee Occupation

American Indian Movement leader Russell Means, shown in 2007, was one of the leaders of the 73-day occupation of Wounded Knee, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, in 1973.

In a way, it’s hard to believe the occupation of Wounded Knee began 40 years ago, and in a way it seems longer.

I was a senior in college when we heard about what was going on at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Many South Dakotans didn’t know what to make of it. They probably criticized the leaders of the American Indian Movement who spearheaded it, but deep down, they might have realized the occupiers had a point.

We often hear about conditions on the reservations, but without first-hand knowledge of the situation then or now, I would venture to say things were worse then.

I’ve only crossed the Pine Ridge once, and that was back in 1962, and we mostly saw open spaces. But the church at Wounded Knee that later burned down was there then, and I remember seeing it.

There was lots of talk about mediation and negotiation, and 73 days after the occupation began, it ended. Two Native Americans were dead and a federal agent was wounded. But the public’s collective consciousness was forever raised.

One final note came on the day of my graduation from South Dakota State University when the commencement speaker, Governor Dick Kneip, committed news (as we say in the business) by breaking his silence on the occupation.

And for the life of me, I can’t remember anything he said.

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