Reflections on Native Americans’ Progress Since AIM’s 1973 Wounded Knee Occupation

Interview with Madonna Thunder Hawk, Cheyenne River organizer with the Lakota Law Project, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

Fifty years ago on Feb. 27, 1973, the American Indian Movement occupied Wounded Knee, a village on the Pine Ridge Oglala Sioux reservation in South Dakota. This village was chosen by AIM activists because of its historical significance as the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890, when almost 300 mostly women, children and elders were killed by the U.S. Army.

The protest occupation was launched against both the corrupt tribal chairman, and the historic and then-current abuses by the U.S. government. This year, from Feb. 24-27, activists are organizing a 50-year commemoration of the 71-day siege, which led to increased awareness of the oppression of native people in the U.S. and some progressive change. Events include a recognition and awards ceremony, a hand drum competition, a poetry slam, roundtable discussions, oral history of the Women of Wounded Knee, and a concert finale.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Madonna Thunder Hawk, an elder with decades of experience in the movement. As a member of the American Indian Movement she was at Wounded Knee in 1973, at Standing Rock in 2016, and currently serves as the Cheyenne River Organizer with the Lakota Law Project. Here she describes how things have and haven’t changed for Native Americans over the past 50 years.

[Web editor’s note: The audio version of this transcript has been edited for radio broadcast time contraints.]

MADONNA THUNDER HAWK: From my standpoint, what happened at the village of Wounded Knee, that was just a part in a series of things that happened with us and happened with our people back in those days; one thing that at the time happened to get international press, what have you. It’s just a series of events if you will and resistance that the Red Power movement was doing back in the day, okay? So, yeah, I see it very, very important this celebration we’re having of the 50th, for our people, so we can pass this on to the next generations, the children, the grandchildren, the great-grandchildren, of all those who stood in those days, back in 1973. It’s important that we acknowledge that for our own people, because for our people, our history is very, very important. What happened, for example, at the battle of Little Big Horn, that history is only a generation or so beyond us. It’s real for us, even today.

MELINDA TUHUS: Let’s talk about the 50th anniversary of the occupation of Wounded Knee.

MADONNA THUNDER HAWK: It’s four days, and different events are happening in those four days. On the 27th, which would be the 25th of February – we celebrate that every year. We have a memorial every year, and that’s where people walk in from the Four Directions, they walk into the village of Wounded Knee and we have a ceremony there, and then the celebration.

MELINDA TUHUS: What was the specific issue that brought people there and brought the government down on you?

MADONNA THUNDER HAWK: It wasn’t a specific issue. We weren’t a movement of young people or it wasn’t a one-issue happening. The American Indian Movement was a movement of families and the movement of our people at the time, and basically the issues were the same, again, all starting with land. But not only that, the various treaty rights, the various Indian policies of the federal government through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. You name it: misuse of land, police brutality, the taking of children still going on today through the child welfare services of the state of South Dakota. You name it, it’s all still happening, and I repeat, that’s what colonization means to us. All of these issues never change. They never change. They’re the same as they were when I was young back in the 1940s, through the 60s, and now 50 years later, because we are land-based and we are colonized.

MELINDA TUHUS: Has anything gotten better or gotten worse?

MADONNA THUNDER HAWK: No, it’s gotten better for our people because we are more aware. Back in the day, for example, we didn’t have native American media, but nowadays we do. We have a whole generation of young people that are educated in the American system – many, many college graduates – and on that level we’re better able to understand and operate more within the mainstream American system. That’s the difference I see.

I look at it from the standpoint of not so much, “oh we still have health problems, we still have housing problems,” those kinds of things, but I prefer to look at it for the positive things that have happened for our people. We’ve advanced and now we know how to deal with the social media. Our young people know how to operate in the bigger society outside of our communities. So that’s what I see as a good thing.

MELINDA TUHUS: You know, there’s a lot of mass media that talks about President Biden’s commitment to equity and justice for indigenous people and he’s done certain things like name an indigenous person to the head of the Interior Department, the first time that’s happened. Do you feel like that represents any kind of progress or do you feel it doesn’t mean that much?

MADONNA THUNDER HAWK: Well, I think it’s progress, yes, especially a key position like secretary of the Department of the Interior, because that’s where our people are placed, along with the national parks and the endangered animals and stuff like that – we’re right in there with them. And of course, it’s an amazing thing to happen that she was appointed. But again, it’s the American political system. Who knows what’s going to happen in four years?

Learn more about the 50th anniversary of the Wounded Knee occupation and the American Indian Movement by visiting the Lakota Law Project at

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