On Wounded Knee: Judge Urbom ('50) and the Wounded Knee Trials

A second last stand

No place in America represents pain and injustice more starkly than Wounded Knee, S. D. What took place there on December 29, 1890, “has been called both a ‘battle’ and a ‘massacre’—the term used depending on the bias of the speaker,” wrote Rex Alan Smith in Moon of Popping Trees. He called it, “partly a massacre, and entirely a tragic blunder.”

That blunder resulted in the deaths of 146 Lakota including 62 women and children out of the 350 camped near Wounded Knee Creek. Twenty-five of 500 U.S. soldiers from the 7th Cavalry also died, “some, possibly, from the crossfire of their own guns,” Smith wrote. It was the last major confrontation between U.S. forces and Native Americans.

The bloodshed there in the cold made Wounded Knee hallowed ground for American Indians.

Eighty-three years later, when Lakota were angered by the corruption they found on the Pine Ridge Reservation and the indifference they encountered off it, they chose the tiny village of Wounded Knee to make a symbolic stand. Pine Ridge protesters joined forces with members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) and occupied the town in a standoff with the federal government.

“Lakota chief Fools Crow called for the immediate ouster of Dick Wilson, the elected head of tribal government there on Pine Ridge,” the PBS American Experience documentary, “We Shall Remain” described. “Wilson favored mixed-race assimilated Indians like himself, and slighted the traditional Sioux who spoke their language, practiced their religion and remained loyal to the traditional Oglala chiefs.”

“I was ready to do whatever it takes for change,” Madonna Thunder Hawk, a former AIM member and Two Kettle Lakota told American Experience. “I didn’t care. I had children, and for them I figured I could make a stand here.”

After 71 days of sporadic gunfire and two deaths, the siege ended. Wilson remained tribal chairman. Six protesters deemed leaders of the siege were tried together in St Paul. And roughly 120 remaining “nonleadership” cases on charges ranging from assault of a federal officer to cattle rustling would be tried in federal district court in Sioux Falls.