On February 27th 1973 on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota 200 Sioux Native Americans, led by members of the American Indian Movement (AIM), occupied Wounded Knee, the site of the infamous 1890 massacre of 300 Sioux by the U.S. Seventh Cavalry. The Wounded Knee occupation lasted for a total of 71 days, during which time two Sioux men were shot to death by federal agents and several more were wounded. On May 8th, the AIM leaders and their supporters surrendered after officials promised to investigate their complaints and on September 16th 1973, the charges against them were dismissed by a federal judge because of the U.S. government’s unlawful handling of witnesses and evidence.
We are familiar with the African American civil rights movement in the 1960s. AIM was founded in 1968 but got less attention than Martin Luther King and Malcolm X as it tried to get world recognition of the virtual genocide of the American Indian that had taken place in the United States over the past 400 years. Given the conquests and consequences we see unfolding every day in the Middle East, now is a good time to look at the timeless reality of what happens to people who are seen to be ‘in the way’.
The term "genocide" is highly controversial in the context of the American Indians. What is undeniable, however, is that the ‘discovery’ of the New World resulted in an almost complete destruction of the indigenous peoples of the Americas – predominantly by the Spanish conquistadores, the British Puritans, and finally the American settlers. The early records of kind and generous natives were soon replaced by descriptions of them as backwards savages and wild animals, who could therefore be treated as such. This process of dehumanisation is seen throughout history when one people settles on the land of another. As a direct result, native blood flowed freely and, in shockingly few generations, greed, savagery, the decimation of the mighty bison herds and the diseases carried by the Europeans had exterminated all but a handful of the citizens of the millennia-old American Indian civilisations. On average, the tribes’ populations were reduced to around 5 per cent of the size they had been before Columbus arrived.
The massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890 – like so many others before and since – are the product of the racism and inhumanity that justifies the killing of others because they are ‘inferior’ or ‘inconvenient’. As the American Indians so tragically discovered, the world has become remarkably good at turning a blind eye to the genocides it prefers not to see.