Wounded Knee Legal Defense/Offense Committee

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On February 27, 1973, approximately 300 Indians on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, led by members of the Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization (OSCRO) and the American Indian Movement (AIM), occupied the village of Wounded Knee. During the 71-day siege, the occupants established the Independent Oglala Nation and demanded the U.S. Government's recognition of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty with the Sioux Nation, the removal of the Oglala Sioux tribal council, and new elections.

In March 1973, under the guidance of AIM, seventeen lawyers and legal workers from across the country established the Wounded Knee Legal Defense/Offense Committee (WKLD/OC) in Rapid City, South Dakota. As outlined in a proposal submitted at the time, the committee's objectives were to provide an adequate defense for those charged with crimes in or about Wounded Knee, to encourage the return of the rule of law to the area surrounding Wounded Knee, to permit residents to return to their homes, to prohibit federal agents from making further illegal arrests, and to make the facts about Wounded Knee known to the American public. While pursuing these objectives WKLD/OC became an active participant in the negotiations that led to the end of the siege and the stand-down on May 8, 1973.

Over 400 people were arrested at Wounded Knee resulting in 275 cases in federal, state, and tribal courts. WKLD/OC represented all defendants in the federal and tribal Wounded Knee cases. The Wounded Knee federal cases included 7 defendants charged with major conspiracy (so-called leadership cases) and 127 defendants faced with charges involving breaking and entering, larceny, conspiracy, and interfering with federal marshals (Consolidated Wounded Knee Cases). The 97 persons tried in the tribal courts of the Oglala Sioux Tribe were charged almost exclusively with either riot or unlawful assembly as defined in the tribal code.

The Committee also handled related cases arising from events prior to the occupation and afterwards including protests at Scottsbluff, Nebraska, and Custer, Rapid City, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

In addition to its efforts at providing an adequate defense, WKLD/OC undertook several offensive actions, bringing about a dozen civil suits against several authorities, including the Oglala Sioux tribal council and its president, Dick Wilson, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

Due to a determination that it would be impossible to obtain a fair trial in South Dakota, the federal leadership trials were moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and the consolidated cases to Lincoln, Nebraska, Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Bismarck, North Dakota. The South Dakota state cases were tried in Sioux Falls, Aberdeen, and Rapid City. These relocations, which transpired over a three-year period, required that WKLD/OC maintain a number of offices, thereby placing a heavy burden on the Committee's personnel, administrative functions, and financial resources. The various trial locations and chronology also played a significant role in the formulation of legal strategy.

WKLD/OC's organizational structure evolved in response to the politically charged nature and high profile of the trials, the relocations described above, its reliance on volunteer workers, and the constant need for funds. Early on, subcommittees were formed to manage the various facets of the defense efforts, which included tactical investigation, legal coordination, jury survey and investigation, office coordination, press/publicity, and fund-raising. Although the subcommittees' duties changed and overlapped, they are described generally below.

The investigative team maintained a house in Manderson, South Dakota, where it kept up contact with the people and problems of the Pine Ridge Reservation. The team was under constant harassment by supporters of Dick Wilson, known as the Goon Squad.

The legal committee dealt with lawyer recruitment, defendant and lawyer contacts, legal research, and investigation. It also administered subpoenas; managed witness, exhibit, and court pleadings files; indexed trial transcripts; and kept daily trial summaries. These efforts allowed the committee to effectively handle a massive amount of evidence and communicate legal strategy among the various trials.

Press and public relations activities included issuing press releases and managing press coverage, publishing a newsletter, and coordinating solidarity groups nationwide.

WKLD/OC's reliance on volunteers resulted in a continual change in personnel that, coupled with close living and working quarters, necessitated the establishment of strict office rules and internal security. The issue of security was addressed from the outset and became more acute as the trials progressed and the presence of government informants became known. Staff turnover also created a need for an orientation process that would inform new members of the history, structure, and objectives of AIM and the committee.

Many of the difficulties WKLD/OC faced were the direct result of the zealous effort with which the U.S. government pursued the Wounded Knee cases. The defendants argued that the government's objective was to use the indictments to destroy AIM and stem the activism it fostered among Indian people. The impact of the legal battles fought by WKLD/OC upon the broader political and social objectives of the Indian movement of the 1970s is open to debate; however, the direct result of its defense efforts was a 92.3% acquittal and dismissal rate in what may have been one of most massive and complex series of legal proceedings in U.S. history.

Historical data was taken from the papers.

From the guide to the Wounded Knee Legal Defense/Offense Committee records., 1966-1990 ., (Minnesota Historical Society)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn Michigan State University. Libraries. American Radicalism Collection. Wounded Knee Legal Defense/Offense Committee : file of clippings and miscellanea. Michigan State University Libraries, Main Library
referencedIn Southern Committee to Free All Political Prisoners papers, 1972-1973. College of Charleston, Marlene and Nathan Addlestone Library
creatorOf Wounded Knee Legal Defense/Offense Committee. Wounded Knee Legal Defense/Offense Committee records, 1966-1990 (bulk 1973-1976). Minnesota Historical Society Library
referencedIn Carol Sullivan Wounded Knee Papers, 1966-2000 University of New Mexico. Center for Southwest Research
creatorOf Sullivan, Carol, 1935-. Wounded Knee papers, 1966-2000. University of New Mexico-Main Campus
referencedIn Roger A. Finzel American Indian Movement Papers, 1965-1995 (bulk 1973-1979) University of New Mexico. Center for Southwest Research
referencedIn Finzel, Roger A. American Indian Movement papers, 1965-1995 (bulk 1973-1979). University of New Mexico-Main Campus
creatorOf Wounded Knee Legal Defense/Offense Committee records., 1966-1990 . Minnesota Historical Society.
Role Title Holding Repository
Direct Relationships
Relation Name
associatedWith American Indian Movement. corporateBody
associatedWith Aquash, Anna Mae, 1945-1976. person
associatedWith Bad Heart Bull, Sarah person
associatedWith Bad Heart Bull, Sarah person
associatedWith Banks, Dennis. person
associatedWith Banks, Dennis. person
associatedWith Beeler, Joseph. person
associatedWith Beeler, Joseph. person
associatedWith Bellecourt, Clyde H. 1936- person
associatedWith Bellecourt, Vernon. person
associatedWith Bissonette, Pedro. person
associatedWith Bissonette, Pedro. person
associatedWith Camp, Carter. person
associatedWith Camp, Carter. person
associatedWith Crow Dog, Leonard, 1942- person
associatedWith Ellison, Bruce person
associatedWith Ellison, Bruce person
associatedWith Finzel, Roger A. person
associatedWith Finzel, Roger A. person
associatedWith Holder, Stanley. person
associatedWith Holder, Stanley. person
associatedWith Janklow, William. person
associatedWith Janklow, William. person
associatedWith Kunstler, William Moses, 1919-. person
associatedWith Lane, Mark. person
associatedWith Lane, Mark. person
associatedWith Leventhal, Larry B. person
associatedWith Leventhal, Larry B. person
associatedWith Marshall, Richard person
associatedWith Marshall, Richard person
associatedWith Matthiessen, Peter person
associatedWith Matthiessen, Peter person
associatedWith Means, Russell, 1939- person
associatedWith Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization. corporateBody
associatedWith Peltier, Leonard person
associatedWith Peltier, Leonard person
associatedWith Robideau, Ramon A., 1924-. person
associatedWith Robideau, Robert E. person
associatedWith Robideau, Robert E. person
associatedWith Sullivan, Carol, 1935- person
associatedWith Thorne, John. person
associatedWith Tilsen, Kenneth E., 1927- person
associatedWith United States. Bureau of Indian Affairs. corporateBody
associatedWith United States. Federal Bureau of Investigation. corporateBody
associatedWith United States. Marshals Service. corporateBody
associatedWith Wilson, Dick. person
Place Name Admin Code Country
Rosebud Indian Reservation (S.D.)
Oglala (S.D.)
Wounded Knee (S.D.)
South Dakota--Pine Ridge Indian Reservation
United States
Rosebud Indian Reservation (S.D.)
South Dakota--Custer
Pine Ridge Indian Reservation (S.D.)
Pine Ridge Indian Reservation (S.D.)
South Dakota--Sioux Falls
Wounded Knee (S.D.)
South Dakota
Oglala (S.D.)
South Dakota
Subject
Tribal government
Oglala Indians--Claims
Riots--South Dakota--Custer
Tribal government--South Dakota--Pine Ridge Indian Reservation
Political persecution--South Dakota--Pine Ridge Indian Reservation
Oglala Indians--Public opinion
Indians of North America--Civil rights
Oglala Indians--Government relations
Trials (Political crimes and offenses)
Indians of North America--Government relations--1934-
Defense (Criminal procedure)
Political crimes and offenses--Investigation
Trials (Conspiracy)
Riots--South Dakota--Sioux Falls
Government--Resistance to
Justice, Administration of--Political aspects
Civil-military relations
Riots
Government, Resistance to--United States
Civil-military relations--United States
Justice, Administration of--Political aspects--United States
Oglala Indians--Criminal justice, Administration of
Political persecution
Trials (Riots)
Jury selection
Occupation
Function

Corporate Body

Active 1966

Active 1990

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