Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The U. S. Marshals: The Long Arm of the Law

Wounded Knee

Shortly after Watergate during the spring of 1973, the longest civil uprising since the Civil War occurred. The place was Wounded Knee, South Dakota, and the siege lasted 71 days. Roger Ray was there for nearly three months and he recalls that it was quite intense. "A situation like this is surreal, but I was reminded that when I used to play cowboys and Indians as a child, I always wanted to be the Indian. Now here I was shooting at them."

Civil rights activists had infiltrated several groups, urging defiance to obtain and preserve rights for minorities. The American Indian Movement (AIM) was one such organization, and in 1971 it began to demonstrate openly for better treatment of American Indians. AIM members first occupied Alcatraz Island near San Francisco to get their demands heard, which effectively stopped the tourist business there, and they repeated this at the naval air station in Minneapolis, MN.

This protest brought out the Marshals Service's newly-formed Special Operations Group (SOG). Trying to evict AIM, but the Marshals fought the intruders with clubs, knives, and anything else they could lay their hands on. On this occasion, the activists were subdued.

Congress decided to end the Alcatraz occupation, which by this time had been in place for 19 months, and this duty also fell to the Marshals. They took two Coast Guard cutters out to the island, Calhoun recounts, with about 30 men, and routed the 17 American Indians who were still there. Rather than arresting anyone, they simply ordered them to leave. Then they remained there overnight to ensure that the activists did not return. The Marshals withdrew the next day, and the tourist boats soon revived their practice of taking people to see the abandoned prison.

However, this did not stop AIM. The group had attempted to get its demands heard peaceably but felt that the government had treated them badly.

Russell Means (AP)
Russell Means (AP)

The Marshals monitored the activists' movements, but nothing much happened until near the close of 1972. Activist Russell Means helped to plan a demonstration, as reported in his autobiography, which was to take place in Washington, D.C. during election week. He wanted a federal law enacted to make it a first-degree crime to kill an American Indian, and he helped to organize a series of caravans, "The Trail of Broken Treaties," to show up in force. However, the housing in D.C. that AIM had been promised was inadequate, so Means and his group seized the Bureau of Indian Affairs offices, renaming this place the Native American Embassy. They were evicted, but they left a lot of damage behind. AIM wanted the government to understand that as a people they had been mistreated and exploited. They wanted things to change.

However, not all Americans Indians wanted activists as their spokespeople. Means returned to South Dakota only to find that Dick Wilson, the president of the Oglala Tribal Council and a man considered to be aligned with the enemy government, had gotten a court order to prevent Means from having meetings on the reservation. Means challenged this and was twice arrested. Then he led a riot that involved the arrest of 80 people. The tribal leaders turned on Wilson and requested AIM's assistance, so on February 27, 1973, Means brought 200 armed supporters to the small hamlet of Wounded Knee, where in 1890 the U.S. military had massacred some 350 Sioux. Two thousand members of various tribes came in to lend support.

U. S. Marshals watch Indians at Wounded Knee (CORBIS)
U. S. Marshals watch Indians at Wounded

This action brought in the FBI, the National Guard, and U.S. Marshals, around 300 strong and all heavily armed. Using armored personnel carriers, they blocked all roads to Wounded Knee, cut off food supplies, shut off the electricity, and engaged in daily gun battles. Just before the siege, the Marshals had activated their SOG team here, and in mid-February deputies had trained the reservation police in methods of riot control. They also helped to fortify official government buildings, placing teargas canisters in strategic places. Then half of the deputies returned to their districts. Once the occupation began, which included taking hostages, 100 more deputies were sent back. Their job was to contain the situation in a way that did not jeopardize lives.

Yet the warriors, men and women alike, refused to give up. One AIM member was killed while another bled to death inside the compound.

On March 12, according to the Chronology of Native American History, the Indians declared Wounded Knee a sovereign territory of the Oglala Sioux Nation. The siege was into its second month when Means offered to fly to Washington to negotiate, but his participation was refused until he and his people laid down their arms. Means said no, and he was arrested and detained.

In the meantime, those who were still at Wounded Knee continued to agitate. The confrontation ended on May 8 only after the government agreed to investigate the wrongdoings of the tribal government, the incidents of police brutality against American Indians, abuse of the land that the Indians considered theirs, and the federal government's Indian policies.

The final tally: two people killed, 12 wounded (including two Marshals) and 1,200 arrested. Tamara Highfill reports that a contingent of 12 people smuggling in food inexplicably disappeared and were never found, suggesting that they, too, were murdered. She says there was little effort on the government's part to investigate.

Ultimately, federal grand juries indicted 185 people, but only 15 were ever convicted. In the end, no significant reforms were enacted.

Calhoun says that the situation did show how effectively the Marshals could perform. "The Marshals had professionally maintained their discipline, performed the tasks assigned to them, and established reasonable procedures."

Two days later, on May 10, U. S. Attorney General Kleindienst set up a directorship for the Marshals, naming Wayne B. Coleburn for the position, for the supervision of all of their activities, which were spelled out as:

  • the execution of federal arrest warrants
  • the service of civil and criminal process
  • the custody of federal prisoners from arrest to imprisonment or release
  • the protection of federal courts, jurists, court officers, and government witnesses
  • the prevention of air piracy
  • the administration of training schools for Marshals

Five months afterward, this charter was revoked when the Nixon administration fell from power. Then after further political shake-up, it was restored, but that has not ended efforts to make significant changes in the structure of the Marshals Service. Even today, legislation is being proposed that takes aim at the most fundamental aspect of the position of U.S. Marshals: the presidential appointment.

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