Lecture at Farmington Museum will focus on Wounded Knee events

Curator's Choice series continues on Saturday

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
Survivors of the Wounded Knee massacre in South Dakota are pictured in 1891.

FARMINGTON — Jeffrey Richardson, the curator for the Farmington Museum system, has been delivering his Curator's Choice Lecture Series for a couple of years now. As indicated by the theme of the series, "The American West in Fact in Fiction," he has addressed a wide variety of subjects ranging from Pancho Villa and the Mexican Revolution to Howard Hughes' impact on Hollywood.

But by Richardson's own admission, his series has been remiss in focusing on one very important subject.

"I think we are long overdue in this series to focus on a Native American topic," Richardson said while preparing for the next installment of the series, an examination of the 1890 massacre of more than 150 Natives by the U.S. Army near Wounded Knee Creek on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, and the 1973 occupation of the town of Wounded Knee by followers of the American Indian Movement.

Jeffrey Richardson

It's not as if Richardson has ignored the Native presence in the American West in his series up to this point. It's been part of many of his lectures, including his examination of the popularity of TV Westerns and a presentation on how the advent of repeating firearms shifted the balance of power on the frontier in the middle 1800s.

But he acknowledged he has yet to tackle a subject that deals almost exclusively with Native history and culture. On Saturday, he'll do exactly that, focusing on what he describes as a pair of "separate but interconnected events" that served as watershed occurrences in Native American history in the West.

The 1890 massacre — when more than 150 Lakota Sioux men, women and children died at the hands of U.S. soldiers — marked the symbolic end of the so-called "Indian wars" on the American frontier, Richardson said, an era in which Native Americans were forcibly penned up on reservations.

The 71-day occupation of the town of Wounded Knee in 1973 by AIM supporters — an effort designed to protest corruption in tribal leadership and challenge the government's failure to live up to its treaty obligations with Native peoples — wasn't nearly as bloody, Richardson noted. But it was a significant element in the larger social strife that enveloped America in those days, he said.

American Indian Movement militants man a checkpoint on the road leading into Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1973.

"The Red Power movement was part of the larger civil rights movement in the 1960s and early 1970s, but it is often overlooked," Richardson said, explaining that many Natives of that era were going through the same struggles and shared the same goals as their African-American counterparts.

Supporters of the movement — who advocated for a philosophy of self-determination for Native peoples and a reversal of the government and social policies that had led to the destruction of Native cultures — also had occupied Alcatraz Island near San Francisco from late 1969 to early 1971 and Bureau of Indian Affairs offices in Washington, D.C., in 1972. The significance of those protests largely has been forgotten, Richardson said, but as a historian, he has found himself drawn to them. He is particularly interested in the occupation of Wounded Knee.

"The occupation in 1973 was really something that was done kind of in an ad hoc fashion," he said. "It was not well planned out. A decision was made, and the next day they took the town over."

The American Indian Movement flag

Organizers did not have any supplies on hand, and when the federal authorities who surrounded the town eventually cut off the power, the protest's days were numbered, Richardson said.

"If they had been better prepared, it could have lasted much longer," he said.

Even though both sides were heavily armed and exchanges of gunfire were frequent during the siege, the occupation ended with relatively little violence compared to the potential for casualties. Two Native men were killed, and a federal agent was shot and paralyzed.

Richardson said he didn't mean to minimize those losses, but he said the largely peaceful end of the Wounded Knee occupation stands in contrast to other such conflicts between individuals and government agencies that would follow, including the Ruby Ridge standoff near Naples, Idaho, in 1992 and the siege at the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, in 1993, both of which ended in numerous deaths.

Even though the Oglala Sioux organizers of the Wounded Knee occupation did not succeed in meeting their stated goals — forcing out the tribal president and gaining concessions from the U.S. government for its treaty violations — the takeover drew enormous media attention and led to a significant shift in public sympathy for and awareness of Native causes.

"It's a mixed legacy," Richardson said. "The things they demanded, the renegotiation of treaties and the end to the corrupt regime, it didn't have an immediate effect. But it certainly brought renewed attention to plight of Native Americans across America. … Their voice ultimately was heard in a way that probably was unexpected even by them."

Richardson's lecture takes place at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Farmington Museum at Gateway Park, 3041 E. Main St. Admission is free. Call 505-599-1174.

Mike Easterling is the night editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.