Wounded Knee Ll and Leonard Peltier Native American Religious Expression and Dawes Act Essay

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Wounded Knee II

Describe the conditions that led up to Wounded Knee II and the trial of Leonard Peltier.

Leonard Peltier has been in prison since 1979, after being convicted of the murder of two FBI agents at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation four years earlier. He was an activist with the American Indian Movement (AIM) and at least on the Left has been regarded as a political prisoner, convicted for a crime that he probably did not commit and for which two of his other alleged accomplices were acquitted at a federal trial in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. This occurred before his conviction, but since he was not extradited from Canada in time for this trial the federal government tried him alone and obtained a sentence of life imprisonment. His next parole hearing will not be for thirteen years, and despite many years of protests and petitions on his behalf, no U.S. president has even shown much interest in granting him a pardon or clemency. Peltier has always stated that he did not shoot the FBI agents, although he admitted firing at them out of self-defense.

At the time Peltier arrived at the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1975, it had been under a semi-military occupation for two years, and AIM members were being targeted by what appeared to be an assassination program or a counterinsurgency war. During the 1960s and 1970s, the FBI was certainly attempting to suppress AIM and similar militant minority groups like the Black Panthers, and up to 1971 this fell under the auspices of the Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO). Under Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover, it basically carried out a covert war against the New Left and countercultural groups. In 1972, Richard Wilson had become head of the reservation, and was allied with the FBI and various white investors and corporations that were exploiting the reservation. His vigilante organization, the Guardians of the Oglala Nation (GOONs) killed dozens of AIM members over the years. AIM had originally appeared at Pine Ridge in 1972 to protect the traditionalist Indians against Wilson and his GOONs, as well as the police and FBI agents who were allied with them. In February 1973, AIM had occupied Wounded Knee for 71 days to protest Wilson and draw international attention to the cause, and a number of its members were killed in shootouts with the GOONs and U.S. government forces. In U.S. history, Wounded Knee is infamous as the site of a massacre that took place there in December 1890, when 300 Sioux escaped from the Pine Ridge Reservation and attempted to flee to Canada. They were hunted down and massacred by the U.S. Seventh Cavalry, and their mass grave is located near where the 1973 siege occurred -- which soon became known as Wounded Knee II.

Peltier was indeed part of the guerilla warfare taking place against the GOONs and FBI at this time, but since the situation was one of near-warfare, or at least guerilla warfare, his actions should be seen in that general context. At no time would they have regarded the FBI as a neutral, impartial investigative agency, but one that was attempting to destroy their organization and also complicit in killing their supporters, like Anna Mae Aquash, a teacher and AIM activist at Pine Ridge. FBI agents Ronald Williams and Jack Coler claimed to be chasing an AIM member who was wanted on petty theft charges when they ran into Peltier and his associates. They were both wounded then shot execution-style at close range, but Peltier denied firing these fatal shots. He fled to Canada but was extradited in 1976, and if he had stood trial with the two AIM members who were acquitted, he very likely would never have gone to prison.

2. Trace the legislation and court cases that have impacted Native American religious expression.

Native American religious expression was made illegal after the passage of the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887, and this did not change until 1934, when John Collier became head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. For many years, the official policy of the U.S., government that Indian culture, language, religion and tribal governments were to be abolished and the Indians assimilated, but Collier ended this in the 1930s. Even in the 1940s and 1950s, however, the federal government attempted to 'terminate' Indian tribes and relocate their members to urban areas. Once again, its policy was assimilation and integration, unlike this time as industrial workers in the big cities. From the 19th Century to the present, there has always been Native American resistance to all such policies, even if covert and underground. In the civil rights era of the 1960s and early-1970s, AIM and other indigenous rights organizations engaged in a number of violent confrontations with state and federal governments, as well as their assimilated Indian allies.

In the wake of these protests and confrontations, Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIFRA) of 1978, which applied to all Native peoples, including those in Alaska and Hawaii. Even so, the conservative Supreme Courts of the 1980s and 1990s limited the application of this law. In Brown v. Roy (1986), the Court ruled that an Indian father who opposed his daughter being giving a Social Security number was not protected by AIFRA because the federal government had no obligation to change its practices to accommodate indigenous religious views. It made a similar ruling in Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association (1988), in which Sandra Day O'Connor wrote that the U.S. Forest Service had the right to build a road through an Indian cemetery since this land belonged to the federal government and it did not have to alter its usual practices to satisfy Indian religious needs. In the 1990 case Employment Division, Dept. Of Human Resources v. Smith, the Supreme Court applied the same principle to state laws, and reversed earlier decisions that granted the freedom to use peyote as a legitimate part of Native American religious ceremonies. When use or this drug or any other aspect of indigenous practices conflicted with state laws and regulations, the Court decided that the state's requirements would be considered superior. Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993 in response to these decisions, guaranteeing free expression of religion to Native Americans unless the government could demonstrate some compelling interest against it.

3. How did the Dawes Act immediately impact Native Americans? How does it impact indigenous people today?

By the time Representative Henry Dawes of Massachusetts had passed this Severalty Act in 1887, most of the Native American population of North America had been exterminated. Before whites arrived, the indigenous population north of Mexico may have been as high as 15-20 million, but by the end of the 19th Century it had fallen to about 200,000. Centuries of warfare, slave labor, disease, starvation and deliberate mass murder had led to the near-annihilation of the American Indians, and there were many whites such as William Tecumseh Sherman who were prepared to finish them off completely. Those few Native Americans who survived were mostly confined to reservations under conditions of extreme poverty, with hunger and disease continuing to take a severe toll of their numbers.

Under these circumstances, Dawes believed he was doing the Indians a great favor by forcing them to completely assimilate to white culture and religion, and he argued that the only alternative would be death -- or complete genocide. Certainly North American society had shown itself quite capable of this over the previous 200 years, so Dawes insisted that the Indians would only be saved by giving up their language, religion and traditional customs. Under the Dawes Severalty Act, of 1887 and amendments in 1891 and 1906, and land belonging the Native Americans was to be allotted to separate families,…[continue]

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