On Abourerzk’s AK-47s at Wounded Knee

Former Senator Jim Abourezk discussing his visit to the occupied town of Wounded Knee in 1973 with the South Dakota CBS affiliate:

We got into the Indians’ perimeter and there’s all these Indian Vietnam vets who were there with AK-47′s Kalashnikovs, I don’t know where they got them all, but they had them. And we were driving slowly right, and they were following us, just like that. And the tension, I’m telling you was thick enough to slice,” Abourezk said.

Abourezk says McGovern, who flew 35 combat missions as a bomber pilot during World War II, wasn’t at all frightened by all of those AK-47′s pointed at them.

The idea that the occupiers of Wounded Knee possessed an arsenal of high-powered weaponry was a major point of debate during the occupation. Opponents of the occupation claimed the supposed presence of the weapons proved the occupation had outside support, even potentially coming from Communist entities looking to exploit the conflict. For instance the New York Times interviewed a waitress in Gordon, Nebraska who said,

“Now, a trucker was in here last night, served nine years in the military and said he heard machine guns up there.…You can’t buy machine guns in this country, so that just goes to prove they’re coming from Russia.”[1]

There were machine guns present at Wounded Knee, but " outside of one AK-47 an Indian veteran smuggled home from Vietnam, government forces possessed all the major firepower. " While government leaders claimed the occupiers possessed at least one M-60 machine gun capable of “wiping out a whole group before they could react,” as well as “some kind of tripod-mounted automatic weapon that they alleged was being driven around their territory ‘in a van,’” a New York Times reporter found little evidence of serious weaponry during a visit. Instead of machine guns the reporter found a cache mostly consisting of .22 caliber rifles (one of which had its stock held together by tape), .30-06 hunting rifles, and .410 small-bore shotguns along with an assortment of pistols, knives, and Molotov cocktails (many of which were made with bottles too thick to break properly).[2] In contrast the three hundred or so government agents ringing the hamlet possessed close to a hundred thousand rounds of M-16 ammo, 15 Armored Personnel Carriers, sniper rifles, tear gas, and covert backing of the US Army through a secret plan codenamed “Garden Plot.”[3]

Abourezk’s statement caught my attention because in my thesis research I never came across anything alleging the two senators viewed themselves to be in serious danger during their visit. In fact McGovern talked to the New York Times afterwards and said that while his group saw some weapons (he doesn’t say what kind), “‘they were not very much in evidence’ this afternoon.”[4] Additionally, Abourezk’s story about driving into the village under a white flag is also odd because by all accounts Abourezk and McGovern landed in a helicopter near the village and walked into the town smiling and accompanied by numerous reporters and camera crews.[5]

Now I don’t particularly care to pick a fight with a former US Senator, but Abourezk’s statements are so drastically different from the news accounts and statements by his fellow senator during the period that it’s worth highlighting. There is one part of Abourezk’s new commentary that is true, the occupation of Wounded Knee lasted as long as it did because of political reasons. The skillful use of the media by Means and the other occupiers brought attention to the conflict and forced the government to take a more restrained approach than they might have otherwise taken if the occupation wasn’t on the nightly news each evening.

  1. “Indians at Wounded Knee Free 11 Held for 2 Days, New York Times, March 2, 1973. 

  2. “Wounded Knee Is a Tiny Armed Camp,” New York Times, March 5, 1973. 

  3. Paul J. Scheips, The Role of Federal Military Forces in Domestic Disorders, 1945-1992 (Washington, DC: Center of Military History, US Army, 2005), 437; “Army Tested Secret Civil Disturbance Plan at Wounded Knee,” New York Times, December 2, 1975. 

  4. New York Times, March 2, 1973. 

  5. [ref] Archival footage of the two entering the camp can be seen in PBS’ American Experience documentary We Shall Remain: Wounded Knee starting around the 17:35 mark.