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Dick Wilson (tribal chairman)

Dick Wilson (tribal chairman)

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Richard A. "Dick" Wilson (April 29, 1934 - January 31, 1990) was elected chairman (also called president) of the Oglala Lakota
Oglala Lakota
The Oglala Lakota or Oglala Sioux are one of the seven subtribes of the Lakota people; along with the Nakota and Dakota, they make up the Great Sioux Nation. A majority of the Oglala live on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, the eighth-largest Native American reservation in the...

 Sioux of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation
Pine Ridge Indian Reservation
The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is an Oglala Sioux Native American reservation located in the U.S. state of South Dakota. Originally included within the territory of the Great Sioux Reservation, Pine Ridge was established in 1889 in the southwest corner of South Dakota on the Nebraska border...

 in South Dakota
South Dakota
South Dakota is a state located in the Midwestern region of the United States. It is named after the Lakota and Dakota Sioux American Indian tribes. Once a part of Dakota Territory, South Dakota became a state on November 2, 1889. The state has an area of and an estimated population of just over...

, where he served from 1972–1976, following re-election in 1974. Following complaints about his favoring friends and family in award of jobs and suppressing political opponents with his private militia
The term militia is commonly used today to refer to a military force composed of ordinary citizens to provide defense, emergency law enforcement, or paramilitary service, in times of emergency without being paid a regular salary or committed to a fixed term of service. It is a polyseme with...

, Guardians of the Oglala Nation
Guardians of the Oglala Nation
The Guardians of the Oglala Nation were a private paramilitary group active on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation during the early 1970s.-Formation:...

 (GOONs), members of the tribal council brought impeachment charges against him in February 1973. The prosecution was unprepared when Wilson said he was ready to go to trial, and the hearing closed without trial. No impeachment proceedings were renewed.

Several hundred Lakota people marched in protest, demanding the removal of Wilson from office. US Marshals were assigned to protect Wilson and his family. AIM leaders and Lakota supporters occupied the town of Wounded Knee, and a 71-day armed siege resulted, known as the Wounded Knee Incident
Wounded Knee Incident
The Wounded Knee incident began February 27, 1973 when about 200 Oglala Lakota and followers of the American Indian Movement seized and occupied the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation...

. Two Native Americans were shot and killed and a US Marshal severely wounded during this period. Wilson remained in office and, following the occupation, violence increased on the reservation, with residents reporting attacks by his GOONs. More than 50 of Wilson's opponents died violently in the next three years.

The 1974 tribal chairman election was disputed, and a US Civil Rights Commission investigation showed electoral abuses amid fear and violence, and reported the election as invalid. A federal court upheld the results of the election and Wilson won. Political violence continued on the reservation. After being strongly defeated in the 1976 election for tribal chairman, Wilson moved with his family off the reservation. By 1990 Wilson had returned to Pine Ridge; he was campaigning for a seat on the tribal council at the time of his death.

Early life and education

Born on the Pine Ridge Reservation, Wilson grew up in the town of Pine Ridge. He continued to live there as an adult.

He learned the plumber's trade and worked at that craft as an adult. He and his wife had ten children.

Wilson entered politics when he ran and was elected as a councilor to represent the village of Pine Ridge in the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council. Serving for six years, he chaired the council's Labor committee. There were allegations that he diverted tribal funds for his own purposes as a councilor.

Election as Tribal Chairman

In 1972 Wilson ran against the incumbent tribal chairman, Gerald One Feather. Before the election, his political connections were largely limited to Pine Ridge due to his years as a councilor, but he campaigned in all parts of the reservation and sought the support of both traditionalists and progressives. He supported protests that year organized by the American Indian Movement
American Indian Movement
The American Indian Movement is a Native American activist organization in the United States, founded in 1968 in Minneapolis, Minnesota by urban Native Americans. The national AIM agenda focuses on spirituality, leadership, and sovereignty...

 (AIM) following the murder of Raymond Yellow Thunder in Gordon
Gordon, Nebraska
Gordon is a city in Sheridan County, Nebraska, United States. The population was 1,612 at the 2010 census.- Geography :Gordon is located at ....

, Nebraska
Nebraska is a state on the Great Plains of the Midwestern United States. The state's capital is Lincoln and its largest city is Omaha, on the Missouri River....

. The election was close, but Wilson won five of the reservation's nine districts and won heavily in Pine Ridge village.

Wilson was inaugurated on April 10, 1972. He helped set up the first Indian housing authority on the reservation. He also began showing what his detractors would describe as authoritarian behavior. In his first week, he challenged the eligibility of council member Birgil L. Kills Straight because of residency requirements. He preferred governing using the five-member executive council instead of consulting with the full tribal council of 18, which several times he called into session on important issues only belatedly.

Wilson's main supporters were from within the town of Pine Ridge. The traditionals, who tended to be full-bloods who lived on the outskirts and followed older practices, tended to criticize Wilson for being too close to whites. Officials of the Bureau of Indian Affairs
Bureau of Indian Affairs
The Bureau of Indian Affairs is an agency of the federal government of the United States within the US Department of the Interior. It is responsible for the administration and management of of land held in trust by the United States for Native Americans in the United States, Native American...

 (BIA) continued to have a significant role in reservation affairs. Opponents criticized Wilson for favoring mixed-bloods (he was of mixed-race ancestry) over full-blood Oglala, and giving "special attention" and benefits to his friends and relatives. In response, Wilson reportedly said, "There's nothing in tribal law against nepotism
Nepotism is favoritism granted to relatives regardless of merit. The word nepotism is from the Latin word nepos, nepotis , from which modern Romanian nepot and Italian nipote, "nephew" or "grandchild" are also descended....


At the time, the Lakota Sioux had brought suit against the US government for the taking of the Black Hills
Black Hills
The Black Hills are a small, isolated mountain range rising from the Great Plains of North America in western South Dakota and extending into Wyoming, USA. Set off from the main body of the Rocky Mountains, the region is something of a geological anomaly—accurately described as an "island of...

 in 1877, in violation of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie
Treaty of Fort Laramie
Treaty of Fort Laramie may refer to:*Treaty of Fort Laramie *Treaty of Fort Laramie...

 that had established the Great Sioux Reservation
Great Sioux reservation
The Great Sioux Reservation was established in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, and includes all of modern western South Dakota and modern Boyd County, Nebraska...

. Wilson favored reaching a financial settlement with the US government and using the money to invest in infrastructure, education and other improvements for the tribe. By contrast, the traditionals wanted to refuse anything less than the full return of the property to the Lakota.

Following the murder of Clarence Bad Heart Bull in a border town in early 1973, AIM chapters began forming in many places on the reservation. The Oglala Lakota saw a continuing pattern of discriminatory attacks against them in towns off the reservation, which police did not prosecute at all or not according to the severity of the crimes; they were also increasingly discontented with the poor conditions at Pine Ridge. Heated debates between AIM members and Wilson began to arise and escalate. Off-reservation AIM leaders threatened to bring their activism to Pine Ridge.
Wilson agreed with AIM members that there was serious social damage from the high rates of unemployment, suicide, and alcoholism at Pine Ridge. He also believed that the US government had illegally broken land treaties with the Sioux, but Wilson considered AIM's militancy "more as threat than a savior" for the Indian people. Wilson would later characterize AIM activists as "the only major Indian problem...bums trying to get their braids and mugs in the press." He tried to build bridges to make collaboration happen.

Wilson harshly criticized AIM for the Bureau of Indian Affairs building takeover
Bureau of Indian Affairs building takeover
The Bureau of Indian Affairs building takeover occurred from November 3 to November 9, 1972. On November 3, a group of around 500 American Indians with the American Indian Movement took over the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington, D.C., the culmination of their participation in the...

 in Washington, DC in November 1972. During the incident at the BIA headquarters building, irreplaceable Indian land deeds were lost and destroyed. Wilson warned Means not to bring activist violence to Pine Ridge. He obtained a restraining order to prohibit Means and Severt Young Bear from participating in any assemblies at the reservation. When Means spoke at a landowners' association meeting later that month at the invitation of Tribal Vice Chairman David Long, Wilson had Means arrested and tried to suspend Long from office.

In late 1972, Wilson formed a private militia
The term militia is commonly used today to refer to a military force composed of ordinary citizens to provide defense, emergency law enforcement, or paramilitary service, in times of emergency without being paid a regular salary or committed to a fixed term of service. It is a polyseme with...

, which he called Guardians of the Oglala Nation
Guardians of the Oglala Nation
The Guardians of the Oglala Nation were a private paramilitary group active on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation during the early 1970s.-Formation:...

 (GOONs). (The acronym came to be used in the sense of thugs.) He said that an earlier council resolution giving the chairman powers to maintain law and order was sufficient authority; he may have illegally financed the militia with tribal funds. The GOONs were accused of violence against and suppression of Wilson's political enemies. The GOONs were reported to intimidate residents of Pine Ridge Reservation for many years. Opponents of Wilson said that he was a puppet for the US government.

Impeachment trial

On February 9, 1973, tribal councilors Sioux Long, Kills Straight, and C. Hobart Keith introduced eight charges of impeachment
Impeachment is a formal process in which an official is accused of unlawful activity, the outcome of which, depending on the country, may include the removal of that official from office as well as other punishment....

 against Wilson at a council meeting. They charged him with nepotism in hiring tribal government staff, operating the tribe without a budget, two counts of misappropriating tribal resources for personal use, failing to compel the treasurer to make an audit report, failing to call the full tribal council according to the bylaws, using the executive committee to bypass the housing board, and illegally arresting Keith.

The Oglala Sioux Tribal Council suspended Wilson by an 11-7 vote. They would need a two-thirds vote to impeach him. Hearings began on February 22. Wilson declined the waiting period permitted him and arraigned for the impeachment proceedings to commence immediately. The council unanimously approved Vincent Thunder Bull as presiding officer for the trial, which began the next day.

Having expected Wilson to use the waiting period, the prosecution had not fully prepared its case. After Thunder Bull refused to permit the introduction of additional charges, four opposition council members and much of audience left the trial in frustration. Shortly thereafter, the remaining council voted 14-0 to close the impeachment proceedings.

Several hundred protesters marched in Pine Ridge after the council meeting. Because of the heightened tension, Stanley Lyman, the BIA superintendent at the reservation, ordered the United States Marshals Service
United States Marshals Service
The United States Marshals Service is a United States federal law enforcement agency within the United States Department of Justice . The office of U.S. Marshal is the oldest federal law enforcement office in the United States; it was created by the Judiciary Act of 1789...

 to place Wilson and his family in protective custody.

Wounded Knee

On February 27, four days after the termination of Wilson's impeachment trial, local protesters and AIM activists seized the town of Wounded Knee, in protest of the outcome of the impeachment hearing. They demanded Wilson's removal from office. A letter within AIM Chapters stated,
February 27, 1973, AIM Organization accepted the responsibility of providing all necessary strength and protection needed by the Oglala Sioux in the efforts to rid themselves of corrupt tribal president, Dick Wilson. Because this degenerated human being is financed and wholly supported by the FBI, CIA, BIA, U.S. Justice Dept., and the U.S. Marshals, it is virtually impossible to for any Oglala to voice any kind of opinion which may run contrary to this puppet government with out being arrested or beaten...a policy that cannot go unchallenged or unanswered.

The resulting standoff with law enforcement lasted seventy-one days, resulted in two protesters dead and one marshal seriously injured, and drew national attention to the issues of Native American rights and conflicts on the reservation. While the standoff was underway, Wilson tried again to suspend Long from the Vice Chairmanship. He also fired tribal employees who had protested against him.

On April 4, 1973 a group of AIM Wounded Knee occupants were caught by FBI Agents while leaving Wounded Knee. They were heavily armed and had a list of names of people who were to be "done away with". Wilson and members of his "goon squad" were on the list.

After Wounded Knee

Violent conflict on the reservation continued after the resolution of the Wounded Knee incident. In the three years that followed, more than 50 opponents of Wilson died violently. One was Pedro Bissonette, head of the civil rights organization, who had originally invited AIM activists to Pine Ridge. He died in a reported altercation with a BIA policeman. Residents accused GOONs of arson and frequent assault. Wilson was alleged to have personally directed an assault on six AIM lawyers in February 1975, but no charges were filed.

When Wilson ran for reelection in 1974, he faced a dozen challengers. He placed second in the primary, and defeated Russell Means
Russell Means
Russell Charles Means is an Oglala Sioux activist for the rights of Native American people. He became a prominent member of the American Indian Movement after joining the organisation in 1968, and helped organize notable events that attracted national and international media coverage...

 in the runoff election on February 7. An United States Civil Rights Commission investigation reported ballot tampering, a large number of ineligible voters, improprieties in the appointment of the election commission, and “a climate of fear and tension.” Its report concluded the election results were invalid, but a federal court upheld Wilson's reelection. Wilson was only the third person to be elected to consecutive terms as Oglala Sioux Tribal Chair since the position was created in 1936.

In 1975, the "Pine Ridge Shootout" on the reservation resulted in the deaths of FBI agents Ronald A. Williams and Jack R. Coler, and an AIM bodyguard, Joe Stuntz Killsright. The US government indicted four AIM members for the murder of the agents; two were acquitted on grounds of self-defense
Self-defense, self-defence or private defense is a countermeasure that involves defending oneself, one's property or the well-being of another from physical harm. The use of the right of self-defense as a legal justification for the use of force in times of danger is available in many...

, and charges against a third were dropped. Leonard Peltier
Leonard Peltier
Leonard Peltier is a Native American activist and member of the American Indian Movement . In 1977 he was convicted and sentenced to two consecutive terms of life imprisonment for first degree murder in the shooting of two Federal Bureau of Investigation agents during a 1975 conflict on the Pine...

 was tried separately later in a different venue, as he had escaped from the group and gone to Canada. After extradition to the US, he was convicted and sentenced to two life sentences. The case and his conviction have been controversial, with Amnesty International
Amnesty International
Amnesty International is an international non-governmental organisation whose stated mission is "to conduct research and generate action to prevent and end grave abuses of human rights, and to demand justice for those whose rights have been violated."Following a publication of Peter Benenson's...

expressing concern about the fairness of the legal process. His requests for parole have been denied.

In the 1976 election for tribal president, Wilson was defeated by Al Trimble by a wide margin.

Later life

Wilson moved out of Pine Ridge after the 1976 election. He eventually returned and was campaigning for a council seat when he died in 1990. Kidney failure and an enlarged heart were the causes of his death.

External links