Don Cuny was 21 years old and ready to die for his people.
It was March 1973, and he stood with about 200 fellow Native Americans in the village of Wounded Knee. The group huddled in houses and crouched behind bunkers. Some men held semi-automatics; others held handguns.
For the past week, the group had held the town in protest against alleged corruption within the tribal government. On this same site only 80 years earlier, 300 Lakotas were killed by the U.S. Army in the worst massacre in Native American history.
In 1973, the protesters chose the site for its symbolic value.
And as more than a hundred federal agents surrounded the village, the protest’s purpose was changing. The occupation was no longer a local protest, but a national one, a stand against a century of colonial oppression and assimilation.
As federal officials called in snipers, armored vehicles and helicopters to reinforce the perimeter, that stand also became increasingly intense.
“I was dodging bullets,” said Cuny, now 61. “I can’t put it no other way.”
The siege would last 71 days. By its end, hundreds of thousands of bullets would be fired by both sides, the village of Wounded Knee would be destroyed, two Native Americans would die, an activist would go missing and a U.S. marshal would be paralyzed.
Still, Cuny says, he would do it all again.
“At the time, at that age, I made a commitment to my people,” he said. “What was going on, all the injustices to our people, I was there to fight this and make sure the rest of the world saw.”
On Wednesday, Cuny and other activists will reunite at Wounded Knee for the occupation’s 40th anniversary. Between prayers and drum circles, the group will celebrate how the event shaped American history.
For many of those who witnessed the occupation and those who have studied it, the protest left a conflicting legacy.
Kevin McKiernan, a reporter for National Public Radio at the time, says in some ways the siege did little to improve the welfare of Native Americans.
McKiernan was in his 20s and based in Minnesota when he traveled to Wounded Knee to cover the conflict. By that point, the government was barring journalists from entering the village. McKiernan relied on Lakota guides to lead him through back roads and past the federal blockade.
On his journey, McKiernan was struck by the barren landscape and ramshackle houses of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. To him, its conditions resembled a Third World country.
After 40 years, that hasn’t changed.
“A lot of that remains,” McKiernan said. “The high rate of unemployment, the high rate of alcoholism, the poverty.”
U.S. Census data released last week shows that more than 48 percent of South Dakota’s 65,000 Native Americans live below the poverty threshold.
But McKiernan says the occupation had positive impacts. The event’s widespread media coverage helped to galvanize the indigenous rights movement.
McKiernan says that in decades after the siege, tribes across America began demanding money from oil and gas companies that were exploiting their lands. Tribes fought harder to ensure federal and state governments lived up to treaty obligations. And Native American studies became an increasingly prevalent part of college curricula.
In addition, five years after the occupation, Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, a bill that allowed tribes to conduct rituals using traditional items that were restricted under federal law, like peyote and eagle feathers, and regain access to sacred places of worship.
“So there were a lot of changes that happened, little by little,” McKiernan said. “In a lot of ways, Wounded Knee was a line in the sand.”
Stew Magnuson, author of “Wounded Knee 1973: Still Bleeding,” has studied the mixed legacy of the occupation.
From its beginning, Magnuson says, the clash was rooted in a divide between the “traditionals” and “non-traditionals” on the Pine Ridge reservation.
The traditionals tended to be of purer Oglala Lakota descent and held their language and customs. The non-traditionals tended to be more interested in assimilating to European practices and systems.
In the 1970s, as the non-traditionals consolidated economic and political power on the reservation, resentment grew among traditionals. The latter group accused tribal chairman Dick Wilson of corruption and cronyism.
“So in 1973, it all kind of came to a head with the traditionals occupying Wounded Knee,” Magnuson said.
That divide intensified in the decade after the siege. Traditionals’ supporters allege that 75 people, many of them critical of the tribal government, were murdered between 1973 and 1976.
Forty years on, Magnuson says, those wounds are still raw on the reservation. And while the violence has lessened, a divide remains between traditionals and non-traditionals.
Still, Magnuson says, there was good that came from the occupation, too.
While the abuses against Native Americans by the federal government in the 1800s were well-known, the discriminatory policies of the 1900s were less so.
Magnuson says the occupation pushed those recent abuses against Native Americans into the public sphere, including a government policy in the early 1900s that encouraged the placement of Native American children in boarding schools to “assimilate” them into European-American society. Children were given European names and banned from speaking their native language.
There lay the power of the Wounded Knee occupation.
“It went from a protest against the local government to a symbolic protest against all injustices perpetrated against Native Americans over the past hundred years,” Magnuson said.
Garfield Steele, a council representative for the Oglala Lakota Sioux Tribe, says for him and others who were born after the occupation, that increased awareness will remain the event’s greatest achievement.
“What they fought for was our rights as Lakota people, as indigenous people,” he said. “And I think, without those people from the ‘70s, we probably wouldn’t be the same people we are today.”
Cuny, who now lives in a trailer 10 miles north of Wounded Knee, agrees.
The former protester stands, wearing a denim jacket emblazoned with “American Indian Movement” patches. He holds out a photo of himself as a 21-year-old: His eyes are steely. His black hair is held by a red headband.
Although Cuny’s hair might be grayer now, as far as he’s concerned, he’s still a young man willing to die for his people.
“Once a warrior, always a warrior,” he said. “The Black Hills are not for sale.”