Pub. Date:
Harvard University Press
Ghost Dancing the Law: The Wounded Knee Trials

Ghost Dancing the Law: The Wounded Knee Trials

by John William Sayer


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After the siege ended at Wounded Knee, the real battle had yet to be fought. The 1973 standoff in South Dakota between Oglala Lakota Indians and federal lawmen led to the criminal prosecution of American Indian Movement leaders Dennis Banks and Russell Means. The ten-month trial had all the earmarks of a political tribunal; with the defense led by William Kunstler and the prosecution backed by the Nixon administration, it became a media battle for public opinion.

This first book-length study of the Wounded Knee trials demonstrates the impact that legal institutions and the media have on political dissent. It also shows how the dissenters as defendants can influence these institutions and the surrounding political and cultural climate. AIM and its attorneys successfully turned the courtroom into a political forum on the history of U.S.-Indian relations but were often frustrated in telling their story by the need to observe legal procedures—and by the media's stereotyping them as Indian warriors or sixties militants. John Sayer draws on court records, news reports, and interviews with participants to show how the defense, and ultimately the prosecution, had to respond continually to legal constraints, media coverage, and political events taking place outside the courtroom.

Although Banks and Means and most of the other protesters were acquitted, Sayer notes that the confinement of AIM protests to the courtroom robbed the movement of considerable momentum. Ghost Dancing the Law shows how legal proceedings can effectively quell dissent and represents both a critical chapter in the struggle of Native Americans and an important milestone at the crossroads of law and politics.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780674354333
Publisher: Harvard University Press
Publication date: 10/28/1997
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.38(w) x 9.44(h) x 0.96(d)

About the Author

John William Sayer is Honorary Fellow at the Institute for Legal Studies, University of Wisconsin Law School.

Table of Contents



The Road to Wounded Knee

The Buildup to the Trials

The Saint Paul Trial Begins

The Opening Statements

The Government's Case Gets Derailed

Month Five and Counting

The Defense Case and the Government's Rebuttal

The Closing Arguments

Judge Nichol's Decision and Its Aftermath

Retelling Stories of History and Power



What People are Saying About This

John Sayer tells a fascinating story about an important but largely overlooked event in our legal-political history: the trials of the principal actors in the Indian takeover of Wounded Knee, and the subsequent confrontation between Indian activists and law enforcement personnel to which the takeover led. Ghost Dancing the Law should be of great interest to anyone with even a passing interest in Native American culture, history, or politics. While the political history of Wounded Knee has been told and retold, the legal history--the story of the trials that followed--is untapped territory. That history is important in its own right, and this book tells that story well.

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