SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — The FBI says a black civil rights activist was killed during the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee, and it suspects militant members of the American Indian Movement are responsible, according to recently released documents.
Hundreds of pages of reports provided to Buffalo, N.Y., attorney Michael Kuzma shed new light on the 40-year-old case of Ray Robinson, an activist and follower of Martin Luther King Jr. Kuzma sued the U.S. Justice Department in June in an effort to help Robinson’s widow, Cheryl Buswell-Robinson, and their children get some closure.
The father of three from Bogue Chitto, Ala., traveled to South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in April 1973 to stand alongside Native Americans in their fight against social injustice. The 71-day standoff between AIM members and federal agents at Wounded Knee left at least two tribal members dead and a federal agent seriously wounded. The occupation is credited with raising awareness about Native American struggles.
He never returned and his body was never found.
Buswell-Robinson, of Detroit, said her husband’s nonviolent approach conflicted with the violent situation at Wounded Knee, and it’s possible AIM members suspected he was a federal informant. The personable, 6-foot-2 black man with a deep baritone voice would have stood out on a Midwest American Indian reservation, she said.
Robinson’s family just wants to bring his remains home for a proper burial.
“My daughter Desiree wants a place to go so she can sit and talk to her father,” Buswell-Robinson told The Associated Press. “She remembers him. She’s the oldest.”
According to the FBI documents, an unidentified cooperating witness told agents that “Robinson had been tortured and murdered within the AIM occupation perimeter, and then his remains were buried ‘in the hills.’”
The location of Robinson’s remains is a mystery, and any search or excavation attempts would likely be complicated by the reservation’s sovereign status. Buswell-Robinson and her two daughters traveled to Wounded Knee in 2004 to walk in an area rumored to be Robinson’s possible resting place and the site of the Denby bunker, where witnesses say Robinson engaged with AIM members.
Another witness told agents that Robinson was in Wounded Knee for about a week and seemed to have difficulty adjusting to the conditions of having no food, the area constantly being under fire and unilateral AIM command. That witness said Robinson immediately wanted to open discussion in the bunker about AIM’s strategies but no one listened or took him seriously.
The witness said Robinson got into a heated exchange with another person and was taken to a house by a security team. When Robinson grabbed a butcher knife from a table, security formed a full circle around him, according to the witness.
“The next thing, I heard a loud bang and saw Mr. Robinson’s lower leg spin from the knee and rotate outward as he started to fall forward,” the witness said. “His eyes rolled up as he went down.”
Buswell-Robinson, 69, questions that account and believes Robinson was in the Wounded Knee occupation area for hours, not weeks. She said the most likely account of her husband’s death is one passed on to her by Barbara Deming, a writer and political activist who was asked by Buswell-Robinson in the mid-1970s to look into the killing. She relayed the story to Buswell-Robinson in letters years after the disappearance.
According to Deming’s account, Robinson was eating oatmeal one day but hadn’t yet checked in with an AIM leader. He was ordered to report to the leader immediately but said the check-in had to wait until he was done with the meal. He was then shot, according to the story.
“Ray did not respond well to that authoritative direction,” Buswell-Robinson said.
Other parts of the documents relate to the knowledge of the incident by leaders of American Indian Movement, which was founded in the late 1960s to protest the government’s treatment of Indians. For decades, AIM leaders have denied knowledge of Robinson’s death.
One witness told agents that AIM leader Vernon Bellecourt expressed knowledge and awareness of Robinson being killed during the occupation. The witness said Bellecourt “made a statement to the effect that AIM had ‘really managed to keep a tight lid on that one’ over the years.’”
Bellecourt died in 2007.