In late February, at a small village on the windswept plains, an armed group is surrounded by federal agents and a prolonged standoff begins.
Gunfire is exchanged. People are killed and wounded.
Inside, occupants protest the government. Outside, government officials seek a negotiated end.
The date wasn’t Feb. 28, 1993 — but Feb. 27, 1973. The village wasn’t Elk, Texas, near the Mount Carmel religious compound — but Wounded Knee, S.D., on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
The gun-wielding occupants weren’t members of cult leader Vernon Howell’s Branch Davidian religious sect — but of the American Indian Movement.
The FBI was involved in both. And the siege at Wounded Knee 20 years ago is in some ways reminiscent of that at the heavily fortified Mount Carmel religious compound near Elk, located about 10 miles east of Waco.
Bill Carter, spokesman at FBI headquarters in Washington, said agents learn lessons from each such incident that may carry over to the next.
“Basically, you learn from these,” Carter said. He said FBI officials hold an extensive review after each such standoff to discuss the case, tactics used and “what we did right, what we did wrong, what we could do better next time.”
Asked for examples, he said, “I can’t really get into specifics because it might give something away.”
The siege at Wounded Knee lasted 71 days. The siege at Mount Carmel beings its third week Sunday.
The Mount Carmel battle began the same weekend that some American Indian Movement members returned to the Pine Ridge Reservation village to mark the 20th anniversary of their armed conflict with federal authorities.
“It was about the right to be free, the right to be left alone, the right to be Indians,” AIM leader Russell Means said last month.
Means, who served a prison term for his part in the fatal shootout, more recently has found fame as an actor, playing the title role in last year’s movie, The Last of the Mohicans.
Former governor Bill Janklow said the fight of Wounded Knee intensified racism, bitterness and fear. “I’ve never met a person who could convince me that good comes from violence.”
It began the night of Feb. 27, when AIM members went to Wounded Knee — site of an 1890 massacre of more than 200 Sioux by federal troops — and occupied several buildings to dramatize federal violation of treaties and to call attention to alleged corruption in the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs and the tribal government of the time.
Two members of the occupying force were killed. Nine others were wounded, including a federal marshal who was paralyzed.
At Mount Carmel, four federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents were killed and 16 wounded in the initial gun battle on Feb. 28.
At least two cult members are known dead and at least four are said to be wounded.