The Wounded Knee occupation and the politics of scale: Marginal protest and central authority in a media age

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Don Mitchell


Wounded Knee occupation, Politics of scale, Protest, Media, South Dakota, FBI

Subject Categories

Communication | Geography | Mass Communication | Political Science | Social and Behavioral Sciences


This dissertation addresses the changing geography of contemporary political protest. The time- and space-collapsing qualities of contemporary media and communications technologies greatly enhances the potential visibility of protests. By claiming and reworking important public spaces, and doing so before national and even international audiences, contemporary protesters are occasionally able to shift relations of power. In turn, states have been prompted to respond in sometimes novel ways to these acts of dissent.

In order to critically assess how the geography of protest has changed in recent decades, I make use of two primary concepts: scale and publicity. In strictly geographic terms, it is scale that differentiates spaces. The concept provides a language to understand the geography of power by analyzing how different actors are able to gain access to wider spaces, or not. Publicity, however, allows us to differentiate among different kinds of space and spatial practices. By analyzing who, what, and where is public and visible, I argue, we can better understand the dynamics of protest.

In order to operationalize this theoretical and conceptual framework, I present an in-depth case study of the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota by approximately 200 American Indian Movement (AIM) activists and local residents. A small and isolated piece of marginal land, Wounded Knee nevertheless had long loomed large as a symbol of relations between Indians and the U.S. government. The site of a massacre in 1890, Wounded Knee was again transformed into a contested symbolic space in 1973. The occupation took place during a transitional moment in which televised protests were relatively new, and the Wounded Knee occupiers made effective use of the new opportunities presented by changing media technologies. The 1973 Wounded Knee occupation was noted for its spectacular symbolic politics, in which issues of treaty rights and the sovereignty claims for which they stood were articulated, in quite dramatic fashion, on a global media stage. As such, the case of the Wounded Knee occupation shed important light on the geographical dynamics of contemporary protest, and on how states act in the context of such political spectacles.


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