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American Indian Movement


Founded in 1968, the American Indian Movement (AIM) is an organization dedicated to the Native American civil rights movement. Its main objectives are the sovereignty of Native American lands and peoples; preservation of their culture and traditions; and enforcement of all treaties with the United States.

Despite the straightforwardness of its stated objectives, AIM's reputation had been seriously harmed by well-publicized and controversial incidents of law-breaking, vandalism, and violence, resulting in the organization's peak and decline within a few years. Significant historical events include AIM's hostile occupation of Alcatraz Island (1969); the "Trail of Broken Treaties" march on Washington, D.C. (1971); occupation of Wounded Knee (1973); and the Pine Ridge shootout of 1975, which resulted in the controversial arrest and imprisonment of the most famous AIM member, Leonard Peltier. Following these events, the organization's visibility and viability as a political force greatly declined.


Prior to the formation of AIM, issues involving U.S. Indian–non-Indian relations had largely faded away. Starting in the 1950s, the U.S. government had embarked on a serious policy plan to terminate its responsibilities to Native Americans pursuant to extant treaties and agreements. This action included the relocation of thousands of reservation Indians to urban areas and the termination of federal duties to two major tribes, the Menominee of Wisconsin and the Klamath of Oregon. (Federal rights were restored to both a few years later.) However, by the 1970s, relocation as well as termination policies were all but abandoned.

A number of problems arose when Native Americans left the reservations and intermingled with local towns, where Native Americans allegedly caused and/or became parties to local disturbances or crimes. Moreover, after world war ii and the korean war, many Native Americans who had served in the armed forces no longer wanted to return to stereotypical Indian lifestyles. As more intermingling and merging occurred, other Native Americans became increasingly intent on searching for their cultural roots and maintaining their ethnic identities. They vowed not to be assimilated and thus their views paralleled the ideals of other civil rights movements of the era. The most radical elements to emerge from these militant Native American groups ultimately formed the AIM, which was intended as an indigenous version of the black panther party.

During the summer of 1968, about 200 members of the Native American community in urban Minneapolis, Minnesota, met to discuss various issues, including slum housing, alleged police brutality, unemployment, and alleged discriminatory policies involving the local county's welfare system. The group had been impressed with media coverage of the Black Panther policy of monitoring routine police interrogations or arrests and adopted similar tactics.

From the beginning, the group stirred controversy in seeking attention. Mobilizing in different cities and gaining momentum, it employed increasingly negative tactics such as holding an "anti-birthday party" for the United States atop Mt. Rushmore on the Fourth of July, painting Plymouth Rock bright red on Thanksgiving Day 1970, and seizing the Mayflower replica. All of these actions served to alienate many would-be sympathizers. However, AIM did get the media attention it desired, which seemed only to spawn further controversy. When the group organized a hostile occupation of Alcatraz Island off the coast of California, AIM finally became a force to be reckoned with, however so briefly.


On November 9, 1969, a group of Native American supporters, led by Mohawk Richard Oakes, chartered a boat and set out to symbolically claim the island of Alcatraz for "Indians of all tribes." By November 20, the gesture had turned into a full-scale occupation that ultimately became the longest prolonged occupation by Native Americans of a federal facility or federal property.

Early use of Alcatraz Island by indigenous peoples is difficult to reconstruct. Ancient oral histories seem to support the view that at one time Alcatraz was used as a place of isolation for tribal members who had violated some tribal law or taboo and were exiled or ostracized for punishment. Earlier or concurrently, the island changed hands several times during Spanish and Portuguese explorations, but ultimately it became federal property and in time became the site of the infamous federal prison once operated there.

Many of the Indian occupiers of November 1969 were students recruited by Oakes from UCLA, who returned with Oakes to Alcatraz and began to live on the island in old federal buildings. They ran a school and daycare center, and began delivering local radio broadcasts that could be heard in the San Francisco Bay area.

Initially, the federal government placed an effective barricade around the island and insisted that the group leave; it did, however, agree to an Indian demand for formal negotiations. The talks accomplished nothing, however, as the Indian group insisted on a deed and clear title to the island. The group continued occupation and the federal government insisted they depart but took no aggressive action to remove them. Officially, the government adopted a position of non-interference and hoped that support for the occupation would fade. The FBI and Coast Guard were under strict orders to remain clear of the island and media attention began to dwindle.

The occupation continued all through 1970, but by this time, internal problems among the indigenous group caused the occupation to lose momentum. Student recruits left to return to classes at UCLA and were replaced by urban recruits, many of whom had been part of the San Francisco drug and hippie culture of the time. Several rose in opposition to Oakes's leadership on the island, and Oakes ultimately left after his teenaged stepdaughter fell to her death in a building stairwell.

After several months of hostile occupation, the federal government shut off electric power to the island and removed the water barge that had been supplying fresh water to the occupiers. A fire broke out, and both sides blamed the other for the loss of several historic buildings. Splintered leadership on the island resulted in the loss of a common voice with which to negotiate with the government. When the occupiers began stripping the remaining buildings of copper wiring and tubing, the press turned on them and began publishing stories of assaults, drugs, violence, and the trial of three Indians found guilty of selling 600 pounds of copper.

With government patience growing thin, then-president richard nixon finally approved a peaceful removal plan, to be conducted with as little force as possible and when the least number of people were on the island. On June 10, 1971, FBA agents, armed federal marshals, and special forces police removed five women, four children, and six unarmed men from the island.

Trail of Broken Treaties

In November 1971, AIM organized what it called the Trail of Broken Treaties, a march on Washington, D.C., involving approximately 1,000 angry Native Americans. It ended with the occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) headquarters. After taking over the offices, AIM protesters seized large numbers of files from the BIA offices and caused over $2 million in damages to the trashed building. They also presented President Nixon with 20 demands for immediate action. The Nixon administration provided $66,000 in transportation monies in return for a peaceful end to the takeover. It also agreed to appoint a Native American to a BIA post. Again, the real success for AIM was in getting some media attention and in heightening public awareness of unresolved Indian issues.

Wounded Knee

The tiny village of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, is the historic site of an infamous 1890 massacre of Native Americans (the last) by the U.S. Cavalry. The original site and burial ground became part of the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in that state.

In 1973, about 200 members of the local Oglala Lakota Indians, led by AIM members, seized the village of Wounded Knee (a Catholic church, trading post, and post office) and declared it to be an independent nation. Their single demand was the return of the Great Sioux Nation (a sovereign parcel of real estate comprising the entire western half of South Dakota) allegedly promised to them by the United States in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868.

Just prior to this development, on the nearby Pine Ridge reservation, tribal council president Dick Wilson (a Native American) had secured a tribal council order prohibiting AIM members from attending or speaking at reservation meetings or public gatherings. He considered AIM members to be lawless misfits bent on agitating the populace. AIM members, in return, accused Wilson of nepotism, corruption, and mismanagement of tribal monies. A group of Wilson supporters, locally referred to as the "goon squad," began harassing and threatening AIM members. The Lakota Indians invited AIM to meet with their group, and both decided to take a stand at Wounded Knee. At this point, the federal government, including the BIA, remained neutral, claiming the stand-off was an internal tribal dispute.

However, when AIM occupiers built fortifications and took up arms and munitions, both Wilson and the federal government (FBI, u.s. marshals, and BIA police) moved in. In the well-publicized 71-day occupation that followed, two AIM members were killed. Ultimately, AIM leaders negotiated a "peace pact" with the government stipulating that the activists would be treated fairly and that the federal government would conduct a fair review of several treaties.

Although the immediate stand-off was defused, tensions between Wilson's goon squad and AIM members continued over the next several years. Dozens of AIM members, including early founding members Russell Means and dennis banks, were indicted on dozens of charges related to the Wounded Knee standoff, but the charges were ultimately dropped when a federal judge acknowledged spurious activity and involvement by the FBI.

Pine Ridge

Wilson's tribal leadership at the Pine Ridge reservation was reportedly federally sanctioned and supported. Allegations arose at the trials of AIM members that goon squad members were paid with BIA monies and that many of the members were in fact off-duty BIA police. Several murders occurred on the reservation and were never fully investigated. For its part, the FBI maintained that it was an investigatory rather than enforcement agency, a position that further exacerbated the regional tension and fear.

In June 1975, two FBI agents in an unmarked car and clad in civilian clothes chased a pickup truck into an isolated area near an AIM encampment. During the resulting shootout, the two FBI

agents were shot and killed, along with one Indian activist. Over the next several days, over 300 FBI agents swarmed the reservation, followed by officers making dozens of arrests and prosecutions. Ultimately, AIM activist Leonard Peltier was tried and convicted for his role in the FBI killings, receiving two life sentences. His trial and conviction remained shrouded with allegations of suppressed evidence, coerced witnesses, and a fabricated murder weapon.

Later Years

Following the Pine Knee incident, AIM declined rapidly in both leadership and momentum. It held its last national unified event in 1978 and the following year dismantled as a national organization, in favor of independent regional chapters. Russell Means and Dennis Banks were in and out of court for years defending their leadership roles in the 1973 and 1975 shootouts. Eventually, both were acquitted of all significant charges. Dennis Banks went on to found another Indian organization, the Sacred Run, devoted to spiritual renewal and environmental issues. As of 2003, Russell Means was campaigning for governor of New Mexico on an independent party ticket. Leonard Peltier remained in prison; his next parole review was scheduled for 2008. The FBI still refused to release nearly 6,000 pages of documents on Peltier, being withheld on grounds of "national security."

In 1978, Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA)(42 U.S. C.A. § 1996), designed to review and update federal policies regarding such matters as Native Americans' right to access sacred grounds and legal rights to practice their traditional religions. Reviews and recommendations were made. Pursuant to this action, Congress in 1990 passed the native american graves protection and repatriation act, Public L. No. 101-601, 104 Stat. 3048, but in that same year, the U.S. Supreme Court reiterated its 1988 ruling that AIRFA was a policy statement and not law, and as such, there was no legal right to the protection of sacred sites or the religious use of peyote in the Native American religion. Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protection Association, 483 U.S. 439, 107 S. Ct. 2924, 97 L. Ed. 2d 364 (1988). New sacred land protection legislation was again introduced in 2002 and was still pending in early 2003.

further readings

Churchill, Ward. 1997. "A Force, Briefly, To Reckon With." Progressive (June).

Johnson, Troy. "We Hold the Rock: The American Indian Occupation of Alcatraz Island." Indians of North America. Long Beach: California State Univ. Press.

Marshall, Joseph M., III, and Sicangu Lakota. 2000. "Wounded Knee Takover, 1973." Encyclopedia of North American Indians. Houghton Mifflin.

Oswalt, Wendell H., and Sharlotte Neely. 1994. This Land Was Theirs. 5th ed. Mountain View, Calif.: Mayfield.

"Russell Means for Governor." Available online at <> (accessed May 30, 2003).

Singer, Daniel. 1994. "Free Peltier!" Nation (July 18).


Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990; Native American Rights.

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American Indian Movement

American Indian Movement


From first contact, American Indians have striven to be treated with the respect due members of sovereign and culturally distinct nations. Governmental policy toward American Indians has shifted over the centuries from overt attempts at genocide to removal and assimilation to respect for sovereignty. By the 1950s, policy preferences were clearly in favor of acculturation and assimilation. Government boarding schools sought to help turn American Indian children into cultural soldiers, whose mission was to help destroy indigenous cultures from within. The national government also began to combine policies of relocation, moving Indians off of their reservations and into urban environments, promising help with housing and employment (promises that were more often broken than kept), and termination, ending official recognition of tribal status.

This combination of policiesboarding schools, relocation, and the threat of terminationled to the creation of Indian ghettos in major cities, increased incidence of social problems such as alcoholism and drug addiction, and an increased awareness of the threat to Indian resident cultures and homelands. Thus, these policies also facilitated an increasing sense among peoples of diverse tribes of both a common cause and a common enemy. That realization helped forge a common identity. American Indians did not cease thinking of themselves as members of distinct tribal communities, but many of them began to also consider themselves part of a larger whole: as Indian as well as Kiowa or Chickasaw.

As American Indians found themselves uprooted from their land and their cultures and facing poverty, disease, overt racism, police brutality, and other forms of discrimination, their anger at these conditions began to build. They looked to the successes of the burgeoning civil rights movement, and they too began to organize.

In 1960 Vine Deloria Jr., Clyde Warrior, Mel Thom, Shirley Witt, and Herb Blatchford formed the National Indian Youth Council, an organization explicitly based on traditional American Indian values and specifically dedicated to furthering the interests of American Indian peoples. By 1964 American Indians in the Northwest began to defend their legal and historic treaty rights through fish-ins, events that often led to confrontations with local citizens, governments, and police forces. Finally, in 1968, Vernon Bellecourt, his brother Clyde, and Dennis Banks incorporated the American Indian Movement (AIM) in Minneapolis, Minnesota. AIM was explicitly founded to protect local Indians from police brutality and other forms of discrimination. It soon became national, and its purpose expanded as well.

In November 1969 a group calling itself Indians of All Tribes claimed Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay by right of discovery and remained there in defiance of the federal government for nineteen months. The occupation of Alcatraz began a series of occupations of other government properties, as well as protests led by AIM leaders Dennis Banks and Russell Means at Mount Rushmore and, on Thanksgiving Day in 1970, at Plymouth Rock. Such protests signaled the beginning of increased media attention to what was styled Indian militancy or the Red Power Movement.

These protests in turn indicated the peculiar situation of American Indian activists: changing governmental policies depended, in large part, on mobilizing public sympathy, which depended on gaining public attention. That depended on keeping the attention of the media, which often also meant staging public events and maintaining public images that relied upon the prevalent stereotypes of Indian peoplesthe same stereotypes activists believed contributed to the very policies they were trying to change. And in trying to change governmental policies, they were up against a powerful array of social, bureaucratic, and economic forces.

To combat these forces, AIM organized a series of caravans in 1973 that would travel the nation by separate routes, meeting in Washington, D.C., called the Trail of Broken Treaties. The caravans arrived in Washington on November 3, 1973, with a list of Twenty Points that the activists hoped to bring to the attention of the federal government. The Twenty Points included demands that the government recognize the sovereign status of Indian nations, reestablish treaty relations, and allow an Indian voice in the formation of policies regarding Indian interests.

When housing arrangements turned out to be unsuitable, the protestors converged on the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) seeking assistance. They were turned away. Some of the protestors refused to leave, and ended up taking over the building, which they held for a week. The Trail of Broken Treaties, like the Alcatraz occupation, signaled the extent of the tension between the Indians, especially AIM, and the federal government. That tension escalated as many of the AIM Indians left Washington and headed for the Lakota Sioux reservation at Pine Ridge, South Dakota. Pine Ridge had long been sharply divided between those Indians favoring assimilation and accommodation with the national government and those favoring traditional Indian ways. The tribal chair, Richard Wilson, was solidly in the assimilationist camp, and was seen by the traditionalists as unfair and often violent in his treatment of them.

On February 27, 1973, a caravan of some three hundred Indians left Pine Ridge and headed for Wounded Knee, the site of a famous massacre in 1890. They occupied the small village there, and the government responded with an unprecedented show of force. The standoff continued for seventy-three days, comprised hours of negotiations, and led to the deaths of two Indians. Both sides considered it a moral victory, but little changed.

After Wounded Knee, the government began to escalate its actions against AIM and its leaders. Through arrests, court battles, and the operations of its COINTELPRO (counterintelligence program), which was designed to infiltrate and destroy activist organizations from within, the federal government sought to bankrupt, distract, and eliminate AIM.

The final confrontation between AIM and the federal government was also the most tragic: on June 25, 1975, FBI agents claiming to be in hot pursuit of a suspect ventured into an AIM compound on the Pine Ridge reservation. A firefight broke out, and in the melee one Indian and the two agents were killed. The rest of the Indians fled. Two (Bob Robideaux and Dino Butler) were later apprehended and tried in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for the murder of the federal agents. An all-white jury found them not guilty. Later, a third Indian, Leonard Peltier, was also tried for the murders, was convicted, and has been in prison since 1976.

The trial of Leonard Peltier marked the end of the period of Indian activism, although not the end of AIM. AIM leaders remained active, albeit in a smaller way. Many of them have been in movies, such as Michael Apteds Thunderheart (1992) and Incident at Oglala (1992) and the animated film Pocahontas (1995). Banks, Means, and Peltier have authored autobiographies. John Trudell, the voice of Radio Free Alcatraz, is the subject of a 2006 documentary. AIM continues to agitate, in less dramatic ways, for treaty rights, against Indian mascots, and on other issues of concern.

SEE ALSO Activism; Civil Disobedience; Civil Rights; Native Americans; Protest; Trail of Tears; Tribalism; Tribes


Cornell, Stephen. 1988. The Return of the Native: American Indian Political Resurgence. New York: Oxford University Press.

Deloria, Vine, Jr. 1974. Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties: An Indian Declaration of Independence. New York: Delacorte.

Johnson, Troy, Joane Nagel, and Duane Champagne. 1997. American Indian Activism: Alcatraz to the Longest Walk. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Matthiessen, Peter. 1991. In the Spirit of Crazy Horse. New York: Viking.

Stern, Kenneth. 1994. Loud Hawk: The United States versus the American Indian Movement. Norman: Oklahoma University Press.

Mary E. Stuckey

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American Indian Movement


AMERICAN INDIAN MOVEMENT (AIM), an activist organization that came to national prominence in

the 1970s, emerged during July 1968 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in response to police brutality committed against urban Indians in the Twin Cities. AIM's three primary founders were Clyde Bellecourt (Ojibwa), Dennis Banks (Ojibwa), and George Mitchell (Ojibwa). According to Bellecourt, 120 American Indians of an estimated 20,000 living in the Twin Cities at this time began to hold regular meetings in the area of Franklin Avenue and initially called themselves the Concerned Indian American Coalition. Later, two Indian women elders suggested the name "AIM" since the leadership of the organization was "aiming" to take action on several fronts to correct past injustices against Indian people.

AIM leaders organized Indian patrols to scrutinize police actions. The patrols located drunken Indians in bars before the police found them. The patrols carried citizens band radios to intercept police calls so that they could witness arrests and make sure that the arrested Indians were not abused. The patrol members wore red jackets with a black thunderbird emblem and became known as "shock troops" in the Indian neighborhood. Within a few months, the coalition structured itself as a nonprofit corporation with an Indian board and staff.

Among its other community activities in the Twin Cities, AIM started culturally oriented schools for Indian youths called the Little Red Schoolhouse and Heart of the Earth. These efforts were a response to the fact that at the junior high level, Ojibwa youths had a dropout rate of 65 percent in public schools. As more American Indians arrived in the Twin Cities via relocation, AIM provided temporary shelter and meals and developed an Indian elders program.

AIM became a national organization as widespread frustration over the urban conditions caused by the relocation of many Indians to cities led more Indian people to join the fight for Indian justice. Within four years of its founding, AIM had established forty chapters in U.S. cities, on reservations, and in Canada. Active chapters were in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver, Milwaukee, and Cleveland. Among the individuals in AIM who became national leaders were Eddie Benton-Banai (Ojibwa) and Mary Jane Wilson (Ojibwa), who were instrumental in the early formation of the movement; Vernon Belle-court (Ojibwa), Russell Means (Oglala), Richard Oakes (Mohawk), and Lehman Brightman (Lakota), who became director of Native American Studies at the University of California at Berkeley; John Trudell (Santee Dakota), who served as AIM national chairperson from 1974 to 1979; and Leonard Peltier (Metis), Anna Mae Aquash (Micmac), and Carter Camp (Ponca).

At the political level, AIM activists sought to bring attention to American Indian issues through a series of public protests, beginning with their participation in the nineteen-month occupation of Alcatraz that began in 1969. AIM activists protested at Mount Rushmore on 4 July 1971; at the Mayflower replica at Plymouth, Massachusetts, on Thanksgiving Day in 1971; and in Gordon, Nebraska, in February 1972, in response to the murder of Raymond Yellow Thunder. AIM members occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington, D.C., in November 1972 and initiated the nationwide Longest Walk in 1978, ending in Washington, D.C. Local chapters took over buildings in Wisconsin, California, and other states.

National attention peaked with two events, the first being AIM members' ten-week occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota (see Wounded Knee, 1973). Authorities charged Dennis Banks and Russell Means and put them on trial for their actions at Wounded Knee, while other AIM members were arrested and released. Following an eight-month trial in 1974, a federal judge dismissed charges against Means and Banks.

The second event, known as the Oglala Firefight of 1975, grew out of heightened tensions between Indian activists and the Federal Bureau of Investigation after the events at Wounded Knee. The FBI was involved with surveillance of all major Indian protests, working to subvert such protests and challenging AIM leaders. The firefight broke out on 26 June 1975 between AIM members and the FBI at the Jumping Bull family compound on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The deaths of two FBI agents in the conflict led to a nationwide FBI effort to find the killer, and Leonard Peltier was ultimately convicted of the crime. (Two alleged accomplices were acquitted in a separate proceeding.) Despite protests over many years that Peltier did not receive a fair trial, and international calls for his release, in 2002 he was still serving a prison sentence at Leavenworth, Kansas.

By the late 1970s, AIM no longer occupied national headlines, although it served an important purpose in altering federal Indian policy. During the 1970s, AIM split into two groups that put Clyde and Vernon Bellecourt on one side and Russell Means and his supporters on the other. This division remained unhealed, and AIM's politics were subdued due to conflict over leadership. Nevertheless, in the early twenty-first century it remained as one of the longest-lived national organizations representing American Indian issues.


Johnson, Troy, et al., eds. American Indian Activism: Alcatraz to the Longest Walk. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1997.

Nagel, Joane. American Indian Ethnic Renewal: Red Power and the Resurgence of Identity and Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Smith, Paul Chatt, and Robert Warrior, eds. Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee. New York: New Press, 1996.

Donald L.Fixico

See alsoIndian Policy, U.S., 1900–2000 ; Indian Political Life ; Indian Reservations .

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American Indian Movement

American Indian Movement (AIM), Native American civil-rights activist organization, founded in 1968 to encourage self-determination among Native Americans and to establish international recognition of their treaty rights. In 1972, members of AIM briefly took over the headquarters of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C. They complained that the government had created the tribal councils on reservations in 1934 as a way of perpetuating paternalistic control over Native American development. In 1973, about 200 Sioux, led by members of AIM, seized the tiny village of Wounded Knee, S.Dak., site of the last great massacre of Native Americans by the U.S. cavalry (1890). Among their demands was a review of more than 300 treaties between the Native Americans and the federal government that AIM alleged were broken. Wounded Knee was occupied for 71 days before the militants surrendered. The leaders were subsequently brought to trial, but the case was dismissed on grounds of misconduct by the prosecution. AIM also sponsored talks resulting in the 1977 International Treaty Conference with the UN in Geneva, Switzerland.

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