American Indian Movement

views updated May 18 2018

American Indian Movement

LEADERS: George Mitchell, Dennis Banks, and Clyde Bellecourt




The American Indian Movement (AIM) was founded in Minneapolis, Minnesota, during the summer of 1968, when community activists George Mitchell, Dennis Banks, and Clyde Bellecourt organized a meeting attended by about 200 Native Americans from the surrounding area. Actor Russell Means later became a prominent leader in the group. The stated goal of AIM is to foster spiritual and cultural revival among native peoples in the hope of attaining native sovereignty and the re-establishment of the treaty system for dealing with the "colonialist" governments of North and South America.

The first actions of the group focused on documenting cases of police brutality, using police scanners and CB radios to arrive at the scene of arrests of Native Americans. Inspired by the 1969 occupation of Alcatraz Island, the group began to look beyond its original focus on urban Native American issues, and progressed to more radical and ambitious methods. Their major actions include the forceful takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1972, followed swiftly by the dramatic, 71-day siege that came to be known as Wounded Knee II. In recent years, the group has broken into factions, each claiming to represent the true spirit of AIM, with a western faction led by Russell Means and a Minnesota faction led by Clyde Bellecourt.


The American Indian Movement emerged from social tumult of the late 1960s in Minneapolis, Minnesota, founded by activists who were determined to improve the lives of urban Native Americans. In the summer of 1968, George Mitchell, Dennis Banks, and Clyde Bellecourt organized a meeting to discuss the issues facing the Native American community of Minneapolis. Among the problems addressed were poverty, substandard housing, the highest unemployment rate of any ethnic group, and police brutality. The approximately 200 attendees founded a group called the Concerned Indians of America. The name was changed shortly afterwards to the American Indian Movement to avoid reference to the acronym commonly used for the Central Intelligence Agency.

The earliest actions of the group involved the founding of the Minneapolis AIM Patrol, that used CB radios and police scanners to arrive at the scene of police investigations involving Native Americans, in order to document instances of police brutality. These AIM patrols continue to the present day.

Were it not the turbulent decade of the 1960s, with civil upheaval and social protest sweeping across the country in waves, AIM might have stayed an urban movement focused on local issues. Within a year of AIM's founding, however, "Red Power" burst onto the national consciousness with the dramatic occupation of Alcatraz Island by San Francisco-area Native American activists. Inspired by the success and the boldness of the action, native youth from all over the country flocked to join in the protest, including members of AIM. Citing an 1868 treaty that said Indians could use any part of federal territory that was not being used by the government, the activists managed to hold on to the occupation for 19 months, and garnered much publicity for their cause before the government finally forced them off the island.

In 1972, AIM leaders in Colorado joined with other groups to organize what became the Trail of Broken Treaties caravan to Washington D.C. The plan was to attract publicity generated by the last days of the upcoming presidential campaign to draw attention to Native American issues. Native American activist from across the country formed a caravan and traveled from Denver to Washington to present Richard Nixon and the government with their platform of demands, which they called the 20 Points. When the caravan arrived at its destination, the activists found little in the way of accommodations, as hundreds more activists arrived over the course of a few days in early November. The activists claimed that the government had reneged on its promise to provide accommodations; the government blamed the situation on poor planning by the organizers of the caravan. At any rate, the immediate result was that a group of AIM members stormed the Bureau of Indian Affairs offices, overwhelming security, and occupying the office for six days.

The most dramatic confrontation with federal authorities, however, came in 1973 when AIM activists led members of the Lakota Sioux tribe from the Pine Ridge reservation in a takeover and occupation of the site of the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre. Pine Ridge residents had been engaged in an ongoing internal political struggle pitting the traditionalists of the tribe against the more assimilated members. The traditionalists voted to impeach Dick Wilson, the government-backed head of the tribal administration, only to encounter federal resistance and brutal oppression by Wilson's supporters. They turned to AIM for help, and found the activists more than willing to take up their cause. Group lore has it that it was the Lakota women who goaded the men into seizing the Wounded Knee site as a way to fight back and dramatize their plight. The siege that came to be known as Wounded Knee II lasted from February 27 until May 8, resulting in the deaths of two activists and one FBI agent and the arrest of nearly 1,200 people. Under the intense glare of the national media that drew relentless parallels to the 1890 massacre, the siege ended with a negotiated ceasefire and the activists abandoning the site. Meanwhile, the conflict between the traditionalists and the assimilators raged on in Pine Ridge and in the larger Native American community.

Though AIM participated in other actions, most notably the Longest Walk protest march from San Francisco to Washington D.C., the influence of the group began to decline by the mid 1970s. This decline is thought to be at least partially due to the FBI's infamous operation COINTELPRO, in which dissenting groups with anti-government leanings were "neutralized" through the same ruthless counterintelligence tactics employed against hostile governments.

Today, AIM is a splintered shadow of its former self, with two factions engaged in a war of rhetoric that seems to be another reflection of the struggle between the traditionalists and the assimilators. One faction, based in Colorado and loosely organized around University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill and actor Russell Means, plays the traditionalist role; another, led by one of AIM's founding fathers, Clyde Bellecourt, is incorporated under the laws of the United States, has returned to its early urban focus, and points to its legislative accomplishments and its history of establishing native schools and social programs.


1969 occupation of Alcatraz Island by Native American activists.
AIM leaders in Colorado joined with other groups to organize what became the Trail of Broken Treaties caravan to Washington D.C.
AIM activists led members of the Lakota Sioux tribe in a siege that came to be known as Wounded Knee II.


At the heart of AIM is the idea of Indian sovereignty and cultural revival. In its heyday, the group inspired many young men and women to reclaim their traditions and ethnic pride. The group's spirituality is infused with a warrior ethic and a determination to restore dignity to the Native American people.

In Court, AIM Members Are Depicted as Killers

The former companion of a leader in the American Indian Movement clutched a single feather as she took the witness stand in a federal court here on Wednesday and tearfully depicted the movement's leaders as murderous.

In a full but silent courtroom, the witness, Ka-Mook Nichols, said leaders of the militant Indian civil-rights group known as AIM had orchestrated the death of one of its own members, Anna Mae Pictou Aquash, nearly three decades ago. And Ms. Nichols implicated Leonard Peltier, AIM's best-known member, in the earlier killing of two federal agents, crimes for which Mr. Peltier has been sent to prison for life.

Mr. Peltier, who has always maintained his innocence, has an international following among those who believe he was framed by federal authorities seeking revenge.

The trial, in its second day, will determine the fate of Arlo Looking Cloud, a former low-level AIM member charged with killing Ms. Pictou Aquash, another AIM member. But the testimony here stretched far beyond this case, presenting a sweeping and frightening look at violence and suspicion inside the militant movement that drew national attention to southwest South Dakota in the 1970s.

"You would think the American Indian Movement was on trial," Vernon Bellecourt, a spokesman for the movement, said angrily from his seat in the front row of the gallery, which has been full of people who remember those volatile clashes between Indians and federal authorities: AIM sympathizers, residents from the Pine Ridge Reservation where the occupation of Wounded Knee took place, and federal agents, now mostly retired.

Mr. Bellecourt denied all accusations against the movement, and said the latest revelations were merely another effort by the federal authorities to hide their own wrongdoing. "It's virtually impossible," he said, "for an Indian to receive a fair trial in South Dakota."

Ms. Nichols, who had an 18-year relationship and four children with Dennis Banks, a leader of AIM from its earliest days in the late 1960s, told jurors how she joined the movement as a high school student living on Pine Ridge and never confided all she had seen until now because she supported the group's goals—treaty recognition, self-determination for Indians, a return to traditional ways.

"At the time I was committed to the movement and I believed in what the movement stood for," said Ms. Nichols, now 48. "I never talked to anybody about anything."

But on Wednesday, Ms. Nichols described details of the group's wanderings around the country—those fleeing the authorities, building bombs and planning their next moves. She also told how AIM leaders worried that their own members might be spying for the authorities.

She testified that the leaders, including Mr. Banks and Mr. Peltier, strongly suspected Ms. Pictou Aquash, a Micmac Indian who left Canada to join the movement, might be a federal informer. At an AIM convention in June 1975, Ms. Nichols said, leaders openly discussed that possibility.

Mr. Peltier once put a gun to Ms. Pictou Aquash's head, Ms. Nichols testified, and demanded to know if she was a spy. Another time, he talked about giving her truth serum, Ms. Nichols testified. All this made Ms. Pictou Aquash angry and fearful, she said. "I knew she was scared of Dennis and Leonard at that point."

Months later, on Feb. 24, 1976, Ms. Pictou Aquash's decomposing body was found in a ravine on Pine Ridge. She had been shot in the head, but the authorities said they could not identify her for several weeks. The day the body was found, however, Mr. Banks called Ms. Nichols and said Ms. Pictou Aquash had been turned up dead, Ms. Nichols testified.

"From the day he called me, I started believing it was the American Indian Movement that has something to do with it," she said.

Mr. Banks, who has been separated from Ms. Nichols since 1989, was traveling and could not be reached for comment on Wednesday. But Mr. Peltier's lawyer, Barry A. Bachrach, said his client considered Ms. Nichols' testimony utterly false.

"He has no idea why she's saying this," Mr. Bachrach said in a phone interview. "Anna Mae was not afraid of AIM or Leonard. Ka-Mook is doing nothing but parroting government testimony."

Mr. Looking Cloud's lawyer, Tim Rensch, suggested that Ms. Nichols might be seeking revenge on her former companion, Mr. Banks, because he had once had an affair with Ms. Pictou Aquash. He also suggested that she might be in it for money—the government has paid her $42,000, partly for moving expenses to protect her from AIM members—or even planning to write a book.

But on Wednesday, Ms. Nichols said she simply was telling the truth on behalf of a dear friend, Ms. Pictou Aquash. One reason, she said, that AIM leaders might have feared the possibility of spying so much was that Ms. Pictou Aquash had witnessed sensitive information.

She said that she had been riding in a motor home with Ms. Pictou Aquash, Mr. Peltier and others one day in 1975 when Mr. Peltier began boasting about shooting the federal agents at Pine Ridge.

Ms. Nichols testified that Mr. Peltier made a gun with his fingers and said that one agent had begged "for his life, but I shot him anyway."

Mr. Peltier, in a federal prison in Leavenworth, Kan., denies all connection to the killings and to any boasting. "Why is she doing this?" Mr. Bachrach said. "Leonard is baffled."

The defendant in this trial, Mr. Looking Cloud, seemed almost an afterthought on Wednesday. In opening statements, his lawyer, Mr. Rensch, acknowledged that Mr. Looking Cloud had been there with other AIM members when Ms. Pictou Aquash was killed, but that he had not participated or known what was coming.

Wearing glasses, with a braid running down his back, Mr. Looking Cloud, 50, looked small and hunched at the defense table. His lawyer said he quit AIM after what happened to Ms. Pictou Aquash, and wound up drinking too much, living on the streets of Denver.

                                    Monica Davey

Source: New York Times, 2004

The group's own materials speak proudly of its history of "forceful action." In seizing BIA headquarters and in sustaining the occupation of Wounded Knee, AIM has used force in pursuit of its goals, but has never been wantonly violent. In their words, AIM is "Pledged to fight White Man's injustice to Indians, his oppression, persecution, discrimination and malfeasance in the handling of Indian Affairs. No area in North America is too remote when trouble impends for Indians. AIM shall be there to help the Native People regain human rights and achieve restitutions and restorations."

Besides being forceful, AIM actions have also been obviously calculated for optimal dramatic effect. The Trail of Broken Treaties was specifically planned around the expectation of media coverage. The Wounded Knee site was specifically chosen for its symbolic value. For their part, the national media was understandably eager to cover the colorful defenders of an oppressed tradition; they made excellent copy. AIM has had no shortage of charismatic, photogenic leaders who look great on film, Russell Means and perhaps Ward Churchill being the preeminent examples.

Be that as it may, the movement proved to be no match for the resources of the federal government; the FBI used such techniques as infiltration and "snitch-jacketing" (planting misinformation to the effect that a particular key group member was a government informant) to exploit the community's historically divisive nature, exacerbating the infighting and tribal corruption that ultimately put the movement into decline.

In recent years, the Minnesota faction has tempered its traditional rhetoric with a willingness to use the U.S. legal system for its purposes, to good effect. A legal corporate entity, the AIM Grand Governing Council has filed successful suits against the U.S. government, established schools and job programs, and has generally assumed the role of a Native American civil rights organization. Most recently, Bellecourt has founded the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and the Media (NCRSM) to organize against the use of Native American images and names in professional and collegiate sports. Though its mission might have once seemed quixotic, NCRSM has recently made important inroads toward accomplishing its goals. In the end, it may be that by working within the legal system and using its assets wisely, the modern Minnesota AIM may accomplish more than the more radicalized 1970s AIM could ever have hoped to achieve with its "forceful actions."

In contrast, Autonomous AIM styles itself as an uncompromising native liberation movement and as the real keepers of AIM spirituality and Native American heritage. Completely decentralized, Autonomous AIM's interests and mission are the local issues of the chapters. In Colorado, where Autonomous Aim originated, these have centered on organizing against Denver Columbus Day celebrations.


National AIM was incorporated by the Bellecourt brothers in 1993, who wasted no time in issuing a September press release announcing that "… only those chapters which have been duly authorized and chartered by the National Office should be recognized in the future as legitimate representatives of the American Indian Movement. Questions in this regard can be resolved by calling the National Office."

In response, 60 representatives of 19 state chapters met in New Mexico in December 1993 and issued the Edgewood Declaration, defining themselves as a confederacy of autonomous chapters and renouncing any national authority claimed by the Bellecourts' organization. According to Means, the Declaration did not represent the forming of a new group, but rather a reaffirmation of the principles that had governed AIM since 1975, when a national meeting of AIM members from throughout the United States had decided to abolish national offices and suspend the practice of electing national leaders and spokespersons.

These dueling proclamations were the culmination of a contentious war of rhetoric that had been raging for years. The precise origins of the conflict between the factions are difficult to ascertain. Accounts of the events that led up to the Edgewood Declaration are only to be found in the group's own materials; it has been well established that the leaders of both sides of the struggle are no strangers to historical exaggeration and self-serving embellishment.

It appears that the fight began as a dispute over the leadership of the Colorado AIM chapter. The chapter had been established by Vernon Bellecourt and Joe Locust in 1970. By 1972, Bellecourt had returned to the national offices in Minnesota, and the chapter steadily grew inactive and lost membership over the next decade. In 1983, Locust recruited Glenn Morris and Ward Churchill, a fiery rhetorician and professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado, to help revitalize the chapter. Membership grew over the next 10 years, and the chapter was successful putting together a coalition to organize a massive protest against the Columbian Quincentennary in 1992. The event was hailed as a great victory for Colorado AIM, and drew lots of national press. Almost immediately, the mutual recriminations began on both sides, with Vernon Bellecourt holding a press conference where he maintained that Morris and Churchill had been expelled from AIM. In response, Means, Churchill, and their supporters met in Edgewood, Colorado, to formulate the Declaration that formally severed any remaining ties with the newly incorporated National AIM Grand Governing Council. Today, more than a decade later, the war of rhetoric continues with no signs of abating.


The American Indian Movement emerged out of the tumultuous decade of the 1960s, when a group of local activists led by George Mitchell, Dennis Banks, Clyde Bellecourt, and others began meeting to discuss the problems faced by Native Americans in urban Minnesota. The group began by organizing local patrols to document and/or to prevent instances of police brutality in and around Minneapolis. Within a year of its founding, the group was inspired by the occupation of Alcatraz by San Francisco-area activists. A group of Minnesota AIM members visited the occupiers, returning to Minnesota with a bigger vision for the movement and a new national agenda.

Numerous actions modeled after the Alcatraz occupation followed, culminating with the 1973 takeover and occupation of the Catholic Church and museum that had been erected at the site of the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre. The ensuing siege by federal authorities lasted for 71 days, under the full glare of the largely sympathetic national media. Wounded Knee II became the celebrated cause of the political left, drawing celebrity advocates such as Marlon Brando, who famously used the broadcast of the Oscars that year to denounce the federal government's handling of the situation.

In the ensuing years after Wounded Knee, the FBI managed to infiltrate, prosecute, and basically degrade the movement into a shadow of its former self. Today, AIM is split into two factions, each claiming to represent the authentic spirit of the original movement, one based in Colorado and the other, led by the Bellecourts, based in Minnesota. The Minnesota faction is incorporated under the laws of the state of Minnesota and the United States, and has established an impressive history of legislative and social accomplishments.



Matthiessen, Peter. In The Spirit of Crazy Horse. New York: Viking Press, 1983.


Davey, Monica. "In Court, AIM Members are Depicted as Killers." New York Times. February 5, 2004.

Web sites "Alcatraz Is Not an Island." 〈〉 (accessed October 15, 2005). "Time & again—Wounded Knee—Siege of 1973." 〈〉 (accessed October 15, 2005).

American Indian Movement

views updated May 14 2018

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

American Indian Movement

views updated Jun 27 2018


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.

American Indian Movement

views updated May 29 2018

American Indian Movement

The American Indian Movement (AIM) was founded in Minneapolis, Minnesota , in the summer of 1968 by founders Dennis Banks (1937–) and Clyde Bellecourt (1939–). Modeling itself after the Black Panther Party , the organization initially focused on forming street patrols to stop police brutality and other violence in the local Indian community. A number of service programs ranging from alternative schools to low-cost housing followed within the next two years.

Expands to national goals

After 1971, with the recruitment of American Indian activists such as Russell Means (1939–) and John Trudell (1946–), the organization became national in character and shited its focus to gaining recognition of American Indian treaty rights in Indian reservations . (Reservations are tracts of land set aside by the federal government for use by the American Indians, often as the result of major concessions on the part of American Indian communities.) Most of AIM's activity from late 1972 onward was based at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota .

Trail of Broken Treaties

For a time, AIM pursued a strategy of forcing confrontations with federal, state, and local authorities to gain national attention for the plight of American Indians. The most spectacular of these clashes was called the Trail of Broken Treaties.

Originating on the West Coast in the autumn of 1972, the Trail of Broken Treaties began as a car caravan of several hundred American Indians who traveled across the country to Washington, D.C. There they were prepared to carry out a week-long schedule of ceremonies, meetings, and peaceful protests. The protesters brought with them a list of twenty points for presentation to federal officials, calling for the restoration of treaty activity between federal and tribal governments, the recognition of existing treaties, the creation of a commission to review treaty commitments, and much more. The document forcefully asserted sovereignty (self-rule) for Indian people.

The road-weary protesters expected to find decent accommodations when they arrived in Washington. Instead, they found they had no assigned places to stay, no provisions, and no real acknowledgment from federal officials. Hundreds found themselves stranded in an unfamiliar city. On the morning of November 3, caravan participants sought shelter in the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) building while the group's leaders met with federal officials. A confrontation between police and Native Americans soon erupted in the lobby of the bureau. Within minutes, the police were pushed out onto the street and the building was barricaded from within. The protesters officially occupied the BIA building for the next week.

The takeover of the BIA might have been interpreted by some as a bold act of political resistance. However, damage to the building and its contents, and the destruction and removal of important tribal documents, as well as those pertaining to individual Native Americans, resulted in notable negative press. As the main force behind the Trail of Broken Treaties, AIM had secured a reputation as a militant (war-like) organization capable of violence.

Wounded Knee II

AIM's membership grew in the early 1970s as many American Indians joined the movement for American Indians rights. Attention began to focus on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota when Richard Wilson was elected president of the Oglala Sioux tribal council in 1972. Wilson was accused of buying hundreds of votes in that election. His administration was charged with mishandling government funds and granting questionable contracts to whites. In response to these charges, Wilson had opponents beaten and their families threatened. He maintained a GOON squad—an acronym for Guardians of the Oglala Nation—to physically intimidate his opponents.

Investigators from the Department of Justice concluded later that Wilson had imposed a “reign of terror” on reservation residents and that federal authorities had funded him to do so. But Wilson won the support of the BIA by refusing to allow protests within the reservation. The BIA ignored complaints against him, funded his GOON squad, and sent its own agents to help him. Means, by then an AIM leader, vowed to run against Wilson in the next election for tribal chair, but that would not occur until 1974.

The residents of Pine Ridge voted to impeach Wilson as tribal chair in 1973, but at his hearing he managed to talk the tribal council into voting in his favor. Several hundred angry members of the Oglala Sioux tribe convened a meeting, asking AIM to attend. AIM's policy was to enter the reservation only on request. The Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization made the official request for AIM's help in overthrowing Wilson.

The occupation

On February 26, 1973, AIM members began to caravan to the Pine Ridge Reservation. As he tried to enter the reservation, two members of Wilson's police force beat Means. He later returned, leading a larger band of about 250 Indians. According to a police report, they broke into the reservation store at 7:55 PM and took weapons and ammunition. Then they took over the community of Wounded Knee, the site of the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre . Their original intent appears to have been a short occupation to negotiate for Wilson's dismissal and a traditional tribal government free of BIA interference. The various government forces, however, blockaded the roads and arrested anyone coming out of Wounded Knee who appeared to be implicated in the takeover. In response, the occupiers set up defenses and barricades of their own. A seventy-one-day armed standoff had begun.

Support for the occupation grew on other reservations. Other Indians made their way to Wounded Knee. During the occupation, there was regular gunfire between the federal agents and the occupiers. Hundreds of thousands of shots were fired into the village; two Indians were killed and another dozen badly wounded during the fighting. The occupation ended peacefully when federal officials agreed to discuss violations of U.S. treaty obligations with the Oglala chiefs.

The aftermath

In the aftermath of Wounded Knee, 562 federal felony charges were lodged against AIM members. Only fifteen of those resulted in convictions, but the expense of continuously posting bail and paying attorneys exhausted the movement's funds and diverted its members' attention for years.

From March 1973 to March 1976, at least 69 AIM members and supporters died violently on Pine Ridge, while some 340 others suffered serious physical assaults. In twenty-one of the AIM deaths, eyewitnesses identified the killers as known GOON squad members. Not one of these crimes was ever brought to trial as the result of a federal investigation.

The disagreement among the Oglala Sioux did not end, nor did friction between AIM and the government. A shootout at Pine Ridge in June 1975, which killed one Indian and two FBI agents, led in 1977 to a controversial trial and a life sentence for murder for AIM leader Leonard Peltier (1944–).

Later years

Despite the Wounded Knee trials and Peltier's conviction, AIM has remained active. The organization has drawn considerable national and international attention to the Peltier case. In 1978, AIM participated in the “Longest Walk,” a national march on Washington, D.C., in the continued attempt to air Native American grievances. Three years later, AIM established Yellow Thunder Camp on federal land in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The establishment of the camp was the first step, according to AIM leaders, in reclaiming this sacred land for the Lakota, or Sioux, people. AIM has also protested against false and harmful images of Native Americans in the media and as sports team mascots, and against environmental abuses.

American Indian Movement

views updated May 29 2018


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