American Indian Movement (AIM)
American Indian Movement (AIM)
The American Indian Movement (AIM) is an activist organization dedicated to protecting indigenous peoples’ rights around the world. AIM’s founders and continuing leadership have been American Indians, however, and its agenda and protests have focused primarily on issues of concern to Native North Americans. AIM was founded in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1968 as an Indian rights organization that monitored law enforcement treatment of Native people in American cities. AIM chapters quickly became established in several U.S. cities, including Cleveland, Denver, and Milwaukee, and AIM’s initial membership was drawn from the ranks of the urban Indian population. AIM’s early, and perhaps best-known leaders, included Clyde and Vernon Bellecourt, Dennis Banks, and Russell Means.
American Indian resistance movements have existed throughout U.S. history, although early Indian collective actions often were officially defined by the U.S. government as “wars,” and they were thus responded to by the U.S. military. During the nineteenth century there were numerous Native American “revitalization” movements, such as the Ghost Dance in the West and the Handsome Lake revival among the Iroquois in the East. Such movements had an important spiritual dimension and emphasized the elimination of European influence and the return of native traditions and communities. In the twentieth century, American Indian rights organizations emerged to represent Indian interests locally and nationally; these included the Society of American Indians (1911), the Indian Defense League of America (1926), the National Congress of American Indians (1944), the National Indian Youth Council (1961), and Women of All Red Nations (1974). The 1960s ushered in an era of Indian protest activism, beginning with a series of “fish-ins” protesting legal restrictions of traditional tribal fishing rights in the Pacific Northwest and the nineteen-month occupation of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay by “Indians of All Tribes” protesting the living conditions and rights violations of urban Indians. Although AIM did not organize the fish-ins or the Alcatraz occupation, the intertribal, nationally publicized native-rights focus of both protests served as a template for much of AIM’s activism, and many who had been involved in 1960s protests became associated with AIM in the 1970s.
AIM emerged not only from a rich history of American Indian protest activism. The organization was formed during a period of U.S. history marked by the African American civil rights movement and anti–Vietnam War activism. Although there were few formal links between AIM and civil rights organizations, the ethnic pride, racial grievances, and political demands of civil rights leaders and activists resonated with the dissatisfactions, needs, and resentments of many urban and reservation Indians. AIM blended civil rights and antiwar protest strategies—such as marches, demonstrations, occupations, and sit-ins—with Indian symbolic targets and repertoires of resistance, such as the “capture” of the Mayflower II on Thanksgiving in 1970, a brief occupation of Mount Rushmore in 1971, the “Longest Walk” from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., in 1978, and the encampment at Camp Yellow Thunder in South Dakota’s Black Hills in the 1980s. The following description of a 1976 protest against a commemoration of the Battle of Little Bighorn illustrates the rich and confrontational dram-aturgy associated with much AIM activism:
Today on a wind-buffeted hill covered with buffalo grass, yellow clover and sage, in southeastern Montana where George Armstrong Custer made his last stand, about 150 Indians from various tribes danced joyously around the monument to the Seventh Cavalry dead. Meanwhile at an official National Parks Service ceremony about 100 yards away, an Army band played. … Just as the ceremony got underway a caravan of Sioux, Cheyenne and other Indians led by Russell Means, the American Indian Movement leader, strode to the platform to the pounding of a drum. (Lichtenstein 1976)
The “Trail of Broken Treaties” was AIM’s first national protest event of the 1970s, and the event was crucial to publicizing AIM’s central role in organizing American Indian activism, raising Indian rights consciousness in both urban and reservation Indian communities, and recruiting new members in support of the organization and its actions. The “Trail” took place in 1972 as a crosscountry caravan that began in California and ended in Washington, D.C., culminating in a weeklong occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. As AIM activists traveled across the country, they stopped at reservations along the way, where many reservation youth joined the caravan. Mary Crow Dog describes the response by young people on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota as AIM passed through:
The American Indian Movement hit our reservation like a tornado, like a new wind blowing out of nowhere, a drumbeat from far off getting louder and louder. It was almost like the Ghost Dance fever that had hit the tribes in 1890. … I could feel this new thing, almost hear it, smell it, touch it. Meeting up with AIM for the first time loosened a sort of earthquake inside me. (Crow Dog and Erdoes 1990, p. 73–74)
AIM’s best-known and most controversial protest action began in February 1973 in Wounded Knee, South Dakota, a small town on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The conflict began as a dispute within Pine Ridge’s Oglala Lakota (Sioux) tribe over the controversial tribal chairman, Richard Wilson. Wilson was viewed as a corrupt puppet of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) by some segments of the tribe, including those associated with AIM. An effort to impeach Wilson resulted in a division of the tribe into opposing camps, which eventually armed themselves and entered into a seventy-one-day siege of surrounded AIM supporters that involved tribal police; reservation residents; federal law enforcement officials; the BIA; local citizens; nationally prominent entertainment figures; national philanthropic, religious, and legal organizations; and the national news media. When the siege ended on May 9, 1973, two Indians were dead and an unknown number were wounded on both sides, including casualties among federal government forces. Dick Wilson remained in office, though he was challenged at the next election. Many AIM members spent the next years in litigation, in exile, and in prison, and several armed conflicts occurred in the wake of the siege as a result of U.S. government counterintelligence programs and vigorous prosecutions that targeted AIM members. The most well known of these cases is that
of Leonard Peltier, who in 2007 remains in prison for a conviction for murder on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1975.
Less well known is the 1976 death on the Pine Ridge Reservation of Anna Mae Aquash, a Native woman involved with AIM. The controversy surrounding her death centered on whether she died from exposure, as was originally reported, or was shot, and on whether her shooting was politically motivated and carried out by AIM members or by U.S. agents. The Aquash case illustrates the problems faced by Indian women associated with AIM, which (like many native and nonnative protest and political organizations) was run primarily by men, with women often relegated to service and support roles. Despite the limits faced by women in AIM, many Native American women from the generation of AIM activism have risen to prominent positions in tribal government and as leaders of native rights organizations, including Winona LaDuke, the program director of the Honor the Earth Fund; Gail Small, the director of Northern Cheyenne’s Native Action; and LaDonna Harris, the founder and president of Americans for Indian Opportunity. Some of these native women leaders recognize the importance of Indian activism in shaping their lives. Wilma Mankiller, a former Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, describes the personal impact of the Alcatraz occupation as an awakening that ultimately changed the course of her life:
I’d never heard anyone actually tell the world that we needed somebody to pay attention to our treaty rights, that our people had given up an entire continent, and many lives, in return for basic services like health care and education, but nobody was honoring these agreements. For the first time, people were saying things I felt but hadn’t known how to articulate. It was very liberating. (Johnson 1996, p. 128)
The use of Indian mascots by athletic teams, schools, and universities has been an issue for AIM activists since the organization’s early days, when Russell Means sued the Cleveland Indians sports franchise over the use of “Chief Wahoo,” its Native American cartoon caricature mascot. AIM’s efforts to retire native sports mascots have met with a good deal of success especially in schools and on college campuses, but Indian mascots remain an ongoing protest issue. In the 1990s, for instance, Charlene Teters, a Spokane graduate student at the University of Illinois, launched a campaign to expose and eliminate the “fighting Illini’s” mascot, “Chief Illiniwek.” Her efforts are documented in an award-winning film, In Whose Honor. Despite her efforts, and those of other Indian women and men, opposing the use of sports mascots remains an ongoing struggle for AIM: Chief Illiniwek continues to dance at University of Illinois games, and Chief Wahoo continues to smile on Cleveland Indians fans. In 2005 the National College Athletic Association informed Florida State University (FSU) that it could not compete in national championships if it continued to use the “Seminoles” as its team name and “Chief Osceola” as its mascot. The team was granted a waiver and allowed to continue the use of both the Indian name and the mascot, however, after Max Osceola, member of the Tribal Council of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, testified that it was an “honor” to be associated with FSU. The Seminole Nation of Oklahoma dissented, however, and continued to oppose the use of its name and the Indian mascot. This disagreement among native nations and between a particular tribe and AIM reflects both the diversity in Indian country and the ongoing tensions between AIM and some tribal communities that emerged during and after the Wounded Knee occupation.
In the nearly forty years since its founding, AIM’s major focus has been on American Indian rights in the United States. Since the 1970s, however, AIM leadership has identified many common interests of indigenous people inside and outside the United States. The International Indian Treaty Council, for example, is an AIM-linked organization of indigenous peoples from the Americas and the Pacific focused on issues of sovereignty, self-determination, and the protection of cultural, legal, and land rights.
Crow Dog, Mary, and Richard Erdoes. 1990. Lakota Woman. New York: Grove Weidenfeld.
Johnson, Troy. 1976. The Occupation of Alcatraz Island: Indian Self-Determination and the Rise of Indian Activism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996.
Lichtenstein, Grace. 1976. “Custer’s Defeat Commemorated by Entreaties on Peace.” New York Times, June 25.