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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 policies—boarding schools, relocation, and the threat of termination—led 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 peoples—the 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 Apted’s 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.
- 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.
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