The American Indian Movement (AIM) was formed in 1968 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to protest police brutality. Founders of AIM included Clyde Bellecourt, Dennis Banks, and George Mitchell. The movement became one of the most important and prominent Native American protest organizations, campaigning on many issues affecting Native Americans. The honoring of treaty rights was foremost among their demands.
AIM began as an urban organization in response to urban issues. It was part of the social protest movements of the 1960s insofar as its tactics and some of its rhetoric and concerns were inspired by other civil rights movements. Most significantly, it was inspired by the African American protest organization the Black Panthers, which called for “Black Power.” “Red Power” became an important part of the rhetoric and ideology of AIM.
AIM was most prominent and influential in Native American affairs in the early 1970s. Some of the important and high-profile campaigns organized by or participated in by AIM included the occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969, the Trail of Broken Treaties in 1972, and the occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973. After the controversial and violent Wounded Knee, membership and interest in AIM declined. AIM’s confrontational style and radical demands alienated some and also led to significant repression by the government.
One of the most important concerns of AIM, especially in the 1970s, was the honoring of treaty rights. The Trail of Broken Treaties protest, organized largely by AIM, specifically sought to call public attention to the history of broken treaties between the U.S. government and Native American tribes. The occupation of Wounded Knee by AIM members, while concerned with complicated tribal politics on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, also called for the honoring of the 1868 treaty between the United States and the Lakota Sioux, placing the breaking of the treaty in a context of the breaking of some 371 others. The result of the breaking of the 1868 treaty, AIM declared, was “that our water has been stolen, our minerals have been stolen, and our land has been stolen. All this must be paid for retroactively and in perpetuity” (AIM Statement on Wounded Knee, November 1973). In general, however, much of the rhetoric of AIM’s campaigns was more universal than particular. Rather than calling for the honoring of any particular treaty, AIM called for a return to the treatment of Native American tribes and nations as sovereign people. This reflected the pan-Indian nature of AIM as it evolved. The social protest movement of the younger generation of Native Americans who were represented in AIM tried to construct an “American Indian” identity based on a history shared across tribes of poor treatment and the continual breaching of treaty rights. AIM also fostered cultural pride and celebrated Native American culture and heritage.
In calling for treaty rights, AIM envisioned complete sovereignty for Native Americans and the return of confiscated lands. Their radicalism made the U.S. government decidedly uncomfortable and even hostile. Nor was AIM’s view shared by all Native Americans. In response to the Trail of Broken Treaties, the Nixon administration declared that treaty making between the U.S. government and Native Americans had been forbidden by Congress in 1871. The Native American demand for self-determination—the right of Native Americans to run the programs that affected their lives and to participate in shaping government policies—was addressed by the federal government in the American Indian Self-Determination and Education Act of 1975. Rather than sovereignty, self-determination has continued to be the more persistent and more prominent demand of Native Americans.
Since the 1970s, AIM has continued to function as an important Native American political organization, although perhaps more locally than nationally. AIM has campaigned for civil rights and other issues affecting local Native American communities, for example, education, stereotypes of Native Americans in the media, job training, and fishing rights. Yet AIM’s concern to bring treaty rights and the sovereignty issue to public attention has been and continues to be an important part of the history of Native American political activism.
American Indian Self-Determination and Education Act of 1975; Sovereignty; Trail of Broken Treaties; Wounded Knee Occupation, 1973.
American Indian Cultural Support. AIM and Wounded Knee II Documents, 1973-1983. Accessed February 8, 2005, at http://www.aics.org/WK/index.html (c.1999).
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