The American Indian Movement (AIM) was founded in 1968 by Chippewa Indians Clyde Bellecourt, Eddie Banai, Dennis Banks, and Mary Jane Wilson. The organization arose out of concerns of Native Americans in Minneapolis, Minnesota, over the living conditions of city-dwelling Indians. AIM members coordinated a patrol to monitor police activities in Indian neighborhoods and to prevent unjust arrests and police mistreatment of Indian residents. AIM ultimately extended its area of concern to include reform of relations between Indians and the federal government. To this end, AIM carried out the 1970 occupation of Mt. Rushmore and the Trail of Broken Treaties caravan to Washington, D.C., in 1972. The latter ended with the seven-day occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) headquarters building.
In June 1970, Dennis Banks and other AIM members traveled to San Francisco to lend support to the American Indian students who had occupied Alcatraz Island. The students occupied the island in November 1969 and held it until July 1971. Incorporated as Indians of All Tribes, the group demanded that title to Alcatraz be returned to the Indians and that an Indian university, cultural center, museum, and training school be built on the site of the former federal prison. Their mantra was “Indian self-determination without termination.”
AIM members remained on the island for approximately two weeks, giving advice on security and logistics. AIM leaders learned from the Alcatraz Island occupiers as well. They saw that the use of the national and international media could be used to hold the federal law enforcement agencies at bay.
On November 26, 1970, AIM, led by Russell Means, seized control of the Mayflower II, a replica of the original Mayflower, in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Means and members of twenty-five Indian tribes proclaimed Thanksgiving a national day of mourning to protest the taking of Native American lands by white colonists. They credited the occupation of Alcatraz Island as the symbol of a newly awakened desire of the Indians for unity and authority in the white world.
In 1972 AIM organized a national cross-country caravan known as the Trail of Broken Treaties, a nationwide protest march on Washington, D.C. The march originated on Alcatraz Island following the death of Richard Oakes, spokesperson for the Alcatraz takeover, and resulted in the seventy-one hour occupation of the BIA headquarters. Here AIM leaders presented a twenty-point manifesto demanding redress of wrongs against Indian nations and peoples.
The Red Power movement received its impetus from the Black Power movement of the 1950s and 1960s and began with the 1969 occupation of Alcatraz Island. Young Indians, particularly those attending colleges under the government’s Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) programs, began to see what could be accomplished through protest activities and media attention. Unlike the Black Power movement, the Red Power movement originally focused on nonviolent confrontation, such as the takeover of abandoned federal facilities. Once weapons and violent tactics were introduced, however, the Red Power movement was targeted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for elimination.
AIM rose to prominence in Red Power protests after the occupation of Alcatraz Island and exercised a great deal of influence in the movement. AIM protest activities and strategies moved through Indian communities via Indian social and kin networks, and through the “powwow circuit,” which passed information along to Indian families engaged in travel between the cities and reservations. Perhaps the most important factor was the manipulation of the news media—AIM leadership became particularly skillful at encouraging journalists to dramatize Indian problems and protests.
The involvement of urban Indian individuals and groups such as AIM in protest actions sited on reservations exacerbated tensions that already existed inside Indian communities. These tensions were not only between urban and reservation Indians, or between AIM and tribal governments, they also arose out of the political divisions on reservations themselves. All of these tensions became magnified as the activism of the 1970s progressed. The tone of protest became less celebratory and more violent. No single event of the Red Power movement era illustrated the combination of Indian grievances and community tensions more clearly than the events on the Pine Ridge reservation in the spring of 1973, a ten-week siege which came to be known as Wounded Knee.
The conflict at Wounded Knee, a small town on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, was both a high- and low-water mark for the American Indian Movement. In the spring of 1972, the BIA backed the questionable election of Richard “Dickey” Wilson as tribal chair of the Oglala Sioux Nation. Wilson practiced nepotism in allocating jobs and tribal funds, and, as a result, traditionalists had no voice in tribal government and were left jobless and destitute. They turned to AIM for support. Wilson offered a threat and a challenge to AIM leader Dennis Banks, stating that he would cut off Bank’s Indian hair braids if Banks set foot on the Pine Ridge reservation. By February 1973 a major confrontation was brewing, and by the end of the month armed Indians, aided by AIM, had occupied the reservation.
The goals of the occupation, as outlined by AIM leaders, included supporting the reformation of tribal government and bringing attention to Native American grievances. AIM leaders specifically wanted a hearing to take place concerning treaty violations by the U.S. government and the reinstitution of treaty making and treaty rights that had formally ended in 1871. Gunfire was exchanged between government forces and AIM security throughout the occupation. U.S. marshal Lloyd Grimm received an injury that paralyzed him from the waist down. A Cherokee Indian, Frank Clearwater, received a fatal wound while asleep on a cot in an occupied church. Lawrence Lamont, a Lakota resident of the Pine Ridge reservation, was shot and killed on April 26th. Following the two deaths, both sides agreed upon a tenuous cease-fire.
The U.S. government and the AIM leadership developed a series of proposals that were rejected by one side or the other. In late March an agreement was signed. The terms of the agreement stated that the Wounded Knee occupiers would agree to lay down their weapons, and Russell Means and any occupiers with outstanding warrants would be arrested. By May 8, 1973, the takeover had ended. Hunger, lack of electricity, low morale, and the inability to bring new Indian blood onto the Wounded Knee compound ultimately doomed the occupation, which lasted a total of seventy-one days. Many of the AIM members involved in Wounded Knee spent the next years in courtrooms, in hiding, or in prison as a result of that siege and the later 1975 shootout with FBI agents at the Jumping Bull compound.
Over four hundred people were arrested at Wounded Knee. Seven defendants were charged with major conspiracy and 127 were faced with charges of breaking and entering, larceny, conspiracy, and interfering with federal marshals. Ninety-seven persons were charged and tried in the tribal courts of the Oglala Sioux for riot or unlawful assembly as defined in the tribal code.
Following the Wounded Knee occupation, AIM leaders were either in prison or hiding in the United States or Canada. They had failed to develop a funding base, and, more importantly, caught up in the media frenzy surrounding them, they did not seek out or train a next generation of activists that could resurrect AIM and reinvigorate the Red Power movement.
The final blow to the American Indian Movement came in June 1975 when two FBI agents, Jack Coler and Ron Williams, entered the Jumping Bull compound on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. Coler and Williams were allegedly in pursuit of Jimmy Eagle, an Indian they were attempting to serve with a warrant in connection with the theft of a pair of cowboy boots. Driving an unmarked vehicle, Coler and Williams entered the compound where members of AIM, who had been invited by the Jumping Bull elders, were camped. For reasons that remain unclear, gunfire broke out. When the shooting ceased, Coler and Williams were dead, both shot through the head at close range. A young Indian named Joe Stuntz was also killed, shot by a sniper bullet. The government charged and convicted Leonard Peltier for the death of the two FBI agents.
The American Indian Movement as a unified national organization ceased to exist by the early twenty-first century. Competing incarnations under various versions of the name continued to advocate for the interests of American Indians, as did many of the original members and leaders of AIM.
See also Alcatraz Island, Seizure of; Banks, Dennis; Bellecourt, Clyde; Peltier, Leonard; Trail of Broken Treaties.
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