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American Indian Movement

Founded in July 1968 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the American Indian Movement (AIM) is an American Indian advocacy group organized to address issues related to sovereignty, leadership, and treaties. The American Indian Movement was viewed as a radical faction of the National Indian Youth Council, a pan-Indian organization founded in 1961. Founders of AIM included Mary Jane Wilson, Dennis Banks, Vernon Bellecourt, Clyde Bellecourt, and George Mitchell, while other activists like Russell Means worked with the organization prominently in the 1970s.

Particularly in its early years, AIM also protested racism and civil rights violations against Native Americans. During the 1950s, increasing numbers of American Indians had been forced to move away from reservations and tribal culture because of federal Indian termination policies intended to assimilate them into mainstream American culture. AIM staged a number of protest actions on historically significant sites of injustice and violence perpetrated by the federal government against Native Americans. These protests included the occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1970, protests at the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1972, the occupation of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1973, and the Longest Walk spiritual march from Alcatraz to Washington, DC to support tribal sovereignty and bring attention to anti-Indian legislation in 1978. AIM continues its work to the present day, speaking out against injustices and working to improve conditions for Native Americans.

These radical actions resulted in numerous criminal offenses, including murder. Radical protests by young Native Americans were fueled by disenchantment with the paternalistic nature of reservation life, the failure of the Federal policy of forced accommodation, and the commitment to return to Native American traditionalism and the rebirth of a distinct Native American tribal identity.

As national borders reached the Pacific Coast, the US government adopted a series of policies that sought to “Americanize” and “civilize” American Indians. During the 1800s, policymakers, social reformers, and religious groups developed programs to force minority groups to adopt European American cultural practices. They outlawed indigenous religious ceremonies and developed homesteading programs. Boarding schools, such as the Pipestone Indian School Superintendent’s House in Minnesota, taught American Indian children the English language and Christian faith.

Although Native Americans eventually gained citizenship, they received federal support for two more decades. In the 1950s, however, the Bureau of Indian Affairs terminated federal services and placed the responsibility for Native Americans on state governments. Between 1952 and 1956, the bureau also sold 1.6 million acres of Native American land to developers. Political protests by organizations such as the American Indian Movement (AIM) call attention to the chronic unemployment and political disenfranchisement of Native Americans.

Once Alcatraz Island became a prison, both military prisoners and civilians were incarcerated on the island. Among these were many American Indians. The largest single group of Indian prisoners sentenced to confinement on Alcatraz occurred in January 1895 when the U.S. government arrested, tried and shipped nineteen Moqui Hopi to Alcatraz Island. Indian people continued to be confined as prisoners in the disciplinary barracks on the island through the remainder of the 1800s and the early 1900s.

On November 30, 1969, Indian people once again came to Alcatraz Island when Richard Oakes, a Mohawk Indian, and a group of Indian supporters set out in a chartered boat, the Monte Cristo, to symbolically claim the island for the Indian people. In actuality, there were three separate occupations of Alcatraz Island, one on March 9, 1964, one on November 9, 1969, and the occupation which lasted nineteen months which began on the 20th of November, 1969. The 1964 occupation lasted for only four hours and was carried out by five Sioux, led by Richard McKenzie. This short occupation is significant because the demands for the use of the island for a cultural center and an Indian university would resurface almost word for word in the larger, much longer occupation of 1969.

Approximately 600 Indians, representing some 50 tribes, occupied Alcatraz Island, and they were forcefully removed a year and a half later. The November 9, 1969 occupation was planned by Richard Oakes, a group of Indian students, and a group of urban Indians from the Bay Area. Since many different tribes were represented, the name "Indians of All Tribes" was adopted for the group. They claimed the island in the name of Indians of all tribes and left the island to return later that same evening. In meetings following the November 9th occupation, Oakes and his fellow American Indian students realized that a prolonged occupation was possible. Oakes visited the American Indian Studies Center at UCLA where he recruited Indian students for what would become the longest prolonged occupation of a federal facility by Indian people to this very day. Eighty Indian students from UCLA were among the approximately 100 Indian people who occupied Alcatraz Island. It is important to remember that the occupation force was made up initially of young urban Indian college students.

AIM was there when United Indians of All Tribes reclaimed federal land in the name of Native Nations. First Indian radio broadcasts - Radio Free Alcatraz - were heard in the Bay Area of SanFrancisco. This act of protest, which lasted well into 1971, helped to usher in the Indian rights movement and give its leaders a platform on which to air centuries-old grievances.

They wanted the deed to the island, they wanted to establish an Indian university, a cultural center, and a museum. The government negotiators insisted that the occupiers could have none of these and insisted that they leave the island. By early 1970 the Indian organization began to fall into disarray. Additionally, many non-Indians now began taking up residency on the island, many from the San Francisco hippie and drug culture. The final blow to the organized leadership occurred on January 5, 1970, when Oakes's 13 year old stepdaughter fell three floors down a stairwell to her death. Following Yvonne's death, Oakes left the island and two competing groups maneuvered back and forth for leadership on the island.

While it appeared to those on the island that negotiations were actually taking place, in fact, the federal government was playing a waiting game, hoping that support for the occupation would subside and those on the island would elect to end the occupation. The government shut off all electrical power, and removed the water barge which had provided fresh water to the occupiers. Three days following the removal of the water barge, a fire broke out on the island. Several historic buildings were destroyed. On June 10, 1971, armed federal marshals, FBI agents, and special forces police swarmed the island and removed five women, four children, and six unarmed Indian men. The occupation was over.

As a result of the occupation, either directly or indirectly, the official government policy of termination of Indian tribes was ended and a policy of Indian self-determination became the official US government policy. The Nixon administration’s progressive stance on Indian affairs led to great strides in Federal policy towards tribal nations. On July 8, 1970, citing “centuries of injustice,” the Nixon administration introduced a landmark plan to reevaluate the Federal policy towards American Indians. In an effort to reverse policies such as forced termination and assimilation (which ironically had been established during his Vice Presidential years), President Richard Nixon moved in favor of a new national policy of Indian self-determination.

In a special message to Congress, President Nixon presented his plan to “to strengthen the Indian's sense of autonomy without threatening his sense of community.” His recommendations to Congress included: 1) Rejecting Termination; 2) The Right [of the Indians] to Control and Operate Federal Programs; 3) Restoring the Sacred Lands Near Blue Lake; 4) Improving Indian Education Standards; 5) Economic Development Legislation; 6) More Money for Indian Health; 7) Helping Urban Indians; 8) Establishing an Indian Trust Counsel Authority; and 9) Creating the position of Assistant Secretary for Indian and Territorial Affairs

In 1970 in the first National Conference, 18 chapters of AIM convened to developlong-range strategy for future directions of the movement. Twenty-five Native Americans gathered in Plymouth, Massachusetts on Thanksgiving Day 1970. The protesters wore traditional funeral clothes and convened in front of a statue of Massassoit, the Wampanoag Chief who aided colonists in 1621, and then buried Plymouth Rock under mounds of sand.

In November, 1972 AIM brought the Trail of Broken Treaties caravan of Native Nation representatives to Washington, DC, to the place where dealings with Indians have taken place since 1849: the US Department of Interior. AIM put a 20-point solution paper directly before the President of the United States, including restoration of treaty making (ended by Congress in 1871), and establishment of a treaty commission to make new treaties(with sovereign Native Nations).

Members of the American Indian Movement occupied a trading post at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, on the Pine Ridge Reservation, in February 1973. The conflict originated in an attempt to impeach the chairman of the Oglala Lakota Tribe. But as the tribe split into armed camps, tribal police and government, federal law enforcement, and many outside parties became involved. The siege lasted 71 days, resulted in the deaths of two Indians, and captured national media attention.

“The 1973 conflict at Wounded Knee involved a dispute within Pine Ridge’s Oglala Lakota Tribe over the controversial tribal chairman Richard Wilson. Wilson was viewed as a corrupt puppet of the BIA by some segments of the tribe, including those associated with the American Indian Movement. An effort to impeach Wilson resulted in a division of the tribe into opposing camps that eventually armed themselves and entered into a two-and-a-half month conflict that involved tribal police and government; AIM; reservation residents; federal law enforcement officials; 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 on both sides were wounded, including casualties among federal government forces.” —Alvin M. Josephy, Joane Nagel, and Troy Johnson, editors, Red Power: The American Indians’ Fight for Freedom, 1971

In 1974 eight months of trials in Minneapolis resulted from events which occurred during the 1973 Wounded Knee occupation. This was the longest Federal trial in the history of the United States. Many instances of government misconduct were revealed with the result that US District judge Fred Nichol dismissed all charges due to government "misconduct" which "formed a pattern throughout the course of the trial" so that "the waters of justice have been polluted."

Anna Mae Aquash was found dead in the Badlands on the Pine Ridge Reservation on Feb 24, 1976. She was a 1973 Wounded Knee participant and was closely associated with Mr. Peltier. Vern Bellecourt claims that AIM was infiltrated by FBI extremist informants in the Aquash case and bad-jacked Aquash as an informant, though the only people NFIC have found who thought Annie Mae was an informant were leadership, and other members of the American Indian Movement. Former FBI agent Norman Zigrossi in a November 2000, CBC - Fifth Estate special program says that Annie Mae was not working for the FBI as an informant. When asked how he knew, Zigrossi stated, “because he (the informant) was a friend of mine.”

The FBI officially and publicly ended its COINTELPRO operations on April 28, 1971. But FBI documents obtained by News From Indian Country [NFIC] from the FBI Reading Room in the capital indicate that in November of 1973 the FBI continued “COINTEL measures to further disrupt AIM leadership” which it had employed in its discredited former counterintelligence program. There is also ample evidence that many of the actions by the FBI in the 1970's across the country where less then lawfull.

In the 30 years of its formal history, the American Indian Movement (AIM) has givenwitness to a great many changes. We say formal history, because the movement existed for500 years without a name. The leaders and members of today's AIM never fail to rememberall of those who have traveled on before, having given their talent and their lives for thesurvival of the people.

At the core of the movement was Indian leadership under the direction ofNeeGawNwayWeeDun, Clyde H. Bellecourt, and others. Making steady progress, themovement has transformed policy making into programs and organizations that haveserved Indian people in many communities. These policies have consistently been made inconsultation with spiritual leaders and elders.The success of these efforts is indisputable, but perhaps even greater than the accomplishments is the vision defining what AIM standsfor.

In 1991, leaders of the Oglala Lakota, Cheyenne and other nations declared independence from the United States. The group established a provisional government - the Confederacy of the Black Hills - and began the other work of developing a separate nation. With the support of the Dakota communities, a great spiritual rebirth took place at Pipestone, Minnesota. Ojibwe nations, too, helped make the Minnesota Sundance possible. The Pipestone Sundance has since become an annual event.

Russell Means had lead roles in major feature films, such as The Last of the Mohican’s, Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, as a chief in John Candy’s comedy Wagons East and as the ghost of Jim Thorpe in Wind Runner. On 22 October 2012, Indian rights activist Russell Means died, after a magnificent life of struggle to better the lives of American Indians.

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Page last modified: 19-10-2017 15:20:23 ZULU