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American Indian Movement

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Autor:  anton  21 September 2010
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American Indian Movement: Activism and Repression

Native Americans have felt distress from societal and governmental interactions for hundreds of years. American Indian protests against these pressures date back to the colonial period. Broken treaties, removal policies, acculturation, and assimilation have scarred the indigenous societies of the United States. These policies and the continued oppression of the native communities produced an atmosphere of heightened tension. Governmental pressure for assimilation and their apparent aim to destroy cultures, communities, and identities through policies gave the native people a reason to fight. The unanticipated consequence was the subsequent creation of a pan-American Indian identity of the 1960s. These factors combined with poverty, racism, and prolonged discrimination fueled a resentment that had been present in Indian communities for many years. In 1968, the formation of the American Indian Movement took place to tackle the situation and position of Native Americans in society. This movement gave way to a series of radical protests, which were designed to draw awareness to the concerns of American Indians and to compel the federal government to act on their behalf. The movement's major events were the occupation of Alcatraz, Mount Rushmore, The Trail of Broken Treaties, and Wounded Knee II. These AIM efforts in the 1960s and 1970s era of protest contained many sociological theories that helped and hindered the Native Americans success. The Governments continued repression of the Native Americans assisted in the more radicalized approach of the American Indian Movement. Radical tactics combined with media attention stained the AIM and their effectiveness. Native militancy became a repertoire of action along with adopted strategies from the Civil Rights Movement. In this essay, I will explain the formation of AIM and their major events, while revealing that this identity based social movement's radical approach led to a harsher governmentally repressive counter movement that ultimately influenced the movements decline.

The growing pan-Indian activism that was becoming increasingly strong in regions of the United States helped develop the American Indian Movement. Educated young urban Indians were becoming involved in rights issues and insisted on self-determination in the 1960s era of protest. The Native Americans began to witness the lessons and accomplishments of the civil rights movement within the United States. "As civil rights issues and rhetoric dominated the headlines, some Indian groups adopted the vocabulary and techniques of African Americans in order to get Indian issues covered by the media and thus before the American public" (Johnson 31). In Minneapolis, Minnesota a large percentage of the native community complained about frequent harassment and brutality by local police forces. In an effort to address this issue, the formation of Indian patrol units took action by monitoring the activities of police in Indian neighborhoods. Eventually, three of these patrol leaders, Clyde Bellecourt, Dennis Banks, and George Mitchell organized the American Indian Movement in the summer of 1968. "Molded loosely after the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense established by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland, California, two years previously, the group took as its first tasks the protection of the city's sizable native community from a pattern of rampant police abuse and the creation of programs for jobs, housing, and education" (Churchill 243). The meeting by this group of individuals was to combat the local problems facing the native communities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. The original organization that emerged from these early planning sessions was named the Concerned Indians of America. A week after the name was revised due to the unfavorable acronym and converted to the American Indian Movement. The new name would become important for the actions they would later undertake, "[t]he name of this groupВ…was perfection itselfВ…it sounded authoritative and inclusiveВ…it suggested action, purpose, and forward motionВ…it was big, transcending the lesser world of committees" (Smith and Warrior 127). Shortly, after fulfilling local obligations the AIM began to address the state and national arenas. Indian youth from colleges, reservations and urban centers began to speak out against treatments they were receiving, while advocating self-government and autonomy. The AIM focus took a shift from socioeconomic discrimination against Indians towards the government's policies and programs. This identity based movement began to receive extreme support from returning Native American Vietnam veterans. "Why was I fighting to uphold a U.S. treaty commitment halfway around the world when the United States was violating its treaty commitments to my own people and about 300 other Indian Nations?" asked one Creek-Cherokee veteran. "I was fighting the wrong people, pure and simple" (Calloway 437). The ethically comprised members of the AIM started to raise their concerns through radical events to attract public and governmental action on their behalf.

The occupation of Alcatraz Island played a large role in establishing new methods in the Native Americans fight for recognition and change. As the growing identity was being formed in the indigenous society in the United States an event helped to fuel the Alcatraz occupation. On October 9th, of 1969 the American Indian Center in San Francisco burned down, which became a catalyst for the occupation of Alcatraz. "It had been a meeting place that served 30,000 Indian people with social programs. The loss of the center focuses Indian attention on taking over Alcatraz for the use as a new facility" (www.pbs.org). This destruction united Native American tribes, councils, and organizations throughout the country. Due to the vast array of representation, the planning committee of occupiers called themselves the "Indians of All Tribes." "In the early morning hours of 20 November 1969, eighty-nine American Indians landed on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay. These Indians of All Tribes claimed the island by "right of discovery" and by the terms of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, which gave Indians the right to unused federal property that had been previously been Indian land" (Johnson, Nagel, and Champagne 27). The occupants felt this site would be symbolic for the ships entering the area from across the world, while reminding them of our nations history and the great lands once ruled by the free Indians. This occupation stirred up media publicity and support as well as help from other indigenous organizations such as, the National Indian Youth Council and American Indian Movement. In December of 1969, members of AIM under the direction of Dennis Banks arrived at Alcatraz in assistance to the occupation. The knowledge and networking AIM received were instrumental to their direction and tactics in the following years. "After about two weeks, they return[ed] to Minneapolis bringing new ideas about confrontational activism and land seizers as a tool to confront the federal government's Indians policies" (www.pbs.org). The occupation of Alcatraz lasted for 19 months, which ended with governmental force by FBI agents and U.S. marshals. This native inspired event awakened the American public to the needs of Indian self-determination. "Additionally, the occupation of Alcatraz Island was a springboard for Indian activism, inspiring the large number of takeovers and demonstrations that began shortly after the 20 November 1969 landing and continued into the late 1970s" (Johnson, Nagel, and Champagne 32). The American Indian Movement's later events took a different approach in addressing governmental and societal recognition of Indian sovereignty and policies.

Following the occupation of Alcatraz Island, the AIM strategically protested Mount Rushmore in the summer of 1970 to evoke emotion to their cause. As participants from around the country were fueling this growing pan Indian identity, sites of demonstrations became a key repertoire to native action. The demonstration was designed to take place at Mount Rushmore due to the government's seizer of the Black Hills, which the Lakota Indians felt was in violation of the 1968 Treaty of Fort Laramie. Native representation was extremely high. "Protest powwows were held and picket lines were formed at the entrance to the Mount Rushmore memorial to advise visitors of the many injustices to the American Indians, specifically the illegal taking of the Black Hills from the Lakota. Approximately thirty protestors, including a traditional group called the Oglala Sioux Tribe, occupied the top of Mount Rushmore while an additional thirty-five, including representatives from the Indians of All Tribes, Inc., occupied the lower campground" (Johnson 227-8). Members of the American Indian Movement spoke in the amphitheater about the treaties and harsh repercussions Native Americans received from the United State Presidents; Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt. These actions scared off white tourists, which furthered the protest incentive. The AIM co-founder Russell Means displayed tactics on the mountain regarding the government's failure to hold up treaty obligations. "Every evening as darkness descended, I crawled out of my ledge to yell: "Listen, my children, HONOR THY FATHER AND MOTHERВ…THOU SHALT NOT STEAL." I went down all of the Ten Commandments, then added an eleventh: "THOU SHALT HONOR THY TREATIES" (Means and Wolf 170). This Native American protest persevered for several weeks and received national media attention from NBC. The demonstration ultimately ended due to combination of harsh weather conditions and armed forces of the U.S. Park Service. This radical style of protest would continue to be a developed strategy for the American Indian Movement in the 1970s.

The American Indian Movements "Trail of Broken Treaties" was a pursuit for the government's recognition on discrimination, sovereignty, and treaty rights. This protest event was designed to attract media attention to Native American concerns in the height of a presidential election. Under the direction of the AIM, large caravans of American Indians began forming and traveling towards Washington. "It was hoped that this march would be the Indian equivalent of the 1963 march by African-American activists" (Vine 46). As members of AIM ventured towards Washington, D.C. militant activity broke out within the group, which completely differentiated them from the Civil Rights march. Native Americans began to ransack stores along the way, "[e]verything that wasn't nailed went into someone's jacket or pants pocket. We did that with clear consciences: We were repossessing, in another form, that which had been taken from us" (Means and Wolf 225). The American Indian Movements original intent was to present Richard Nixon with a twenty-point referendum regarding the United States Indian relations, however this completely shifted in a radical direction. "The Twenty Points combined issues that aroused the passions of both the young, primarily urban American Indians who formed the core of protests, as well as appealing to the older, reservation based, traditional American Indians" (Sanchez and Stuckey 3). On November 3rd, the caravan of natives converged on the Bureau of Indian Affairs to address their issues to the government. Their written proposal addressed issues ranging from the abolition of the BIA to government subsidization for lost lands in treaty violations. Tensions and actions among the AIM members began to grow as; "Interior Department officials who had earlier pledged logistical support to caravan participants once they arrived in the capital reneged on their promises, apparently in the belief that this would cause the group to meekly disperse" (Churchill 246). This sparked the occupation of the BIA building by the movement participants, who evicted the staff, demolished the walls, and confiscated confidential BIA files. The United States government became distraught when, "Russell Means, in fine form, captured the front page of the nation's newspapers and the six o'clock news by conducting a press conference in front of the building, while adorned with a makeshift "war club" and a "shield" fashioned from a portrait of Nixon himself" (Churchill 246). The administration was anxious to end this because of the negative publicity and promised to look over the AIM referendum, while compensating the participants for travel expenses back to Minneapolis. The Native Americans headed back to their homes with a positive attitude, however neither of their points would be addressed in the up coming years. Following BIA takeover, the FBI began to take a closer look at the American Indian Movement, which would ultimately lead to the decline of their radical tactics and leadership.

The American Indian Movements seizer at Wounded Knee in 1973 resulted in a governmentally endorsed counter movement to tackle the participant's militant strategies. In 1973, tensions at the historical battle site of Wounded Knee proliferated between the tribal administrator Richard Wilson's tribal ranger group the "Guardians of the Oglala Nation" and members of the reservation in support of AIM. This governmentally funded police unit was potentially affiliated with the murder of a Lakota Indian named Wesley Bad Heart Bull. Pressures began to grow greater in this area when Darld Schmitz went on trial for the murder, "[a]lthough he admitted having killed Wesley Bad Heart Bull, an all-white jury found him not guilty of manslaughter" (Means and Wolf 248). The Pine Ridge Reservation elders requested the AIM support in an effort to protect them under the brutality of Wilson. Members of the Oglala Nation at Pine Ridge supported an AIM stance to take action to the rising hostilities in the area. On February 27th, a group of nearly three hundred armed AIM members and allies left Pine Ridge and headed to Wounded Knee, where they occupied the village. This radical demonstration in hope of desired media attention was quickly met with defiant governmental intervention. "The occupiers were surrounded by three hundred federal marshals and FBI agents equipped with armored personnel carriers, M-16s, automatic infantry weapons, chemical weapons, steel helmets, gas masks, body armor, illuminating flares, military clothing, and almost unlimited rations" (Johnson 236). The government burned the outlying area at Wounded Knee in an attempt to stop the flow of supplies and ammunition. After a brutal governmental campaign, the seize of this historical battle site ended seventy-one days later. "More than 500,000 rounds of military ammunition were fired into AIM's jerry-rigged "bunkers" by federal forces, killing two Indians-an Apache named Frank Clearwater and Buddy Lamont, an Oglala" (Churchill 249). The end of the standoff was negotiated between the two sides on May 7th, 1973. The United States government promised at a meeting with the native community that their grievances would be addressed, however no further meeting occurred. Governmental counter movement tactics to repress the AIM objective of recognition by action quickly shifted to the legal arena.

In the three years following Wounded Knee, federal government methods of repression dramatically effected AIM members and affiliates. Shortly after this incident, the FBI made repeated arrests, surveillances, and harassments against AIM leaders and supporters on the Pine Ridge Reservation. "[T] he had made 562 arrests of those who had been involved in defending Wounded Knee. Russell Means was in jail awaiting release on $150,000 bond; OSCRO leader Pedro Bissonette was held against $152,000; AIM leaders Stan Holder and Leonard Crow Dog were held against $32,000 and $35,000, respectively" (Churchill 250). These legal actions of arrest, incarcerations, hearings, and trails tied up virtually all of the American Indian Movements leadership. The movement began to break up and falter due to the litigation processes and the financial means required for mounting legalized defenses. The federal government continued to ignore actions and assaults by Wilson's patrol units and citizens against Native Americans. "During the period between 1973 and 1976, 61 homicides among AIM supporters are reported; many never investigated" (www.pbs.org). The government's legal interaction caused the relationship and direction of the American Indian Movement to shift downward, ultimately weakening their radical militant approach.

The Native American community within the United States has been subject to governmental repression for hundreds of years. In the 1960s, a growing pan-Indian identity was being formed, which fueled the optimistic perception for Native Americans desire to change their societal positioning. This growing necessity to address governmental inadequacies sparked the formation of the American Indian Movement in the summer of 1968. The movements early occupation with other native participants at Alcatraz, led to the AIM repertoire of confrontational activism at strategically located sites across the country. AIM's first radically approached land seizer was Mount Rushmore in 1970, which received repressive action from the armed U.S. Park Service. Sociological theory explains, "[s] trategies of repression also influence repertoires of action. [H] arsher policing techniques tended to discourage peaceful mass protest and at the same time encourage radical fringes of protest" (Della Porta and Diani 211). In 1972, the AIM organized a national campaign to address governmental polices and implementations with their "Trail of Broken Treaties". This radical militant takeover of the BIA building ultimately ended with government's failure to address the AIM referendum and their deeper effort to demobilize the movement. In 1973, with pressures from federally compensated police units, the AIM members occupied the historic battle site of Wounded Knee. This tactical maneuver was quickly responded by a federally sponsored counter movement, which led to a seventy-one day siege. Following the event hundreds of AIM members and participants faced legal actions. This government intervention culminated the end of AIM radical militant demonstrations, due to the financial repercussions and loss of direction. The AIM radicalized activism evoked a governmentally repressive stance that dismantled the movement's solidarity and militant tactics.

Works Cited

Calloway, Colin G. First Peoples: A Documentary Survey of American Indian History.

Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's. 1999.

Churchill, Ward. "The Bloody Wake of Alcatraz: Political Repression of the American

Indian Movement during the 1970s." American Indian Culture and Research Journal 18.4 (1994): 242-64.

Della Porta, Donatella, and Mario Diani. Social Movements: An Introduction.

Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1999.

Johnson, Troy R. The Occupation of Alcatraz Island: Indian Self-Determination and the

Rise of Indian Activism. Chicago: University of Illinois Press. 1996.

Johnson, Troy, Joane Nagel, and Duane Champagne. American Indian Activism:

Alcatraz to the Longest Walk. Chicago: University of Illinois Press. 1997.

Means, Russell, and Marvin J. Wolf. Where White Men Fear To Tread.

New York: St. Martin's Press. 1995.

PBS. Alcatraz is Not an Island: Timeline of Indian Activism.

PBS Online. 1 Dec. 2004 .

Sanchez, John and Mary E. Stuckey. "The rhetoric of American Indian activism in the

1960s and 1970s." Communication Quarterly 48.2 (2000): 1-9.

Smith, Paul Chaat, and Robert Allen Warrior. Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement

from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee. New York: W.W. Norton. 1996.

Vine, Deloria. Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties: An Indian Declaration of

Independence. Austin: University of Texas Press. 1985.



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