American Indian Movement

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American Indian Movement

Founded in 1968, the American Indian Movement (AIM) is an organization dedicated to the Native American civil rights movement. Its main objectives are the sovereignty of Native American lands and peoples; preservation of their culture and traditions; and enforcement of all treaties with the United States.

Despite the straightforwardness of its stated objectives, AIM's reputation had been seriously harmed by well-publicized and controversial incidents of law-breaking, Vandalism, and violence, resulting in the organization's peak and decline within a few years. Significant historical events include AIM's hostile occupation of Alcatraz Island (1969); the "Trail of Broken Treaties" march on Washington, D.C. (1971); occupation of Wounded Knee (1973); and the Pine Ridge shootout of 1975, which resulted in the controversial arrest and imprisonment of the most famous AIM member, Leonard Peltier. Following these events, the organization's visibility and viability as a political force greatly declined.


Prior to the formation of AIM, issues involving U.S. Indian–non-Indian relations had largely faded away. Starting in the 1950s, the U.S. government had embarked on a serious policy plan to terminate its responsibilities to Native Americans pursuant to extant treaties and agreements. This action included the relocation of thousands of reservation Indians to urban areas and the termination of federal duties to two major tribes, the Menominee of Wisconsin and the Klamath of Oregon. (Federal rights were restored to both a few years later.) However, by the 1970s, relocation as well as termination policies were all but abandoned.

A number of problems arose when Native Americans left the reservations and intermingled with local towns, where Native Americans allegedly caused and/or became parties to local disturbances or crimes. Moreover, after World War II and the Korean War, many Native Americans who had served in the armed forces no longer wanted to return to stereotypical Indian lifestyles. As more intermingling and merging occurred, other Native Americans became increasingly intent on searching for their cultural roots and maintaining their ethnic identities. They vowed not to be assimilated and thus their views paralleled the ideals of other civil rights movements of the era. The most radical elements to emerge from these militant Native American groups ultimately formed the AIM, which was intended as an indigenous version of the Black Panther Party.

During the summer of 1968, about 200 members of the Native American community in urban Minneapolis, Minnesota, met to discuss various issues, including slum housing, alleged police brutality, unemployment, and alleged discriminatory policies involving the local county's Welfare system. The group had been impressed with media coverage of the Black Panther policy of monitoring routine police interrogations or arrests and adopted similar tactics.

From the beginning, the group stirred controversy in seeking attention. Mobilizing in different cities and gaining momentum, it employed increasingly negative tactics such as holding an "anti-birthday party" for the United States atop Mt. Rushmore on the Fourth of July, painting Plymouth Rock bright red on Thanksgiving Day 1970, and seizing the Mayflower replica. All of these actions served to alienate many would-be sympathizers. However, AIM did get the media attention it desired, which seemed only to spawn further controversy. When the group organized a hostile occupation of Alcatraz Island off the coast of California, AIM finally became a force to be reckoned with, however so briefly.


On November 9, 1969, a group of Native American supporters, led by Mohawk Richard Oakes, chartered a boat and set out to symbolically claim the island of Alcatraz for "Indians of all tribes." By November 20, the gesture had turned into a full-scale occupation that ultimately became the longest prolonged occupation by Native Americans of a federal facility or federal property.

Early use of Alcatraz Island by indigenous peoples is difficult to reconstruct. Ancient oral histories seem to support the view that at one time Alcatraz was used as a place of isolation for tribal members who had violated some tribal law or taboo and were exiled or ostracized for punishment. Earlier or concurrently, the island changed hands several times during Spanish and Portuguese explorations, but ultimately it became federal property and in time became the site of the infamous federal prison once operated there.

Many of the Indian occupiers of November 1969 were students recruited by Oakes from UCLA, who returned with Oakes to Alcatraz and began to live on the island in old federal buildings. They ran a school and daycare center, and began delivering local radio broadcasts that could be heard in the San Francisco Bay area.

Initially, the federal government placed an effective barricade around the island and insisted that the group leave; it did, however, agree to an Indian demand for formal negotiations. The talks accomplished nothing, however, as the Indian group insisted on a deed and clear title to the island. The group continued occupation and the federal government insisted they depart but took no aggressive action to remove them. Officially, the government adopted a position of non-interference and hoped that support for the occupation would fade. The FBI and Coast Guard were under strict orders to remain clear of the island and media attention began to dwindle.

The occupation continued all through 1970, but by this time, internal problems among the indigenous group caused the occupation to lose momentum. Student recruits left to return to classes at UCLA and were replaced by urban recruits, many of whom had been part of the San Francisco drug and hippie culture of the time. Several rose in opposition to Oakes's leadership on the island, and Oakes ultimately left after his teenaged stepdaughter fell to her death in a building stairwell.

After several months of hostile occupation, the federal government shut off electric power to the island and removed the water barge that had been supplying fresh water to the occupiers. A fire broke out, and both sides blamed the other for the loss of several historic buildings. Splintered leadership on the island resulted in the loss of a common voice with which to negotiate with the government. When the occupiers began stripping the remaining buildings of copper wiring and tubing, the press turned on them and began publishing stories of assaults, drugs, violence, and the trial of three Indians found guilty of selling 600 pounds of copper.

With government patience growing thin, then-president richard nixon finally approved a peaceful removal plan, to be conducted with as little force as possible and when the least number of people were on the island. On June 10, 1971, FBA agents, armed federal marshals, and special forces police removed five women, four children, and six unarmed men from the island.

Trail of Broken Treaties

In November 1971, AIM organized what it called the Trail of Broken Treaties, a march on Washington, D.C., involving approximately 1,000 angry Native Americans. It ended with the occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) headquarters. After taking over the offices, AIM protesters seized large numbers of files from the BIA offices and caused over $2 million in damages to the trashed building. They also presented President Nixon with 20 demands for immediate action. The Nixon administration provided $66,000 in transportation monies in return for a peaceful end to the takeover. It also agreed to appoint a Native American to a BIA post. Again, the real success for AIM was in getting some media attention and in heightening public awareness of unresolved Indian issues.

Wounded Knee

The tiny village of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, is the historic site of an infamous 1890 massacre of Native Americans (the last) by the U.S. Cavalry. The original site and burial ground became part of the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in that state.

In 1973, about 200 members of the local Oglala Lakota Indians, led by AIM members, seized the village of Wounded Knee (a Catholic church, trading post, and post office) and declared it to be an independent nation. Their single demand was the return of the Great Sioux Nation (a sovereign parcel of real estate comprising the entire western half of South Dakota) allegedly promised to them by the United States in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868.

Just prior to this development, on the nearby Pine Ridge reservation, tribal council president Dick Wilson (a Native American) had secured a tribal council order prohibiting AIM members from attending or speaking at reservation meetings or public gatherings. He considered AIM members to be lawless misfits bent on agitating the populace. AIM members, in return, accused Wilson of nepotism, corruption, and mismanagement of tribal monies. A group of Wilson supporters, locally referred to as the "goon squad," began harassing and threatening AIM members. The Lakota Indians invited AIM to meet with their group, and both decided to take a stand at Wounded Knee. At this point, the federal government, including the BIA, remained neutral, claiming the stand-off was an internal tribal dispute.

However, when AIM occupiers built fortifications and took up arms and munitions, both Wilson and the federal government (FBI, u.s. marshals, and BIA police) moved in. In the well-publicized 71-day occupation that followed, two AIM members were killed. Ultimately, AIM leaders negotiated a "peace pact" with the government stipulating that the activists would be treated fairly and that the federal government would conduct a fair review of several treaties.

Although the immediate stand-off was defused, tensions between Wilson's goon squad and AIM members continued over the next several years. Dozens of AIM members, including early founding members Russell Means and dennis banks, were indicted on dozens of charges related to the Wounded Knee standoff, but the charges were ultimately dropped when a federal judge acknowledged spurious activity and involvement by the FBI.

Pine Ridge

Wilson's tribal leadership at the Pine Ridge reservation was reportedly federally sanctioned and supported. Allegations arose at the trials of AIM members that goon squad members were paid with BIA monies and that many of the members were in fact off-duty BIA police. Several murders occurred on the reservation and were never fully investigated. For its part, the FBI maintained that it was an investigatory rather than enforcement agency, a position that further exacerbated the regional tension and fear.

In June 1975, two FBI agents in an unmarked car and clad in civilian clothes chased a pickup truck into an isolated area near an AIM encampment. During the resulting shootout, the two FBI agents were shot and killed, along with one Indian activist. Over the next several days, over 300 FBI agents swarmed the reservation, followed by officers making dozens of arrests and prosecutions. Ultimately, AIM activist Leonard Peltier was tried and convicted for his role in the FBI killings, receiving two life sentences. His trial and conviction remained shrouded with allegations of suppressed evidence, coerced witnesses, and a fabricated murder weapon.

Later Years

Following the Pine Knee incident, AIM declined rapidly in both leadership and momentum. It held its last national unified event in 1978 and the following year dismantled as a national organization, in favor of independent regional chapters. Russell Means and Dennis Banks were in and out of court for years defending their leadership roles in the 1973 and 1975 shootouts. Eventually, both were acquitted of all significant charges. Dennis Banks went on to found another Indian organization, the Sacred Run, devoted to spiritual renewal and environmental issues. As of 2003, Russell Means was campaigning for governor of New Mexico on an independent party ticket. Leonard Peltier remained in prison; his next Parole review was scheduled for 2008. The FBI still refused to release nearly 6,000 pages of documents on Peltier, being withheld on grounds of "national security."

In 1978, Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA)(42 U.S. C.A. § 1996), designed to review and update federal policies regarding such matters as Native Americans' right to access sacred grounds and legal rights to practice their traditional religions. Reviews and recommendations were made. Pursuant to this action, Congress in 1990 passed the native american graves protection and repatriation act, Public L. No. 101-601, 104 Stat. 3048, but in that same year, the U.S. Supreme Court reiterated its 1988 ruling that AIRFA was a policy statement and not law, and as such, there was no legal right to the protection of sacred sites or the religious use of peyote in the Native American religion. Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protection Association, 483 U.S. 439, 107 S. Ct. 2924, 97 L. Ed. 2d 364 (1988). New sacred land protection legislation was again introduced in 2002 and was still pending in early 2003.

Further readings

Churchill, Ward. 1997. "A Force, Briefly, To Reckon With." Progressive (June).

Johnson, Troy. "We Hold the Rock: The American Indian Occupation of Alcatraz Island." Indians of North America. Long Beach: California State Univ. Press.

Marshall, Joseph M., III, and Sicangu Lakota. 2000. "Wounded Knee Takover, 1973." Encyclopedia of North American Indians. Houghton Mifflin.

Oswalt, Wendell H., and Sharlotte Neely. 1994. This Land Was Theirs. 5th ed. Mountain View, Calif.: Mayfield."Russell Means for Governor." Available online at <> (accessed May 30, 2003).

Singer, Daniel. 1994. "Free Peltier!" Nation (July 18).


Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990; Native American Rights.

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