The Founding of the American Indian Movement & Early History
Fed up with the continued refusal of the United States government to honor treaty obligations with various tribes, coupled with grinding poverty on Indian reservations, a group of Indians gathered in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1968 to found the American Indian Movement (AIM). The organization originally focused only on urban Indians and the poverty and police oppression that they were facing. Later, AIM would include the plight of all Indians everywhere in the US. Their expanded agenda would include: more political autonomy from the federal government, economic independence, full payment of royalties for revenues from natural resources, cultural preservation, and the creation of self-sustaining economic endeavors.
The founding members of what was to become the American Indian Movement were Dennis Banks, Clyde Bellecourt, Eddie Benton-Banai, and George Mitchell. Later, the newly founded organization welcomed a Lakota Indian named Russell Means. For most of the organization's history, Means was often the spokesman for AIM and gained a reputation for being controversial and outspoken. When a Lakota ranch-hand in Gordon, Nebraska was killed by a group of young White men in February, 1972, Means publicly called Nebraska a 'racist state' and called the killing of Indians in the Cornhusker state 'a favorite sport.'
This kind of rhetoric typifies the period of US history known as The Protest Era of the 1960's. It was a period of social upheaval that has rarely been equaled in our national experience. A number of organizations were founded, such as SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), a radical student movement led by Tom Hayden. Similarly, the Free Speech Movement arose from conflicts on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley, led by Mario Savio. The Black Panther Party, founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland, California was the organization most responsible for influencing the creation of AIM. It was unlikely that AIM would have begun unless it was within the context of a wider protest and reform movement.
Protest Events of AIM: Timeline
It would be impossible to note every protest event AIM was involved in within this accounting. Instead, the timeline below focuses on major events of public note:
1964 - 1st Occupation of Alcatraz Prison - Six Lakota Indian men occupied what was once the famous Alcatraz Prison in San Francisco Bay, CA. They claimed that under the Ft. Laramie Treaty of 1868, any unused federal land would have to revert back to the Indians. A much larger occupation took place in 1969 and lasted for 19 months. It was lead by Richard Oaks and others. On June 11, 1971, 20 armed federal marshals removed the remaining occupants. It was considered AIM's first major protest event.
1972 - The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder - In February of 1972, a local ranch-hand was kidnapped by a group of five White residents of Gordon, Nebraska. They beat him, stripped him naked below the waist, and forced him into a local bar. Eventually, he was found dead six days later in the cab of his truck. AIM sent Russell Means and others (at the request of Nebraska AIM leaders) to the town, which they occupied and staged a mock trial, highlighting the area's discrimination against Indian residents. In the actual trial held later, two White men were found guilty of manslaughter, but were released from prison within a few years.
1972 - The Trail of Broken Treaties - March on Washington - AIM was successful in organizing a march on Washington, DC, along with eight other Indian organizations such as the National Indian Youth Council and the Native American Rights Fund. They formed a caravan of vans, cars, and other vehicles and drove across the US. Arriving in Washington, DC in November, just before the presidential election, they sought to present a list of 21 grievances to President Richard M. Nixon. Nixon refused to meet with them. As a result, they forcibly occupied the headquarters of the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs, a federal agency that assists the nation's Indians) and ransacked it, opening file cabinets and destroying files. The event garnered national news coverage.
1973 - The Occupation of Wounded Knee, SD - A year after the death of Yellow Thunder (on February 27, 1973), a group of 200 armed Indians seized control of a trading post, a Catholic church, and a museum, ironically located near the grave site of the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890. FBI agents and others were dispatched quickly to form a perimeter around the reservation. Both Dennis Banks and Russell Means told authorities they would not leave until they were allowed to present a list of grievances to the federal government. The occupation ended after 71 days, when a peace was brokered by federal agents. The event gained worldwide attention and support. It is considered by many to be the most significant event organized by AIM.
Summary & Conclusion
The American Indian Movement was part of a much larger protest movement prevalent during the decade of the 1960's. AIM's original focus was local, only concerning Indians in the Minneapolis area, but later widened to include Native Americans in the entire nation. Major protest events were at the center of AIM's activities and were often confrontational and even violent. The American Indian Movement still exists today. You can visit their website at http://www.aimovement.org/. It should come as not surprise that public protests are still a large part of their focus.
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