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The American Indian Movement (AIM) is a Native American advocacy group in the United States, founded in 1968 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with an agenda that focuses on spirituality, leadership, and sovereignty. The founders included Dennis Banks, George Mitchell, Herb Powless, Clyde Bellecourt, Harold Goodsky, Eddie Benton-Banai, and a number of others in the Minneapolis Native American community. Russell Means, born Oglala Lakota, was an early leader in 1970s protests.
The organization was formed to address various issues concerning the Native American urban community in Minneapolis, including poverty, housing, treaty issues, and police harassment. From its beginnings in Minnesota, AIM soon attracted members from across the United States and Canada. It participated in the Rainbow Coalition organized by the civil rights activist Fred Hampton. Charles Deegan Sr. was involved with the AIM Patrol.
In October 1971, AIM gathered members from across the country to a protest in Washington, D.C. known as the "Trail of Broken Treaties". AIM gained national attention when it seized the Bureau of Indian Affairs national headquarters and presented a 20-point list of demands to the federal government. In 1973, it led a 71-day armed standoff with federal forces at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
In the decades since AIM's founding, the group has led protests advocating indigenous American interests, inspired cultural renewal, monitored police activities, and coordinated employment programs in cities and in rural reservation communities across the United States. AIM has often supported indigenous interests outside the United States as well. By 1993, AIM had split into two main factions, with the AIM-Grand Governing Council based in Minneapolis and affirming its right to use the name and trademarks for affiliated chapters.
Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson both made efforts to reform the damage done to Indian nations. On March 6, 1968, Johnson signed Executive Order 11399, establishing the National Council on Indian Opportunity (NCIO). President Johnson said “the time has come to focus our efforts on the plight of the American Indian,” and NCIO’s formation would “launch an undivided, Government-wide effort in this area.” While knowing little of the American Indian issues, Johnson tried to connect the nation’s trust responsibility to the tribes and nations to civil rights, an area with which he was much more familiar.
In Congress, the Democratic chairman of the House Subcommittee on Indian Affairs, James Haley from Florida, supported Indian rights; for example, he thought Indians should participate more in “policy matters,” but “the right of self-determination is in the Congress as a representative of all the people.” In the 1960s Haley met with presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and pressed for Indian self-determination and control in transactions over land. One struggle was over the long-term leasing of American Indian land. Non-Indian businesses and banks said they could not invest in leases of 25 years, even with generous options, as the time was too short for land-based transactions. Relieving the long-term poverty on most reservations through business partnerships by leasing land was seen as infeasible. A return to the 19th century 99-year leases was seen as a possible solution. But, an Interior Department memo said, “a 99-year lease is in the nature of a conveyance of the land.” These battles over land had their beginnings in the 1870s when federal policy often related to wholesale taking, not leases. In the 1950s, many Native Americans believed that leases were too frequently a way for outsiders to control Indian land.
Wallace "Mad Bear" Anderson was a Tuscarora leader in New York in the 1950s. He struggled to resist the New York City planner Robert Moses' plan to take tribal land in upstate New York for use in a state hydropower project to supply New York City. The struggle ended in a bitter compromise.
As had civil rights and antiwar activists, AIM used the American press and media to present its message to the United States public. It created events to attract the press. If successful, news outlets would seek out AIM spokespersons for interviews. Rather than relying on traditional lobbying efforts, AIM took its message directly to the American public. Its leaders looked for opportunities to gain publicity. Sound bites such as the "AIM Song" became associated with the movement.
During ceremonies on Thanksgiving Day 1970 to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth Rock, AIM seized the replica of the Mayflower in Boston. In 1971, members occupied Mount Rushmore for a few days, as it was created in the Black Hills of South Dakota, long sacred to the Lakota. This area was within the Great Sioux Reservation as created by the US Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868. After the discovery of gold, the federal government took the land in 1877 and sold it for mining and settlement to European Americans.
Also in 1971, AIM began to highlight and protest problems with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), which administered programs and land trusts for Native Americans. The group briefly occupied BIA headquarters in Washington, DC. A brief arrest, reversal of charges for “unlawful entry” and a meeting with Louis Bruce, the Mohawk/Lakota BIA Commissioner, ended AIM's first event in the capital. In 1972, activists marched across country on the "Trail of Broken Treaties" and took over the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), occupying it for several days and doing millions of dollars in damage.
AIM developed a 20-point list to summarize its issues with federal treaties and promises, which they publicized during their occupation in 1972. Twelve points addressed treaty responsibilities which the protesters believed the U.S. government had failed to fulfill:
In 1973 AIM was invited to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to help gain justice from border counties' law enforcement and to moderate political factions on the reservation. They became deeply involved and led an armed occupation of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1973. Other events during the 1970s were designed to achieve the goal of gaining public attention. They ensured AIM would be noticed to highlight what they saw as the erosion of Indian rights and sovereignty.
"the longest walk" (1978) was an AIM-led spiritual walk across the country to support tribal sovereignty and bring attention to 11 pieces of anti-Indian legislation; AIM believed that the proposed legislation would have abrogated Indian Treaties, quantified and limited water rights, etc. The first walk began on February 11, 1978, with a ceremony on Alcatraz Island, where a Sacred Pipe was loaded with tobacco. The Pipe was carried the entire distance. This 3,200-mile (5,100 km)-Walk's purpose was to educate people about the US government's continuing threat to Tribal Sovereignty; it rallied thousands representing many Indian Nations throughout the United States and Canada. Traditional spiritual leaders from many tribes participated, leading traditional ceremonies. International spiritual leaders, primarily from Japan, also supported the Walk.
On July 15, 1978, "The Longest Walk" entered Washington, D.C., with several thousand Indians and a number of non-Indian supporters. The traditional elders led them to the Washington Monument, where the Pipe carried across the country was smoked. Over the following week, they held rallies at various sites to address issues: the 11 pieces of legislation, American Indian political prisoners, forced relocation at Big Mountain, the Navajo Nation, etc. Non-Indian supporters included the American boxer Muhammad Ali, US Senator Ted Kennedy and the actor Marlon Brando. The US Congress voted against a proposed bill to abrogate treaties with Indian Nations. During the week after the activists arrived, Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, which allowed them the use of peyote in worship. President Jimmy Carter refused to meet with representatives of The Longest Walk.
Thirty years later, AIM led the Longest Walk 2, which arrived in Washington in July 2008. This 8,200-mile (13,200 km)-walk had started from the San Francisco Bay area. The Longest Walk 2 had representatives from more than 100 American Indian nations, and other indigenous participants, such as Maori. It also had non-indigenous supporters. The walk highlighted the need for protection of American Indian sacred sites, tribal sovereignty, environmental protection and action to stop global warming. Participants traveled on either the Northern Route (basically that of 1978) or the Southern Route. Participants crossed a total of 26 states on the two different routes.
The Northern Route was led by veterans of that action. The walkers used Sacred staffs to represent their issues; the group supported the protection of sacred sites of indigenous peoples, traditional tribal sovereignty, issues related to native prisoners, and the protection of children. They also commemorated the 30th anniversary of the original Longest Walk.
Walkers along the Southern Route picked up more than 8,000 bags of garbage on their way to Washington. In Washington, the Southern Route delivered a 30-page manifesto, "The Manifesto of Change", and a list of demands, including mitigation for climate change, a call for environmental sustainability plans, protection of sacred sites, and renewal of improvement to Native American sovereignty and health.
AIM's leaders spoke out against injustices against their peoples, as had the African-American leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. AIM leaders talked about high unemployment, slum housing, and racist treatment, fought for treaty rights and the reclamation of tribal land, and advocated on behalf of urban Indians.
With its provocative events and advocacy for Indian rights, AIM attracted scrutiny from the Department of Justice (DOJ). The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) used paid informants to report on AIM’s activities and its members.
In February 1973, AIM leaders Russell Means and Dennis Banks worked with Oglala Lakota people and AIM activists to occupy the small Indian community of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, on the Pine Ridge Reservation. They were protesting its corrupt government, federal issues, and the lack of justice from border counties. The FBI dispatched agents and US Marshals to cordon off the site. Later a higher-ranking DOJ representative took control of the US government's response. Through the resulting siege that lasted for 71 days, twelve people were wounded, including an FBI agent left paralyzed; in April a Cherokee and a Lakota activist died of gunfire (at this point, the Oglala Lakota called an end to the occupation.) Afterward, 1200 American Indians were arrested. Wounded Knee drew international attention to the plight of American Indians. AIM leaders were tried in a Minnesota federal court. The court dismissed their case on the basis of governmental prosecutorial misconduct.
AIM opposes national and collegiate sports teams using figures of indigenous people as mascots and team names, such as the Cleveland Indians, the Atlanta Braves, the Chicago Blackhawks, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Washington Redskins, and has organized protests at World Series and Super Bowl games against these teams. Protesters held signs with slogans such as "Indians are people not mascots," or "Being Indian is not a character you can play."
Although sports teams had ignored such requests by individual tribes for years, AIM received attention in the mascot debate. NCAA schools such as Florida State University, University of Utah, University of Illinois and Central Michigan University have negotiated with the tribes whose names or images they had used for permission for continued use and to collaborate on portraying the mascot in a way that supposedly honors Native Americans.
AIM has been committed to improving conditions faced by native peoples. It founded institutions to address needs, including the Heart of The Earth School, Little Earth Housing, International Indian Treaty Council, AIM StreetMedics, American Indian Opportunities and Industrialization Center (one of the largest Indian job training programs), KILI radio, and Indian Legal Rights Centers.
In 1970, several members of AIM, including Dennis Banks and Russell Means, traveled to Mt. Rushmore. They converged at the mountain in order to protest the illegal seizure of the Sioux Nation’s sacred Black Hills in 1877 by the United States federal government, in violation of its earlier 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie. The protest began to publicize the issues of the American Indian Movement. In 1980, the US Supreme Court ruled that the federal government had illegally taken the Black Hills. The government offered financial compensation, but the Oglala Sioux have refused it, insisting on return of the land to their people. The settlement money is earning interest.
In 1972, Raymond Yellow Thunder, a 51-year-old Oglala Lakota from Pine Ridge Reservation, was murdered in Gordon, Nebraska, by two brothers, Leslie and Melvin Hare, younger white men. After their trial and conviction, the Hares received the minimal sentence for manslaughter. Members of AIM went to Gordon to protest the sentencing, as it was part of a pattern of law enforcement in border counties that did not provide justice to Native Americans. In the winter of 1973, Wesley Bad Heart Bull, a Lakota, was stabbed to death at a bar in South Dakota by Darrell Schmitz, a white male. The offender was jailed, but released on a $5000 bond and charged with second degree manslaughter. In protest of the charges, a group of AIM members and leaders from Pine Ridge Reservation and leaders went to the county seat of Custer, South Dakota, to meet with the prosecutor. Police in riot gear allowed only four people to enter the county courthouse. The talks were not successful, and tempers rose over the police treatment; AIM activists caused $2 million in damages by attacking and burning the Custer Chamber of Commerce building, the courthouse, and two patrol cars. Many of the AIM demonstrators were arrested and charged; numerous people served sentences, including the mother of Wesley Bad Heart Bull.
In addition to the problems of violence in the border towns, many traditional people at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation were unhappy with the government of Richard Wilson, elected in 1972. When their effort to impeach him in February 1973 failed, they met to plan protests and action. Many people on the reservation were unhappy about its longstanding poverty and failures of the federal government to live up to its treaties with Indian nations. The women elders encouraged the men to act. On February 27, 1973, about 300 Oglala Lakota and AIM activists went to the hamlet of Wounded Knee for their protest. It developed into a 71-day siege, with the FBI cordoning off the area by using US Marshals and later National Guard units. The occupation was symbolically held at the site of the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre. The Oglala Lakota demanded a revival of treaty negotiations to begin to correct relations with the federal government, the respect of their sovereignty, and the removal of Wilson from office. The American Indians occupied the Sacred Heart Church, the Gildersleeve Trading Post and numerous homes of the village. Although periodic negotiations were held between AIM spokesman and U.S. government negotiators, gunfire occurred on both sides. A US Marshal, Lloyd Grimm, was wounded severely and paralyzed. In April, a Cherokee from North Carolina and a Lakota AIM member were shot and killed. The elders ended the occupation then.
After about a month, the Department of Justice excluded the press from access to Wounded Knee. (Before that, they were frequently interviewing Indian spokesmen and the event was receiving international coverage.) The Academy Awards ceremony was held in Hollywood, where the actor Marlon Brando, a supporter of AIM, asked an Apache actress, Sacheen Littlefeather, to speak at the Oscars on his behalf. He had been nominated for his performance in The Godfather and won. Littlefeather arrived in full Apache regalia and read his statement that, owing to the "poor treatment of Native Americans in the film industry," Brando would not accept the award. In interviews, she also talked about the Wounded Knee occupation. The event grabbed the attention of the US and the world media. The movement considered the Awards ceremony publicity, together with Wounded Knee, as a major event and public relations victory, as polls showed that Americans were sympathetic to the Indian cause.
AIM members continued to be active at Pine Ridge, although Wilson stayed in office and was re-elected in 1974 in a contested election. Violent deaths rose, and more than 60 political opponents of his died violently during the next three years. In June 1975 in what has been called the "Pine Ridge shootout", two FBI agents were killed near Jumping Bull Ranch, and found to have been shot execution style. Three AIM members were eventually indicted for the murders: Darryl Butler, Robert Robideau and Leonard Peltier, who had escaped to Canada. Darryl and Robideau were tried in 1975 and acquitted. After extradition, Peltier was tried separately and convicted in 1976. He is serving two consecutive life sentences.
In late 1974, AIM leaders discovered that Douglas Durham, a prominent member who was by then head of security, was an FBI informant. They confronted him and expelled him from AIM at a press conference in March 1975. With some members in fugitive status after the Pine Ridge shootout, suspicions about FBI infiltration remained high. For various reasons, Anna Mae Aquash, the "highest-ranking" woman in AIM, was mistakenly suspected of being an informant. According to testimony at trials in 2004 and 2010 of men convicted of her murder, she was interrogated in the fall of 1975. In mid-December she was taken from Denver, Colorado, to Rapid City, South Dakota, and interrogated again, then taken to Rosebud Reservation and finally to a far corner of Pine Ridge Reservation, where she was killed by a gunshot wound to the back of the head. Her body was not found until February 1976. Low-level AIM members Arlo Looking Cloud and John Graham were convicted of her murder, but many people believed that "higher-ranking" leaders had ordered it. Dissension over this issue contributed to the 1993 split in the AIM organization.
During the Sandinista/Indian conflict in Nicaragua of the mid-1980s, Russell Means sided with Miskito Indians opposing the Sandinista government. The Miskito charged the government with forcing relocations of as many as 8,500 Miskito. This position lost AIM some support from certain US Marxist organizations in the U.S. who opposed Contra activities and supported the Sandinista movement. The complex situation included Contra insurgents' recruiting among Nicaraguan Indian groups, including some Miskitos. Means recognized the difference between opposition to the Sandinista government by the Miskito, Sumo, and Rama on one hand, and the Reagan administration's support of the Contras, dedicated to the overthrow of the Sandinista regime.
Many AIM chapters remain committed to confronting government and corporate forces that they allege seek to marginalize Indigenous peoples. They have challenged the ideological foundations of US national holidays, such as Columbus Day and Thanksgiving. AIM argues that Thanksgiving should be a National Day of Mourning, and protests what it perceives to be the continuing theft of indigenous peoples' territories and natural resources. AIM has helped educate people about the full history of the US, and advocates for the inclusion of Indigenous American perspectives in U.S. history. Its efforts are recognized and supported by many institutional leaders in politics, education, arts, religion, and media.
Professor Ronald L. Grimes wrote that "In 1984 the Southwest chapter of the American Indian Movement held a leadership conference that passed a resolution labeling the expropriation of Indian ceremonies (for instance, the use of sweat lodges, vision quests, and sacred pipes) a "direct attack and theft." It also condemned certain named individuals (such as Brooke Medicine Eagle, Wallace Black Elk, and Sun Bear and his "tribe") and criticized specific organizations such as Vision Quest, Inc. The declaration threatened to "take care of" those abusing sacred ceremonies.
In June 2003, United States and Canadian tribes joined together internationally to pass the "Declaration of War Against Exploiters of Lakota Spirituality." They felt they were being exploited by those marketing the sales of replicated Native American spiritual objects and impersonating sacred religious ceremonies as a tourist attraction. AIM delegates are working on a policy to require tribal identification for anyone claiming to represent Native Americans in any public forum or venue.
In February 2004, AIM gained more media attention by marching from Washington, D.C., to Alcatraz Island. This was one of many occasions when Indian activists used the island as the location of an event since the Occupation of Alcatraz in 1969, led by the United Indians of All Tribes, a student group from San Francisco. The 2004 march was in support of Leonard Peltier, whom many believed had not had a fair trial; he has become a symbol of spiritual and political resistance for Native Americans.
In December 2008, a delegation of Lakota Sioux, including Talon Becenti, delivered to the U.S. State Department a declaration of separation from the United States citing many broken treaties by the U.S. government in the past, and the loss of vast amounts of territory originally awarded in those treaties, the group announced its intentions to form a separate nation within the U.S. known as the Republic of Lakotah.
Due to continuing dissension, AIM splits: AIM Grand Governing Council (AIMGGC) is based in Minneapolis and still led by founders. AIM- is based in Denver, Colorado.
Other Native American rights activists have created groups such as WARN (Women of All Red Nations), NATIVE (Native American Traditions, Ideals, Values Educational Society), LISN (League of Indigenous Sovereign Nations), EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation), and the IPC (Indigenous Peoples Caucus). Although each group may have its own specific goals or focus, they are all fighting for the same principles of respect and equality for Native Americans. The Northwest Territories Indian Brotherhood, the Committee of Original People's Entitlement were two organization that spearheaded the native rights movement in northern Canada during the 1960s.
AIM established the International Indian Treaty Council (IITC) in June 1974. It invited representatives from numerous indigenous nations, and delegates from 98 international groups attended the meeting. The sacred pipe serves as a symbol of the Nations “common bonds of spirituality, ties to the land and respect for traditional cultures”. The IITC focuses on issues such as treaty and land rights, rights and protection of indigenous children, protection of sacred sites, and religious freedom.
The International Indian Treaty Council (IITC) uses networking, technical assistance, and coalition building. In 1977, the IITC became a Non-Governmental Organization with Consultative Status to the United Nations Economic and Social Council. The organization concentrates on involving Indigenous Peoples in U.N. forums. In addition, the IITC strives to bring awareness about the issues concerning Indigenous Peoples to non-Indigenous organizations.
On September 13, 2007 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the “Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.” A total of 144 states or countries voted in favor. Four voted against it while 11 abstained. The four voting against it were the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, whose representatives said they believed the declaration “goes too far.”
The Declaration announces rights of Indigenous Peoples, such as rights to self-determination, traditional lands and territories, traditional languages and customs, natural resources and sacred sites.
In 1993, AIM split into two factions, each claiming to be the authentic inheritor of the AIM tradition. The AIM-Grand Governing Council is based in Minneapolis, Minnesota and associated with leadership by Clyde Bellecourt and his brother Vernon Bellecourt (who died in 2007). The GGC tends toward a more centralized, controlled political philosophy.
The AIM-International Confederation of Autonomous Chapters, based in Denver, Colorado, was founded by thirteen AIM chapters in 1993 at a meeting in Denver, Colorado. The group issued its "Edgewood Declaration", citing organizational grievances and complaining of authoritarian leadership by the Bellecourts. Ideological differences were growing, with the AIM-International Confederation taking a spiritual, perhaps more mainstream, approach to activism. The autonomous chapters group argues that AIM has always been organized as a series of decentralized, autonomous chapters, with local leadership accountable to local constituencies. The autonomous chapters reject the assertions of central control by the Minneapolis group as contrary both to indigenous political traditions and to the original philosophy of AIM.
At a press conference in Denver, Colorado on 3 November 1999, Russell Means accused Vernon Bellecourt of having ordered the execution of Anna Marthica Aquash in 1975. The "highest-ranking" woman in AIM at the time, she had been shot execution style in mid-December 1975 and left in a far corner of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation after having been kidnapped from Denver, Colorado and interrogated in Rapid City, South Dakota as a possible FBI informant. Means implicated Clyde Bellecourt in her murder as well, and other AIM activists, including Theresa Rios. Means said that part of the dissension within AIM in the early 1990s had related to actions to expel the Bellecourt brothers for their part in the Aquash execution; the organization split apart.
Earlier that day in a telephone interview with the journalists Paul DeMain and Harlan McKosato about the upcoming press conference, Minnie Two Shoes had said, speaking of the importance of Aquash,
"Part of why she was so important is because she was very symbolic, she was a hard working woman, she dedicated her life to the movement, to righting all the injustices that she could, and to pick somebody out and launch their little cointelpro program on her to bad jacket her to the point where she ends up dead, whoever did it, let’s look at what the reasons are, you know, she was killed and lets look at the real reasons why it could have been any of us, it could have been me, it could have been, ya gotta look at the basically thousands of women, you gotta remember that it was mostly women in AIM, it could have been any one of us and I think that’s why it’s been so important and she was just such a good person."
McKosato said, "...her [Aquash's] death has divided the American Indian Movement..." On 4 November 1999, in a follow-up show on Native American Calling the next day, Vernon Bellecourt denied any involvement by him and his brother in the death of Aquash.
At Federal grand jury hearings in 2003, the Indian men Arlo Looking Cloud and John Graham were indicted for shooting Aquash in December 1975. In February '04, Arlo Looking Cloud was convicted of murder in Rapid City. He named as the gunman John Graham, who was in the Yukon. After extradition, John Graham was convicted, in 2010 in Rapid City, of the murder. In both trials, hearsay testimony about the motive for the murder included statements that Aquash heard Leonard Peltier say he killed the FBI agents at Oglala in June 1975, and fear that Aquash could be working with the FBI. Peltier was convicted in 1976 of murder for the Oglala killings, on other evidence.
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