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American Indian Movement (AIM)

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Flag of the American Indian Movement (AIM)

Flag of the American Indian Movement (AIM). Image by Wikimedia Commons user Tripodero, January 6, 2018.

The American Indian Movement (AIM), founded by grassroots activists in Minneapolis in 1968, first sought to improve conditions for recently urbanized Native Americans. It grew into an international movement whose goals included the full restoration of tribal sovereignty and treaty rights. Through a long campaign of “confrontation politics,” AIM is often credited with restoring hope to Native peoples.

AIM’s rise occurred during a time of extreme hardship for Native Americans in the Twin Cities. A decade earlier, the federal government had passed the Indian Relocation Act, which promised good jobs and housing for Natives who moved from reservations into cities. Many of the thousands who migrated, however, found only low-wage labor, substandard housing, discrimination, violence, and despair. Their spiritual ceremonies, outlawed since 1884, were still illegal.

AIM’s initial actions were meant to bolster Minneapolis’s Native population. To aid victims of police abuse, they formed the AIM Patrol. AIM also helped establish the Legal Rights Center, which provided free representation to the poor, and the Indian Health Board, which provided Native-centric medical care. In 1972, AIM founded Heart of the Earth Survival School.

Later that year, AIM widened its focus to the national stage, joining the Trail of Broken Treaties. The purpose of the walk—which began on the West Coast and ended in Washington, DC—was to demand that the government fulfill its treaty commitments. Upon arrival, AIM members occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs Building. After nearly a week, the Nixon administration agreed to consider their demands and pay for them to return home. The action made AIM a target of COINTELPRO, the FBI’s covert operation meant to disrupt domestic political organizations.

In 1973, AIM received a request from Gladys Bissonette of the Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization. The traditional Lakota people on the Pine Ridge Reservation were being terrorized by white vigilantes and supporters of tribal president Dick Wilson. In response, AIM joined the traditional Lakotas in occupying the village of Wounded Knee. Surrounded by hundreds of federal agents with military weaponry, the Natives battled government forces for seventy-one days. They demanded hearings on their treaty and investigation of the BIA. Two Native people, Buddy Lamont and Frank Clearwater, were killed. Major news organizations remained onsite throughout the conflict, reporting headlines across the world.

While three men—Dennis Banks, Clyde Bellecourt, and Russell Means—are generally acknowledged as leaders of AIM, many Native women also made extraordinary, often anonymous, sacrifices for the movement. Among these were Pat Bellanger, an original AIM member whose nearly fifty years of service to the movement earned her the nickname “Grandma AIM”; Sarah Bad Heart Bull, who was beaten and jailed in Custer, South Dakota, while protesting her son’s murder; and Anna Mae Aquash, a member of the Mi’kmaq First Nation who left her family in Canada during Wounded Knee, where she took up arms and fought alongside the men.

History may view AIM as a militant group, but AIM saw itself as a spiritual movement. Before, during, and after Wounded Knee, AIM members participated in Sun Dances, sweat lodges, and other long-hidden ceremonies, helping to coax them from the shadows.

In 1974, Banks and Means were tried for conspiracy and assault at the federal courthouse in St. Paul. After a nine-month trial, AIM declared victory when Judge Fred J. Nichols, citing government misconduct, dismissed all charges. The movement, however, had begun to splinter. Infighting, jealousy, and the FBI’s efforts to divide them had sewn suspicion and paranoia. The murder of Anna Mae Aquash, whose body was discovered on Pine Ridge on February 24, 1975, marked the beginning of the end of a united AIM. Members blamed the FBI and one another, destroying trust within the movement.

AIM’s last major action took place in 1978. The Longest Walk was commenced to protest the imprisonment of AIM activist Leonard Peltier and eleven federal bills that threatened treaty rights. Several hundred Natives marched from San Francisco to Washington, DC. The walk achieved much of its purpose: the anti-Native bills were defeated. But the greatest victory of the walk, and perhaps the movement, came on August 11, just days after protestors arrived: President Jimmy Carter signed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, lifting the ban on Native American spiritual practices.

Bellecourt continued to lead the Minneapolis branch of AIM into the 2010s, fighting derogatory team names and police misconduct and founding the AIM Interpretive Center.

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Banks, Dennis. Ojibwe Warrior. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2011.

Bellecourt, Clyde, as told to Jon Lurie. The Thunder Before the Storm: The Autobiography of Clyde Bellecourt. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2017.

Furst, Randy. “Pat Bellanger, Prominent Indian Activist from Minneapolis, Dies.” Minneapolis Star-Tribune, April 30, 2015.

Konigsberg, Eric. “Who Killed Anna Mae?” New York Times, April 25, 2014.

Lichtenstein, Grace. “16 Sioux Sought by F.B.I. In Slaying of 2 Agents.” New York Times, June 28, 1975.

Makin, Kirk. “Retraction Ends 25 Years of Guilt.” Globe and Mail, November 11, 2000.

Matthiessen, Peter. In the Spirit of Crazy Horse. New York: Viking Penguin, 1983.

McFadden, Robert D. “Dennis Banks, American Indian Civil Rights Leader, Dies at 80.” New York Times, October 30, 2017.

Ray, Charles Michael. “Pine Ridge Reservation Deaths to be Reinvestigated.” NPR’s Weekend Edition, August 18, 2012.

Related Audio

Excerpt of AIM song | Details

Related Images

Flag of the American Indian Movement (AIM)
Flag of the American Indian Movement (AIM)
Black and white photograph of the first board members of the American Indian Movement (AIM), 1968.
Black and white photograph of the first board members of the American Indian Movement (AIM), 1968.
Black and white photograph of an AIM-organized Forum on Police Brutality, ca. 1968.
Black and white photograph of an AIM-organized Forum on Police Brutality, ca. 1968.
Tipi and AIM sign on the grounds of the Washington Monument
Tipi and AIM sign on the grounds of the Washington Monument
AIM (American Indian Movement) button
AIM (American Indian Movement) button
American Indian Movement button
American Indian Movement button
Clyde Bellecourt and Dennis Banks
Clyde Bellecourt and Dennis Banks
Clyde Bellecourt and others at Wounded Knee
Clyde Bellecourt and others at Wounded Knee
Camp at Wounded Knee
Camp at Wounded Knee
 Upside-down American flag flying at Wounded Knee
 Upside-down American flag flying at Wounded Knee
AIM members observing the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Wounded Knee occupation
AIM members observing the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Wounded Knee occupation

Turning Point

In 1968, AIM is founded at a Minneapolis meeting of Concerned Indian Americans (CIA). The name “American Indian Movement” is adopted at the suggestion of Alberta Downwind, who opposes sharing the acronym “CIA” with a US intelligence agency. Dennis Banks and Clyde Bellecourt are nominated as leaders.

Chronology

1962

Clyde Bellecourt and Eddie Benton-Banai, inmates at Stillwater State Penitentiary, meet and found the Indian Folklore Club, a cultural group intended to improve the lives of Native prisoners. They later organize on the streets based on this model.

1968

AIM is founded. The group’s main objective is “to broaden opportunities for the urban Indian [so] he may enjoy his full rights...” The newly branded organization establishes AIM Patrol, a citizen watch group that aids victims of police brutality.

1970

AIM is key in the creation of the Legal Rights Center of Minneapolis. The center provides free legal aid to the poor. Native residents can now access courts to fight systemic abuses like police brutality and the forced removal of kids from their homes.

1971

AIM travels to flooded land at the Lac Courte Oreilles Indian Reservation (LCO). AIM and LCO members occupy the dam, holding the fate of downstream cities in their hands. The dam’s owner later settles, returning thousands of acres to LCO.

1972

AIM joins the Trail of Broken Treaties, a cross-country walk that calls on the government to honor its treaty commitments. On arrival, AIM occupies the BIA Building. The White House agrees to consider the Indians’ demands and pay for their return home.

1973

AIM converges on Custer, South Dakota, in support of Sarah Bad Heart Bull, whose son has been slain by a white man. While AIM leaders meet with officials, Bad Heart Bull is denied entry and beaten. In the ensuing riot, thirty Native people are arrested.

1973

AIM and traditional Oglala Lakota people occupy the village of Wounded Knee, demanding hearings on their treaty and an investigation of the BIA. Surrounded by federal agents with military weapons, they battle government forces for seventy-one days.

1974

At the federal courthouse in St. Paul, Banks and Means are tried for conspiracy and assault related to Wounded Knee. After a nine-month trial, AIM declares victory when Judge Fred J. Nichols, citing government misconduct, dismisses the charges.

1975

During an era on Pine Ridge known as the Reign of Terror, two white FBI agents speed onto the property of the Jumping Bull family with guns drawn. AIM members, camped nearby, engage in a firefight that kills the agents and AIM member Joseph Stuntz.

1976

Although many participated in the Pine Ridge firefight, only three AIM members are indicted. Dino Butler and Bob Robideau are tried and acquitted by an Iowa jury based on self-defense. Leonard Peltier, the third defendant, flees to Canada seeking asylum.

1977

Peltier is extradited and convicted of murdering the FBI agents. He remains in prison, serving two life sentences.

1978

The Longest Walk is commenced to protest eleven federal bills threatening treaty rights and the conviction of Leonard Peltier. Hundreds of Natives march cross-country to Washington, DC. (The Walk achieved much of its purpose when the bills were defeated.)

1978

On August 11, just days after the Longest Walk arrives in DC, President Jimmy Carter signs the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, lifting the ban on Native American spiritual practices.