Dubian Ade

Brief Histories: The American Indian Movement (AIM)

Dubian Ade
Brief Histories: The American Indian Movement (AIM)

The legacy of conquest, land seizures, rape, genocide, biological warfare, Christianization, forced removals, treaty violations, and environmental and economic exploitation that is the United States settler colonial project has been formally overseen and facilitated by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) since its founding in 1824.

A survey conducted by the U.S Senate in 1943 exposed the extreme poverty on the reservations and blamed the Bureau for the situation due to federal mismanagement. The U.S government responded by developing a policy of accelerated assimilation of Native peoples into U.S society so that the Bureau would no longer be needed. That policy would be known as the Indian Termination Policy.

The real purpose of the policy was to eliminate government spending on Indian affairs and make people of the sovereign tribes into tax-paying citizens. The logic was that Native tribes were ready to be apart of mainstream U.S society and therefore no longer needed protection from the federal government. In 1953 Congress officially adopted the policy and passed the House concurrent resolution 108 (HCR-108).

The resolution proceeded to formally abolish federal supervision and recognition of Native tribes. From 1953 to 1964 at least 109 tribes were "terminated" and the protected lands were handed over to state governments. At least 12,000 Native people lost their tribal affiliation. Much of the land acquired by state governments were sold and used for mining operations.

The termination process was carried out through a series of laws that would undermine tribal sovereignty. State governments were given criminal jurisdiction over tribal lands at the expense of the tribal courts. Public Law 280 granted immediate criminal and civil jurisdiction over Native reservations to selected states and allow any state to assume jurisdiction over any Indigenous land by statue or amendment to its state constitution.

Federal aid was pulled from the tribal nations as tribal status was terminated. Government support of tribal education and health programs was also terminated. As conditions on the reservations increasingly worsened, the U.S government passed the Indian Relocation Act of 1956. The Act supported Native relocation into metropolitan areas by paying moving expenses and offering vocational training. At least 700,000 Native peoples were moved into cities during the termination process.

In 1968, president Lyndon B. Jonson proposed ending the termination policy. Yet, termination did not formally end until 1988 with the rejection of HCR-108. There are still tribes who had lost their tribal status during the termination and to this day are not recognized by the U.S government.

Clyde Bellecourt, Dennis Banks, Eddie Benton Banai and George Mitchell founded the American Indian Movement (AIM) in 1968 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In the midst of a decade of revolutionary fervor, AIM emerged as a militant organization concerned with all aspects of Indian Country. From treaty rights, tribal sovereignty and police brutality to protection of indigenous lands, preservation of culture, and Indigenous spirituality, AIM was formed to address the immediate needs of First Peoples in the United States.

The urban poverty that resulted from the government's mass relocation project had produced the so called "Red Ghettos." In Minneapolis, rampant police brutality in these areas prompted AIM to form the Minneapolis AIM Patrol in 1968. The patrol functioned much like the Community Police Watch of the Black Panther Party.

On November 20, 1969 AIM in cooperation with other Indigenous groups seized Alcatraz Island beginning an historic 19-month occupation from 1969 to 1971. The federal government had closed Alcatraz Prison in 1963 and the island became surplus federal property. AIM and the occupying group Indians of All Nations (IOAN) reclaimed the island under the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie which established that all retired, abandoned, or out-of-use federal property was to return to Native peoples.

The occupation of Alcatraz was as much about the land claim as it was about bringing awareness to Native issues. More specifically, the occupation of Alcatraz was in direct response to the continued Indian Termination policies conducted by the United States government. The U.S Coast Guard attempted to blockade food and resources during the occupation. By May of 1970 the government had cut off all electrical power to the island. On June 11, 1971 U.S troops forcefully removed the 15 remaining occupiers from Alcatraz.

AIM had continued its activity. In 1970 it staged a takeover of an abandoned naval air station in Minnesota. In 1971 AIM along with with leadership of Russell Means organized an attempted citizens arrest of the Deputy Commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. 24 AIM members were arrested for "trespassing."


Then in 1972 AIM organized an historic march on Washington called the Trail of Broken Treaties. Caravans of Native activist from San Francisco, Los Angles, and Seattle converged in Washington, D.C. on November 1st during the final week of the 1972 presidential elections. The goal of the march was to bring Native issues to the forefront of the presidential election, in particular the U.S government's violation of Native treaties. AIM's central demand was for the renewal of the U.S treaty-making process.

A 20 point proposal was presented to president Nixon outlining demand for a revitalized treaty-making process, a repeal of Public Law 280, a restoration of rights to Natives who were terminated, and the abolition of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The march ended with an occupation of BIA federal headquarters.

On February 27, 1973 AIM along with 250 Sioux Indians gathered on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to stage an armed occupation of Wounded Knee. Oglala Sioux elders called on AIM to intervene in a conflict between the Sioux and the corrupt BIA tribal government. In anticipation of the occupation, Chairman Dick Wilson arranged for FBI and the U.S. Marshals to surround the occupiers a mile outside the AIM defense line.

Federal troops prevented any supporters from offering food or water to the occupiers. At least 11 shoot-outs occurred between AIM members and federal troops. Two Sioux men were killed. The occupiers surrendered on May 8, 1973. Federal agents arrested 1,200 people. The stand-off became one of the most important landmarks of Native resistance in U.S. history. 275 federal court cases were held as a result of the occupation.

For years the FBI had been targeting key AIM leaders under COINTELPRO, the FBI's covert counter-intelligence program formed to infiltrate and eliminate political organizations. FBI agents manipulated key witnesses during the Wounded Knee court cases and imprisoned many AIM leaders. In 1975 it was exposed that Douglas Durham, a prominent member of AIM who worked at the highest levels of leadership, was an FBI infiltrator. Anna Mae Aquash, a high-ranking woman and leader in AIM was murdered in 1975 near Pine Ridge Reservation, most likely by the FBI. Her hands were severed by FBI agents and her death was later blamed on AIM members. These pressures forced the national leadership of AIM to disband in 1978.