This story begins in the 1960’s when Martin Luther King was alive and a handful of Native American men were in the Stillwater Prison in Minnesota. Dennis Banks, Clyde Bellecourt, Vernon Bellecourt, Russel Means, and John Trudell were young men behind bars,* watching the African- American Civil Rights Movement when the idea sprouted of forming a civil rights movement for their people. When the men got out of prison, the story goes that AIM was born in a bar with a Canadian Indian named Banjo Rat. The movement became more than an idea in the summer of 1968, when 200 people from the Native American Urban Community of Minneapolis, MN came together to discuss the issues their people dealt with on a daily basis. Police brutality was on the top of the list along with basic civil rights. They addressed the issues of housing, poverty, the high unemployment rate, treaty rights, Spiritual freedom, police harassments, and Federal Policies. The conditions of life for Native people were intolerable. Change needed to happen and it was up to them to bring civil rights to their people along with international recognition of their treaty rights. They founded AIM, the American Indian Movement, to carry their united voices forth to bring equality to Native Americans and to encourage Indian people for a renewal of spiritual ways.
AIM began right away addressing police harassment with the Minneapolis AIM Patrol that helped prevent police brutality on Franklin Avenue. It was not long before they attracted members across the United States and Canada. Their numbers grew. This was just the beginning of AIM and the instrumental part they played in winning civil rights for Native Americans. They took their message and ideas for change straight to the American public through the media. They were interviewed at protests and other events that gained them publicity. The country and through out the world watched them protest and occupy from Alcatraz to the Trail of Tears2 to the Siege at Wounded Knee.
In 1969, they occupied Alcatraz Island for 19 months and were there when the “United Indians of All Tribes reclaimed federal land in the name of Native Nations.” The same year brought the first Indian radio broadcasts in San Francisco and the Indian Health Board was founded in Minneapolis.
In 1970, AIM focused attention on Indian Education with a takeover of an abandoned property at a naval air station near Minneapolis. Their protest lead to grants for Indian Education.
In 1972, they marched on Washington, DC in the Trail of Broken Treaties aka Trail of Tears2. The march ended in an occupation of the BIA headquarters where they presented their 20 point solutions to President Nixon.
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In 1973, the Lakota Elders of Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota contacted AIM for their assistance in dealing with the corruption within the BIA and Tribal Council. The situation at Pine Ridge is a story all in itself full of murder, hired Goons, and crooked FBI agents. The Siege of Wounded Knee led to a 71-day occupation and battle with US armed forces. People died and trials were held for months. AIM took a step back but never sat down.
In 1978, Native Americans finally had religious freedom with the enactment of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.
AIM has always been deemed a civil rights movement, which it is, but it also was a revival of Indian identity. The importance of Indian people feeling proud to be an Indian and finding their way back to the spiritual traditions was part of the AIM mission. A friend of mine that knew people involved in AIM told me this story, “My mom told me I had to be like the whites. I could not speak our native language or take part in anything that was Indian. She made me feel ashamed of being Indian. That’s what had happened to her at the Boarding Schools so I guess that’s all she knew. Then I met Clyde and Philip Deere who both showed me to be proud that I was Indian. I began learning the language and going to sweats. I found my inner spirit. I was proud to be me for the first time in my life.”
In the last thirty years, AIM has strived to build and improve the lives of Native Americans and their communities. They have been a part of building schools, opening job placement centers, revitalizing language and culture, protecting Indian rights from treaties, and many more accomplishments in securing a better life for Native American people. There is still plenty of work to be done. Everyday is a new day.
A timeline of AIM’s activities from 1968 to 2006: http://www.aimovement.org/ggc/history.html
*The federal government has jurisdiction over minor and major crimes in Indian Country unless it is in one of seven states with Public Law 280, which permits the state to have jurisdiction on minor crimes in Indian Country. Minnesota is one of those states. That is why Native Americans are more opt to be in a federal prison than a state jail.
* BIA -Bureal of Indian Affairs
This article skims over the history of AIM. I suggest you read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown and Lakota Woman by Mary Crow Dog.