This Day in History
Published July 28, 2018
MINNEAPOLIS — The American Indian Movement (AIM) was formed 50 years ago at 1212 Plymouth Avenue in Minneapolis on July 28, 1968 when 86 American Indians, mostly women and children showed up for its first meeting.
The American Indian Movement had its origins in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Dennis Banks (Leech Lake Ojibwa), George Mitchell (Ojibwa), Clyde and Vernon Bellecourt (White Earth Chippewa) started the organization to stop the large number of urban Indians being rounded up each weekend, beaten and jailed by the police. In 1969, they were part of American Indians who took over Alcatraz Island. By 1972, the American Indian Movement went to Washington, D.C. to protest and ended up taking over the Bureau of Indian Affairs national headquarters.
From the AIM Interpretive Center
In five short years, the American Indian Movement emerged as the premier Indian organization concerned with American Indian rights and issues in various parts of the country. While other groups existed, the American Indian Movement was one group willing to do something about the ill-treatment of American Indians in various places across the country. On February 28, 1973, the American Indian Movement took over and occupied Wounded Knee in South Dakota. This siege would last seventy-one days and would become known as the Wounded Knee II. It was there—on December 29, 1890—that the U.S. Calvary Regiment massacred many Lakota men, women and children.
Russell Means (l) and Dennis Banks (r) at Wounded Knee in 1973
The American Indian Movement did not takeover Wounded Knee simply to takeover a prairie hamlet, instead their intent was to end the corruption that existed on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Not only had the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation long been known to be the poorest places to live in America, but also the tribal chairman, Dick Wilson and his goons vastly abused their power through intimidation and unequal distribution of the meager goods provided by the federal government. The tribal elders reached out for assistance from the American Indian Movement.
With the siege of Wounded Knee, all of the sudden American Indian concerns were front and center in the minds of Americans who previously only thought about American Indians on Thanksgiving. This was, of course, the power of being on nightly newscasts on television, which kept my family and me informed. The international media even paid attention to the poor treatment of American Indians.
The American Indian Movement allowed for Americans to get past the Disney version of Indian chiefs galloping through the dusty prairies on horseback wearing long war bonnets. The contemporary warriors—American Indian Movement members—wore blue jeans, cowboy boots, head bands and carried guns. What happened at Wounded Knee was nothing short of warfare against Indian warriors. Since the federal government deployed tanks and tested weapons at Wounded Knee that would later be used in other parts of the world by the United States military, we appropriated the term warriors for the Indians. The media referred to them as militants. In the end, it was reported that more than 35 tanks, over 130,000 rounds of ammunition were fired into occupied Wounded Knee. Military helicopters and jets flew over head. Most nights were filled with gunfire into the cordoned off town from federal marshals and National Guard members.
Clyde Bellecourt speaking at AIM-WEST annual conference in San Francisco in 2014.
The longer the siege lasted, the pride of being an American Indian tribal member intensified for Indians throughout America. The American Indian Movement leaders were our new heroes. Average Americans had John Wayne to look up to in movies. In real life, American Indians had Dennis Banks, Clyde Bellecourt and others. My family discussed the takeover and cheered the Indians relentless stance to stay holed up at Wounded Knee.
The standoff quickly gained the attention and support of Hollywood celebrities; such as Harry Belafonte, Jane Fonda, Joan Baez and Marlon Brando. During the siege, Brando won the 1973 Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather; however, he refused to attend the Academy Awards ceremony during that last week of March. Instead, Brando sent Sacheen Littlefeather to make a statement about the abuse of American Indians in the United States and how they were depicted by Hollywood. Soon thereafter, the media discredited her for being a “fake Indian” when in fact she was—and remains to this day—a White Mountain Apache.
By the time the siege was over a month later, there were two Indians dead and the federal government promised to look into curtailing the corruption on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Members of the American Indian Movement were rounded up and arrested. Some American Indian Movement leaders escaped and hid out, but were eventually indicted, arrested, and put on trial. Dennis Banks faced a life sentence and 125 years behind bars. He was acquitted. The federal judge, a former decorated Naval officer, told the federal prosecutors he never felt so ashamed to be an American as he was while listening to the testimony describing just how distorted the case was against the American Indian Movement leader.
While the progress demanded by the American Indian Movement did not happen overnight, a new sense of pride rose in American Indians throughout the country.
Furthermore, future presidents and the U.S. Congress began to pay attention to the needs—or demands—of American Indians. During the 1970s, Congress began to pass landmark legislation that altered American Indian lives. Other major legislation continued throughout the 1980s and 1990s.