American Indian Movement

American Indian Movement
The American Indian Movement (AIM) was a radical political organization established in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1968 by Native Americans. From 1968 through the early 1970s, the AIM was involved in numerous protests against the U.S. government, which were met with some general public support but severe government repression.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), along with other federal agencies, labeled the AIM a subversive, possibly Communist, and likely terrorist organization, and often dealt with the AIM, and as a consequence the general American Indian community, in ways that breached civil and human rights.

They justified their actions by accusing the AIM of conspiring against the government and challenging the democratic nature of U.S. society with radical militancy. To this day, the AIM has some justification in seeing the federal government as conspiring to break apart traditional Indian communities, appropriate their land, and make politically active American Indians the target of government and judicial repression.

The AIM continues to be a significant American Indian political organization, but the principal period of alleged conspiracies, activism, and repression took place between 1972 and 1976: during this time the domestic counterintelligence activities of the Nixon administration, coupled with increasing militancy by AIM activists, resulted in violent confrontations, most notably at Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

The AIM was initially formed in the urban context of Minneapolis in a response to police brutality, and modeled itself on other radical militant movements of the later 1960s, most notably the Black Panthers. AIM chapters were rapidly established in other city centers and the AIM organized and participated in numerous protests, the first major protest being the occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969.

In 1972, the AIM organized the “Trail of Broken Treaties,” a protest in which many American Indians traveled to Washington, D.C., and occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) building. The building was vandalized and many documents pertaining to American Indians taken.

By this stage, the government was very suspicious of the AIM and its role in Indian protest. There were numerous FBI reports that labeled the AIM as a potentially seditious and insurrectionary organization (Castile, 118). By early 1973, actions to suppress the AIM were being put in motion and the movement was being labeled as “extremist”.

American Indian Movement in anti Columbus protest
American Indian Movement in anti Columbus protest

In 1973 Richard Wilson was elected to the leadership of the tribal government, with the support of the federal government. In June 1973, the AIM arrived at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation, at the request of those who protested his leadership. An armed confrontation began between the AIM and Wilson and his supporters, who were known as GOONs (Gunfighters of the Oglala Nation) and were young, armed Indian men backed by the federal government.

The siege continued for seventy-one days. After the siege ended, many AIM activists were indicted in a judicial attempt to destroy the movement; few convictions were secured. Meanwhile the Wilson government remained in place and GOONs terrorized many on the reservation.

In 1974, Wilson was reelected as tribal president under somewhat dubious circumstances. The AIM continued its protest and set up an encampment in the reservation, which was subsequently attacked by GOONs and federal forces. One AIM activist was killed, as were two FBI agents—Jack Coler and Ronald Williams.

Activists Bob Robideau, Darelle (Dino) Butler, and Leonard Peltier were charged with the murder of the two agents. Robideau and Butler were acquitted, but Peltier, tried separately, was found guilty and remains in prison to this day, despite charges of perjured evidence and other dubious aspects of the prosecution’s case.

The death in 1976 of a young Native American woman, Anna Mae Aquash, was also controversial. She was found murdered in an execution style and the FBI undertook an investigation, but forensic procedures were questionable. The FBI accused the AIM of the murder, as there were rumors within the AIM that Aquash had infiltrated the organization for the FBI. While the truth remains unclear, the AIM has pointed to FBI involvement in the murder.

Historians and writers remain divided on several issues: to what extent can the AIM’s militancy be justified, given the improvements in American Indian affairs initiated by the federal administrations of the period? To what extent was domestic counterintelligence willing to bend the rules and undertake illegal activities in their desire to break AIM? Was government activity prompted by greed over obtaining land for uranium and coal mining purposes?

Clearly, the government perceived the AIM as a threat. FBI memos dating from 1976 claimed the AIM was training for guerrilla warfare and was planning to blow up BIA buildings in South Dakota and to kill the state governor. Much of the government’s activity was motivated by a determination to break the AIM apart, even if it meant acting illegally, and was felt to be justified by these alleged plots by the AIM.

That government and big business had an interest in the resources on American Indian land is also clear. The Wilson Pine Ridge government was amenable to this interest and willing to sell land rights. It was therefore essential to the federal government to keep Wilson in place, and this motivation played a part in its activities at Pine Ridge.

While it is also true that the federal administrations of Johnson and Nixon made significant progress in helping American Indians and allowing some self-determination (Castile), militancy was not tolerated nor, it seems, was American Indian self-government that did not fall in line with federal interests.

The militancy of the AIM, and even the behavior of the GOONs, must be placed within the context of the conditions of American Indians at the time. Urban Indians had undergone massive social and cultural dislocation, as well as some detribalization, in being moved into cities, and it was from this context that the AIM emerged. Reservations were economically and socially depressed areas, with the GOONs made up of unemployed, angry young men.

Divisions also ran deep between traditionalists and young radicals like the AIM. It was easy for the government to exploit such problems, which it did in the case of Pine Ridge. Mistrust between the federal government and American Indians, which had existed for decades, fed beliefs in conspiracies on both sides, and resulted in violence.

While many of the facts remain uncertain, it is probably true to say that the federal government, rather than overcoming its fears of militancy and seeing the American Indian Movement as a genuine political organization borne of real social problems (caused largely by the federal government), instead encouraged a view of the AIM as a conspiratorial and seditious movement in order to protect its own interests. That the AIM saw the government as conspiring not only to attack it but also to destroy American Indian communities is perhaps not surprising.