Modern Native American Militancy


Twentieth-century pan-Indian political action started with the work of Charles Eastman, Carlos Montezuma, and the Society of American Indians,

 and the National Congress of American Indians, founded in 1944, which fought termination.

But Indian activism reached new levels in the 1960s and 1970s, as increasing numbers of Indian people insisted on self-determination, the right to run their own affairs free from the stifling control of the BIA,

while holding the government to promises it had made in past treaties.

 In 1961, over 400 delegates from 65 tribes attended the American Indian Chicago Conference and composed a Declaration of Indian Purpose which they sent to President John F Kennedy.

Later in the year, younger participants from the Chicago conference voiced their discontent and impatience in trying to work with the U.S. government and formed the National Indian Youth Council in Gallup, New Mexico.

The NIYC demanded a new role for Native Americans in determining the policies that affected their lives.

"We are not free," declared NIYC president Clyde Warrior in 1967.

 Instead of relying on the government to run their affairs, Indians sought freedom to make their own decisions, make their own futures, make their own mistakes."

The American Indian Movement

The growing pan-Indian activism was particularly strong among young city Indians.

About ten thousand Indians lived in Minneapolis and St. Paul, drawn mainly from the Anishinaabe and Sioux populations of Minnesota and the Dakotas.

The Indian community complained frequently of harassment by the police

and Minneapolis Anishinaabee formed an "Indian patrol" to monitor the activities of police in Indian neighborhoods (much like the Black Panthers in the ghettoes of Oakland, California).

Three patrol leaders, Clyde Hellecourt, Dennis Banks, and George Mitchell, went further and organized the American Indian Movement (AIM) in the summer of 1968.

    Other Indian groups also took direct action to achieve their goals or publicize their grievances.

That same year, Mohawk Indians blockaded the International Bridge between Canada and New York, forcefully protesting the infringement of rights of free passage guaranteed them by the Jay Treaty of 1794.

In 1969, a group of young Indians seized Alcatraz Island in San Francisco harbor.

Under the name "Indians of All Tribes:' they issued a "Proclamation to the Great White Father:' ironically employing the rhetoric of old treaties to demonstrate their grievances.

Angry young urban Indians often returned to their reservations in search of support and spiritual guidance from the traditional people at home, forging new alliances in the struggle for Indian rights.

    AIM leaders were active in efforts to secure and protect fishing rights in the Great Lakes region in 1972-73.

AIM demonstrators protested against the beatings, unlawful imprisonment, and deaths of Indians

such as when Raymond Yellow Thunder, an Oglala from Pine Ridge, was beaten to death in Gordon, Nebraska,
a reservation border town in February 1972,

and when Leroy Shenandoah, an Onondaga Green Beret veteran and a member of the honor guard at President Kennedy's funeral, was beaten and shot to death by Philadelphia police, who called the killing "justifiable homicide."

The new sense of political aggressiveness culminated in the "Trail of Broken Treaties" in 1972.

A caravan of Indians traveled across the United States, via Minneapolis to Washington, arriving there in November with more than five hundred protesters.

The protesters brought a twenty-point document proposing that the federal government reestablish a treaty-making relationship with Indians.

The protest almost resulted in violence when Indian militants occupied the BIA building for six days,

but with a national election looming, the government did not want open conflict with the first Americans in the streets of the nation's capital.

They agreed to review the protesters' twenty demands and provide funds for their transportation home.

The Siege at Wounded Knee

The new strategies of direct confrontation on the part of the militant pan-Indian leaders also produced strains and divisions within Indian society.

Young AIM radicals questioned the legitimacy of tribal governments set up under the IRA and criticized many tribal leaders as self-serving BIA pawns.

On the other hand, many tribal chairmen had worked hard within the system to obtain services for their communities.

They, and other older, more conservative Indians, sometimes disliked AIM;

they regarded the new tactics and political aggression as inappropriate and not in their people's best interests, fearing the militants would create a "backlash."

    The differences between the militants and the tribal chairman on the Pine Ridge reservation came to a head in South Dakota in 1973.

In January a young Lakota named Wesley Bad Heart Bull was stabbed to death and his accused white killer was charged with only second-degree manslaughter.

Angry Lakotas demanded the charge be changed to murder and AIM protesters clashed with police in Custer, South Dakota.

Wesley Bad Heart Bull's mother was arrested, charged with assaulting a police officer, and sentenced to three to five years in jail.

The tribal chair, Richard Wilson, condemned AIM and banned it from Pine Ridge.

As tensions and violence mounted, the BIA requested federal marshals at Pine Ridge.

Confronted with this display of federal force, AIM leaders Dennis Banks, Russell Means, and about two hundred activists, with the support of Oglala traditional leaders, took over the village of Wounded Knee in February 1973.

They announced the creation of the Oglala Sioux Nation, declared independence from the United States, and defined their national boundaries as those established by the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868.

Federal marshals, FBI agents, troops, and armored vehicles surrounded the village and the world's media flocked to Wounded Knee.

Wounded Knee was the site of the massacre of Big Foot's band in 1890 and was well known to the American public from the title of Dee Brown's best-selling indictment of the Indian wars, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, published in 1971.

Hanks and Means chose the place as a symbolic location to dramatize their opposition to the BIA and their demand for self-determination and a return of tribal sovereignty.

    The Wounded Knee siege lasted seventy-one days against a background of violence, murder, and suspicion.

Two Indians were killed and several others wounded as the military fired more than half a million rounds of ammunition into the AIM compound.

At one point, the government considered launching an open assault on the village

but after protracted negotiations between AIM and the FBI, the Indians finally agreed to end their occupation on condition that the government hold a full investigation into their grievances and demands.

Means then ran for tribal chairman, but the election was accompanied by arson, violence, intimidation, and murder attributed to Wilson's men.

Wilson won by a narrow margin, but conditions on Pine Ridge remained tense.

In 1975, two FBI agents were murdered, a crime for which AIM activist Leonard Peltier was arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to double life imprisonment on what many regarded as the shakiest of evidence.

The election of Al Trimble as tribal chairman in 1976 restored a measure of calm to the reservation but the Peltier case remains a source of heated controversy

The Legacy of Wounded Knee

Media coverage of the events at Wounded Knee tended to present a "war correspondents" approach, focusing on exchanges of gunfire and resurrecting Western movie images of "hostile Indians" rather than examining the root issues of the conflict."

Those roots stretched back to the Treaty of Fort Laramie
in 1868, the annexation of the Black Hills,

and the establishment of a new style of tribal government under the Indian Reorganization Act in 1934, which imposed minority government on Pine Ridge.

In June 1973, after the siege ended, Senator James Abourezk of South Dakota, the chairman of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Indian Affairs, held hearings at Pine Ridge to investigate the causes of the confrontation.

Ramon Roubidoux, Russell Means's Sioux attorney, pinned much of the blame on the Indian Reorganization Act, which was supposed to restore self-government.

The confrontation at Wounded Knee, then, was more than a media event or even an attempt to overthrow a corrupt tribal government.

Its goal, says historian Alvin Josephy, was "to destroy the political bonds in which the federal government held the Oglalas' reservation, and by example inspire other tribes to regain sovereignty and establish responsible governments of their own."'"

But in the opinion of Lakota writer and activist Vine Deloria, rr., Wounded Knee gave AIM only temporary visibility in the media and failed to resolve deeper problems between Indians and the United States.

AIM became "stalled in its own rhetoric" and the movement lost momentum.

"Wounded Knee," concluded Paul Chaat Smith and Robert Alien Warrior, "proved to be the final performance of AIM's daring brand of political theater.))'5

    Other less dramatic demonstrations and confrontations followed.

In 1978, Clyde Bellecourt led the "Longest Walk" of Indian protesters from Alcatraz to Washington, D.C.

Gradually though, legal assault and FBI persecution drove many AIM leaders into hiding.

By 1980, the influence of AIM and the role of the militants in Indian society had declined significantly, but they had effectively focused public concern on the plight and protests of Native Americans.

AIM also gave many young Indian people a cause and a new direction in life.

Commitment to AIM's work ended the self-destructive spiral

but for Mary Crow women believed that AIM did not adequately represent their concerns and in the mid-1970s they established WARN (Women of All Red Nations),

an activist group that tackled issues such as domestic violence and involuntary sterilization, as well as trying to reassert Native rights and protect Native cultures.

AIM today continues to work for Indian rights and Indian communities, but with less militant confrontation and much less media visibility


Whatever else it achieved, AIM demonstrated dramatically that the "Indian wars" did not end in 1890,

that Indian people had not disappeared, and that -

U.S. relations would continue to be marked by conflict as long as American society encroached on Indian resources and denied Indian rights.

   Mounting Indian activism and growing public awareness of the continuing injustices in the government's dealings with the first Am
gradual shifts in policy.

In addition, the turmoil in 1960s had helped to create a mood for reform in Congress and the courts.

President Lyndon lohnson's War on Poverty and attempts to create a Great Society increased federal assistance programs and increased Indian participation in those programs.

In 1964, Congress created the Office of Economic Opportunity, with a special "Indian desk."

A year later the Department of Housing and Urban Development was created, which assisted many reservation communities in building new housing.

In 1968, Johnson called for a new Indian policy ((expreSSed in programs Of self-help, self-development, self-determination,'' and the National Council on Indian Opportunity to review existing federal Indian programs.

The Indian Civil Rights Act in 1968 revised Public Law 280 by requiring states to obtain tribal consent before they could extend legal jurisdiction over Indian reservations.

It also extended most of the protections of the Bill of Rights.

An Attempt at Restoration

In 1970, President Richard Nixon delivered a "Special Message on Indian Affairs" to Congress.

The first Americans, he pointed out, ranked at the bottom on "virtually every scale of measure--employment, income, education, health,"

a condition that was "the heritage of centuries of injustice" and failed federal programs.

Denouncing past policies of federal termination and federal paternalism, Nixon called instead for people in the federal govt. To user in a new era of self-determination for Indian people.

Nixon government and Indian communities selected an Indian, Louis R Bruce, to head the BIA,

but Bruce himself saw that a new generation of Indians was pushing for self determination aS they, not Washington, understood it.

The will for self-determination has become a vital component of the thinking Of Indian leadershiP· · · ·

It is an irreversible trend, a tide in the destiny of American Indians that will eventually compel all of America once and for all to recognize the dignity and human rights of Indian people.

Elected Navajo tribal chairman in 1970, Peter MacDonald outlined the goals of his administration in his inaugural address in January 1971:

First, what is rightfully ours, We must protect;

what rightfully due us we must claim.

Second, what we depend on from others, we must replace with the labor of our own hands, and the skills of our own people.

Third, what we do not have, we must bring into being. We must create for ourselves.

He pledged not to "barter away the Navajo birthright for quick profit that will cheat our children and their children after them."

Navajos, he said, must throw off "the bonds of forced dependenCY

They must stop relying on others to run their schools, build their roads and houses, administer their programs, manage their industries, sell them their cars, and cash their checks. "We must do better:'
he said. "We must do it in
                     our own way. And we must do it now.

Congress passed a series of laws which seemed to protect Indian rights and increase Indian participation in running their own affairs.

In 1970, Nixon signed a bill returning Blue Lake to Taos Pueblo, ending a sixty-four-year fight by the people of Taos to regain the lands that President Theodore Roosevelt had proclaimed part of what is now Carson National Forest.

In 1965, Alaska Natives had created the Alaska Federation Of Natives, a statewide organization designed to pursue the land claims of Alaska s Native peoples.

The Alaska Native Claims Settlement ACt Of 1971 was intended to resolve those land claims--and open the area to pipeline construction--by transferring 44 million acres to more than 200 village corporations and a dozen regional for-profit corporations,

allocating almost $1 billion in funds for Alaskan natives.

Native discontent with some of ANCSA's provisions demanded subsequent modification of the legislation.

In 1973, responding to tireless lobbying by Ada Deer and other Menominee leaders, Congress passed the Menominee Restoration Act, returning the Menominees' tribal status and restoring their access to federal Programs.

The Indian Finance Act in 1974 authorized federal grants and loans to federally recognized tribes to promote economic development and led to the creation of the Indian Business Development Program.

 The Indian Self-Determination and Educational Assistance Act of 1975 gave tribes instead of government officials the right to administer federal assistance programs.

Self-Determination or Colonization?

Many Indian people remained suspicious of the government's intentions and ultimate goals, fearing that the basic objective of assimilation lurked behind the rhetoric of self-determination.

 Others pointed out that what Indians were getting from the new policies of the 1970s was self-administration, not true self determination.

Russell Means declared that the "so-called self-determination policy" was "intended to bolster rather than dismantle the whole structure of BIA IRA colonialism.

Only it calls upon us to administer our own colonization
to a greater extent than we have before."30

Critics charged that tribal governments were becoming an extension of the federal bureaucracy and tribal administrators were spending much of their time and energy writing grants for ever-diminishing federal funds.

The government was passing on to Indian communities the responsibility for administering programs, but what would happen if funding for those programs was cut?
For many Indians, the new legislative measures and expressions of commitment on the part of the U.S. government did little or nothing to alter the inherent colonialism and continuing injustice in U.S.-Indian relations.

At least 43,000 Native Americans fought in the Vietnam War during the late 19~0s and early 1970s.

Many of the AIM activists who occupied Wounded Knee were Vietnam veterans, now confronting the armed forces of the country they had served in Southeast Asia.

The irony was obvious.

"Why was I fighting to uphold a U.S. treaty commitment halfway around the world when the United States was violating its treaty commitments to my own people and about 300 other Indian nations?" asked one Creek-Cherokee veteran. "I was fighting the wrong people, pure and simple....""