This article was originally printed in Indian Nation, Vol. 3 No. 1, April 1976, and remains a brief introduction to the development and practise of the American Indian movement.
"Somewhere, these young men started the American Indian Movement. And they came to our reservation and they turned that light on inside. And it's getting bigger, now we can see things", an Oglala Elder.That "somewhere" that the American Indian Movement (AIM) got its start was in the prisons of the American Midwest, especially Minnesota, around the mid-1960s. Like other oppressed peoples, Indians were beginning to ask why so many of their brothers and sisters were either behind bars or on the skids, condemned to perpetual poverty, broken health, and despair. Indian cultural clubs started to grow and strengthen behind the walls of federal and state penitentiaries as Indian people came to understand and appreciate the unique spiritual and cultural heritage which they possessed.
In 1968, in Minneapolis-St. Paul, a group of Indian ex-cons, including Clyde Bellecourt, Dennis Banks and George Mitchell, decided to try to give some direction to this rebirth. At first, their understanding of the movement was conditioned by the methods and experiences of the white, urban-oriented political groups that dominated the scene: they put pressure, through sit-ins and other methods, on the "War on Poverty" bureaucracy to ensure greater Indian representation in decision-making, and they helped Indian people organize themselves for self-protection against police and judicial abuse.
An early member of AIM recalls that a number of AIM people heard about a traditional spiritual leader named Crow Dog, who lived on the Rosebud Sioux reservation in South Dakota. They decided to visit him to see if he could unite the spiritual and the secular in their struggle.
"And Crow Dog told them that if they were to be a successful Indian organization, they had to have the spiritual involvement of our medicine men and our holy people. And that is actually when the American Indian Movement was first born; because we think that AIM is not only an advocate for Indian people, it is the spiritual rebirth of our nation.That's why you will always see the big drums and the peace pipe wherever AIM is involved. Indian people believe the power of the universe is held within the peace pipe, and that it is an important check against the danger of Indians bringing harm to themselves and of initiating violence. But AIM's commitment to traditional ways goes beyond merely smoking the pipe and beating the drum. Rather than attempting to impose its own views on Indian communities, AIM adapts itself to the changing conditions from one community to the next. As Leonard Peltier says: "We have never gone any place without being asked by the chiefs and elders; we have never gone any place without a medicine man".
"It carries the spirituality of our ancient people and of our elder people. So now, the American Indian Movement relies very, very heavily on the traditional elders and the holy men of the various tribes -- to give them the direction they need so they can best help the Indian people".
"We realized that our involvement had to be with a total structure of Indian life across the whole nation. We had to begin advocating for Indians on the reservation and off the reservation, and in Canada and Mexico. Any place there were Indian people, then we had to be right there to be their champion and fight for them, for their rights".For AIM, the land is not just real estate or property. It's part of an integrated whole -- of nature or the universe -- which includes human beings and other living things. People are not set apart from nature; they are important, but no more important than any other living things. Human beings must not attempt to dominate or "use" the land; they must fit in with it and take care of it. In the language of white people, Indians are bound by their religion and their sense of their own identity to protect the environment.
Armed with this philosophy, AIM started to get active in the Sioux country of North and South Dakota and Nebraska in 1969. First, AIM helped young Sioux men and women stand up to the petty hassling of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which insisted that the old "pagan" Indian traditions -- "everything from religion to hair style" -- must go. Then, AIM was called upon to confront racism directly when two elderly Indian men were savagely tortured and killed for kicks by white toughs in separate incidents. Naturally, none of the whites involved were charged. In both cases, AIM was asked by local Indian people to help them get justice. In one case, more than 2,000 people from the surrounding country side marched on the town of Gordon, Nebraska, and literally forced the officials to charge the criminals. In the other case, a protest gathering of Indian people at the Custer, South Dakota, courthouse was attacked by police. The people fought back and the courthouse and several other buildings in the town were burned down. As one participant describes it: "That type of action was not planned by us and it wasn't something we decided to go and do before we ever went up there, but it was something that spontaneously came about because of the extreme frustration of the people".
From there, it was only a short journey to Pine Ridge and the siege of Wounded Knee. When AIM was asked to come out to Pine Ridge, AIM people said they were determined to stay out of the local politics and policies of the Sioux nation. But very quickly it became clear that the fight was not between two factions within that nation, but between the Sioux people and the US government, with the government being represented by the BIA and puppet terror regime of Dick Wilson.
Many people who are influenced by the mass media are confused about AIM. The most common image in the media is of gun-toting Indians spoiling for a fight. AIM sees itself as a warrior society, but not in the white persons sense of an armed force of hired killers. Here's how one AIM warrior puts it:
"Warrior society means the men and women of the nation who have dedicated themselves to give everything they have to the people. A warrior should be the first one hungry and the last one to eat. He should be the first one to give away his moccasins and the last one to get new ones.In fact, the AIM approach explicitly seeks to find solutions through negotiation and peaceful means. But AIM people feel strongly that they must defend themselves, and help all Indian people defend themselves, from unjust violence and coercion.
"That type of feeling among Indian people is what a warrior society is all about. He is ready to defend his family in time of war to hold off any enemy, and is perfectly willing to sacrifice himself to the good of his tribe and his people. That's what a warrior society is to Indian people, and that's what we envision ourselves as, what we idealistically try to be.
"I'm not saying that we are completely selfless or some kind of saints. But we try, with the spiritual direction of our holy men, to get ourselves to a point where we don't have avarice and greed that is so much a part of Anglo, or white, society."
AIM "security" insists on a no drugs, no alcohol or loose guns rule at any Indian event where it has taken responsibility. In places like Wounded Knee, weapons are carefully controlled for use only when the defense of the people becomes a matter of life and death.
Yet, the US government is so threatened by this approach that is has declared virtual all-out war on AIM and any other identifiable activist Indian organization. This war takes varied forms: Pine Ridge itself is virtually an armed camp with FBI and BIA goon squads roaming almost at will, killing 50 activists in the last couple years and attempting to terrorize the rest of the population. The government has also pursued a policy of legal or para-legal harassment that has drained the Indian movement of funds and energy. Most common charges against AIM people and other activists are riot and assault, the "victims" of which are invariably club-toting police. Next most common are weapons charges. This can mean anything from a hunting knife used for skinning animals to a gun kept for self-defense against the roving goon squads. Nationally-known AIM activists are being kept on a permanent shuttle as they face on charge after another in courts across the west.
In Canada, the first action to occur under the AIM banner was in 1973. Though AIM recognizes no borders between Canada and the US, and AIM people in Canada subscribe to the same basic beliefs as AIM chapters in the US, AIM in Canada did not solidify until the Cache Creek blockade in 1973.
Before Cache Creek, Indian people in Canada had travelled and talked to those already in AIM, had attended AIM conferences and discussed the AIM beliefs. A consciousness developed that what was needed in Canada was not another Indian organization, riddled with top-down, bureaucratic attitudes, and tainted by government money and government control, but a free-flowing movement. It would be without strict rules and above all, responsive to the needs of the Indian people. The movement was to embody the AIM beliefs that the strength of the Indian people was in their spiritual beliefs and their traditional ways.
The Cache Creek highway blockade was to protest the abysmal housing conditions on the Bonaparte reservation. No electricity or running water, plumbing, heating or insulation constitute the usual living standard on the reserve. When an 86-year old man lost his home and possessions by fire and he had to leave the country in order to survive, it was the last straw.
The demand for adequate housing triggered the Cache Creek blockade in which armed native people blocked the highway through the reserve and demanded a $5 toll from motorists for retribution for the shocking housing conditions and to get a new house for 86-year old Johnny Morgan.
The housing issue didn't stop with Cache Creek. AIM learned from the Bonaparte incident and organized the Native Caravan, which travelled to Ottawa shouldering the accumulated burden of physical grievances o the native people, determined to dump it in the laps of the bureaucrats on Parliament Hill. Instead the Caravan, after a long, energy-gathering trip cross Canada, was met with the RCMP riot clubs. [SISIS note: See also interview with Louis Cameron for more information on the Caravan]
Participants in the Caravan were joined as they went across Canada by members of cross-country Indian organizations, such as the Regina Warriors Society and the Ojibway Warriors Society, which was involved in an armed blockade at that time. The Ojibway Warriors, whose society espouses many of the tactics and beliefs of AIM, were involved in an attempt to regain Anicinabe Park, which was Indian land, near Kenora, Ontario.
AIM learned from Cache Creek another lesson that the movement now regards as paramount to their philosophy and tactics. AIM will now step in and support or organize a militant action only if it is asked by the people of the native community involved. One AIM member pointed out, "A lot of people were frightened and resentful of us at Cache Creek, worried about government reprisals. It's something we won't do like that again".
In 1975 a large priority for AIM was exposing the bureaucratic colonialist attitudes of the federal Department of Indian Affairs. AIM people attempted to do this through a series of occupations across the country, in Vancouver, Kamloops, Calgary and Ottawa. The intention was to put the DIA on trial and expose its incompetency and indifference in its dealings with Indian peoples. The attempt was largely successful: most of the DIA offices were shut down completely.
Another arena of action for AIM in Canada and one that is recognized as the most important politically -- is the land claims issue. AIM traces its involvement to before the landmark meeting in early 1975 in which the Union of BC Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) decided to refuse government funds and make Indian land claims their first priority. The stand by the UBCIC was an example of the kind of independent thinking among native peoples that AIM was seeking to foster. Besides striking out from a welfare mentality and adopting a new self-determining attitude native people were rejecting the government view of them -- as tribes, as bands, according to reserves. In the decision to pursue land claims the first seeds of the independent nationhood AIM was committed to struggling for were realized.
AIM also sees a role for itself in the land claims movement, as protectors of the rights of the people on the reservations. They want to help the powerless natives that multinational corporations are pushing out of the way in their grab for resource rich reserves.
As for the support AIM now has among traditional native people, a spokesperson says, "We don't talk about numbers, or tally up who's with us or not. For one thing, a lot of people support us, but they're living right at the poverty level. They have to work first to feed their families". The support of the native peoples across Canada is of paramount importance to AIM, however, and a priority is to re-establish the native tradition of respect for elders and holy men.
The presence of the American Indian Movement in BC is province wide. AIM chapters have been established in many native communities, even those which are rural and relatively isolated. "And this year", says an AIM spokesperson, "the movement will become even bigger".
AIM in the US is a loosely-structured organization with a national directorate (most of the members are in prison, awaiting trial, or on the run) and a headquarters on the White Earth reservation in Minnesota. The directorate provides coordination among local chapters and communities, but the essential direction come from the grass-roots level. And the AIM grass roots takes its lead from what the majority of Indian people in each tribal group wants. That's why it's misleading to talk about an AIM political line; the specific approach varies from tribe to tribe.
Each tribe has the right to exercise authority over its lands, education, justice system, welfare and health. This is not a civil right granted in some legislation by a dominant authority, but a human right -- the right to self-determination that takes precedence over any human law. AIM didn't create the separation of the races; it just wants to ensure that under the present system Indians get their fair share. This means that the white culture, whose prosperity is based on exploitation of Indian land, must pay its fair share to guarantee Indian material well-being. It's not a hand-out or welfare; it's payment for goods and services received.
Here's an example of how the AIM approach works in practise. After AIM got deeply involved in Wounded Knee, all the Oglala Sioux tribal leaders met to plan strategy. AIM agreed with the elders that it should be excluded from the meeting because only the Oglala Sioux people themselves should decide on their future without any interference from outsiders.
The people emerged from the meeting and announced that they had decided to declare their sovereignty as an independent nation -- the Independent Oglala Nation -- based on the Treaty of 1868 between the Sioux people and the US government. They asked AIM to help them prepare messages to be sent to the US and to the United Nations and to ensure the effective maintenance of the new society on Oglala land. AIM, which had expected no such momentous decision, readily agreed. A provisional government was established to help with everyday functioning in the village, to make over-all policy decisions and to keep in contact with the outside world. Decision making was by consensus with 60 or more people from the village hashing over problems at regular intervals. The guiding principle was that every individual had equal say and equal weight in the affairs of the community.
This is how one AIM member describes it:
"The American Indian Movement and the Oglala Sioux people here have what every race in America dreams of having. We have a land base, we have a government here, we have the support of the mass of the Indian people on the Pine Ridge reservation. And what is at stake here at Wounded Knee is not just the lives of a few hundred Indian people. It is a way of life that we believe could lead to the complete salvation of the United States and of western civilization. We're trying to make everyone realize that from here, a true revolution in the way people live can start".