Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


American Indian Movement, Wounded Knee, South Dakota, March 2, 1973

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Eddie Benton Banai and Clyde Bellecourt, two Ojibwa prisoners at Minnesota's Stillwater Prison, began organizing fellow Native American inmates in 1963, preaching a doctrine of Indian pride and self-reliance. After receiving parole the following year, Bellecourt took his message to Minneapolis. By 1968 he and Banai had teamed up with two more Ojibwas, George Mitchell and Dennis Banks. They named their group Concerned Indian Americans. Unhappy with that acronym, they settled upon the American Indian Movement (AIM).

AIM monitored police actions to prevent and report brutality, fought discrimination in jobs and housing, and set up survival schools to equip Indian children with life skills for the urban environment and provide them alternative views of Native history unavailable in public schools. Its approach was also pan-Indian; since the Indian ghettos of American cities contained people from different reservations and tribes, AIM did not represent any single one of them. Instead, they focused on local issues that affected all Indians.

At first, the organization solicited government funds and donations from religious groups. But by 1968 frustration from dealing with these organizations led AIM to adopt a stance that was antagonistic toward mainstream America. They also began to extend their efforts beyond Minnesota. In 1970 an AIM chapter was founded in Cleveland by Russell Means, a Lakota who was born on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Major chapters were subsequently added in Milwaukee, Denver, Chicago, and San Francisco. Throughout its existence, AIM's power structure was largely decentralized, with individual chapters retaining substantial authority and frequently concentrating on local issues. In addition, its national leaders, including Banks, Means, Bellecourt, and Santee Dakota John Trudell, generally led by force of personality and with support from their followers and colleagues.

AIM went beyond urban concerns and made inroads on the Pine Ridge Reservation when it organized protests in nearby Gordon, Nebraska, in early 1972. A Lakota from the reservation, Raymond Yellow Thunder, had been abducted, publicly humiliated, and beaten to death in the town by white racists. When they were charged with involuntary manslaughter instead of murder, many Pine Ridge Lakotas were outraged. AIM marched on the town and forced concessions from local authorities and the governor, thus cementing its presence and reputation on the reservation.

Later that year, AIM moved onto the national stage through its involvement in the Trail of Broken Treaties, a large-scale civil rights march in Washington DC the week before the presidential election of 1972. When the marchers arrived, inadequate sleeping accommodations and federal red tape led to an altercation with police at the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) building, which quickly turned into a riot. The marchers occupied the building. During the standoff, AIM took control of the occupation and dealt with the media and federal negotiators. The occupation ended after less than a week when the government paid AIM more than $66,000 to transport people back home.

After the BIA building incident, AIM was condemned by Pine Ridge tribal chairman Dick Wilson, who himself was embroiled in a major political dispute; many people on the reservation accused him of corruption and intimidation. As conditions became increasingly violent, AIM came to the support of Wilson's opponents. After Means announced he would run against Wilson in the next election, Wilson had him temporarily jailed.

Tensions increased when the federal government stationed FBI agents and U.S. marshals on the reservation in the midst of Wilson's impeachment trial. After Wilson was acquitted amid confusing circumstances, his opponents decided to make a stand by seizing Wounded Knee, the site of the 1890 massacre of as many as 300 Lakotas by the U.S. Seventh Cavalry. AIM readily supported them. They jointly occupied the hamlet of Wounded Knee on February 27, 1973, and were immediately surrounded by marshals, FBI agents, BIA police, and Wilson's private army, known as the "goon squad."

During the ensuing siege, AIM again took control of the situation, dealing with the national media and negotiating with the federal representatives. After seventy-one days, endless negotiations, the shooting death of two aim supporters, and the paralysis of one marshal, the siege ended on May 8. It signaled the beginning of the end of AIM.

From then on, aim endured a two-pronged attack from the federal government. First, a long series of trials against AIM's leaders was designed to bankrupt the organization through costly legal fees and keeping its leaders tied up in court. Meanwhile, the FBI used counter-intelligence programs, later deemed illegal, to infiltrate and disrupt the organization. Government repression reached its zenith with the conviction of prominent AIM member Leonard Peltier in the 1975 shooting deaths of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Reservation. During the trial, the government intimidated witnesses, manufactured evidence, and committed numerous other infractions. Nonetheless, Peltier was sentenced to two consecutive life terms in 1977. Efforts to win his freedom have since gained international attention, and Amnesty International currently recognizes him as one of the most important political prisoners in the world.

Meanwhile, a virtual civil war between AIM and the "goons" plagued Pine Ridge during Wilson's post–Wounded Knee tenure (1973–76), resulting in more than fifty unsolved murders of AIM members and supporters. In 1979 the mother-in-law, wife, and three children of AIM's national chairman, John Trudell, were killed in an arsonist's fire. The cause of the fire, which was started while Trudell was protesting the Peltier verdict, remains unsolved.

Bankruptcy, paranoia, and repression, combined with AIM's decentralized structure and leadership patterns, led to a spiraling decline within the organization. Individual leaders increasingly worked on their own projects, political and otherwise, and by the 1980s AIM was defunct as a national entity. The FBI closed its active files on AIM in July 1979. Today, a scattering of local chapters continues to work on local issues, and individual members of national prominence continue to invoke the movement's name on behalf of their own programs.

See also MUSIC: Trudell, John / WAR: Wounded Knee Massacre.

Akim D. Reinhardt Towson University

Churchill, Ward, and Jim Vander Wall. Agents of Repression: The FBI's Secret War against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement. Boston: South End Press, 1988.

Smith, Paul Chaat, and Robert Allen Warrior. Like a Hurricane. New York: New Press, 1996.

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