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AIMing Higher: Modern Mass Movements and Change

Introduction

When the history of a people revolves around their consistent persecution and their struggle to survive, times look bleak. ‘Survivance’ is an important modern concept of the act of Indigenous resistance through presence, namely the denial of the narratives of their dominance, severing the narrative of Indigenous people as a consistently victimized and forgotten people.7

Indigenous people, as shown in the previous post in this series, have always been moving through time as they are, not becoming a ‘vanishing race’ since they are the progenitors of the land that they inhabit. The act of survivance arises due to those conditions that colonial powers set upon their arrival in the Americas. The haunting of Indigenous presence and persistence continues in the groups that we will cover today, mainly the American Indian Movement and modern Indigenous-focused events and histories.

Founding of AIM

The American Indian Movement (AIM), was founded in July 1968. Photo courtesy of ILI, original here.

In the year 1968, beginning in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the American Indian Movement (AIM) was founded.3 Their focus was on actively combatting the urban issues which included concepts that still would not seem out of place in today’s landscape, such as police brutality.2 As time went on, the focus of the organization grew outside of its smaller boundaries during its early years, so it expanded to issues such as treaty rights and the perseverance of Indian culture. A movement started by Indigenous people, for Indigenous rights protection and radical advocacy for Indigenous causes. 

This was during the era of the Black Panthers, and with that, a similar approach to actionable movements. AIM movements made nationwide changes as well as active prosecution by the American government just like the Black Panthers. COINTELPRO was a program that was made by the American government’s intelligence agencies to keep tabs on and destroy activist groups across the country, usually, those included black rights organizations, Indigenous rights organizations, leftist organizations, and many more.2  Declassified documents went into great detail on how the government was going to approach these organizations, with the main focus being on destroying their public image by consistently painting them as “militant radical organizations”.2

What were some of the first large-scale events that AIM participated in? Some of the highlights include the occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs HQ, the Wounded Knee Incident, and some AIM participation in the occupation of Alcatraz, another vital moment in modern Indigenous resistance history.

Occupation of the BIA

Members of the American Indian Movement stand guard at the Bureau of Indian Affairs in November 1972. Image was taken by Harvey Georges of AP. Accessed from the Washington Post.

Beginning with the occupation of the BIA, AIM took over the headquarters of the BIA, which was the American arm of government that concerned itself with the administration of ‘Indian Affairs’, these included treaties, land usage rights, payments for some of those treaty agreements, etc.1

As shown in the previous post, the BIA has always had a contentious role with Indigenous people, mainly because it is not an organization that is led by Indigenous people for the needs and wants of the Indigenous community. The main point of the BIA occupation was for the American government to realize that the BIA or any similarly run federal organization has to serve the interests of Indigenous people first and foremost. It was eventually cleared out within a week and the government gave a minor concession of appointing an Indigenous person to a position within the BIA, although not one of great authority.1

It would not be until 2021 when the first Indigenous person, Deb Haaland, would be the Secretary of the Interior, which under it hosts the modern-day BIA.

Occupation at Wounded Knee 

Two armed AIM occupiers standing guard. Image accessed from American Indian Republic.

The next major AIM movement was the occupation of Wounded Knee. The main issues that led up to the near 71-day occupation of Wounded Knee were intertribal tensions that arose on the Pine Ridge Reservation.4

Their elected tribal leader, whose name was Richard Wilson, was accused to be corrupt in his post, frequently working with the BIA, which still played an antagonistic role towards Indigenous rights and his close ties to the BIA alongside that corruption benefited those close to him in an already impoverished area was a point of contention for the residents.4

Eventually, the Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization acquired the help of AIM to help them in their goal to remove Wilson from office. Eventually, on February 28, 1973, the occupation began, with a focus on the actual historical site of the Wounded Knee massacre, which had occurred on the very land that they were standing on. The occupation lasted 71 days when the government took the town. 

So what do these events show about Indigenous movements in the 20th century? They show that these movements have goals in mind and that even when they do not succeed immediately in their goals, they serve to move the discourse one step further. Public support for the Indigenous movement and those at Wounded Knee increased after the incident, due to harsh and violent federal responses to relatively peaceful requests for treaty defense and land rights.

In regards to the BIA occupation compared to the Wounded Knee, you can see the difference in response from the governments and the agencies involved. Nearly all of it is antagonistic and requires a police/national guard presence to ‘resolve’ the situation. And when the public sees these confrontations, they are forced to reckon with the ‘why’ of these situations. Why are they occupying a small town? Why are they taking over a federal building? And how these questions are answered reveals the intentions of those who answer them. 

One thing remains true, and that is that these movements do not sprout out of anywhere, they do not begin from the minds and hands of non-Indigenous people, because in a society where there is an entire government secret operation to take such advocacy movements down, Indigenous people were, and continue to be the forefront of their own advocacy. They know what is best for their communities, and even though no movement can go to say that they represent all Indigenous people, it is those who fight the smaller battles or join a greater movement that contributes to the greater cause of securing treaty rights, securing economic futures and homes, and amending the years of fallout from brutal American Indigenous policy.

In regards to the government and their COINTELPRO operation, these movements were outbursts of ‘militant and radical occupation and violence’. Movements like the AIM and the BPP were movements that were ‘too radical’ for the government to ignore, even though those more militant sectors were never the main arms of movements. Those came through protests, non-violent occupations, and movements that intertwined themselves with non-Indigenous support.2

Occupation of Alcatraz and the Future

An image from Nov. 25, 1969 captures a moment in the 19-month Indigenous occupation of Alcatraz, which drew attention to Indigenous civil rights. Original taken by AP, accessed courtesy of LA Times.

Ending off with the occupation of Alcatraz, we are introduced to the IOAT, or the Indians of All Tribes, which on November 20th, 2969 occupied the former American prison island known as Alcatraz. The main focus of the occupation was a claim by the IOAT that the Treaty of Fort Laramie allowed Lakota people to retake the island as at that time, the island was technically not being used as the federal government looked for a buyer. Eventually, the US government stopped the occupation forcefully and the news of the occupation continued a pattern of Indian activism in the 20th century.5

What do these events finally tell us about Indigenous movements? Indigenous people have had to fight for their treaty rights to be defended, their land and water protected, and their rights respected. The American government throughout has proven to be a consistent antagonist to these movements, relatively peaceful ones. That inability of the American government to concede and work together with Indigenous people themselves is what guarantees that Indigenous movements will continue, and possibly get even more radical in the future, especially in matters such as water rights being threatened across the nation with pollution and pipelines.

With that, it should come as no surprise that the Indigenous movement has no plans of stopping as long as the issues affecting the Indigenous community remain unresolved. The importance of centering Indigenous voices to hopefully move towards resolving these problems is of great importance. No one person can answer the very difficult questions that arise when it comes to questions about land rights, water protections, and possible reparations for Indigenous people. 

With so many injustices prevailing today, it is important to note that with these examples of urban Indigenous resistance, the future and descendants of Indigenous people hold the mantle for future movements, as urbanization becomes more and more prevalent. As Renya K. Ramirez focuses on in her amazing book Native Hubs, “Here we can see what previous generations called tradition morphing into the next generation’s identity, becoming the new tradition, and we have the opportunity to see these young adults proposing different solutions for long-standing issues.” 6

Those young people already inhabit hubs of Indigenous culture and community. With that, the spread of Indigenous culture and presence will continue for as long as Indigenous people exist, which is safe to say, for many, many years to come. What we can learn from that past is that the presence of Indigenous people will stay, and we will see more movements arise as the world around us changes and new communities and leaders fight for their communities’ needs, well into the future.

Author

Hello again! I hope you enjoyed this blog post about the more recent events of Indigenous resistance! May we move into the future stronger together. This post was written by Randy Jerez.

Bibliography

  1. Blakemore, Erin. “The Radical History of the Red Power Movement’s Fight for Native American Sovereignty.” The radical history of the Red Power movement’s fight for Native American sovereignty. National Geographic, November 25, 2020. https://web.archive.org/web/20201125125535/https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/reference/united-states-history/red-power-movement-radical-fight-native-american-sovereignty/.
  2. Churchill, Ward, and Jim Wall. “COINTELPRO-AIM.” Essay. In The COINTELPRO Papers: Documents from the FBI’s Secret Wars against Domestic Dissent, 233–33. Boston, MA: South End Press, 1990.
  3. Davey, Katie Jean, ed. “Libguides: American Indian Movement (AIM): Overview.” Overview – American Indian Movement (AIM) – LibGuides at Minnesota Historical Society Library. Minnesota Historical Society Library, November 22, 2021. https://libguides.mnhs.org/aim/ov.
  4. Dog, Mary Crow. Lakota Woman. New York, NY: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990.
  5. Kelly, Casey Ryan. “Détournement, Decolonization, and the American Indian Occupation of Alcatraz Island (1969–1971).” Détournement, Decolonization, and the American Indian Occupation of Alcatraz Island (1969–1971). Taylor & Francis, April 14, 2014. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/02773945.2014.888464.
  6. Ramirez, Renya K.. Native Hubs: Culture, Community, and Belonging in Silicon Valley and Beyond. New York, USA: Duke University Press, 2007. https://doi-org.ezproxy.library.wisc.edu/10.1515/9780822389897
  7. Vizenor, Gerald Robert. “Introduction.” Essay. In Manifest Manners: Narratives on Postindian Survivance, vii-vii. Lincoln, Neb, NE: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 2010.

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