The American Indian Movement (AIM) is a grassroots movement for Indigenous rights, founded in 1968 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Originally an urban-focused movement formed in response to police brutality and racial profiling, AIM grew rapidly in the 1970s and became the driving force behind the Indigenous civil rights movement.
AIM members and their allies have conducted some of the highest-profile protests and acts of civil disobedience in American Indian history. Although AIM split in two in 1993, its successors continue its legacy of fighting for Native American rights, holding the United States responsible for the dozens of treaties it has broken and drawing attention to the cause of Indigenous peoples around the world.
The 'Termination Policy' and AIM's Origins
In the first half of the 20th century, the federal government imposed a higher degree of control over Indian lands, with the intention of breaking up tribes and assimilating their members into American cities. “Termination policy” became federal law in 1953, as Congress formally ended its recognition of more than 100 tribes, encouraging Indians to leave reservations for the cities of the West and Midwest. A significant number of people moved from reservations to the cities, where they encountered a lack of educational opportunities and racial profiling at the hands of the police.
Dennis Banks and Clyde Bellecourt, two Ojibwa men who had met in prison, founded AIM in 1968 in Minneapolis, along with Bellecourt’s brother Vernon and Banks’ friend George Mitchell. AIM’s original goal was to curb racial profiling in Minneapolis and give a voice to Native Americans living in the city.
One of AIM’s first actions was to create the AIM Patrol, which monitored how police and the courts treated Native Americans. AIM also supported the creation of the Indian Health Board of Minneapolis to provide healthcare to the Native community. Its leaders took inspiration from the civil rights movement and the policies of nonviolent confrontation that many of its leaders espoused, although as the years went on AIM members would occasionally take up arms.
Occupations and Education
AIM’s early protests against police brutality earned the new organization notoriety, and its membership grew rapidly. Banks and other AIM members were a part of the coalition occupied Alcatraz Island in 1969, asserting Indigenous authority over the island in an ironic imitation of Europeans’ takeover of the continent.
Other early AIM actions mirrored the Alcatraz occupation. On Thanksgiving 1970, AIM members seized a replica of the Mayflower in Boston Harbor, declaring a national day of mourning. The following year saw one of the most iconic protests in Native American history—the occupation of Mt. Rushmore. For two months, activists camped on the mountain, a sacred site to local tribes which had been turned into a monument to American presidents, demanding federal recognition of the Treaty of Fort Laramie, which had granted the area to the Lakota tribe but was broken as soon as gold was discovered nearby.
Other occupations succeeded in winning material gains for local Natives. AIM played a role in the takeover of the Winter Dam in Wisconsin after it cause the flooding of Lac Court Oreilles Ojibwa land. The standoff ended with a settlement that returned 25,000 acres to the tribe. In 1971, 30 militants led by Herb Powless, founder of AIM’s Milwaukee chapter, took over an abandoned Coast Guard station on the city’s lakefront, citing a treaty from the previous century and claiming the land “for the good and welfare of the Indian people.”
The occupiers were armed, but encountered no resistance, so they relocated an alcohol treatment program and the fledgling Indian Community School into the abandoned building. Eventually, the government recognized the Native Americans’ right to the land, where the school operated for several years before moving to a new location. In 1972, the year after the occupation of the Milwaukee Coast Guard building, AIM founded the Heart of the Earth Survival School in Minneapolis, a K-12 school designed as an alternative to schools run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The Trail of Broken Treaties, Recognition and Blowback
A consistent tactic of AIM organizers has been to draw attention to the federal government’s long history of broken promises to Indigenous Americans. In 1972, AIM organized its most ambitious action to date, the Trail of Broken Treaties. Hundreds of Native Americans drove in caravans, beginning on the West Coast, to the offices of the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C. During the occupation, AIM released the Twenty Points, a list of demands that included the re-recognition of Native tribes, abolition of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (an organ of the Department of the Interior) and federal protections for Indigenous cultures and religions. The occupiers held the BIA office for a week, building a tipi on its lawn.
President Richard Nixon dismissed the Twenty Points but took the protest seriously, endorsing self-determination for Indian tribes. With his support, Congress passed the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975, which reversed the termination policy and provided recognition and funds to Indian tribes.
Between the Trail of Broken Treaties and the passage of the Self-Determination Act, however, violent conflict erupted between Native American activists and federal authorities. In 1973, an Indian man named Wesley Bad Heart Bull was stabbed to death by a white man in Custer, South Dakota. AIM activists and others rallied to the area to demand justice, but were not satisfied with the local authorities’ response. The confrontation escalated into a riot in Custer followed by an armed Indian occupation of the Pine Ridge Reservation, the site of the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre.
For 71 days, as federal marshals and the FBI cordoned off the area and refused to allow the press inside. In sporadic exchanges of gunfire, two Indian activists were killed and another 14 wounded, with two FBI agents killed and two wounded. Ray Robinson, an African American civil rights activist, disappeared while occupying Wounded Knee, and is believed to have been murdered. Banks was arrested, along with prominent AIM member Russell Means, although the charges against them were later thrown out.
The Washington protests and the violence at Pine Ridge drew attention to AIM’s cause. Later that year, actor Marlon Brando sent Sacheen Littlefeather, a woman who had participated in the occupation of Alcatraz and who claimed Native American ancestry, to accept the Academy Award for Best Actor on his behalf. In 1974, AIM called for a gathering of Indigenous people from across the Western Hemisphere on the land of the Standing Rock Sioux in South Dakota. More than 5,000 representatives from 98 Indigenous nations attended, forming the International Indian Treaty Council. Later that year, the IITC received official recognition from the UN, the first Indigenous organization to do so.
In 1975, the Department of Housing and Urban Development designated AIM as the primary sponsor of Little Earth of United Tribes, the first Indigenous housing project in the country, in Minneapolis. In 1978, AIM organized a second march from the West Coast to Washington, titled the "Longest Walk." President Jimmy Carter refused to meet with the protestors, but the action received support from Sen. Robert Kennedy and cultural figures like Brando and boxer Muhammad Ali. Their arrival coincided with the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, which granted Native Americans the right to use certain lands and controlled substances for religious ceremonies.
Fighting for Culture and International Indigenous Rights
The late 1970s and '80s were marked by infighting within AIM, as the revelation that the organization’s head of security was an FBI informant sowed seeds of distrust. In recent decades, AIM has been known primarily for cultural advocacy and for its work on behalf of Indigenous rights on a global scale.
In 1991, Clyde Bellecourt and others revived the Sundance, a traditional gathering of celebration and thanksgiving, at Pipestone National Monument. The ceremony has been held every year since. Clyde’s brother Vernon became active in the fight to rename American sports teams, convincing the NCAA to bar the use of Indian mascots during its tournaments in 2005. None of Bellecourt’s “big four” targets had changed their names before his death in 2007, but two of them—now known as the Cleveland Guardians and the Washington Commanders—eventually relented.
In 2007, the UN adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, enshrining the rights of Indigenous peoples to cultural and ceremonial expression, identity, language, employment, health and education into international law by a vote of 144 to 4 (the United States and Canada both voted “no”). The declaration was a watershed moment for the international Indigenous community which AIM had helped unite.
Despite these victories, AIM itself split in 1993, with one successor organization based in Minneapolis and another based in Denver. In 2008, the Heart of the Earth Survival School closed as its Executive Director was investigated for fraud, but over its 36-year history, the school graduated more Native students than the rest of the Minneapolis public school system put together.
Often overshadowed by other, larger movements and by the infighting that led to its rupture, AIM was nevertheless an active and highly effective element of the broader push for civil rights in the 1960s and '70s. Its early radical actions and repeated occupations of government buildings succeeded in extracting concessions, including the passage of laws that dramatically altered federal policy toward Native Americans.
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AIM Patrol, Minneapolis. MNopedia.
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Heart of the Earth Survival School. MNopedia