In 1969 a group calling itself Indians of All Tribes (IAT) seized and occupied the abandoned federal prison on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay. Visiting Alcatraz in late 1969, Dennis Banks recruited a young Santee Sioux, John Trudell, who served as AIM's primary spokesperson from 1970 to 1979. Russell Means, a reservation-born, urban-raised Oglala Lakota, was also recruited. Means, a brilliant media strategist, conceived of and led the occupation of Mount Rushmore in the fall of 1970 and organized AIM's seizure of the Mayflower replica at Plymouth, Massachusetts, on Thanksgiving Day, 1971.
By 1971, AIM was focusing on land and treaty issues, with an increased emphasis on reservation life. The group rapidly gained credibility, dramatically increasing the size and diversity of its membership. By late 1972, by unofficial count, forty-three AIM chapters had been started in the United States and another half-dozen in Canada. AIM soon had solid alliances with the Crusade for Justice, a Denverbased Chicano organization headed by Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales, the Los Angeles–based Brown Berets and Chicano Moratorium, Jesse Jackson's Operation Push in Chicago, the Puerto Rican Young Lords Party in New York, and the remnants of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California. Euro-American activists supported AIM through organizations such as Venceremos and Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), and Cherokee activist/artist Jimmie Durham organized a network of Native American Support Committees (NASCs) that spanned the continent. An international dimension was added by AIM's relationship with the All-African People's Revolutionary Party, headed by Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Turé).
For several years AIM pursued a strategy of forcing highly visible confrontations with federal, state, and local authorities. The 1971 takeover of unused military facilities at Fort Lawton, near Seattle, resulted in the construction of an American Indian cultural institution on the site, The Daybreak Star Center. Confrontations in Oklahoma and Minnesota led to the establishment of Native-controlled schools. In Denver, AIM actions produced improved health care for Native people.
It was, however, in the small town of Gordon, Nebraska, just south of the Pine Ridge Reservation, that AIM consolidated its reputation among Native peoples. There, Raymond Yellow Thunder, a middle-aged Oglala, had been tortured and murdered by two local residents, Melvin and Leslie Hare, in January 1972. As was routine in those days, local authorities refused to respond and Yellow Thunder's family appealed to AIM. Russell Means led more than one thousand Indians and supporters into Gordon, announcing that AIM had come to put Gordon on the map, adding that if the Hares weren't charged with murder within seventy-two hours, they would come back to take it off the map. Shortly thereafter, the Hare brothers became the first whites in Nebraska history to be prosecuted, convicted, and imprisoned for killing an Indian.
As a result of this unprecedented victory, AIM gained the widespread respect of traditionalists, who were beginning to view the movement as a modern warriors' society dedicated to defending the people. Hundreds of younger members were attracted by the movement's confrontational politics, which released them from a lifelong sense of disempowerment. Soon, displays of "Indianness" such as braids, ribbon shirts, and chokers joined bumper stickers reading "Indian and Proud" as standard fashion statements wherever Native people gathered. The shame of being born into oppression had been cast off in Indian country.
Trail of Broken Treaties
The Trail of Broken Treaties ended with the most spectacular of AIM's confrontations, in which the Bureau of Indian Affairs' Washington, D.C. headquarters was occupied. By 1972 the organization had been embraced by Leonard Crow Dog, a Brûlé Lakota traditionalist from the Rosebud Reservation, adjoining Pine Ridge. He became the movement's spiritual leader and after his 1972 Sun Dance, it was agreed that AIM should carry the struggle forward into a new phase by organizing delegations from as many peoples as possible to converge on Washington, D.C. AIM's intent was to force President Richard M. Nixon, then running for reelection, to publicly acknowledge and pledge corrective action concerning the U.S. government's long-standing pattern of violating treaties with American Indians, usurping their governments, and expropriating their lands and resources. As a result of such policies and practices, Native people had long been the most impoverished population group identified in the U.S. Census. In 1972, for example, annual percapita income on the Pine Ridge Reservation was barely $1,200, unemployment hovered at about 90 percent, and male life expectancy averaged 44.6 years.
Arrangements were made with federal authorities for planned demonstrations and ceremonies, as well as for food and housing for the participants. When officials reneged, several hundred protesters occupied the BIA headquarters, conducting daily press conferences and refusing to leave until Nixon personally agreed to respond to each demand in the demonstrators' twenty-point program. Nixon agreed—another promise that would be broken—and the occupiers withdrew, taking large numbers of BIA files with them. Over the next several months, the files were copied, the originals returned to the BIA, and duplicates distributed to the peoples whose assets and affairs were affected. Among many other programs that provoked Indian peoples' rage, the BIA files revealed an involuntary sterilization program secretly run by the BIA's Indian Health Service (IHS). Eventually it was estimated that, between 1970 and 1975, approximately 40 percent of all American Indian women of childbearing age had been sterilized, a disclosure that forced the relocation of IHS to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (now Health and Human Services).
BIA documents also revealed fraudulent governmental activity with respect to assets managed in trust by the BIA as a result of the plenary power asserted by the United States over Indian affairs since 1903. Under BIA-negotiated leases, American Indians were receiving, on average, about 10 percent of the royalties they would have received on the open market. Armed with this information, many Native people were able to force changes in the administration of their lands and resources, although trust funds still unaccounted for by the BIA total well over a $100 billion.
Rather than responding to the issues raised by the Trail of Broken Treaties, the Nixon administration launched a campaign to discredit AIM and whatever information it might disseminate. Sensational stories were planted in the press, falsely claiming that AIM "vandals" had done more physical damage to the Capitol than anyone since the British in 1812. The federally funded National Tribal Chair-men's Association denounced AIM leaders as irresponsible revolutionaries without a Native constituency. In the meantime, the FBI was instructed to target and politically neutralize the movement.
Wounded Knee Siege
As AIM members returned home in triumph, Russell Means found himself barred from the Pine Ridge Reservation—despite the fact that he was an enrolled tribal member and owned land there—by thugs working for recently installed Pine Ridge President Dick Wilson. Wilson had been given federal funds to establish a paramilitary group that came to be known as the Guardians of the Oglala Nation (GOONs). The GOONs, who overlapped considerably with the BIA police, were used to terrorize Wilson's opponents. In response, the Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization (OSCRO), headed by Pedro Bissonette, was organized to impeach Wilson.
In January 1973 Dennis Banks called for AIM members to gather in Rapid City to begin a major civil rights campaign. Upon arrival, they learned that Wesley Bad Heart Bull, a young Oglala, had been stabbed to death in the nearby town of Buffalo Gap. As in the Yellow Thunder case, local police refused to bring charges and the victim's mother asked for AIM's help. This time, however, the authorities were prepared when the AIM contingent arrived in Custer, South Dakota. First, an anonymous caller caused the Rapid City Journal to announce that the demonstration had been canceled, so the turnout was low. The Indians were then met by a combined force of local, county, and state police tactical units, overseen by FBI observers. In the ensuing struggle, the Custer County Courthouse and the local chamber of commerce building were set ablaze and most of the Indians, including Russell Means, Dennis Banks, and Bad Heart Bull's mother Sarah were subsequently arrested on charges of riot and arson. The trials dragged on for years and resulted in convictions of most of the defendants. Sarah Bad Heart Bull was sentenced to serve a year in jail, while her son's killer never spent a day behind bars.
In the meantime, impeachment efforts on Pine Ridge had been thwarted. OSCRO had obtained more signatures for Wilson's removal than the number of votes by which he was elected, but the BIA—having first brought in a sixty-man Special Operations Group (SOG) of U.S. marshals to "maintain order"—allowed Wilson to preside over his own impeachment. Under these conditions, Wilson was retained in office by a fourteen-to-zero vote of the tribal council and immediately proclaimed a reservation-wide ban on all political meetings. Unable to resolve their grievances through any sort of conventional due process, the elders of the traditional Oglala leadership asked AIM to intervene.
On February 27, 1973, it was decided that a press conference would be held the following day to expose what was happening on Pine Ridge. A symbolic site was chosen—the mass grave of some 350 Lakotas massacred by the U.S. Army at Wounded Knee in 1890. About 150 AIM members immediately went to the tiny hamlet to prepare, while others began notifying the media. At dawn, those inside Wounded Knee realized that, overnight, Wilson's GOONs had set up roadblocks that both prevented press access and sealed in the AIM organizers. SOG reinforcements and FBI personnel soon arrived and by the following day, two "consultants"—actually special warfare experts—had been dispatched by Nixon's military advisor, General Alexander Haig.
The seventy-one-day Siege of Wounded Knee had begun. Unprepared for an armed confrontation or a protracted occupation, the AIM contingent obtained weapons from a local trading post and quickly improvised defensive "bunkers." Supporters soon worked out a way to smuggle in food, clothing, arms, and ammunition through the federal lines. By March 7, nearly 300 marshals and more than 100 FBI agents were deployed on Pine Ridge, supported by about 250 BIA police, most of them SWAT team members from other reservations, some 150 GOONs and about an equal number of non-Indian vigilantes. State and local police in the five surrounding states intercepted anyone suspected of heading for Wounded Knee, arresting some 1,200 persons over the next two months.
General Haig's "consultants" arranged for the provision of military equipment, ranging from armored personnel carriers to M-79 grenade launchers; an elite rapid deployment force stood by for an airborne assault; and the Strategic Air Command conducted aerial reconnaissance. More flares illuminated the perimeter at night than were used by U.S. forces in Vietnam during any year of the war. All told, a half-million rounds were fired into the perimeter during the siege, killing Frank Clearwater, an Apache, and Buddy Lamont, an Oglala, and wounding many others. In addition, Wilson's GOONs are believed to have murdered as many as thirteen people captured while attempting to slip in. When sheer government firepower failed to stop supplies from reaching the encampment, the grass was burned off for a half-mile in all directions.
The confrontation ended only when federal officials agreed to conduct a full investigation of the Wilson regime and to meet with traditional Oglala leaders concerning U.S. violations of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, the document that officially defines U.S.–Lakota relations. Again, the agreement was violated by the authorities, but AIM's purpose had been accomplished. By the end of the siege on May 7, 1973, the conditions on Pine Ridge, and in Indian Country generally, had been the focus of international attention for over two months.
Within the year, AIM would translate this attention into the establishment of its diplomatic arm, the International Indian Treaty Council (IITC). Directed by NASC's Jimmie Durham, the IITC's mandate was to bring the issue of indigenous rights to the United Nations. By 1977, it was the first Native American organization to attain formal United Nations consultative status. Durham was instrumental in organizing the "Indian Summer in Geneva," a conference that led to the establishment in 1982 of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations. The Working Group provided a regular forum for reporting violations of Native rights and for drafting a Universal Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples for adoption by the UN General Assembly. It has become a major international forum for indigenous peoples around the world, and the Draft Declaration, completed in 1993, is under review by the UN Commission on Human Rights.
In May 1973, however, these international developments lay in the future. AIM's priority was to survive the 185 indictments its members faced following the siege of Wounded Knee. In February 1974 Russell Means and Dennis Banks went to trial, charged with everything from criminal conspiracy and kidnapping to car theft and assaulting federal officers. Prosecutors were unscrupulous, even introducing the testimony of an "eyewitness" who had been in California during the siege. After more than eight months, Judge Fred J. Nichol dismissed all charges, noting that the waters of justice had been "polluted" (his word) by governmental misconduct, and that "[t]he FBI has stooped to a new low" (Johansen and Maestas, 1979, 91).
Later it was revealed the FBI had an infiltrator in the defense team throughout the trial. By the end of 1974, the government had obtained only five minor convictions after having prosecuted forty cases. The Wounded Knee Legal Defense/Offense Committee (WKLDOC), created by attorneys Ken Tilson and Beverly Axelrod, challenged U.S. jurisdiction over the remaining cases as violating the 1868 treaty. Judge Warren Urbom ruled, in effect, that, while this would once have been true, the United States had so long and regularly violated the treaty that its legal force had been eroded. The Justice Department dismissed fifty pending cases, but twenty "leadership trials" dragged on for another year. Spiritual leader Leonard Crow Dog, Oklahoma AIM leader Carter Camp, and Stan Holder, who headed security at Wounded Knee, were convicted of interfering with a group of marshals who had attempted to enter the AIM perimeter disguised as postal inspectors. Ultimately, federal prosecutors obtained only fifteen guilty verdicts, none for substantial offenses.
It later became apparent that the government had not gone to court expecting a better conviction rate. Rather, its strategy was one of political neutralization, using pretextual arrests to keep the activists tied up in court, their organization bankrupted by bail and legal costs. This continued, albeit on a more selective basis. Russell Means, for example, faced one charge after another for years. He was even tried for murder in 1976, despite the fact that his alleged victim stated repeatedly before he died that Means was not one of the assailants. Acquitted in each case, the apparently endless proceedings eventually exhausted Means's patience. His refusal, as well as that of other AIM members, to rise for the judge in Sarah Bad Heart Bull's 1974 trial resulted in a courtroom brawl and Means's only felony conviction, for which he was sentenced to four years under a South Dakota statute that had never before been used and was repealed while he was in prison.
Dennis Banks was convicted on the Custer charges in July 1975. Facing a fifteen-year sentence, he became a fugitive. California Governor Jerry Brown granted him sanctuary, citing South Dakota Attorney General William Janklow's statement that "the way to deal with AIM leaders is to put a bullet between their eyes." Janklow had campaigned on a pledge to "put the AIM leaders either in jail or under it" (Churchill and Vander Wall, 2002, 345–346).
In 1982 Brown was succeeded by George Deukmejian, and Banks again went underground, surfacing on the Onondaga Reservation in upstate New York. Finally, in September 1984, after obtaining assurances of safety from Janklow, who had since become governor of South Dakota, Banks surrendered and served thirteen months.
In the meantime, in November 1975, Banks, his wife Kamook, and AIM members Kenny Loud Hawk and Russell Redner were charged with federal explosives and firearms violations. The case was dismissed for lack of evidence in 1976, reinstated in 1980, and again dismissed in 1983, this time because the government had violated the defendants' right to a speedy trial. In January 1986 the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the charges, and six months later the case was again thrown out on the basis of additional prosecutorial misconduct. The Justice Department sought reinstatement yet again and, in late 1988, a weary Dennis Banks entered a pro forma guilty plea in exchange for a suspended sentence and the dropping of charges against his codefendants.
In another case, Los Angeles AIM members Paul "Skyhorse" Durant and Richard "Mohawk" Billings were accused of the torture and murder of a cab driver. Local officials had arrested the likely culprits within hours of the slaying and were preparing charges when the FBI apparently convinced them to immunize the accused as state's witnesses and to charge Skyhorse and Mohawk instead. When the case finally came to trial it became obvious that the state's evidence was either meaningless or crudely fabricated. Finally a primary witness admitted that he had killed the victim, and Skyhorse and Mohawk were acquitted. By then, however, they had been imprisoned for nearly four years and AIM's reputation in California was irreparably damaged.
Summing up this ongoing legal travesty, WKLDOC attorney William Kunstler observed, "the purpose of the trials [was] to break the spirit of the American Indian Movement by tying up its leaders and supporters in court and forcing [it] to spend huge amounts of money, time and talent to keep [its] people out of jail, instead of building an organization that can work effectively for the Indian people" (Matthiessen, 1991, 193–194). Black Panther Party attorney Charles Garry noted that this approach was identical to that used by the FBI in its efforts to destroy the Panthers' political effectiveness between 1969 and 1971.
Reign of Terror on Pine Ridge
During the siege, Dick Wilson proclaimed that AIM would die at Wounded Knee. In a less dramatic manner this was confirmed by a 1973 FBI document entitled "Paramilitary Operations in Indian Country." Even before the U.S. marshals were withdrawn from Wounded Knee, the GOONs were appearing with new, fully automatic M-16 rifles and state-of-the-art military communications equipment. Years later, GOON leader Duane Brewer admitted that the FBI had secretly funneled weapons, munitions, and equipment to them. The FBI claims it only provided the BIA police with such lethal paraphernalia, but it was common knowledge that approximately two-thirds of the reservation police doubled as GOONs.
Between March 1973 and March 1976, at least sixty-nine AIM members and supporters were murdered on or near Pine Ridge, giving the reservation a murder rate eight times that of Detroit, then considered the "murder capital of the United States" (Johansen and Maestas, 1979, 83). One of the first fatalities was OSCRO leader Pedro Bissonette, shot point-blank in the chest with a 12-gauge shotgun after being stopped at a police roadblock in October 1973 and then was left to bleed to death. In March 1975, Bissonette's apolitical sister-in-law Jeanette was also shot to death. According to Brewer, she had been mistaken for Ellen Moves Camp, a prominent Pine Ridge activist. AIM supporter Jim Little was severely beaten in September 1975 and died while the ambulance took an hour to come the two miles from the BIA hospital. In January 1976, attorney Byron DeSersa, a Wilson opponent, was shot and left to bleed to death in a ditch. Numerous witnesses identified the assailants—all known GOONs—but FBI personnel on the scene arrested no one but one witness, an elderly Cheyenne named Guy Dull Knife, whom the agents accused of becoming "abusive" when they failed to act.
As the death toll rose, approximately 340 additional AIM members and supporters on Pine Ridge were subjected to serious physical assaults, including attempts on their lives. In March 1975, the home of seventy-year-old Matthew King, an assistant to Chief Fools Crow and an uncle of Russell Means, was riddled by gunfire. Two nights later, Fools Crow's house was burned to the ground. Tribal council member Severt Young Bear's home was shot at so often that he "lost track" of the number of instances. In June, Means was shot in the back by a BIA police officer, who claimed that Means was engaging in "rowdy behavior." The following November, a BIA officer opened fire on the home of AIM supporter Chester Stone, wounding Stone, his wife, and two small children.
AIM and its supporters continued to seek due-process remedies. In 1974 Russell Means opposed Wilson in the elections for tribal president. Means won the primary by a wide margin but ostensibly lost the runoff by an even larger number of votes. The Denver office of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division found evidence of massive fraud, but nonetheless Wilson remained in office. Criminal investigation of the Wilson regime had been a central demand of the Wounded Knee standoff, and in 1975 the General Accounting Office finally completed an audit. It concluded that Wilson could not account for more than $300,000 in federal highway funds, but no charges were ever filed.
Many, perhaps most, of the crimes committed against AIM and its supporters were committed by the BIA police who were not likely to investigate themselves. George O'Clock, special agent in charge of the FBI's Rapid City Resident Agency, which had primary jurisdiction over the reservation, explained that he was too "short of manpower" to investigate the homicides, attempted homicides, or assaults against AIM. During this same period, however, O'Clock had sufficient resources to create more than 316,000 investigative documents on the victims of this violence.
In July 1975 Denver Civil Rights Division investigators returned to Pine Ridge and concluded that the Wilson regime, with the complicity of federal authorities, had visited a "reign of terror" on reservation residents for over two years. Their recommendation for resumption of a congressional inquiry into FBI operations on Pine Ridge, which had just been "indefinitely postponed," was ignored. In 1987, GOON leader Duane Brewer confirmed that, for all practical purposes, the GOONs had operated as a death squad, coordinated by the FBI in much the same way that the Central Intelligence Agency used paramilitary organizations in Latin America. The reign of terror on Pine Ridge was not law enforcement gone awry so much as an exercise in counterinsurgency warfare by domestic police agencies. The FBI, it appears, was escalating the illegal counterintelligence operations, or COINTELPROs revealed in the 1975 Senate Select Committee's Report on Intelligence Activities and the Rights of Americans, that the Bureau had conducted to "disrupt, destabilize and destroy" the Black Panther Party and other activist organizations.
Despite all of these efforts, the FBI had not succeeded in destroying the American Indian Movement. AIM security had organized armed defensive clusters around the reservation and the GOONs began to back off. An opportunity to eliminate the resistance altogether presented itself on June 26, 1975, when two FBI agents, Ronald Williams and Jack Coler, approached a Northwest AIM encampment on the property of Harry and Cecelia Jumping Bull, elderly traditionalists living a few miles south of the town of Oglala. Ostensibly the agents were serving a (nonexistent) warrant for the arrest of seventeen-year-old Jimmy Eagle, accused of stealing a pair of used cowboy boots. In fact, they stopped close to the Northwest AIM camp and opened fire. Receiving heavy return fire, the two agents were soon fatally shot as they radioed frantically for backup. Despite the reservation's remote location, the requested help began to arrive almost immediately. The FBI later claimed that roughly 150 BIA SWAT personnel were "coincidentally" in the area for an unrelated training exercise, and before the end of the day FBI SWAT teams based in Quantico, Virginia, Minneapolis, Chicago, Denver, and elsewhere were on the scene. Governor Janklow managed to arrive with a group of local vigilantes while the fire-fight was still in progress. Apparently the FBI had hoped to quickly overrun the AIM encampment at the Jumping Bull compound, then send in an overwhelming force to eliminate AIM positions across the reservation. However, when AIM responded strongly, both BIA and FBI units took up blocking positions rather than mounting an attack. Coler and Williams were thus abandoned and all of the "insurgents" escaped, with the exception of Joe Stuntz Killsright, an AIM member from Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, killed by a sniper at long range.
The FBI immediately barred the press from the scene, then "explained" publicly that the agents had been "lured" into an "ambush" by "AIM guerillas." The government spokesperson, flown in from Washington, D.C., for the occasion, even provided reporters with what were supposed to be one of the agents' last words before he was "viciously executed." None of this was factual, but headlines across the country depicted AIM as killers and the FBI sent in 400 agents, complete with combat fatigues, M-16s, armored personnel carriers, and Huey helicopters. For two months they conducted Vietnam-style "sweeps" through the reservation, kicking in doors and mounting "air assaults" on the properties of known AIM members on both Pine Ridge and Rosebud.
As AIM was being pounded into disarray, Dick Wilson went to Washington to sign preliminary documents transferring title of the Sheep Mountain Gunnery Range to the Interior Department's National Park Service. This area, the northwestern eighth of the reservation, was ostensibly to be incorporated into the Badlands National Monument, but the Interior Department had known for some time that it contained large deposits of uranium intermixed with molybdenum. Eventually the Oglalas recovered the surface lands involved, but not the subsurface mineral rights.
The FBI still needed to hold someone accountable for the deaths of Coler and Williams, and it also wanted to prevent AIM from effectively regrouping. To these ends it began the RESMURS (Reservation Murders) investigation, an acronym applied only to the deaths of the agents, not to the scores of still unsolved Indian homicides. Although the FBI knew that a number of local Oglalas were involved, it targeted Bob Robideau, Dino Butler, and Leonard Peltier, "outsiders" perceived to be the backbone of Northwest AIM.
Butler and Robideau were captured in the summer of 1975 and tried in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in June 1976. At trial, the government's credibility was undermined by its reliance on transparently false witnesses, and the all-white jury returned verdicts of not guilty on all counts. The jury noted that Butler and Robideau had acted in self-defense, doing "only what any reasonable person would do, under the circumstances" that had been created on Pine Ridge (Churchill, 2003, 280).
Meanwhile, Peltier had escaped to a traditional Cree community in Alberta, Canada. Arrested in February 1976, he was extradited to the United States, primarily on the basis of a fraudulent "eyewitness affidavit" prepared by the FBI. This flagrant violation of the U.S.–Canada extradition treaty was later exposed, prompting the Canadian parliament to consider canceling the treaty altogether. Peltier was still fighting extradition during the Butler and Robideau trials and thus was tried separately upon his return.
Determined not to repeat the "mistakes" of its first trial, the Justice Department had Peltier's case moved to North Dakota, where it found district judge Paul Benson willing to narrowly restrict the evidence to the events of June 26, 1975. This precluded the introduction of the Cedar Rapids trial record and, more generally, any explanation of the reign of terror prevailing at the time of the firefight. Prosecutors then argued a "lone gunman" theory, completely contradicting the evidence they had introduced against Butler and Robideau. Based on the introduction of much fabricated evidence, the jury quickly found Peltier guilty of double homicide and on June 1, 1977, Judge Benson sentenced Peltier to two consecutive life sentences.
The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals acknowledged more than thirty reversible errors, but allowed Peltier's conviction to stand. Shortly thereafter, William Webster, the chief judge of the circuit court, became director of the FBI, but both the Eighth Circuit and the Supreme Court denied review. Despite ongoing appeals based on additional evidence of governmental misconduct and on prosecutor Lynn Crooks' 1987 acknowledgment that he "really has no idea who shot those agents," Leonard Peltier remains in prison in 2007, routinely denied parole because he refuses to "accept responsibility" for the deaths of the agents. Petitions for his release have been signed by more than 14 million people internationally, and Amnesty International has declared Peltier a "prisoner of conscience." In January 2001, President Bill Clinton was on the verge of signing a long-promised commutation of Peltier's sentence when FBI agents mounted highly publicized protests and Clinton backed down. Peltier thus remains in prison, not for any crime he has committed, but as a symbol of the federal government's arbitrary ability to repress indigenous peoples' legitimate aspirations to liberation.
The Ongoing Struggle
By the late 1970s AIM was in serious decline. Its reputation suffered as a result of rumors, which may have had some substance, that in February 1976 AIM members had murdered one of their own, a Mi'kmaq named Anna Mae Pictou Aquash, who had been "bad-jacketed" (a standard COINTELPRO tactic) as an infiltrator. In 2005, the case was revived by federal prosecutors, apparently as part of a wider effort to discredit activist organizations of the 1960s and 1970s. One former AIM member, Arlo Looking Cloud, was tried and convicted; another, John Graham, is fighting extradition from Canada; and it appears that indictments will be brought against several others.
In 1979, shortly after his wife, three children, and mother-in-law were murdered on the Duck Valley Reservation in Nevada, John Trudell, the only remaining "national" AIM officer, resigned and announced that all comparable positions had been abolished.
In 1978 Dennis Banks organized The Longest Walk, a march from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., to protest pending legislation to repeal all treaties with American Indians. The bills were subsequently defeated, in part due to this action but more fundamentally because U.S. claims to the legitimacy of the occupation of Indian lands are based largely on those same treaties. Banks, too, has "retired" from AIM, although he continues to coordinate walks and runs to draw attention to Native issues.
During 1979 Jimmie Durham and IITC associate director Paul Chaat Smith resigned as well, citing the organization's increasingly close ties to the governments of Cuba and other socialist countries. During the mid-1980s the IITC incorporated and replaced its council of traditional elders with a handpicked board, which immediately aligned itself with Nicaragua's Sandinista government, thereby helping quash the right of the indigenous people in Nicaragua to self-determination. This splintered what was left of AIM. The Treaty Council continues to exist, without a discernible base of grassroots support and functioning essentially as an appendage of the statist entities it was created to oppose.
Russell Means during 1981 led the seizure of an 880-acre tract in the Black Hills National Forest. Named Yellow Thunder Camp, the site was continuously occupied until 1985 while AIM took the battle to court. It won a landmark decision, with District Judge Robert O'Brien ruling that the Lakotas, and thus other Indians, were entitled to view entire geographic areas as sacred sites and to enjoy use and, in certain instances, occupancy rights. This was soon nullified, however, by the Supreme Court's 1988 decision in the "G-O Road" case, Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association.
Means and Colorado AIM leader Glenn Morris organized a broad coalition of local organizations to protest the annual Columbus Day parade in Denver during the early 1990s. In the summer of 1992, a jury not only acquitted Means, Morris, and two other Colorado AIM members of violating the First Amendment rights of the Columbus Day organizers, but stated that the city of Denver had violated international law by issuing a permit for the parade. This led to the cancellation of an extravagant 1992 celebration of the quincentennial of Columbus's "discovery of America." By 2000 such celebrations of genocide had reemerged, and again protestors led by Colorado AIM were acquitted. In 2002, over 240 people were arrested and charged with disrupting the parade; after losing yet another jury trial, Denver officials were forced to drop charges against all remaining defendants.
AIM's Denver victories in the early 1990s stimulated activities in chapters across the country, and even this modest resurgence illustrated that the FBI was still anxious to neutralize the movement. In a bizarre twist, a barrage of notices were issued by an entity calling itself the National American Indian Movement, claiming that the Colorado chapter was fraudulent, that its leadership consisted of "white men masquerading as Indians" and "probable police agents," and that the entire group had therefore been "summarily expelled" from AIM. It turned out that "National AIM" was actually a Minnesota-based nonprofit corporation with no membership of its own, subsisting on corporate and federal funding. Nonetheless, the confusion it generated negated any potential for a genuine AIM revitalization.
Despite the generally successful neutralization of the movement, AIM was instrumental in transforming the circumstances of Native life in ways that may prove irreversible. A sense of pride was instilled among people long oppressed; Indian issues were forced into public consciousness for the first time in many generations; and the movement illustrated that gains could be made by direct confrontation. This understanding is reflected in the armed confrontations undertaken by Mohawks at Oka, near Montreal, and elsewhere, confrontations over land issues that continue in 2006 in places such as Caledonia, Ontario. The militant struggles of the 1970s have laid the groundwork for a future that certainly looks brighter than it did for Indian people two generations ago.