5 Actions of the American Indian Movement

In the mid-twentieth century, the American Indian Movement (AIM) was founded, engaging in a number of protests to fight for the rights of Indigenous Americans.

Jul 7, 2024By Kassandre Dwyer, M.Ed History

actions american indian movement


The American Indian Movement, or AIM, is a grassroots activist organization largely active in the 1970s, frustrated at the way that the US government had treated Indigenous peoples of all tribal affiliations over the centuries. Coming to fruition in the late 1960s, the group engaged in a number of protests throughout the next several years, calling the world’s attention to the plights of America’s native peoples. However, their stands were sometimes viewed as revolutionary and garnered attention from law enforcement, even the FBI and CIA, leading to suspicion, arrests, and even violence.


Their AIMs

Clyde Bellecourt in 1973. Jim Wells image. Source: New York Times


AIM was founded in Minneapolis when three men, George Mitchell, Dennis Banks, and Clyde Bellecourt, all Indigenous activists, held a meeting for any Indigenous community members who were frustrated and wanted more agency over their destiny. Over 200 people attended the meeting, and AIM was born.


They were focused on repairing the issues that faced those who were living native in America: high unemployment, racism, and poverty. They wanted to meet with the government to address treaties and tribal land rights, as well as conditions on reservations. Highly public protests and other forms of activism became the key ways AIM achieved its goals in the twentieth century.


1. The Indian Health Board

As indicated by this counseling services logo, the Indian Health Board is still operational and active today. Source: Indian Health Board


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One of AIM’s early focuses was assisting Indigenous peoples who had recently become urbanized and were suffering hardships in these conditions. In 1953, the federal government had established a program that encouraged Native Americans to move from reservations to urban areas in exchange for housing and employment assistance. However, these people often ended up with low-end jobs and poor housing, faced discrimination, and were cut off from traditional cultural support.


Still, as a result of this program, the percentage of American Indians living in cities rose from 8% at the start of the relocation program to 64% in 2000. To help support these newly urbanized individuals and their families, AIM helped establish the Indian Health Board, which provided “Native-centric” medical care to those who might not be receiving medical services otherwise. They also worked to provide legal and educational services in urban areas.


2. Survival School

Racism can lead to bullying, which in turn can cause chronic truancy. Source: Toppr Bytes


With the increasing urbanization of American Indian communities came an increase in the presence of racism towards Indigenous peoples. A great deal of this hate was felt by children who were attending public schools. Partly due to this, the dropout rate in the 1960s into the early 1970s in the Minneapolis area was between 60 and 80%.


Increased truancy rates led to intervention by social welfare agencies and the removal of children from their families. AIM hoped to navigate this problem by allowing Indigenous children to be educated within their own communities, regardless of whether they were urban or not.


A banner outside of the survival school in 2010. Tim Nelson image. Source: MPR News


In January of 1972, AIM opened the Heart of the Earth Survival School. It lacked resources at the beginning, holding classes in the basement of the AIM headquarters, with eight students sharing one pencil. However, it was a safe place for children to be accepted, with a curriculum that placed Indigenous culture at the center of the curriculum.


The first teacher, Ona Kingbird, worked without pay for 18 months. After struggling financially and with infrastructure for the first several years of operation, moving 12 times in its first three years, Heart of the Earth found its permanent home in 1975 after purchasing a former church using federal funds allotted with the passage of the Indian Education Act.


Unfortunately, the school was forced to close in 2008 when its executive director, Joel Pourier, pleaded guilty to embezzling over one million dollars from the school. However, in its years of existence, Heart of the Earth graduated more Indigenous students than the rest of Minneapolis’ public schools combined.


3. Trail of Broken Treaties

Trail of Broken Treaties protestors in front of the BIA building in Washington DC, 1972. Source: Muscarelle Museum of Art


The 1972 Trail of Broken Treaties brought large groups of AIM activists by car from across the country to Washington DC. Together with eight other Indigenous activist groups, the cross-country caravans of activists intended to call attention to the US government’s failure to uphold treaty obligations.


When the protestors arrived in Washington, they planned to bring a document outlining twenty specific points to the White House and Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) building. This document included a call for legal recognition of existing treaties and proposed a new framework for tribal-federal government relationships. It demanded that 110 million acres of land be returned to Indigenous tribes as a result of treaty recognition. The project was planned for election week, and organizers hoped their actions would make Native American issues a debate point.


Part of the caravan followed the route of the Trail of Tears in the 1830s. Source: Zinn Education Project


Unfortunately, plans began to deconstruct upon arrival in Washington DC. President Nixon was out of town and unable to meet with the contingency. Meetings with other officials were canceled without advanced notice. It was later determined that officials within the BIA were working against the protest.


Protestors occupying the BIA building, 1972. Source: Muscarelle Museum of Art


On November 2nd, about 500 group members staged a sit-in at the BIA building. Inspired by the efforts of the Civil Rights Movement, they refused to leave until their demands were met. Their numbers quickly grew to 1,000, and the police who arrived to evict them were met with violence. The sit-in had become an occupation.


Several of the demonstrators gathered evidence, including documents that proved mismanagement by the BIA. However, some protestors ran wild, spray painting walls, breaking furniture and windows, and otherwise causing damage to the building. These were the images that were captured by the media in the aftermath.


Protestors with President Nixon, 1972. Source: Muscarelle Museum of Art


The occupation was brought to a close when President Nixon made a deal with the movement’s leaders that allowed for immunity from prosecution and over $66,000 to pay for the activists’ travel expenses home. A task force was established to go over the Twenty Points document, but it soundly rejected them.


While the Trail may have seemed like an immediate failure, not everyone saw it that way. AIM organizer Dennis Banks felt that it had established new solidarity among tribes across the country. Despite the document’s rejection, several of the objectives in the Twenty Points were incorporated into Indigenous Policy within the upcoming years.


4. Wounded Knee

Assistant US Attorney General Harlington Wood, third-row center, is escorted into the Wounded Knee site by AIM protestors in March 1973. AP photo. Source: NPR


In February 1973, AIM incited the longest civil disorder in history to date involving the US Marshal Service. On February 27th, around 200 members of the Oglala Lakota, led by AIM members, occupied the Pine Ridge Reservation Village in an effort to protest corruption in the tribal leadership, which was aided and abetted by the federal government, and to again highlight the lack of treaty observation.


AIM held the town, the site of an 1890 massacre in which 300 Lakota innocents were killed by federal troops, under siege for 71 days. A great deal of violence took place during this time, with federal troops responding to the area and both sides armed. The government later admitted to firing over half a million rounds of ammunition into the area during the occupation.

Assistant US Attorney General Kent Frizzell, right, meets with AIM representatives in April 1973. Jim Mone photo. Source: NPR


The American public was given constant media coverage of the event, and the use of weapons and violence was definitely emphasized. Two protesters were killed, others were wounded, and many were arrested.


The standoff ended on May 8th when the activists surrendered, and officials promised to investigate their concerns. No major steps were taken to fix broken treaties, with the exception of a 1980 Supreme Court ruling that determined that the US owed the Lakota compensation for taking their land in the nineteenth century. However, the Lakota people have refused this compensation, valued at about two billion dollars, as doing so would forfeit all claims to the Black Hills, an area of utmost sacred meaning to the tribe.


5. AIM Today

The AIM 4 Directions March commemorated the 50th anniversary of the 1973 Wounded Knee occupation. Source: NDN Collective


This is by no means a comprehensive list of the actions the American Indian Movement has taken over the 20th and 21st centuries in an effort to fight for the rights of Indigenous peoples throughout the country. However, by the late 1970s, the group had fractured somewhat due to internal conflict and infiltration from the federal government. Still, small factions persisted, and AIM is still alive and well today.


An AIM protest site in DC in 1973. Source: Library of Congress


Currently, AIM is based where it started, in Minneapolis, and has several branch headquarters nationwide. In addition to fighting for US-based tribes, AIM has worked for Indigenous groups in Latin America and Canada who were campaigning for rights. Despite sometimes negative media portrayal, AIM has time and time again demonstrated that it is not an organization devoted to self-interest but to the needs of Indigenous people everywhere.

Author Image

By Kassandre DwyerM.Ed HistoryKassie is a farmer with a passion for history who has a day job teaching middle school social studies in her hometown. In addition to earning NBCT certification and M.Ed. in History, she holds an M.Ed in Curriculum & Instruction and a B.S. in Sustainable Agriculture/Animal Science. She is particularly interested in telling the stories of often overlooked historical perspectives or hidden truths, and is especially intrigued by the history of America’s Indigenous peoples, war, and the “wild west.”