The American Indian Movement (AIM) was founded in 1968 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, by Clyde Bellecourt, Dennis Banks, and George Mitchell—all Ojibwa Indians and graduates of that Indian finishing school, the Minnesota State Penitentiary. Initially, the organization was established to combat police brutality in Minneapolis, but it quickly evolved into a full-fledged Indigenous rights movement committed to uniting all Native Peoples in an effort to uplift their communities and promote cultural pride and sovereignty. The Movement spread to other urban centers around the country and attracted—in fact created—a whole new group of Native activists.
AIM Gains National Exposure
In 1972, the Trail of Broken Treaties march was scheduled to arrive in Washington, DC, in time for the presidential election. An AIM caravan from San Francisco met up with a caravan from Seattle and others from around the country. The four-mile-long procession arrived early on the morning of Friday, November 3, just before Election Day. The Indians had notified the Nixon Administration of their plans which included the presentation of a 20-point proposal for improving U.S.-Indian relations.
The first of the Indians' 20 Points demanded the restoration of their constitutional treaty-making powers, removed by the provision in the 1871 Indian Appropriations Act, and the next seven concerned recognition of the sovereignty of Indian nations and the revalidation of treaties, including the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. The fundamental demand was that Indians be dealt with according to "our treaties." Other points were addressed to such related matters as land-reform law and the restoration of a land base, which would permit those Indians who wished to do so to return to a traditional way of life. From the U.S. government's point of view, to recognize or negotiate treaty claims all over the country might necessitate the return of vast tracts of America to the true owners, a very dangerous idea indeed.
When the government refused to dialogue with the Indians, the protestors occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs building. The government negotiated with the Indians, then, but only to end the occupation, not to resolve their original 20-point list of grievances. The government promised to look into the grievances (they never did) and they also promised not to prosecute the Indians for the BIA takeover (a promise broken like all the others). To defuse the situation and end their own embarrassment, the government eventually provided vehicles and an early-morning police escort out of town plus under-the-table money ($66,000) to pay the Indians' return travel expenses.
After the Trail of Broken Treaties, AIM was classified "an extremist organization" by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and on January 8, 1973, the leaders on the Trail were added to the FBI's list of "key extremists." From that point, an organized "neutralizing" of AIM leaders was begun.
The FBI's War Against AIM
Following the BIA takeover, AIM chapters nationwide were the focus of an intensive investigation and individual members were targeted for arrest and prosecution. A few weeks after his return from Washington, DC, in November 1972, for example, Peltier was falsely accused of the attempted murder of a Milwaukee police officer. Leonard's claim that he had been set up by the police was eventually supported by several witnesses, including the police officer's girl friend who said the officer had waved around one of Peltier's pictures, sent to the local police from FBI headquarters, announcing his intention of "catching a big one for the FBI."
In relation to Wounded Knee II, the FBI caused 542 separate charges to be filed against those it identified as "key AIM leaders." This resulted in only 15 convictions, all on such petty or contrived offenses as interfering with a federal officer in the performance of his duty.
Having identified AIM as an extremist threat to the United States, the Department of Justice conducted such prosecutions over a two-year period in an attempt to jail AIM members and ensnare them in lengthy court proceedings thereby preventing further political activity. As noted previously, this strategy met with only limited success and the FBI's war against the American Indian Movement escalated.
A six-page FBI memo dated April 24, 1975, "The Use of Special Agents of the FBI in a Paramilitary Law Enforcement Operation in the Indian Country," shows that, two months prior to the Oglala shoot-out, the FBI was preparing for a major armed confrontation with AIM.
In May of 1975, the FBI began a sizable build up of its agents, mostly elite Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) members, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
In June 1975, SWAT teams from numerous divisions were designated for special assignment at Pine Ridge.
A June 1975 FBI memo, discovered much later, referred to the potential need for "military assault forces" to deal with AIM members. (It should be noted that the use of military force by the U.S. government at Wounded Knee in 1973 was ruled unlawful by the courts.)
At the same time, the FBI "aided and abetted" Tribal Chairman Dick Wilson who was intent on stamping out any opposition to his administration by any means. The Bureau, it has since been discovered, provided weapons to Wilson's vigilantes—the Guardians Of the Oglala Nation (GOONs)—and stood by as the politically motivated injury and murder rates on the reservation climbed.
As there was no corresponding AIM build up on the reservation, nor preparation on the part of AIM members for a confrontation with the authorities (despite the FBI's false claim made later of the presence of bunkers at the Jumping Bull compound), there is no doubt that the FBI alone set the stage for the tragic shoot-out at Oglala on June 26, 1975.
The American Indian Movement survived the turmoil of the 1970s. The FBI failed in its mission to destroy AIM largely because it is not an organization of people per se, but what its name states outright—a Movement, a continuous series of actions moving towards an objective. Regardless of mistakes made during that time or the personalities involved, there is no doubt that the men and women of AIM raised the consciousness of Indigenous Peoples, sparked cultural pride, and engendered the Native activism seen today.
AIM's current efforts include protecting sacred lands, ensuring religious freedom, promoting sovereignty, and ending the use of team mascots that further racist stereotypes.