The Indian Movement from
Alcatraz to Wounded Knee


AIM had promised the Lakota revolution on Pine Ridge would be only the beginning, but the seventy-one day uprising instead marked the high tide of the most remarkable period of activism carried out by Indians in the twentieth century.

Wounded Knee proved to be the final performance of AIM's daring brand of political theater. As quickly as Indian radicalism had exploded on the national stage, it faded, disintegrating under the weight of its own internal contradictions and divisions, and a relentless legal assault by federal and state governments. In the months and years following the dissolution of the Independent Oglala Nation, Indians once again became a flickering, intermittent presence in the public affairs of the United States.

As should be clear by now, AIM was never the whole of the Indian movement. But the organization's decline marked the turning point for the rest of Indian activism. That fall came with breathtaking suddenness. Two months after the stand-down at Wounded Knee, the movement held its annual convention in White Oak, OK AIM had promised the Lakota revolution on Pine Ridge would be only the beginning, but the seventy-one day uprising instead marked the high tide of the most remarkable period of activism carried out by Indians in the twentieth century.

Wounded Knee proved to be the final performance of AIM's daring brand of political theater. As quickly as Indian radicalism had exploded on the national stage, it faded, disintegrating under the weight of its own internal contradictions and divisions, and a relentless legal assault by federal and state governments. In the months and years following the dissolution of the Independent Oglala Nation, Indians once again became a flickering, intermittent presence in the public affairs of the United States.

As AIM unraveled, the Justice Department launched an unprecedented legal assault on movement leaders, followers, and supporters. During the seven weeks of the Wounded Knee occupation, the federal government arrested 562 people on charges directly connected to the siege. Dozens more were arrested in riot conspiracy charges across the country.

The unique feature of the government's prosecution lay in its decision to bring to trial every possible case it could, without undue concern for winning convictions. "AIM's most militant leaders and followers, over three hundred, are under indictment, in jail or warrants are out for their arrest. But the government can win even if no one goes to prison," argued Colonel Volney Warner in a succinct description of the government's legal strategy.

It was a brilliant move, and a major departure from government practice in other high-profile cases against other radicals of the era. It recognized that immobilizing AIM was more important than putting any individual behind bars. Even a well-organized and financially stable group would have withered under the pressure and expense of defending so many of its members; for AIM the task was overwhelming.

Trials took place for two years in South Dakota, Nebraska, and lowa, often at the same time. Staff from the valiantly named Wounded Knee Legal Defense/Offense Committee survived on food stamps. In Sioux Falls, WKLDOC headquarters was an empty apartment building scheduled for demolition, and in Lincoln the legal committee lived and worked at the barracks of an abandoned Air Force base out of town. The trials became a bizarre coda to Wounded Knee, where government lawyers prosecuted Indians for crimes ranging from sedition to cattle rustling. The proceedings were almost invisible, often covered only by local newspapers. AIM argued it was the subject of the largest mass political trial in United States history, but few were listening.

The Wounded Knee trials did, however, provide one last moment of stardom for Banks and Means. Government prosecutors decided to try the pair together, apart from other leaders, and the case was scheduled for St. Paul. The two AIM leaders, aided by William Kunstler, turned the courtroom into a stage. They effectively put the federal government on trial, introducing evidence and calling witnesses who spoke vividly of the harsh conditions on Pine Ridge. The proceedings captivated the Twin Cities for months in early 1974. When the judge dismissed the charges because of government misconduct, the national spotlight again briefly shined on Means and Banks.

Even with that success, the trials bankrupted the movement and placed AIM permanently on the defensive. Miraculously, with severely limited resources, WKLDOC managed to win 92 percent of the cases, yet as Colonel Warner predicted, the government emerged as the real victor.

Even the trials that resulted from the riots in Custer extracted a heavy toll on AIM. The killer of Wesley Bad Heart Bull, whose death had been a key trigger in the events that led inexorably to Wounded Knee, won acquittal during the final days of the occupation. Russell Means, Dennis Banks, and others in AIM still faced riot charges for Custer, as did Sarah Bad Heart Bull herself. Wesley's mother, photographed by news cameras with a South Dakota riot stick across her throat on the courthouse steps that snowy afternoon in February 1973, saw her case finally reach trial in 1974. She was convicted and sentenced to one to three years in prison. At her sentencing, a judge reluctantly granted her twenty-four hours to make arrangements for her children.

The legal offensive against AIM not only bankrupted the movement, but the Justice Department negotiators also reneged on their promise to prosecute the Pine Ridge goons. Despite their pledge to bring an end to the reign of terror on the reservation, no indictments were ever returned against the goons. In fact, political violence increased on Pine Ridge, and a low-level civil war raged in a desultory fashion for more than two years after the occupation.

It was the very outcome feared by AIM, and the reason it considered the Justice Department's offer to stay on the reservation and keep the Wilson forces in check. But when the occupation ended and AIM's most pressing battles took place in the courtroom, the goons once again had the upper hand and used the opportunity to settle many scores against movement activists and their allies.

Three women who were among the strongest and most eloquent supporters of the rebellion paid the highest price. Agnes Lamont, who never wavered in her opposition to the Wilson government, lost her only son during the occupation. Gladys Bissonette, whose passionate speech at Calico moved many to tears, lost her son Pedro in a gun battle with BIA police six months later. Ellen Moves Camp— another fiercely articulate activist who negotiated for the occupation force with senior Justice Department officials—saw her son Louis, under intense pressure from the FBI, testify against Russell Means and Dennis Banks in the St. Paul trial.

Apart from legal battles, there were other obstacles that worked to prevent AIM from making itself relevant to large numbers of Indian people: government surveillance and infiltration. Most people in AIM assumed that the movement had its share of government informers; its informal style and lack of rigid structure made the group easy to monitor. But few imagined just how compromised AIM was until Douglass Durham, Dennis Banks's trusted lieutenant who carried the title of Director of Security, held a press conference in 1975 and announced he had been working for the FBI for two years.

By then Russell Means had been arrested thirteen times, was free on bonds totaling $130,000 and could look forward to eight separate trials. Dennis Banks was a fugitive. Leonard Crow Dog, Carter Camp, and Stan Holder were convicted of Wounded Knee charges and sent to federal prison.

Yet for all the disorganization, AIM still commanded the respect of many Indian people. Even Vine Deloria, one of AIM's frequent critics, found himself impressed at the way AIM was regarded on one South Dakota reservation after he visited in June, 1973, shortly after Russell Means had been freed on bail.

The Standing Rock Sioux tribe held a two-day meeting to discuss a proposal that all elected tribal council members hold discussions with their constituents at least once a month. Major Indian organizations were invited to participate. So too, Deloria wrote, was AIM.

Deloria and other experts offered a pessimistic view of the political outlook for the Sioux. They told the reservation people that lobbying in Congress was necessary to prevent efforts to weaken their treaty rights, but that even with effective lobbying it was likely those rights would be steadily eroded.

Means arrived on the second day. He introduced the AIM singers, who performed the AIM song in honor of Raymond Yellow Thunder. He prayed and invoked the name of Black Elk. Means began his speech by reviewing the efforts of the Sioux to win justice from the United States for more than a century. He argued that Lakota people must win their treaty rights by any means possible. He said AIM won at Wounded Knee, because kids on Pine Ridge now play "AIM and Goon Squad" instead of "Cowboys and Indians", and all the boys wanted to be AIM and none wanted to be the goon squad.

Deloria wrote of his reaction to this talk. "As I was listening to Russell Means I continually looked around the room to see the faces of the people as he spoke. Almost every face shone with a new pride." It was, he said, "a beatific vision of the tribe as it should be, not as it had become through a century of betrayal. Old men sat entranced and nodded ever so slightly at the different points Russell discussed.

"I came away from Means's speech with the feeling that Russell is a terribly important man to our tribe. He may be the greatest Lakota of this century and his ability to light the eyes that have been dimmed so long is probably more important for us than anything that anyone else can do. I think it is the pride in living that many Indians have lost and in the manner of clarity of Russell Means's speech many Indian people found that pride and also found a strength they did not know they had possessed."

He ended his paean to Russell Means saying "We should cherish this man as one of our greatest people. History has a way of leveling all the honors of a century and allowing the truly great figures to emerge from the shadows as they really were.

"I am thankful that in my time I have been allowed to know three great Indians — Clyde Warrior, Hank Adams, and Russell Means. If we had a hundred like them we would now rule the world. But every race is given only a few people of this stature in each century. I still have fundamental disagreements with Russell in a number of areas and I am still keenly aware that the problems of enforcing treaties are more complicated than anyone believes. And I am not likely to be in the ranks at the next AIM protest because I don't think that they are very well planned events.

"But I cannot remain silent because of disagreements over strategy and allow a chance to go by to honor as best I can a man who gave to my tribe even for a brief moment, a vision of something better than what we had. If Russell Means has faults, and we all do, he also has talent and dedication which greatly outweigh the faults and which in my mind make him one of the great Indians of our time."

As if to underscore Deloria's point, Means somehow managed to run for tribal president against his nemesis Dick Wilson in February, even as he stood trial in Minnesota, and forced Wilson into a run-off. Wilson narrowly won that election. Means attributed his loss to voter fraud. The U.S. Civil Rights Commission investigated Means's complaints and found so many violations it called for a new election. Wilson declined to take their advice. In that election, as in so many other movement crusades, Means could claim a moral victory.

Apparently, to most in AIM, that moral victory was enough. There has been surprising public and private interest in gaining a more careful measure of the movement's success and failure. The movement failed dismally in transmitting to later activists the lessons of its campaign of popular struggle. The result was that although most in Indian country would agree AIM had a profound impact on the lives of Indian communities in the 1970s, few could agree on what that impact was. There was remarkably little dialogue about what to keep and what to discard in the continuing struggle for Indian empowerment.

One of the few critiques came in a penetrating analysis delivered fifteen years after AIM's high tide. Fittingly, it came from the executive director of the National Indian Youth Council in a speech to students. Jerry Wilkinson was a Cherokee in his forties who led a group composed of young people of the Southwest. He reveled in contradictions and provided no shortage of them in his critique. To Wilkinson, it was Procter and Gamble who provided the most devastating evidence of the Indian movement's decline into irrelevance. He noted the consumer products giant had named a new toothpaste AIM, adding wryly that it was "perhaps the greatest slap in the face the white society has given us in the past fifty years."

He praised the movement for making Indians visible, for emboldening tribal leaders who previously had been afraid to criticize the government, for instilling pride in Indian people. Most people, he said, were at protest events "not primarily to correct a wrong but to make a personal identity statement and assert their pride in being Indian."

He also noted the most frequent criticisms of the Indian movement leaders. Many complained that they "gave big speeches about the earth and the sacred Indian way by day and then got drunk or took dope in the disco by night," made fantastic claims for Indian religion, or misappropriated church grants. But Wilkinson added that although valid, these were not the crucial failings.

Wilkinson focused his critique instead on what he considered the movement's two main weaknesses. "It did not create a tradition of people relentlessly, ceaselessly, and uncompromisingly pursuing a long-range goal," he said. "There were plenty of manifestoes with plenty of demands but these are not what moved people." He contrasted the movement's lack of clear goals with the success of the civil rights movement in winning passage of the voting rights legislation. For Indians, "it was generally more important to throw these [demands] in somebody's face than to get them to act on it."

Wilkinson argued the movement's second major failing was that it became "terribly anti-intellectual. Everybody was for sovereignty, the Indian way, and traditional religion, but there were as many ideas about what these things were as there were people involved. Anyone raising questions about these things was highly suspect."

Wilkinson spoke of NIYC's files from the early 1960s, full of lengthy, thoughtful letters from Clyde Warrior, Herb Blatchford, and Mel Thom debating the future direction of their organization. By the late 1960s, Wilkinson said, the telephone replaced correspondence, and Indian leaders rarely wrote letters or articles. "Intellectual growth in the Indian community over the last twenty years has been next to zero. Without an intellectual base we cannot build strength or consensus in the Indian community or achieve the capacity to critically assess ideas and people so as to determine what to do next."

Wilkinson said he understood the reasons the movement had not built an environment filled with sharp political debate. Such discussions might have ended up "splitting hairs... This may have been right but in retrospect I think not. I think such reflection would have been healthy in creating ideas and bringing more tolerance for people with different ideas," he said. "For what we have now is the legacy of a movement in which people fought and even died for, ideas as still undefined in people's minds."

He ended his address with familiar exhortations for "a new kind of warrior," who could work hard and gain skills of the modern world to support his community, adding that this new warrior would also benefit from "intangibles the last movement sorely lacked, things like tolerance, kindness, good humor."

Wilkinson's point about the ambiguous nature of the movement's history was sharply underscored by the historical ignorance of his own audience. Few of the young people who heard Wilkinson that night in 1987 knew of the people he spoke of from the early 1960s. The people Wilkinson considered heroes of Indian resistance

Warrior, Thom, and Blatchford, for example, Indian leaders who were as proud of their academic training and intellectual skills as they were of their radical activism — were largely forgotten.

Most of those young people knew of AIM's glory days, but were confused in the details. By the late 1980s an AIM dog soldier named Leonard Peltier had arguably become more famous than any AIM leader. Peltier was serving two life sentences after being convicted of murdering two FBI agents in a 1975 shoot-out on Pine Ridge. A national campaign that gave him equal billing with Nelson Mandela toured college campuses, and documentaries cast him as a symbol of Indian resistance. He was often referred to as an AIM leader, though he would be more accurately described, before the shoot-out, as a not particularly beloved AIM regular. The 1975 incident and Wounded Knee, though two years apart and occurring in vastly different circumstances, had become conflated with time, and Leonard Peltier, to many young Indian activists, was vaguely understood to be a key AIM leader who was framed for shooting FBI agents during the occupation of Wounded Knee. Thus, even Wounded Knee itself, AIM's premier accomplishment, had become hazy, another "undefined idea in people's minds."

AIM won attention, but what did the attention win? The occupations from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee illustrated both the vast possibilities and the stark limitations of a politics based on symbols and media. AIM could highlight a problem, but failed to make a compelling case for its own vision of change. The Indian movement consistently underestimated its opposite numbers, and failed to grasp that others could also master the dramaturgy of guerrilla theater. At Alcatraz, Washington, and Wounded Knee, the moment came when Indians said "meet our demands or kill us." Garment and Patterson understood that if they massacred Indians the government would be the loser. They knew the Indian leadership was rarely united, and took advantage of the fact that the demands were often contradictory. They knew time, in every case, was on the federal government's side, and that if they could just keep talking eventually the rebel forces would tire. For all the charisma and savvy of AIM's leaders, in the end they found themselves outmaneuvered at their own game by White House aides.

The movement's three and a half years in the spotlight were, however, more than a show of guerrilla theater tactics. It was also a season of struggle for power and respect, for treaty rights and personal validation, for economic and political justice. Most importantly, it gave thousands of Indians a raison d'etre, an opportunity to be important to their own communities.

Indians found a way to be more than a footnote and to force fundamental reassessments of what it meant to be Indian, of American history, of each other, and of their communities. The victory was uncertain at best, but for a brief, thrilling period of time no one quite knew what to expect of Indian communities.

In the years that followed, the Indian movement built on its experiences and matured in some respects, but it rarely demonstrated the kind of bold, imaginative strokes of genius that, for a brief season at the end of the 1960s, were poised to change everything.

If the movement's success in bringing pride to Indian communities was undisputed, it was also evident that it achieved few tangible accomplishments. AIM's leaders, on the other hand, pursued a range of careers with a curiously American sort of vigor and optimism.

Russell Means ran for vice president with a pornographer, ran for president as a Libertarian, built alliances with the right-wing religious leader Reverend Moon, picked up a rifle to fight the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, became a movie star, and still managed to command respect on reservations throughout Indian country. Dennis Banks declared himself a born-again capitalist. Clyde Bellecourt was sent to prison in the late 1980s for selling LSD to undercover agents. Vernon Bellecourt became a tireless advocate for Indians among progressives, and made several highly publicized trips to Libya. John Trudell abandoned politics and made interesting, jangly records of his poetry. Although Means was the only AIM leader to have a career in Hollywood, Trudell and Banks had several film credits as well. John Trudell has released the most recordings' although Russell Means also tried his hand in that arena. His CD featured a track called "Nixon's Dead Ass."

In late 1993, one faction of what remained of the American Indian Movement called for a people's tribunal to place Vernon and Clyde Bellecourt on trial for "being in collusion with the U.S. government in passing bills of genocide." Both Bellecourts showed up for the trial and strenuously contested the charges.

For the rank and file, in important respects little had changed. The Pine Ridge Reservation's civil wars ended, but it ranked in the 1980 and 1990 census as the poorest jurisdiction in the United States.

In December of 1990, Oglalas staged a 150-mile ride on horseback through bitter temperatures to remember and heal the wounds of the massacre of 1890. Former goons and former AIM members sought common ground in their shared spirituality forgiving each other for the pain of 1973, vowing to work together for the future of their people.

Cultural revival swept Indian communities, but it was also criticized by some as diluting tribal differences into a generic, pan-Indian culture almost as harmful as assimilation.

The Indian movement was an edgy, unpredictable creature that challenged American power in a way not equaled this century before or since. In the decades that followed, activists have tried and failed to re-create its passion and drama.

The days when Indian people invented meaning and community, stormed into the most notorious prison in the world, or fought the U.S. military machine for seven weeks as the world watched are, two decades later, like a shimmering mirage across a desert floor.

Indians in the 1990s are ubiquitous — in movies, in advertising, in New Age boutiques, and as spiritual and environmental role models. Their political space, however, has dramatically receded. Indian radicals still carry the torch of the 1970s, but their actions are by comparison timid, predictable, and barely noticed. Hardy militants carry picket signs at Super Bowls and World Series, and petition the White House for executive clemency for Leonard Peltier, and the era when Indians seized the attention of the world is so distant as to seem more legend than history.

It was a spectacular ride, all the more exciting because no one really knew where they were headed. The fast times had more than their share of brilliant mistakes, misguided strategies, and foolish bravado. It also was a time of hope and idealism when Indians could imagine a university rising from the wreckage of a prison, when a bureaucratic fortress could become a Native American Embassy, when a desperately poor and repressive reservation might become a free and independent nation.

That a few thousand who fought to bring power and visibility to the most ignored population in the United States failed to win all they dreamed can hardly be surprising. That they came so close is the miracle.

Paul Chaat Smith and Robert Allen Warrior

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