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And I'll Take This Island, Too! The American Indian Movement

Signs still left from the occupation on the walls of the prison

It's late at night, very foggy, and you've just entered the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. It's the 1970s and turmoil on the reservation is high. As your car comes to the top of a hill, you are blinded by bright lights, and by instinct you slow down. You notice that the road is blocked, so you come to a slow stop. Through the bright lights, you see silhouettes of men in cowboy hats holding semiautomatic machine guns.

Concerned, you get out of the car but are almost immediately hit with the butt of a rifle. As you try to get up, you are kicked several times. You roll onto your back, as a man approaches and holds a gun to your head. He tells you he's going to kill you if you have any affiliation with the American Indian Movement or the "Traditionalists." Lying on the ground, you look over and see more armed men taking everything out of your car and throwing it on the side of the road. They take your traditional Indian dance costume and set it on fire. Soon after, they make you get up and put you back into your car and tell you to go home. You leave angry, confused and very shaken up.


You ask yourself, Who were those men? What were they doing? And how would you put a stop to it?

The men at the roadblock were GOONs, Guardians of the Oglala Nation, also known as the "death squad." They were part of the Dick Wilson regime on Pine Ridge during the 1970s. Dick Wilson was a corrupt tribal president for the Oglala Sioux Nation, but was elected by a very small percentage of the enrolled members of the tribe. His philosophy was that "it was time for Indians to be completely assimilated; they should forget their traditional ways and evolve into American society."


Stories from Alcatraz!

Dick Wilson figured that the only way to help the reservation was to completely remove Indians from traditional thought and dress, and force them to become more involved with bringing business and money to the reservation. This involved selling resources that the tribe had, such as uranium and land. But many tribal members didn't agree with this philosophy, because selling their land and ruining the environment for money wasn't a part of their traditional ways.

This divided the Pine Ridge reservation into two categories: the "Traditional" and the "non-Traditional." This separation soon turned violent, because Dick Wilson felt that the only way to get anything done was to use excessive force and intimidation. He started an all-out campaign to stop the traditionalists from organizing by setting up roadblocks all over the reservation. The roadblocks were used mostly for intimidation, "to show the traditionalist who was boss." All the money that was supposed to be going into education, health and community programs was being used to run these roadblocks -- and going into the pockets of Dick Wilson and his GOONs.

Richard Oaks and other occupiers of Alcatraz

Meanwhile, Indians were also struggling to survive in America's urban areas. In Minneapolis, Minnesota, Indians were being targeted by police as criminals. Many Indians in the city were addicted to alcohol and lined the streets, sleeping outside of bars and leading a life of homelessness and poverty. They hadn't adjusted to the move from rural to urban.

Many city Indians lived in substandard housing because they couldn't get hired for good jobs without a college education -- but at the same time there was absolutely no way for them to afford any form of higher education! Large numbers of Indians were in prison for many different reasons, some for petty drug charges and alcohol-related incidents. Many left the reservations hoping to find a better life, but found the same type of distress and poverty in the cities.

A mural showing how symbolic Alcatraz was

Out of this setting was born the American Indian Movement. In the prison system of Stillwater, Minnesota, two Indian activists committed themselves to protecting the Indian community from an oppressive government and very abusive police departments. They were Clyde Bellecourt and Dennis Banks. George Mitchell joined in as well. After they got out of prison, the men were energized and had the fire to help the Indian community -- specifically the Indian community in Minneapolis.

The first thing Bellecourt, Banks and Mitchell did was set up a police patrol. They followed the police around, and whenever the police went to make an arrest or write a ticket, the men showed up to let the police know that somebody was watching. The men gained many supporters from different Indian communities who also felt that it was time to stand up for their rights.

Across the country, on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, other Indians had made a stand.

On November 9, 1969, Richard Oaks and several other Indian activists had set out on a charter boat to symbolically claim Alcatraz Island for Indian people. Their symbolic occupation had turned into a full-scale occupation that lasted for 19 months -- until June 11, 1971. During that time, thousands of Indians from all over the country had passed through the island, gaining pride and a sense of cultural identity.

Alcatraz proved a point

John Trudell remembers the occupation. "From the time I had gone into the military in '63, to the time I went to Alcatraz, I had been away from any indigenous roots and connections. So, when I went there, trying to find something, I found a whole lot of other people like me. And we hadn't surrendered, whatever our frailties were."

Trudell, Oaks and the occupiers had demanded that Alcatraz be given to Indian people so they could make a cultural center and an Indian university. The demands were denied, and the number of supporters went down. People started to leave the island, and by June 11, 1971 the occupation was over. But the pride that began there would continue, and, using members' spiritual beliefs as guidance, AIM went on to hold several more occupations and protests from the 1960s all the way through the 1970s.

Nick at Alcatraz

In 1973, AIM took action at Pine Ridge reservation, where Dick Wilson and his policies were intimidating traditionalist Indians. By then, more people were being killed on the reservation than in the entire state of South Dakota. Everyone was armed on the reservation -- federal marshals, Bureau of Indian Affairs police, the FBI, and the National Guard. Roadblocks had been set up to stop anyone from coming or going.

At one point, AIM activists and local traditionalists were surrounded by factions of the U.S. government. AIM refused to leave the village, and the resulting siege left Indian activist Buddy Lamont and a federal agent dead. Afterward, many Indians were sent to jail, and more were murdered by the GOONs or the U.S. government. Many of the murders remained unsolved because the FBI never investigated them.

Despite these setbacks, the American Indian Movement changed tribal agendas of almost all tribes in America. Now tribes, instead of being agencies for the government, are becoming, more and more, their own sovereign nations. AIM stared a sense of pride that wasn't there before, a sense of pride that is used as fuel by me and many other young American Indians to this very day.


Please email me at: nick@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Stephanie - The making of a super man and the uniting of a people
Stephen - A secret clause and the loss of native lands
Stephanie - Si! Hablo English, German, French, Portuguese, Swedish and Greek
Nick - Mr. Swiss! Can I order a pizza?