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The Minneapolis-founded American Indian Movement responded to the needs of urban American Indians

It grew into an international movement whose goals included the full restoration of tribal sovereignty and treaty rights.

image of american indian movement flag
Flag of the American Indian Movement

The American Indian Movement (AIM), founded by grassroots activists in Minneapolis in 1968, first sought to improve conditions for recently urbanized Native Americans. It grew into an international movement whose goals included the full restoration of tribal sovereignty and treaty rights. Through a long campaign of “confrontation politics,” AIM is often credited with restoring hope to Native peoples.

AIM’s rise occurred during a time of extreme hardship for Native Americans in the Twin Cities. A decade earlier, the federal government had passed the Indian Relocation Act, which promised good jobs and housing for Natives who moved from reservations into cities. Many of the thousands who migrated, however, found only low-wage labor, substandard housing, discrimination, violence, and despair. Their spiritual ceremonies, outlawed since 1884, were still illegal.

AIM’s initial actions were meant to bolster Minneapolis’s Native population. To aid victims of police abuse, they formed the AIM Patrol. AIM also helped establish the Legal Rights Center, which provided free representation to the poor, and the Indian Health Board, which provided Native-centric medical care. In 1972, AIM founded Heart of the Earth Survival School.

Later that year, AIM widened its focus to the national stage, joining the Trail of Broken Treaties. The purpose of the walk—which began on the West Coast and ended in Washington, DC—was to demand that the government fulfill its treaty commitments. Upon arrival, AIM members occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs Building. After nearly a week, the Nixon administration agreed to consider their demands and pay for them to return home. The action made AIM a target of COINTELPRO, the FBI’s covert operation meant to disrupt domestic political organizations.

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In 1973, AIM received a request from Gladys Bissonette of the Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization. The traditional Lakota people on the Pine Ridge Reservation were being terrorized by white vigilantes and supporters of tribal president Dick Wilson. In response, AIM joined the traditional Lakotas in occupying the village of Wounded Knee. Surrounded by hundreds of federal agents with military weaponry, the Natives battled government forces for seventy-one days. They demanded hearings on their treaty and investigation of the BIA. Two Native people, Buddy Lamont and Frank Clearwater, were killed. Major news organizations remained onsite throughout the conflict, reporting headlines across the world.

While three men—Dennis Banks, Clyde Bellecourt, and Russell Means—are generally acknowledged as leaders of AIM, many Native women also made extraordinary, often anonymous, sacrifices for the movement. Among these women were Pat Bellanger, an original AIM member whose nearly fifty years of service to the movement earned her the nickname “Grandma AIM;” Sarah Bad Heart Bull, who was beaten and jailed in Custer, South Dakota, while protesting her son’s murder; and Anna Mae Aquash, a member of the Mi’kmaq First Nation who left her family in Canada during Wounded Knee, where she took up arms and fought alongside the men.

History may view AIM as a militant group, but AIM saw itself as a spiritual movement. Before, during, and after Wounded Knee, AIM members participated in Sun Dances, sweat lodges, and other long-hidden ceremonies, helping to coax them from the shadows.

In 1974, Banks and Means were tried for conspiracy and assault at the federal courthouse in St. Paul. After a nine-month trial, AIM declared victory when Judge Fred J. Nichols, citing government misconduct, dismissed all charges. The movement, however, had begun to splinter. Infighting, jealousy, and the FBI’s efforts to divide them had sewn suspicion and paranoia. The murder of Anna Mae Aquash, whose body was discovered on Pine Ridge on February 24, 1975, marked the beginning of the end of a united AIM. Members blamed the FBI and one another, destroying trust within the movement.

AIM’s last major action took place in 1978. The Longest Walk was commenced to protest the imprisonment of AIM activist Leonard Peltier and eleven federal bills that threatened treaty rights. Several hundred Natives marched from San Francisco to Washington, DC. The walk achieved much of its purpose: the anti-Native bills were defeated. But the greatest victory of the walk, and perhaps the movement, came on August 11, just days after protestors arrived: President Jimmy Carter signed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, lifting the ban on Native American spiritual practices.

Bellecourt continued to lead the Minneapolis branch of AIM into the 2010s, fighting derogatory team names and police misconduct and founding the AIM Interpretive Center.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.