Sunday, January 22, 2012

The American Indian Movement, part 1

What is AIM?

I cannot speak with established authority about the American Indian Movement, but I will describe my studied perception of it and leave others to consider their own interpretation. AIM began as a protest movement, a channeling of anger seeking a voice and a response. As an entity bearing this name, AIM began in 1968 in Minneapolis in response to brutal police actions. A year later, the nineteen-month Indian occupation of Alcatraz Island, then lying empty and derelict, off San Francisco’s coast began. Other properties were occupied including an abandoned naval station near Minneapolis and (briefly) the Bureau of Indian Affairs central building in Washington, DC. The occupations achieved attention and were effective, but did not fully satisfy the participants. More natives joined the movement. The focus switched to organizing, creating programs, defining and solving problems, and above all, bettering the lives of native Americans. Possible definitions of today’s AIM, more than thirty years after its inception, may be expressed as follows:

AIM provides programs and organization to assist American Indian communities.
AIM helps to articulate the claims of native nations, their treaty rights, and sovereignty.
AIM seeks to renew and support Indian spirituality.
AIM supports the cultures of native peoples throughout all of the Americas.
AIM promotes self-determination and the recovery of indigenous rights from current state governments.

The Beginnings

Within a few years, AIM went from protests against a harmful and repressive authority to occupations and onward to the promotion of self-help strategies. AIM began to articulate frameworks for American Indian cultural survival. First, education improvement with cultural awareness was addressed. Then language preservation, advocacy programs, networking and communications, pursuit of legal claims based on signed treaties, improved and essential housing, native prison programs providing educational, spiritual and cultural support, and more; all these concerns became active and ongoing projects supported by AIM.

The Genesis of Movements

If the beginnings of AIM sound a little bit like the current Occupy Wall Street movement, that should not be surprising. Successful movements naturally begin as angry protests that can no longer be contained. They solidify as marches, as in the civil rights era and the much earlier suffrage movement, and as occupations. Many a “sit-in” was staged in protest of the Viet Nam war. A long-term movement will not stop there. It will seek out goals and solutions. It will fight for new legislation and court rulings. It will create structures for managing its programs. At the time these efforts are taking place, the process looks messy and disordered. Observers are not impressed and often do not take the movement seriously. They do not expect anything to be changed in the end. They are often very wrong.

Indian Invisibility

I bring up AIM’s correspondence in form and momentum to other movements, past and present, not to talk about the other movements but to put AIM in perspective with them for readers who lack a personal connection. Otherwise, it would be too easy to see AIM as just a small footnote. It seems that in the culture of the United States and other current American nations, the concerns of native peoples are too easily overlooked. Perhaps this is partly due to low native population numbers and the remoteness of most native communities. To non-Indians, the far-reaching changes brought about by AIM for native peoples are not visible and therefore can’t be very important. Only when an issue arises concerning Indian casinos, fishing rights, or some other area of direct conflict with government and popular non-Indian activities do other Americans become aware of Indian points of view. This creates a fallacy of native insignificance which is far from the truth.

I plan to post in the upcoming weeks a short series of blog entries about AIM. This can in no way be a thorough treatment of the subject, but I will cover some important areas where Indian nations have been changing their relationship with the modern states of the Americas.

Next and not in chronological order: The Indian Occupations of Alcatraz Island, 1964-1971


Selected Resources:

Everett, Dianna (n.d.) “American Indian Movement” IN Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History & Culture. Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Historical Society. http://digital.library.okstate.edu/encyclopedia/entries/A/AM008.html (Accessed January 21, 2012)

Grand Governing Council (n.d.) “American Indian Movement” http://www.aimovement.org/. (Accessed January 21, 2012)

Miner, Marlyce (n.d.) “The American Indian Movement.” http://moh.tie.net/content/docs/AIM.pdf. (Accessed January 21, 2012) [This is part of a larger publication, but I have not been able to find its source for full citation. If anyone can help me with a better identification, I would be grateful. It is published on the Mountains of History 2.0 web site at http://moh.tie.net/, well worth an investigation.]

Wittstock, Laura Waterman, and Elaine J. Salinas (n.d.) “A Brief History of the American Indian Movement.” http://www.aimovement.org/ggc/history.html. (Accessed January 21, 2012) [written in or after 2006]

WyteDove, uploader (2011) “Trudell.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=egesrnVbjiM. (Accessed January 21, 2012) – a film, “John Trudell (born February 15, 1946) is a Native American-Mexican author, poet, actor, musician, and former political activist. He was the spokesperson for the United Indians of All Tribes' takeover of Alcatraz beginning in 1969, broadcasting as Radio Free Alcatraz. During most of the 1970s, he served as the chairman of the American Indian Movement, based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.”

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