Bettering lives by fighting the establishment
"As I look around at the Indian situation," said Cherokee scholar and activist Robert K. Thomas in 1964, "it looks like one big seething cauldron about ready to explode." Over the next decade, American Indian groups across the country mounted angry demonstrations and occupations fueled by long-standing resentments over a host of issues, including racial discrimination and federal Indian policies.
During these tumultuous years, one of the nation's largest concentrations of urban Indians was centered on Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis. There, in 1968, American Indian community activists, led by George Mitchell, Dennis Banks, and Clyde Bellecourt, gathered for the first time. Their goal was to draw national attention to the rights guaranteed Indian nations by treaties, by their sovereign status, and by the U.S. Constitution-rights that were too often overlooked or misunderstood by those in power. At that first meeting, the group of activists chose a name: the American Indian Movement, or AIM.
AIM's first public act was to outfit "Indian Patrol" cars to monitor police that were working in Minneapolis's Indian neighborhoods. In 1969, AIM gained national attention by joining an occupation of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay. A series of public acts followed, culminating in AIM's 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, a violent, seventy-one-day siege that drew worldwide attention. This militant approach has not been without controversy. In Gerald Vizenor's opinion, a writer and member of the White Earth Band of Chippewa, "the American Indian Movement has raised good issues through the press, but it has seldom followed through to negotiate. . . . It takes more than a rifle and symbolic willingness to die to bring about institutional changes that will benefit tribal people."
With AIM now in its fourth decade, its legacy is best seen in Minneapolis, where "firsts" run by and for Indians-schools like Heart of the Earth Survival School, housing programs such as Little Earth of United Tribes, and health providers like the Indian Health Board-were founded through AIM's efforts. "Inherent in the spiritual heart of AIM," reads the organization's website, "is knowing that the work goes on because the need goes on."
"We put out a bumper sticker, 'AIM for Sovereignty.' Most of our people didn't even know what the word meant. Now they know." Vernon Bellecourt, 1973
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I was blessed to meet many of the AIM organizers in the early 70's. My connection was through the Benedictines and their Missions in Northern Minnesota. I also met Floyd Westerman at that time. I have been fortunate to maintain many of those contacts for four decades. I continue to work for Educational Opportunities on behalf of my brothers and sisters and was blessed to be associated with FOURWINDS SCHOOL in Minneapolis in the late 90's. My son, Nate, taught there. I have the name "Zomadoon" -- some would say lovingly -- others with a smile ! Big Eagle from Leech Lake bestowed me. In Sioux -- Zhamadoon -- carries another context -- which also brings a chuckle to my Pine Ridge brothers. My favorite quote by Chief Joseph -- "I will fight no more, forever.".... as ZOMODOON I add -- "...but I will most likely die -- trying to keep that promise!" .. Blessings for all AIM does in the name of ENLIGHTENMENT -- AND SERVICE to INDIANS EVERYWHERE ..