American Indian Movement and Anarchy

From Anarchy In Action

Founded in 1968 by Dennis Banks and George Mitchell, the American Indian Movement (AIM) seeks liberation for indigenous peoples from colonialism and oppression. Inspired by the Black Panther Party, AIM combined community survival programs with armed self-defense, improving conditions in local communities while bringing worldwide attention to indigenous struggles. AIM’s anti-colonial analysis, diversity of tactics, and defense of stateless societies have deeply influenced anti-authoritarians, and AIM has worked with Anarchists on several occasions.

AIM’s high-profile actions included participation in the 1969 Alcatraz occupation, the 1972 Trail of Broken Treaties, the 1973 siege of Wounded Knee, and the 1975 Ogala shootout. In the 1990s, AIM split into two factions. The website of the (Minneapolis-based) American Indian Movement Grand Governing Council is [1]. The archived website of the (Colorado-based) International Confederation of Autonomous Chapters of the American Indian Movement can be viewed here: [2].


Structure

While AIM had a hierarchical Grand Governing Council, its everyday, practical functioning was decentralized and horizontal, as AIM political prisoner Leonard Peltier recalls:

There was no overarching formal organization following Robert’s Rules of Order; there were only individuals and groups of individuals of like mind working together in a kind of pure democracy, a disorganized but vaguely coherent collectivity of leaders […] There are no followers in AIM. We are all leaders. We are each an army of one, working for the survival of our people and of the Earth, our Mother.[1]

AIM member Ward Churchill argues that the hierarchical governing council was a “really bad model” and facilitated the state’s penetration of the organization:

The national structure of the American Indian Movement was penetrated pretty successfully, because you had people drawn together in an organization from a whole variety of locations to function as a sort of a governing council. That was a really bad model. Where we were impenetrable was actually on the ground with the action end of the organization, because these were all family units. The Means family, the Robidoux-Peltier family and their cousins were all related and had grown up together. Well, how exactly do you plant somebody in the middle of that? You don’t.[2]

Alcatraz occupation

AIM members participated in the 1969-1971 occupation of Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay. Organizing as “Indians of All Tribes,” hundreds of occupiers organized classes and protests, bringing worldwide publicity to the demands of indigenous people for health care, fresh water, employment, and recognition of treaty rights. They offered to purchase the island for $24 in beads and cloth, which is what settlers paid for Manhattan.[3]

Trail of Broken Treaties

In 1972, AIM organized caravans of Indians who converged in Washington, D.C. before the election. They entered the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) building and refused to leave.

[T]he police resorted to clubs and—undoubtedly to their great surprise—were quickly overpowered and thrown out themselves. Caravan members barricaded the building against police counterattack while BIA employees scrambled out windows to escape.[4]

AIM issued a list of “Twenty Points” which included demands for restoration of land to Indians, release of Indian prisoners, health care and housing.[5] AIM members left the building after the government promised not to prosecute them for the occupation, but the government later reneged on its promise.[6]

Wounded Knee Siege

In 1973, Lakota traditionalists at the Pine Ridge reservation asked AIM for defense against the brutality and corruption of BIA police and the so-called Guardians of the Ogala Nation (GOON) squad led by tribal president Dick Wilson. AIM held a press conference at the reservation’s Wounded Knee site on 27 February, when they were unexpectedly surrounded by federal forces. Ellen Moves Camp, a Lakota traditionalist, explained: “We didn’t know we were going to be crowded in there by a bunch of guns and stuff, military and FBIs and marshals and goons. We didn’t talk about going in there and taking over Wounded Knee. That was the furthest thing from our minds. But what choice did the government give us?”[7]

The press conference turned into a “71 day armed occupation in which 300 people resisted a large military and paramilitary force consisting of FBI agents, BIA police, local and state police, and military personnel.”[8]

Hoping to stop violence against AIM, the Anarchist group Movement for a New Society (MNS) set up nonviolent “observer teams” which stood between AIM and federal troops. These teams were eventually evicted.[9] Government troops and helicopters repeatedly opened fire on the encampment, killing Frank Clearwater on 16 April and Buddy Lamont on 26 April.[10]

The occupation garnered surprisingly broad public support. Dennis Banks recalls:

Well, there was a Gallup poll, and two questions were asked, ‘Do you believe in the American Indian Movement’s tactics of occupying Wounded Knee as a means of bringing about political change?’ And the second question: ‘Arms have been taken up by members of the American Indian Movement. Do you believe arms are needed to bring about this change?’ And in both polls, 71 percent answered ‘yes’!”scott crow, “We Refuse to Die: An Interview with Dennis Banks” in Setting Sights: Histories and Reflections on Community Armed Self-Defense ed. scott crow (Oakland: PM Press, 2017), 188.</ref>

Women comprised about a third of the armed warriors at Wounded Knee.[11] Mary Crow Dog recounts, “We had two or three pistol-packing mamas swaggering around with six-shooters dangling at their hips, taking their turns on the firing line, swapping lead with the feds. The Indian nurses bringing in the wounded under a hail of fire were braver than many warriors. The men also did their share of the dirty work.”[12]

Still, women in AIM did notice a gendered division of labor, which Mary Crow Dog addresses:

At one time a white volunteer nurse berated us for doing the slave work while the men got all the glory. We were betraying the cause of womankind, was the way she put it. We told her that her kind of women’s lib was a white, middle-class thing, and that at this critical stage we had other priorities. Once our men had gotten their rights and their balls back, we might start arguing with them about who should do the dishes. But not before.[13]

The Wounded Knee occupation resulted in two measurable victories, according to AIM member Vine Deloria, Jr. First, Congress authorized in 1974 a two-year study of Indians’ conditions, leading to numerous reform bills being passed. Second, the occupation led to a “tremendous surge of interest in traditional religion and customs.”[14]

Aftermath and Ogala Firefight

From mid-1973 to late-1976, at least 69 AIM members and supporters were killed at Pine Ridge, mostly at the hands of the GOONs and BIA police.[15] The FBI armed the GOONs and declined to investigate their activities.[16] Leonard Peliter reflects, “Seems like the more FBIs we had around, the more murders we had.”[17]

In the summer 1975, AIM set up an encampment near the village of Ogala with help from Lakota traditionalists at Pine Ridge. On the morning of 26 June, the FBI raided the site and opened fire, waking up many of the residents. AIM members returned fire, mostly warning shots, thinking that the FBI were GOONs. “Remember,” Peltier writes, “there was near civil war on the reservation at that time. GOON squads had been terrorizing the reservation for months, with drive-by shootings, beatings, outright murders, burning of Elders’ and AIM supporters’ houses going on almost every day.”[18] Casualties from the firefight included two FBI members and 60 AIM members and Lakota traditionalists.[19]

AIM members fled the scene and were eventually apprehended. In a trial marked with FBI perjury and fabricated evidence, Peltier was convicted and given two consecutive life sentences. “Not a single credible witness said they saw Leonard take aim at anybody that tragic day,” explains Peltier’s counsel.[20] During the trial, the FBI covered up their own lab results that showed no match between the fatal bullet and the weapon allegedly in Peltier’s hands. In 1985, after Peltier had spent about a decade in prison, one of the government prosecutors admitted, “We did not know who shot the agents.”[21]

The following website includes information about Leonard Peltier’s case: [3]

Murders of Anna Mae Aquash and Ray Robinson

AIM’s hierarchical structure enabled certain abuses and corruption, and the most serious may have been the alleged complicity of high-ranking members in the murders of AIM militants Anna Mae Aquash and Ray Robinson. The events happened in a context of FBI surveillance and resulting paranoia. Both Aquash and Robinson had been snitch-jacketed (accused of being government informants).

Anna Mae Aquash, one of AIM’s most prominent women, was discovered dead on 24 February 1976. In 2004, AIM member John Tudell testified that, before the body was identified, Dennis Banks said to him, “You know that body they found? That is Annie Mae.” Moreover, Trudell has said based on conversations with the accused accessory Arlo Looking Cloud that in fact AIM member John Boy did shoot Anna and that high-ranking AIM officials Vernon and Clyde Bellecourt were present at the murder. Russell Means has corroborated the involvement of the Bellecourts: “Vernon Bellecourt made the phone call. Clyde took the call and issued the order for her murder.”[22]

The Black civil rights fighter Ray Robinson went to AIM’s Wounded Knee occupation and was suspected of being an informant. Steve Hendricks describes an account of what happened next:

AIM members seized him, interrogated him, and shot and killed him. Whether the shot was intentional or an accidental misfire of a weapon pointed at him remains a mystery, but credible witnesses say that several leaders, including Banks and Means, conspired about what to do with Robinson’s body. By one account, it was Banks himself who ordered Robinson buried in the hills around Wounded Knee.[23]

Split

By 1993, AIM split into two factions. One was the American Indian Movement Grand Governing Council, based in Minneapolis and still under the leadership of the Bellecourts. This side retained a centralized structure.[24]

The other faction, based in Colorado, was the International Confederation of Autonomous Chapters of the American Indian Movement. This latter group had a more decentralized structure, summarized in its 1993 Edgewood Declaration: “AIM has been, and is today, a confederation of autonomous chapters, dedicated to the freedom of indigenous peoples everywhere. We do not need bosses, we do not need gurus or our own tyrants to remind us of the work that needs to be done, or how to do it.”[25]

The anarchistic thinkers Russell Means and Ward Churchill belonged to the decentralized faction. Means criticized (orthodox) Marxism’s dominant assumption that the disappearance of indigenous cultures represented historic progress: “Revolutionary Marxism is committed to even further perpetuation and perfection of the very industrial process which is destroying us all.” Means also said that Anarchism retained similar views of “progress” that need to be discarded.[26] Ward Churchill has written for Anarchist presses and defended the Black Bloc tactic. Churchill has identified as an Indigenist rather than an Anarchist, defining an Indigenist as “one who not only takes the rights of indigenous peoples as the highest priority of [one’s] political life, but who draws upon the traditions—the bodies of knowledge and corresponding codes of values—evolved over many thousands of years by native peoples the world over.”[27] In an interview, Churchill noted the similarities between Anarchism and Indigenism:

The two are not interchangeable, point for point, but they have far more in common than they have dividing them, if each is properly understood. And part of the task here is to make them properly understood. If you look at green anarchy, for better or worse, you’re going to find all kinds of references to commonalities with indigenous peoples on every basis, from social organisation to environmental perspective. It will take some time, but you can make that conceptual bridge between indigenism and anarchism, and it’s understood. I would see the main distinction, on this continent, as being a detachment from base. Indigenous peoples are grounded, quite literally. There’s a relationship to the land that has evolved over thousands of years, and that’s completely denied to the people from the settler culture who self-describe as anarchists. With that distinction made, however, we’ve got all kinds of principles in common, aspirations in common, perspectives in common, and we need to build upon those in order to develop a respectful set of relations that allow us to act in unity against that common oppressor that we share.[28]

The Grand Governing Council has claimed that Churchill is an “academic fraud, literary fraud, and Indian fraud.”[29]

Transform Columbus Day

In October 2001, Colorado AIM invited Anarchists to help shut down Denver's Columbus Day parade. For several days prior to the parade, Colorado AIM and its supporters took the streets, with about 75 people in a black bloc on 6 October. On 8 October, the day of the parade, about 300 anti-colonialists assembled, including 75 in a black bloc. They were planning to disrupt the parade, when they received welcome news: most Columbus Day marchers didn't even dare showing up. By organizing lager numbers and by threatening (without using) force, Colorado AIM and its Anarchist supporters almost cancelled the Columbus Day parade and turned its remaining marchers into a laughing stock.

Then all of a sudden Nita Gonzalez got on the mic and announced that there was only 30 people at the parade which they were calling a procession. Everyone cheered and laughed and more speakers began. Every single person that got on the mic specifically thanked the Black Bloc. It was crazy. Never had we felt so loved and supported. Russell Means spoke about how he wanted to transform our society into one where "anarchists wouldn't be afraid to walk the streets." Glen Morris said that he was an anarchist and that all of his ancestors were too.[30]


  1. Leonard Peltier, Prison Writings: My Life is My Sun Dance (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1999), 96-98.
  2. Tom Keefer and Jerome Klassen, “Indigenism, Anarchism, and the State: An Interview with Ward Churchill,” Upping the Anti 1 (2006): http://uppingtheanti.org/journal/article/01-indigenism-anarchism-and-the-state/.
  3. Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall, Agents of Repression: The FBI’s Secret Wars Against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement (Boston: South End Press, 1988), 119.
  4. Churchill and Vander Wall, Agents of Repression, 125.
  5. American Indian Movement, “Trail of Broken Treaties: 20-Point Position Paper,” https://www.aimovement.org/ggc/trailofbrokentreaties.html.
  6. Churchill and Vander Wall, Agents of Repression, 126-127.
  7. Churchill and Vander Wall, Agents of Repression, 143.
  8. Gord Hill, 500 Years of Indigenous Resistance (Oakland: PM Press, 2009), 60; Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/GordHill500YearsOfIndigenousResistance.
  9. Andrew Cornell, Oppose and Propose: Lessons from Movement for a New Society (Oakland: AK Press, 2011), 28.
  10. Churchill and Vander Wall, Agents of Repression, 162, 167.
  11. crow, “We Refuse to Die,” 187.
  12. Mary Crow Dog, “I Would Have My Baby at Wounded Knee,” in Colin Calloway, First Peoples: A Documentary Survey of American Indian History (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012), 574-575.
  13. Mary Crow Dog, “I Would Have My Baby at Wounded Knee,” 574.
  14. Vine Deloria, Jr., God is Red: A Native View of Religion (Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum Publishing, 1994), 22-23.
  15. Churchill and Vander Wall, Agents of Repression, 175.
  16. Churchill and Vander Wall, Agents of Repression, 184.
  17. Peltier, Prison Writings, 113.
  18. Peltier, Prison Writings, 124, 126.
  19. Peltier, Prison Writings, 141.
  20. Ramsey Clark, “Preface” in Leonard Peltier, Prison Writings: My Life is My Sun Dance (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1999), xix-xx.
  21. Clark, “Preface,” xix-xx.
  22. Michael Donnelly, “Killing Anna Mae Aquash, Smearing John Trudell,” Counterpunch, 17 January 2006, https://www.counterpunch.org/2006/01/17/killing-anna-mae-aquash-smearing-john-trudell/.
  23. Steve Hendricks, “The Conflicted Legacy of Dennis Banks: AIM, the FBI and the Murder of Anna Mae Aquash,” Counterpunch, 3 November 2017, https://www.counterpunch.org/2017/11/03/the-conflicted-legacy-of-dennis-banks-aim-the-fbi-and-the-murder-of-anna-mae-aquash/.
  24. Their Ministry of Information has since released statements espousing a binary-driven worldview and advocating lesser-evil politics, with calls for people to vote for Democrats against Republicans and to support the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi against American imperialism. http://www.aimovement.org/moipr/LaDukeNader.html. http://www.aimovement.org/moipr/WarInLibya.html.
  25. “The Edgewood Declaration of the International Confederation of Autonomous Chapters of the American Indian Movement adopted by consensus at Edgewood, New Mexico December 18, 1993,” accessed 21 October 2014 at Colorado AIM website.
  26. Russell Means, “For America to Live, Europe Must Die” (1980), ‘’Anarchist Library’’, https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/russell-means-for-america-to-live-europe-must-die.
  27. Ward Churchill, ‘’Struggle for the Land: Indigenous Resistance to Genocide, Ecocide, and Expropriation in Contemporary North America’’ (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1993), 403.
  28. Keefer and Klassen, "Indigenism.”
  29. http://www.aimovement.org/moipr/churchillpress.html.
  30. Black Bloc Papers, ed. David van Deusen and Xavier Massot (Kansas: Breaking Glass Press, 2010), 159. https://libcom.org/library/black-bloc-papers.