West River Eagle

Intergenerational Activism: From AIM to Standing Rock

Termination and Relocation

Editor’s Note: The academic paper “Intergenerational Activism: From AIM to Standing Rock” reviews Native American history from 1720-1970, presents three events from 1969-1973, and examines the influence of history on the Standing Rock movement. The paper was submitted by Jonathan Hutson as completion of his graduation project at Olney Friends School in May 2023. 

This is the seventh in our series of excerpts from Hutson’s work.

Intergenerational Activism: From AIM to Standing Rock

Three events stand out as powerful demonstrations of Indigenous resistance and resilience during the 1970s: the Occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969, the Occupation of the BIA building in Washington, D.C., in 1972, and the Occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973. These events catalyzed the American Indian Movement, generated momentum for Indigenous rights, and sowed the seeds of intergenerational activism which would come to fruition in the Standing Rock protests in 2016-2017.

Historical Background

In order to understand the generation of activists who came of age in this period, it is first necessary to understanding the historical background of settler colonialism, genocide, and assimilation. The history of infringement upon Native American rights begins with the Indian Wars from 1720-1924, which culminated in the Massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, and moves through the Termination Era in the 20th century. The creation of the American Indian Movement (AIM) by Dennis Banks in 1968 marks the end of the Termination Era and signifies the shift to activism. Comprehending this history is crucial for building a future that respects and honors Native American culture and identity.

Part 3: Termination and Relocation, 1940-1968

Section Five: Creation of AIM

In an interview with Amy Goodman, Dennis Banks, co-founder of AIM (the American Indian Movement) talked about his time in boarding schools, “I was in the boarding schools when punishment was very severe if you ran away. This was during the early ’40s. I was taken to a boarding school when I was four years old, and taken away from my mother and my father, my grandparents, who I stayed with most of the time, and just abruptly taken away and then put into the boarding school, 300 miles away from our home.

“And, you know, the beatings began immediately, the almost the de-Indianizing program. It was a terrible experience that the American government was experimenting with. And that was trying to destroy the culture and the person, destroy the Indian-ness in him and save the human being, save the kill an Indian, save the man. That was, you know, the description of what this policy is about.” (www.democracynow.org/2012/10/8/native_american_leader_dennis_banks_on)

When Banks was 17 years old, he joined the United States Air Force and was stationed in Japan. For Banks, being in a place where he, as a Native American, was the occupying force in a foreign country created feelings of defiance deep within him.

One day a group of protesters was outside the airfield Banks was guarding, and he was ordered to “shoot to kill” if they got over the fence. This was the boiling point for Banks.

In the late ’50s, after he was dishonorably discharged from the military, Banks returned back home to the reservation in Minnesota. “I was heading down a road that was filled with wine, whiskey and booze,” Banks later recalled, “Then I landed in prison.”

In 1966, he was convicted for burglarizing a grocery store and began serving thirty-one months of a three-and-a-half-year sentence in Stillwater State Penitentiary in Minnesota. In prison, Banks met fellow convict Clyde Bellecourt, also an Ojibwa. Banks and Bellecourt came up with the idea of AIM with the goal of helping Natives moving to Minneapolis adopt urban life, although as the organization grew, so did its goals.

It quickly became apparent that Natives needed an advocacy group to defend their rights. In a 2009 interview, Banks said, “I mean, we knew we knew we were on a collision course with the U.S. government. Because immediately we said, boarding school issue, housing issue, the non-protection of our treaty rights, and the non-enforcement of those same rights. I knew that we were going to collide with the government somewhere down the road. So we maintained, you know.” (griid.org/2009/11/15/interview-with-dennis-banks/)

As AIM grew, so did its goals. After organizing a Thanksgiving Day protest at the 350th annual celebration of the landing at Plymouth Rock, AIM declared that Thanksgiving should be thought of as a national day of mourning and fasting, instead of celebration.

Activists asked Wamsutta “Frank” James, a Wampanoag man and founder of the United American Indians of New England, to give a different speech. “Even before the Pilgrims landed it was common practice for explorers to capture Indians, take them to Europe and sell them as slaves for 220 shillings apiece. The Pilgrims had hardly explored the shores of Cape Cod for four days before they had robbed the graves of my ancestors and stolen their corn and beans…

“Massasoit, the great Sachem of the Wampanoag, knew these facts, yet he and his people welcomed and befriended the settlers of the Plymouth Plantation. Perhaps he did this because his tribe had been depleted by an epidemic. Or his knowledge of the harsh oncoming winter was the reason for his peaceful acceptance of these acts. This action by Massasoit was perhaps our biggest mistake.

“We, the Wampanoag, welcomed you, the white man, with open arms, little knowing that it was the beginning of the end; that before 50 years were to pass, the Wampanoag would no longer be a free people.” (www.uaine.org/suppressed_speech.htm)

Stay tuned next week for The Occupation of Alcatraz Island, 1969.

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