They called their effort “The Trail of Broken Treaties,” a nod to the forcible removal in the 1830s of thousands of Native Americans from their homelands during the “Trail of Tears.”
“We wanted them to know the conditions we lived in. We wanted them to know the downright blatant persecution of the government of Native Americans,” said Sid Mills, one of the leaders of the takeover of the bureau in 1972.
An estimated 500 to 800 Native Americans took part, taking over the four-story granite headquarters of the BIA. Their siege bore little resemblance to the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. It lasted much longer — six days vs. several hours. And the Indians didn’t storm inside but rather walked in and refused to leave.
“It was a messy coalition of politics and a bunch of individuals and groups who came together under a common goal. They wanted attention to the plight of Indians,” said Paul Chaat Smith, a Comanche whose book “Like a Hurricane” chronicled large-scale Indian protests in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Almost a half-century later, Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), 60, a member of Pueblo of Laguna, is set to make history by becoming the first Native American to lead the Interior Department, putting her in charge of the BIA.
In 1972, the Native Americans didn’t start off planning to take over the agency in charge of handling a variety of affairs, from fishing and mineral rights to maintaining roads and bridges on reservations.
Their pursuit instead began when three simultaneous caravans set off from Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles. They made their way east, speaking at reservations and churches, en route to Washington with plans to present their “Twenty Points” doctrine directly to the White House.
The Indians arrived on Nov. 1, 1972. One problem: No housing had been arranged. After a night crowded in the basement of a church off 16th Street that had rats, they headed to the BIA on Constitution Avenue, asking if they could bed down in a large auditorium and use the bureau’s kitchen.
But one top official with the Interior Department laughingly told them the “bureau was not in the housing business and threatened to have us thrown out,” Carter Camp, a member of the Ponca tribe who was also one of the protest coordinators, recalled in the New York Times.
Mills said they told the bureau officials: “‘That’s not going to work. This place belongs to us. It’s the Bureau of Indian Affairs. This is an Indian building.’”
At the time, the BIA was housed in a building separate from the Interior Department. (It was later relocated to the Interior building.)
While the Native Americans tried to reach a deal on housing, a group of guards for the General Services Administration tried to get some of the Indians who were in a downstairs area of the building to leave, according to Kent Blansett, a Native American scholar who teaches Indigenous studies and history at the University of Kansas. But fights erupted, and some of the guards were thrown out.
Ramona Bennett, 82, a former chairwoman of the Puyallup Tribal Council in Tacoma, Wash., who was at the occupation, recalled how leaders of the group told them to wait in the building while they tried to make accommodations for them to stay for the night. But “while we were waiting there,” she said, “we were attacked.”
“They started coming in through the doors and beating people with clubs,” Bennett said. When police in riot gear arrived, some Native Americans started to block the entrance doors. The protesters said police tried to smash the windows to get in.
“We said, ‘We’re not leaving,’ ” Mills recalled. That’s when “they surrounded us with police, and then it became an occupation.”
Some bureau employees were allowed out, while others opted to stay. Police surrounded the building and snipers took up posts on the Interior Department building across the street.
“It was scary, but we were strong,” Bennett said.
Soon, a banner went up across the facade of the building that read “Native American Embassy.” Some Native Americans put up a tepee on the front lawn, calling the property their “liberated territory,” according to “Like a Hurricane.”
Government officials desperately wanted them out. At one point, they offered the group a larger auditorium at a nearby federal building where there would be cots, showers and canteens set up for cooking. But when a few Native Americans went to check out the accommodations first, before moving everyone, they found the doors were locked.
Native Americans spent days in the building going through — and taking — files that raised questions about unfair deals on land, water, fishing and mineral rights. Others took artifacts, pottery and artwork that they said belonged to tribes.
Suzan Shown Harjo, 75, who is Cheyenne and Muscogee, recalled her time as a radio journalist covering the occupation for a New York station, WBAI-FM, in a piece on the 30th anniversary. She said, “Indians were camped all over the building, busy with security and other tasks, but mostly reading documents.”
“Everyone talked about the thick carpeting, leather couches and chairs, running water and indoor plumbing that were more comfortable and modern than most Indian homes.”
Taking over the building, Harjo said, was significant because it was the “stand-in agency for everything the federal government had done wrong to Indians. It was the stand-in for massacres. It was the stand-in for removal acts.”
GSA officials, at one point, proposed ending the takeover by tunneling into the building and “surprising the attackers.” But Nixon “ruled against an assault and in favor of restraint,” according to “Like a Hurricane.”
Determined to avoid bloodshed before an election, the government sought a court order to clear the group from the building. The court set a deadline for the Native Americans to be out, but an hour before it went into effect, a judge ordered a two-day extension to give government negotiators and the Native Americans more time to reach a deal.
Inside, some Native Americans broke off table legs to make clubs and wrapped knives onto pieces of broken furniture to make spears because they feared an attack by law enforcement or military police.
At one point, Harjo said, someone yelled into a bullhorn that the building was going to be blown up. Eight months pregnant, she and her husband, who was also a radio journalist, ran down the stairs, past bottles of flammable liquids with cardboard wicks.
Outside on the steps of the building, Russell Means, an Oglala Lakota who was a leader in the American Indian Movement group, lit a long fuse to a molotov cocktail and said, “It’s a good day to die.” Several people, including Harjo’s husband, put out the fuse.
Harjo said Oren Lyons, who was a faithkeeper of the Onondaga tribe, told Means: “You can’t kill the people and destroy all those records. This is only a battle, not the war.”
Leonard Garment, acting special counsel to Nixon who was involved in negotiating with the occupiers, described the precarious situation in a 2007 interview kept at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. He said that with the nearness of the election, plus “a lot of craziness, anger, and a lot of children, babies … it was all the ingredients of a great tragedy.”
Then he realized that one of the obstacles to an agreement was that the Native Americans had no cash to get home.
Eventually, Garment said, he called officials at the Treasury Department and told them: “Get me some money so I can get bus tickets for all these Indians.”
The occupation ended the day after Nixon won a landslide victory and after Garment arranged for $66,000 in cash to help the Native Americans with travel expenses.
Government officials accused the group of causing thousands of dollars in damage — a charge many of the Native Americans denied. As part of the agreement, the government said it wouldn’t prosecute the Native Americans who had occupied the federal building.
In their book, Smith and his co-author Robert Allen Warrior, an Osage, called it “the most important act of Indian resistance since the defeat of Custer at Little Big Horn, yet after all the vows of victory or death, everyone agreed to leave in exchange for gas money home.”
Still, for many of the Native Americans involved in the occupation, it felt like a success.
“The most important thing we won was to have brought to the world the condition of our people,” Vernon Bellecourt, a leader of the American Indian Movement, said in a Washington Post article from that time.
“This is our country,” Bellecourt said. “This is our land. We have the right to live and thrive.”
Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.
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