Why was it important that American Indians joined the protests in solidarity with African Americans? Because their presence underscores Minneapolis’s ongoing hostilities against indigenous people and people of color, and highlights the long history of weaponized state violence against American Indians.
But this is not the first time community members, activists and organizations have called for an end to police brutality in the Twin Cities, nor is it the first time calls like this have resonated across the country. Those who are calling for justice are echoing similar calls from the era of the civil rights movements. In fact, it was police brutality against native people in the Twin Cities that led to the creation of the American Indian Movement in 1968. AIM is most famous — or infamous — for its public demonstrations. However, AIM’s national demonstrations and its often polarizing tactics tend to overshadow and obscure the roots of its foundation.
In the 1950s, federal Indian policy shifted from the revitalization efforts of the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act to the twinned policies of termination (under the 1953 House Concurrent Resolution 108) and relocation (through the 1956 Indian Relocation Act). Termination was as ominous as it sounds: It severed the treaty-guaranteed relationship between more than 100 Native nations and the federal government, eradicated tribal sovereignty and dissolved reservations, effectively stripping over 12,000 indigenous people of their tribal birthrights. Under relocation, the federal government hoped to assimilate American Indians by moving them to larger cities like Denver, Chicago and the Bay Area and cutting social, cultural and political ties to reservations.
While Minneapolis was not an official relocation city, it had a relocation office and effectively became a de facto destination throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Those who relocated to larger cities were promised jobs and housing but instead found inadequate living situations and insufficient opportunities for employment. As Paul Chaat Smith and Robert Warrior have shown, the Twin Cities had native populations “large enough to register on the radar of city government, the press, and the public.” This visibility, though, came at a cost. Native people in Minneapolis, like African Americans, became targets of police violence because of the city’s entrenched racism.
During the “long hot summer” of 1967 racial tensions erupted, and yet little changed. The following summer, Minneapolis Indians organized against ongoing discrimination, racism, police brutality and civil rights violations. An oft-repeated story says that their first choice for a name was the Concerned Indian Americans, but that acronym (CIA) was already taken. An elder suggested the American Indian Movement, and the name stuck.
In its early years, AIM advocated for native civil rights and helped create community programs. The AIM patrol, focused on the Phillips neighborhood in South Minneapolis, was among its first endeavors. Akin to the tactics used by Black Panther “copwatching” patrols in California, the AIM patrol sought to minimize interactions between natives and the police and to serve as a “crisis-resolution alternative.” Volunteers in red shirts or red jackets with the AIM logo watched for differences in police arrest procedures but never physically interfered.
In addition to the patrols, AIM was instrumental in the creation of two survival schools, one in Minneapolis and one in St. Paul. Native students in the Twin Cities faced pervasive anti-indigenous hostility, cultural discrimination and marginalization, which led to higher dropout rates and lower levels of academic success. Community members led the push for these schools, and in 1972 the Red School House opened in St. Paul and Heart of the Earth opened in Minneapolis.
AIM soon became a national movement with chapters in cities like Cleveland, Milwaukee, Chicago, Denver and San Francisco, and each chapter tended to focus on local issues. Some demonstrations, however, took the original chapter of AIM out of Minneapolis and into the national spotlight to draw attention to more widespread native concerns. AIM members protested at Mount Rushmore and Plymouth Rock in 1970, and a 1972 protest after the brutal murder of Raymond Yellow Thunder in Gordon, Neb. (just across the South Dakota state line from the Pine Ridge Reservation), drew almost 1,500 people.
When the 1972 Trail of Broken Treaties, a cross-country caravan, stopped in Minneapolis, AIM activists drew up a 20-point position paper to present to the federal government. The caravan later took over the Bureau of Indian Affairs in D.C. In 1973 a 71-day standoff at Wounded Knee in South Dakota — the site of an 1890 massacre where a U.S. Army cavalry unit slaughtered several hundred Lakota — drew media coverage from around the world.
The creation of AIM was neither the beginning nor the end of Native calls to action, but it stands as a marker in this long history. As American Indians across the country pushed back against repressive policies and as activists, organizers and community members called for greater attention to indigenous issues, Congress passed the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 in an attempt to mediate the devastating effects of termination. This authorized tribes to contract with the federal government for programs that would serve tribal members and rejuvenated tribal governments.
Over the next decades, indigenous activism continued as Native nations across the country fought for their treaty-guaranteed rights to hunt and fish (see United States v. Washington, Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Chippewa Indians v. Voigt and Minnesota v. Mille Lacs Band of Chippewa Indians, among other cases). More recent demonstration include protests against the Dakota Access pipeline and the Keystone XL pipeline.
But the community building efforts in Minneapolis were also enduring, and what’s now known as the American Indian Cultural Corridor has become a gathering spot for those who set out at night to protect their communities in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing. AIM Executive Director Lisa Bellanger’s call for support brought people from Minnesota, Iowa and the Dakotas. Muck-Wa Roberts, a grandson of AIM co-founder Dennis Banks, told a reporter about past incidents between police and community members and explained, “There’s been police brutality toward us, so we understand and we know that justice needs to be served.”
The police brutality that galvanized American Indians in Minneapolis more than 50 years ago is part of the same police brutality that killed Floyd. The protesters marching in Minneapolis who carried burning sage, AIM flags and hand drums in a powerful demonstration of solidarity and support, the people mobilizing to provide resources, the jingle dress dancers who honored Floyd the next week and the protectors who stand guard every night draw on decades and centuries of indigenous resistance against state violence aimed at their communities and their neighbors. Police violence against indigenous people and people of color won’t end without a recognition of this history of racism, and change won’t happen without recognizing the historical roots of the city’s racially driven violence. But the native community’s mobilization in Minneapolis underscores the rallying cry of many indigenous activists, scholars, organizers and community members: We are still here.