August 2020

Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

Monday, November 25, 2013

American Indian Movement: History of Struggle and Hope

American Indian Movement: History of Struggle and Hope

By Brenda Norrell
Censored News Exclusive
Dutch translation NAIS
French translation Christine Prat

SAN FRANCISCO -- The sixth annual AIM West Conference began Monday morning with a prayer and drum song. Lakotas Bill Means and Madonna Thunder Hawk were among the first to arrive at the gathering, which includes presentations today and tomorrow, the annual un-thanksgiving dinner on Wednesday and a concert on Friday.

AIM history at AIM West Conference
Bill Means began with a Lakota greeting, "My heart is strong and I extend my hand in friendship." Means said he became a part of AIM in Vietnam in a bunker, when he saw his brother, Russell Means, in a copy of the military magazine "Stars and Stripes." Russell Means, who has now passed to the Spirit World, was protesting on the East Coast in 1968. The article said: "Plymouth Rock should have landed on the Pilgrims -- rather than the Pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock."

Bill Means said he couldn't wait to get out of the military and be part of this movement.

Bill Means spoke of the three identified enemies of Indian people, and how AIM sought solutions, including demanding that the Treaties be honored, and charity efforts focused on Native people be refocused into jobs and developing the communities.

AIM was formed in the 1960s and it was a time like non other. It was a time of Black Panthers in San Francisco; Martin Luther King in Alabama; women's rights; and the anti-war movement. Means said he was a member of Vietnam Veterans against the War.

Means met the American Indian Movement during the Occupation of Alcatraz and couldn't wait to take it home to Pine Ridge. "We always had a solution we were about to address." Means said there was a 20-point position paper in the Trail of Broken Treaties.

AIM identified three enemies of American Indian people: First, the United States government in the form of the BIA, which used to be in the War Dept., second the churches, and the third was the education system.

The solution was to begin with the Treaties, made between Nations. "Our elders always told us, 'Use those Treaties.'"

Means said AIM was well organized and they did their homework.

Besides the US government, Means said the other great enemy of Indian people are the churches and schools. Their motto was: "Save the child, kill the Indian." It was assimilation and acculturation. Meanwhile, AIM challenged the churches to work with the communities rather than to focus on the poverty and taking children out of Indian homes.

Still, through all of this, America saw Indians as romantic images.

"But we are still here and we have a right to be who we are," Means said. Within AIM, American Indians began to control their own curriculum in schools.

"This was very revolutionary at the time."

AIM identified the enemies and carried out ways to address those. Means said mascots are protested because the issue is one of respect. This basic respect is necessary before moving on to other issues such as Treaties.

Means said the film, "A Man Called Horse," was protested because it portrayed a white man saving Indians. The marches against the movie, however, created a backlash and the movie actually became more famous because everyone wanted to see what Indian people were so upset about. "We learned some lessons."

Means questioned why the US is not upholding their own laws which includes Indian Treaty rights. As long as Article 6 is there, the Treaty rights remain, he said.

Recalling the '60s, Means said, it was a time of social change and of marching. America was in a very different place than it is now.

Madonna Thunder Hawk, Lakota, and Jean
Jean Whitehorse, Dine'
Whitehorse, Dine', spoke on Monday morning. Thunder Hawk stressed the importance of extended families and communities, and the battle against the state of South Dakota which is profiteering from taking Indian children from their homes. Whitehorse described how she was abused in boarding school for speaking Dine'. She also shared the Beauty Way.

Thunder Hawk said she lived in San Francisco when she was young. Thunder Hawk also remembered when Bill Mean’s father went out to Alcatraz in 1964 to occupy it, before the longer occupation of Alcatraz years later.           

“We were family oriented," said Thunder Hawk. She spoke of extended families in the Lakota way. She said after WW II she lived here in the San Francisco area, and her family members grew up with Bill Means family members.

Thunder Hawk said the movement has survived because of community organizers. She said the US could not wipe them all out because they were community based and family based.

“The bottom line for us is land protection," she said.

Thunder Hawk said today there are so many threats, including the Keystone XL pipeline. The oil would be shipped to China.

Thunder Hawk described how today the strategy of the US and energy companies involves the privatization of Indian land. She said energy companies pick off individual land owners and buy the land and mineral rights from those who are desperate for money. 

Along with this, there are man camps in the oil and gas fields.

Today much of the struggle focuses on the Indian Child Welfare Act which is profiteering from child welfare and seizing Indian children from their homes.

"The state of South Dakota found out they could make millions by taking over child welfare for the whole state," Thunder Hawk said.

She said the youths are offering hope. "The young people are really active and waking up."

There are many struggles in the Dakotas. Now white supremacists are coming in and buying up land in small towns. This just happened in Leith, North Dakota, near the Standing Rock Indian Nation.

"These little towns are dying."

In Leith, there were only 26 residents when the neo-Nazi bought up housing and lots. The residents put out a call for help.

"We are under siege more than ever," Thunder Hawk said, describing the attacks on the people, communities and Indian Nations in the Dakotas.

Churches now have a new strategy for seeking recruits of Indian people. Today, she said churches use sage and the priests wear beadwork.

"They are busy trying to convert the Indian people. They say, 'We'll pay your light bill for you.'"

Further, Indian people are dealing with the over medication and drugging of youths by Indian Health Service. IHS has given youths excessive mood-altering drugs which dulls them.

The issue is survival. Thunder Hawk said she likes to come to the AIM West gathering each year because there are progressive Indian people here. Meanwhile, in South Dakota there is a frontier mentality. There is a lack of resources and lack of attorneys. Further, people don't want to go up against the state, the idea of taking on the state is considered too radical for them.

"Moccasins on the ground, that's who I am," Thunder Hawk said.

She said AIM West is a clearing house, for international work. Further, the Internet has allowed young people to see the big picture.

"We don't stand alone. I"m really glad to be here."

Jean Whitehorse, Dine', remembered the Occupation of Alcatraz and the struggle for land, liberty, justice and freedom. She also exposed racism in children's literature and the need for a new type of education.

Whitehorse said people often ask "Why Alcatraz, what's there, why do you Indians want that?"

Then, she responds, "Alcatraz resembles an Indian reservation, there's nothing on them."

Whitehorse talked of how this society labels American Indians before they are even born. She showed a family planning pamphlet, which was distributed to Navajo women earlier. The pamphlet illustrated in drawings that if a Navajo woman had one child, she would have lots of horses, but if she had many children, she wouldn't have many horses.

There were also cases of nurses and doctors who stole Navajo babies. Now, some of those "lost birds" are coming back and looking for their families. "It's not just Navajos, it is all over."

Mormons took Navajo children off Navajo land.

Whitehorse showed children's books of how Indians are portrayed. She said, "We are portrayed as fools, stupid or uneducated."

She also showed a recipe, from a book claiming to be Indian food, that was supposed to be Indian fry bread. "It looks more like cookies."

In one children's book, the author confused Navajos, Hopis and Pueblos as one tribe, mixing it all together in one confusing story.

Whitehorse pointed out that there are books that tell the real stories. She said Navajo poet Luci Tapahonso's books are an example of authentic Native authors.

"Living in harmony and balance is our prayer," she said. Whitehorse said after living in the San Francisco Bay area on relocation, her grandmother taught her to live in harmony and balance in the Beauty Way.
Tony Gonzales AIM West

During the afternoon at the AIM West Conference, the film Autodescubrimiento 1492 -- 1992 (Self Discovery) was shown on Indigenous rights. The film includes early footage from Big Mountain of many of the Dine' elders who have passed on to the Spirit World, and songs by Ute/Navajo Willie Lonewolf, who has also made his journey to the Spirit World, and many others.

The 62-minute film was produced by Rodrigo Betancur. It is a documentary of the 500 years of struggle of Indigenous Peoples, including Dine' of Big Mountain and the official and counter celebrations in San Francisco. The film says the goal is to "demystify, confront and challenge the images of official history.'"

AIM West Conference Coordinator Tony Gonzales said discussions on Tuesday will include the Vallejo schools dropping the Apache mascot and Indigenous Peoples issues at the United Nations

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Also see: Day 2: Bill Means: Time to halt hand-out mentality

Info on this week's gatherings:

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