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United States History Research Project

DBQ – What significant impact did Russell Means and the American Indian Movement have on America during the 1960s -1970s?

The American Indian movement (AIM) was founded in July 1968 in Minneapolis, Minnesota by Dennis Banks, Russell Means, Clyde Bellecourt, Vernon Bellecourt, Eddie Benton Banai, and George Mitchell, to advocate for American Indian rights in the United States. Later, Russell Means became a prominent leader and spokesperson for the group.

Before the establishment of AIM, the Native Americans had an obscure existence, lack of autonomy and control in the United States. Although in 1968, President Johnson created the National Council on Indian Opportunity, many Native Americans felt discontented with the slow speed of reforms; thus AIM began as a militant, self-defense organization against the police force. It later included protecting the rights and territories of Native Americans. AIM continues to have functioning local groups to this day. Although Russell Means’ pride in Native American heritage and his organization of the March on Washington impacted the AIM and America greatly, ultimately the occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973 had the most significant impact.

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Russell Means’ pride in Native American heritage propelled him to preserve their traditional values and to reclaim their rights. Means had a strong belief in maintaining cultural values. “His immersion school plan was based on strengthening culture, not assimilating into Western thought”(Kincaid 3). Means encouraged all American Indians to use an inherent sense of rightness to fight for their rights and not accept the uncertainty that America had determined for them.

Means would not tolerate any incorrect and offensive remarks made about the Native Americans and would react to fix Native Americans’ image. During his occupation as director of the Cleveland AIM chapter, Means filed a $9 lawsuit against the Cleveland Indians baseball team for its use of “Chief Wahoo as a mascot” to describe Native Americans. Means said, “It epitomizes the stereotyped images of the American Indian..,It attacks the cultural heritage of the American Indian and destroys Indian pride” (Indian Country Today).

Such a reaction indicates the strong dedication Means have had for his culture and people. He would attempt to remove anything that would express racism towards his culture, even if it was at his own expense. Although words are not enough to prove a belief Russell Means’ words became a guide for the rest of the American Indian activists.

One of the most important and many anti-government protests lead by Means and the AIM co-leaders were the March on Washington D.C. in November 3-9, 1972. “A Trail of Broken Treaties” was the name given to a series of cross-country caravans that participated in the march. Means “urged a march to demand a federal law that would make it a crime to kill an Indian, even if it had to be added as an amendment to the Endangered Species Act” (Encyclopedia of World Biography).

The dissatisfactions with the U.S. government had grown so much that the AIM leaders took desperate and rather urgent measures to protect their rights. After the failure of the treaties promised by the U.S. government, Means led the group to occupy the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He “requested congressional investigations into conditions on all reservations and the corruption of the BIA…,specifically wanted a hearing to take place concerning treaties and treaty rights, along with an investigation of the BIA and the Department of the Interior at all agency and reservation levels” (University of South Dakota).

Once again, Means took action to support Native American tribes and demand reformations of treaties from the government. The investigation of the BIA will ensure the validity of the affairs taking place there. Means’ mass demonstration not only brought attention to the Native Americans, but it also made an opportunity for them to get heard.

Last but surely not least, the occupation of Wounded Knee had the most significant impact on the AIM and America. The event began February 27, 1973 and ended 71 days later in May 9, 1973. The failed impeachment of tribal chairman, Dick Wilson led to the occupation of Wounded Knee. During the occupation, “two Native Americans, Frank Clearwater and Lawrence Lamont, died and one FBI agent, Lloyd Grimm, was shot and paralyzed” (Exhibits – American Indian Movement). The intensity of the siege leads to the death and injury of people.

This shows that free people have to fight for their freedom and liberty at the expense of their lives. Means’ and ultimately, the AIM’s goal was to bring national attention to all the broken treaties and promises of the U.S. government. As said by himself in his autobiography written with Marvin J. Wolf. , “What Wounded Knee told the world was that John Wayne hadn’t killed us all…Suddenly billions of people knew we were still alive, still resisting” (Quoted by Langer from “Where White Men Fear to Tread”).

Means’ reference to John Wayne, shines light on the accusations made by most Native Americans of him as being racist. This statement is powerful because it shows that the Native Americans were capable of protesting and resisting oppression. The event is described as “the longest-lasting “civil disorder” in 200 years of U.S. history” by many journalists and historians (Chertoff). These show that not only the occupation of Wounded Knee garnered attention but it was also fatal to both parties. The turmoil that was caused in the country was substantial and notable.

The Native Americans’ belief and confidence in their human rights and their heritage prevented them from vanishing. The American Indian Movement has been just as remarkable as other parties such as the Black Panther. AIM’s protests and demonstrations left a huge impact on the American society and they are worthy of being noted. The March on Washington protested the violation of treaties between America and the American Indian tribes. It later leads to the occupation of the BIA due to unmet agreements. The Occupation of Wounded Knee was the most significant takeover in AIM’s history and Russell Means’ accomplishment. It served as a protest against the government’s Indian policy. Although not all of the compromises were successful, ultimately the Indian Americans were able to get recognized. Many journalists and historians write about these events in memory of Russell Means, including those who are cited.

Works Cited

  • Chertoff, Emily. “Occupy Wounded Knee: A 71-Day Siege and a Forgotten CivilRights Movement.” The Atlantic, edited by Emily Chertoff, 23 Oct. 2012,
    www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/10/occupy-wounded-knee-a-71-day-siege-and-a-forgotten-civil-rights-movement/263998//. Accessed 24 May 2018.
  • Ducey, Mary Ellen. “James G. Abourezk, Wounded Knee 1973 Series.” University of South Dakota, edited by Mary Ellen Ducey, 5 Dec. 2017, libguides.usd.edu/
    c.php?g=753099;p=5394209. Accessed 15 May 2018.
  • Langer, Emily. “Russell Means Dies at 72; American Indian Activist Helped LeadWounded Knee Uprising.” The Washington Post, edited by Emily Langer, 22
    Oct. 2012, www.washingtonpost.com/national/russell-means-dies-at-72-american-indian-activist-helped-lead-wounded-knee-uprising/2012/10/22/
    df6bb0ee-1c56-11e2-ad90-ba5920e56eb3_story.html?noredirect=on;utm_term=.354b8c00beb2. Accessed 18 May 2018.
  • Means, Russell. Where White Men Fear to Tread. Edited by Marvin J. Wolf.Google Books, books.google.com. Accessed 18 May 2018.
  • Omeka – Exhibits – American Indian Movement. digilab.libs.uga.edu/exhibits/exhibits/show/civil-rights-digital-history-p/american-indian-movement.
    “Russell Means.” Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 24 May.2018 (– removed HTML –) .
  • “Russell Means: A Look at His Journey Through Life.” Indian Country Today,indiancountrymedianetwork.com/news/russell-means-a-look-at-his-journey-through-life/. Accessed 15 May 2018.W. Patrick Kincaid. “Remembering a Lakotah Warrior: Russell Means.”
  • Wicazo Sa Review, vol. 29, no. 1, 2014, pp. 29?33. JSTOR, JSTOR,www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/wicazosareview.29.1.0029.

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