More than 100 American Indian women, men and children had plenty to talk about when they gathered in an upstairs office on Plymouth Avenue in Minneapolis on July 28, 1968:
Mistreatment by police, judges and landlords. Longstanding treaty violations. A staggering dropout rate among Indian youth from the public schools.
The meeting was called by Dennis Banks, George Mitchell, Harold Goodsky, Annette Oshie, Florence Holmes and Clyde Bellecourt.
Bellecourt, then employed as an engineer at a power plant, was elected chair of the new organization that became the American Indian Movement.
Soon, AIM chapters sprouted in cities and reservations across the United States. The group earned worldwide attention for its 1972 occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters in Washington and the 1973 armed standoff at Wounded Knee, S.D. Its role in establishing several enduring Indian-focused institutions is less well-known.
Now, 43 years after AIM’s first meeting, some of the old guard and others who embrace its legacy want to create an interpretive center to tell the movement’s story.
“If we don’t tell it, Garrison Keillor or some other non-Indian will tell it,” says Bellecourt, 75, with a smile, admitting he has nothing against Keillor.
The American Indian Movement Interpretive Center would be housed in a vacant 19th century mansion at 1208 5th St. SE. once owned by lumberman Henry Frey. More recently, the mansion was used for auxiliary classroom space by the Heart of the Earth Survival School, which was in a separate building across the street.
Heart of the Earth shut down in 2008 after its executive director embezzled more than $1 million from the school. The school building was sold and razed and the $1.2 million in proceeds are being used to advance the interpretive center project.
The center would have interactive exhibits and archival material including photos, video and audio and a place for youths and elders to gather. It also would serve as a resource for students at the University of Minnesota. The center has already hired the architectural team of Karen Gjerstad and Robert Roscoe and a work crew to begin renovation of the Frey mansion. An office for the project has been opened nearby.
An archivist will be hired in January and a board of directors has been created, chaired by Norma Renville, former executive director of Women of Nations, a program for battered American Indian women in St. Paul.
Bellecourt says he does not view the interpretive center as a museum, noting that museums around the country, including in Minnesota, have outraged Indian people by displaying the scalps and bones of American Indians, including Indian leaders.
Last week, Robert Lilligren, vice president of the Minneapolis City Council, joined Bellecourt and others in a meeting with Gov. Mark Dayton’s staff to ask that Dayton include $5.5 million in his 2012 legislative bonding bill to fund the interpretive center’s construction and first year of operation.
“The American Indian Movement has had national and international impact,” says Lilligren, who is one-fourth Ojibwe. “It’s important that we claim that history and protect that history and make it available to scholars, the public and anyone who wants to see it.”
Laura Waterman Wittstock, who founded MIGIZI Communications, a radio news service for Native peoples, has agreed to be a consultant for the interpretive center’s fundraising campaign, which aims to raise $500,000 from private donors.
Dick Bancroft of Sunfish Lake, who became the unofficial AIM photographer over four decades, says he wants to contribute volumes of photos, posters, clippings and documents to the center.
AIM’s dramatic history includes the Trail of Broken Treaties march on Washington in 1972, culminating in the occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs offices and the 71-day occupation of the hamlet of Wounded Knee the following year over corruption on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The occupation turned a spotlight on the centuries of oppression of Native Americans in the United States.
AIM members also played key roles in the establishment of several Minneapolis institutions. The Legal Rights Center was founded in 1970 to represent lower-income people in criminal cases. Created in 1979, the American Indian Opportunities Industrialization Center (AIOIC) has provided employment training for thousands.
While its visibility has faded, AIM still holds meetings around the country, and while it sometimes endorses demonstrations, it has not been embroiled in confrontations in recent years.
David Wilkins, a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota, says that the AIM cause got him involved in Indian issues as a teenager. He says the organization brought together urban native youth with tradition-minded people on the reservation.
“AIM was the energy force that showed that native peoples were willing to stand up for their rights,” he says. AIM played a prominent role, Wilkins says, in bringing about the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous people. “AIM does not get enough credit for that,” he says.
At its first meeting in the Plymouth Avenue office, the group voted to call itself the Concerned Indian American Coalition. It didn’t take long to figure out that the acronym for the group was “CIA.” “We had to change the name,” says Bellecourt.
Through word-of-mouth — Bellecourt calls it a “moccasin telegram” — the group asked for suggestions. Bellecourt says Alberta Down Wind and another woman suggested calling the group “AIM.”
The older women told Bellecourt that the group would take aim at police brutality, violation of treaties and other key issues. When he asked them what AIM stood for, they told him “American Indian Movement.”
“We don’t want to call ourselves ‘Indian’ anymore,” Bellecourt says he responded, noting that the word “Indian” was not an indigenous name but one used by European explorers to describe the indigenous people they met. He’d also opposed its use in the original name.
He says Down Wind grabbed him by the arm and said, “Looky here, sonny. ‘Indian’ is the word they used to oppress us. ‘Indian’ is what we’ll use to gain our freedom.”