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American Indian Women's Activism in the 1960s and 1970s

by Donna Hightower Langston
Abstract: This article will focus on the role of women in three red power events: the occupation of Alcatraz Island, the Fish-in movement, and the occupation at Wounded Knee. Men held most public roles at Alcatraz and Wounded Knee, even though women were the numerical majority at Wounded Knee. Female elders played a significant role at Wounded Knee, where the occupation was originally their idea. In contrast to these two occupations, the public leaders of the Fish-in movement were women—not an untraditional role for women of Northwest Coastal tribes.

American Indian political activism in the 1960s took place during a time when many groups were actively organizing, groups with branches of their movement dedicated to civil rights pursuits and branches of more radical Power groups. Among civil rights groups of the time were African American organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Southern Christian Leadership conference (SCLC), led by Martin Luther King, and women's groups like the National Organization for Women (NOW). Civil rights groups most often focused on lobbying, education, and creating legal change. Power groups responded to the limits of civil rights groups with more radical rhetoric and actions. Numerous Power groups advocated Black Power, Brown Power, Red Power, and Radical Feminism—groups such as the Black Panthers, Brown Berets, American Indian Movement (AIM), and New York Radical Feminists.

Many groups borrowed strategies, tactics, theory, and vision from the African American movement. While similarities in goals and tactics can be found [End Page 114] among groups of this time period, American Indian groups differed from others in a number of key areas, and also drew on their own unique history of continued resistance and conflict over land and resources (Baylor 1994, 33). One major difference was that their focus was less on integration with dominant society, and more on maintaining cultural integrity. While African Americans had been denied integration, American Indians had faced a history of forced assimilation (Winfrey 1986, 145). American Indians also faced problems that differed from other groups, since they were owners of land and resources. A central focus of their activism was on gaining enforcement of treaty rights, not civil rights (Winfrey 1986, 146). The Indian movement focused more on empowering the tribe, not individuals, the more common reference point for civil rights groups.

At a time when white student groups advised against trusting anyone over 30, American Indian youth actively pursued bonds with their elders and looked to them for cultural knowledge and leadership (Ziegelman 1985, 4). While elders had a revered status, they did not necessarily hold positions of tribal authority. Many tribal councils were governed by members of a middle generation who had survived boarding school, but did not always understand the traditional values of elders or the interest among youth in reconnecting to their heritage (Ziegelman 1985,13). Divisions also existed among Indians based on geographical residence; reservation or urban. The status of Indians on reservations was sometimes compared to that of Southern Blacks, while members of urban diasporas were more often attracted to the rhetoric of power groups.

The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), founded in 1944, was one of the prominent Civil Rights groups of the American Indian movement during this time period (Baylor 1994, 41). Unlike earlier groups, NCAI membnership was restricted to people with Indian ancestry (Hertzberg 1971, 290), and Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) employees were barred from leadership positions (Baylor 1994, 44; Hertzberg 1971, 290). Ruth Bronson (Cherokee) was the first executive secretary of the NCAI and served in this position until 1956 (Bernstein 1984, 15). In general, the NCAI worked on issues more pertinent to reservation Indians than urban communities (Johnson 1994, 13). NCAI campaigns included voting rights in the Southwest where Indians were prohibited from voting in state and local elections (Johnson 1996, 54). Among the lobbying victories of this time period were the 1965 Indian Self-Determination and Education Act, the 1968 Indian Civil Rights Act, the 1972 Indian Education Act, the 1975 Indian Education Assistance and Self-Determination Act, the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act, and the 1978 Religious Freedom Act.

Another primary issue the NCAI lobbied against was the 1953 Termination Act passed by Congress and singed by President Eisenhower for the express purpose of dissolving the legal status of all tribes. In a 1947 report by William Zimmerman, the Acting Commissioner of Indian Affairs, tribes were divided [End Page 115] into categories of immediate or eventual termination (Winfrey 1986, 86). The process began with the termination of the Paiutes of Utah in 1954 (Sinclair 1996, 41). Tribes were refused building permits for hospitals and schools since this might encourage some to remain on their land rather than relocate (Burnett 1972, 567). Congress would only consider compensation for stolen land and resources to those tribes who were willing to develop a termination plan (Olson 1984, 158). The termination policy occurred in a time period of widespread fear that American values were under threat from outside the country and from within (Sinclair 1996, 89). Indians who had not assimilated into dominant culture were viewed as un-American by some. In 1960, Dillon Meyer, who had directed the Japanese-American relocation campus during World War II, was named Commissioner of Indian Affairs (Burnett 1972, 567).

One part of the Termination policy was the Relocation Program begun in 1952. This program offered one-way bus fare and the promise of assistance in finding jobs and housing in urban areas for reservation Indians, usually younger tribal members with more employable skills (Baylor 1994, 63; Ziegelman 1985, 16). In 1940, 13 percent of Indians lived in urban areas, but by 1980 more than half were urban (Olson 1984, 163). The BIA estimated that 200,000 Indians were relocated under this program, while the Indian Removal Act of 1830 had forced less than half this number, 89,000, to relocate (Winton 1999, 9) The high point of termination policy occurred during the period from 1952 to 1962 (Winfrey 1986, 88). With the election of Kennedy and democratic administrations, the government's termination policy went into remission (Winfrey 1986, 96). By the late 1960s, both Johnson and Nixon had renounced termination. It was formally overturned in 1972, twenty years after it had been initiated. A renewed interest in tribal values was the exact opposite of what the Relocation Program was supposed to achieve. Both African-American and Indian militancy had increased with migration to urban areas. The growth in urban Indian populations unwittingly set the stage for a renewed radicalism among youth.

In the African-American movement, a younger group of students, disllusioned with the limits of civil rights approaches, branched off of the older SCLC to form the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) This type of split also occurred in the American Indian Civil Rights movement, as students formed their own organization separate from the NCAI. The National Indian Youth council (NIYC) was founded in 1961 after an NCAI conference in Chicago during which disputes between Oklahoma and Great Plains tribes and disputes between tribal leaders who dominated NCAI and younger urban Indians occurred (Johnson 1994, 13). After the Chicago meeting, a group gathered in Gallup, New Mexico, to form NIYC (Olson 1984, 158). Shirley Hill Witt (Iroquois) was one of the founders (Sayer 1997, 202). While the NCAI had held conventions in big cities, NIYC began to hold meetings on reservations. Every Youth council meeting included traditional tribal songs and drum ceremonies (Price 1998, 89). [End Page 116]

The group employed non-violent, humorous, and symbolic ridicule of white society through their publication ABC, Americans Before Columbus (Churchill 1990, 118). Perhaps influenced by Third World Liberation movements of the time, they perceived the status of reservations to be that of internal colonies under the rule of the BIA (Alvin 1971, 486). NIYC supported African-American groups and borrowed many of their ideas and rhetoric (Winfrey 1986, 237). One of the founders of NIYC, Clyde Warrior (Cherokee) spent the summer of 1961 working with SNCC voter education projects. He was one of the first Indian activists to use revolutionary rhetoric and publicly labeled the BIA as a white colonialist institution (Day 1971, 513). The term Red Power was first used by Vine Deloria, Jr. (Lakota) at a national NCAI conference in 1966. The public first became aware of the term in a 1967 news broadcast that featured Clyde Warrior promising that the NIYC would lead an uprising that "would make Kenya's Mau Mau look like a Sunday school picnic" (Winfrey 1986, 238). Indian militancy borrowed heavily from African-American models. Sit-ins provided a model for the fish-ins, "red power" responded to the earlier term "black power," and "red Muslims" was a term used by some Indian militants like Gerald Wilkinson (Cherokee/Catawba), a leader in the NIYC (Day 1971, 526); Nagel 1997, 130). One of the first actions the students joined was the Fish-in Movement in Washington State in 1964. A movement of open resistance had begun that would support new tribal achievements.

In 1968, two more youth-led power groups emerged, one on the West Coast and one in the Midwest. Lehman Brightman (Lakota), Director of the American Indian Studies at the University of California campus, formed the Bay Area-based United Native Americans, whose members played a role in the occupation of Alcatraz (Johnson, Nagel, and Champagne 1997, 15; Olson 1984, 161). Though they envisioned themselves as a national organization, most of their support was in the Bay Area (Baylor 1994, 88; Johnson 1996, 88). They are credited with publishing the first inter-tribal militant newspaper, Warpath, in 1968 (Johnson 1996, 33) and issued a call for war on the BIA (Sinclair 1996, 49).

A group of young community members in urban Minneapolis formed the American Indian Movement (AIM), also in 1968. Modeled after the Black Panthers, they initially responded to the issue of urban police harassment and found themselves targeted by the FBI. By the late 1960s, Indians in Minneapolis formed a third of the state's Indian population, more than any single reservation in the state. Most of the Indians in Minneapolis were Anishinabe (Olson 1984, 167). While the membership base of the NIYC was comprised primarily of students, AIM initially drew a relocated urban underclass to their movement (Crow Dog 1990, 76).

Power groups led a number of effective symbolic actions that challenged and educated society. Power groups, led by youth, often from urban backgrounds, organized separately from whites and focused on the need to reeducate members in traditional tribal ways. Spiritual practices, personal appearance, and [End Page 117] hair length, for example, indicated independence from white values. Some divisions occurred as charges of being "uncle tomahawks" (a sell-out, similar to the African-American term of "Uncle Tom" in meaning), or "apples" (red on the outside, white on the inside) were applied to American Indians in the BIA, tribal bureaucrats, educated professionals, and to those with light skin, of lesser blood quantum, or who were otherwise deemed not "Indian enough" (Price 1998, 89). FBI infiltrators encouraged these divisions.

The first red power action that garnered national and international attention was the 1969 occupation of Alcatraz Island. Other occupations followed this one, including one at Fort Lewis, Washington, the 1972 occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) in Washington D. C., and the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee. Post-Alcatraz inter tribal groups aimed their protest at national sites and symbols (Nagel 1997, 158).
The Women of Alcatraz

The name of the island is Alcatraz . . . it changed my life forever.

—Wilma Mankiller, Mankiller: A Chief and Her People

The occupation of Alcatraz Island galvanized Indian pride and consciousness, and heralded a new era in American Indian activism. This landmark occupation began in November 1969 and ended nineteen months later, in June 1971. There had been an earlier four-hour symbolic takeover of Alcatraz in March 1964, organized by Belva Cottier (Lakota), which garnered regional media attention (Daly 1994, 114; Johnson 1996, 17). The group of forty, from the Bay Area Council of American Indians, drove claim stakes into the ground (a broom handle was used for one) symbolizing the discovery sticks Lewis and Clark had used. The group offered the government forty-seven cents an acre for a total of $9.40 for the island. The occupying party of forty included twenty-six-year-old Russell Means (Oglala Lakota) and his father (Eagle 1992, 15; Means 1995, 106). Belva Cottier also pressed a claim to the island through the courts under the Fort Laramie Treaty that gave Indians the right to claim abandoned federal property, but was unsuccessful in court (Johnson 1997, 240). The action, led by Belva Cottier, remained a topic of conversation among urban Bay Area Indians long afterward.

A number of prominent leaders, including Wilma Mankiller and Russell Means, had grown up in California, after their families, along with others from tribes throughout the United States, moved there as part of the federal government's Relocation Program. In 1958, four out of the eight original Relocation Centers were in California: at San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, [End Page 118] and Los Angeles (Eagle 1992, 21). Consequently, California was a hotbed for Indian activism (Johnson 1997, 24). As many Lakota resided in California as on reservations in South Dakota (Deloria 1971, 501). The Indian population in California was 82 percent urban in contrast to states such as Arizona, New Mexico, Alaska, and North Carolina, where Indians were more than 70 percent rural (Olson 1984, 164). Urban residents at this time had more education and lower rates of unemployment: 11 percent in urban areas, compared to 40 percent and higher in rural reservation settings (Olson 1984, 164). Being an urban Indian had become an important identity. Moreover, the Indian population had also become a younger group overall (Baylor 1994, 65; Johnson 1996, 51). An unintended consequence of this concentration of young Indians in urban areas was an increase in American Indian militancy. Urban militancy was matched by a resurgence of nationalism on reservations.

The 1969 occupation of Alcatraz, which gained national and international media coverage, was led by students from California campuses and supported by community members of the San Francisco Indian Center. Indian Centers in urban areas were another unanticipated consequence of the government's urban Relocation Program. In urban settings, Indian Centers and bars maintained social contact for participants. Just weeks before students moved to occupy Alcatraz, the San Francisco Indian Center had burned down and members discussed the possibility of building a new center on Alcatraz (Eagle 1992, 39; Johnson 1997, 26; Ziegelman 1985, 47).

An initial landing on Alcatraz occurred on 9 November 1969 and was followed by a larger landing on 20 November by ninety students who began the hard work of building an infrastructure to support a long-term occupation (Eagle 1992, 71). The prison on the island had been shut down several years earlier. Conditions on the island were desolate: no electricity, no running water. The occupiers pointed out that similar conditions could be found on many reservations (Eagle 1992, xi; Ziegelman 1985, 56). All supplies had to be carried across the bay through Coast Guard blockades (Eagle 1992, 75). The work of women was essential in the daily running of the island, including running the community kitchen, school, and health center. Yet male figures such as Richard Oakes (Mohawk), head of San Francisco State Native American Student group, and bartender and twenty-three-year-old John Trudell (Santee Lakota), who ran the radio broadcast from Alcatraz, received more media attention at the time and remain better known to this day.

An average of approximately 100 occupiers remained on the island on a continuous basis, but thousands of Indians from across the country visited Alcatraz, a symbol of renewed cultural pride and more militant stances regarding self-determination. More than 56,000 Indians took part in the occupation (Winton 1999, 8). The occupiers adopted the name Indians of All Tribes, characterizing their backgrounds. [End Page 119]

Prominent leaders among the student occupiers included Richard Oakes and LaNada Boyer/Means (Shoshone Bannock), the head of the Native American Student Organization at the University of California, Berkeley campus (Nagel 1997, 88). Richard Oakes occupied the island for a few short months in the beginning, but LaNada Boyer/Means, at age twenty-two, was in the initial landing party and occupied the island from beginning to end (Eagle 1992, 127; Johnson 1997, 3). In January of 1968, she had been the first Indian student admitted to the University of California, Berkeley (Johnson 1997, 107). She later chaired the Native American Student Organization that led the occupation. She wrote a $300,000 grant proposal that sought to turn Alcatraz into a cultural education center (Winton 1999, 8). Also present were Madonna Gilbert/Thunderhawk (Cheyenne River Lakota) and John Trudell, who would later become leaders in AIM.

The protesters used humor and symbolism to deliver political messages through a document proclaiming their intent to establish a Bureau of Caucasian Affairs ridiculing the Bureau of Indian Affairs, whose policies were routinely criticized by some Indian leaders (Eagle 1992, 42). Occupiers also shot toy bow and arrows at Coast Guard boats (Johnson 1997, 29). Among the original student group of seventy-eight occupiers were two informers, a condition that plagued Indian groups (Daly 1994, 122). The student occupiers of Alcatraz were not armed, as opposed to those later occupiers at Wounded Knee. The Alcatraz occupation also occurred within the liberal environment of the Bay Area, in sharp contrast to the conservative, rural, South Dakota environment the later Wounded Knee occupation faced.

Students were the original occupants of the island, but community members on the mainland such as Adam Nordwell/Fortunate Eagle (Anishinabe) and Grace Thorpe (Sac Fox), daughter of Olympic athlete Jim Thorpe, provided the support that made the occupation possible. Grace Thorpe procured a generator, water barge, and ambulance service, as well as coordinated publicity, including visits by Hollywood stars such as Jane Fonda, Marlon Brando, Anthony Quinn, and Candice Bergen. She also handled public relations on Alcatraz and at the later Fort Lawton occupation. She helped to secure property for the site of Deganawidah-Quetzalcoatl (DQ) University, the first university of American Indian and Chicano students, near Davis, California (Johnson 1996, 232). Her activism began with Alcatraz; as she recalls, "Alcatraz made me put my furniture into storage and spend my life savings" (Johnson 1997, 30). Grace Thorpe went on to work as a lobbyist with NCAI and attempted to get factories located on reservations so people would be able to have jobs without leaving their lands. She returned to her reservation in 1980 and served as a tribal judge and health commissioner (Malinowski 1995, 433). Thorpe remained an activist throughout her life. In her sixties, with only her social security checks, she started a fight against what she called "radioactive racism" in her own tribal government, [End Page 120] which was considering storing nuclear waste (Neil 1996, 74). In 1993 she founded the National Environmental Coalition of Native Americans.

Another community member, fifty-year-old nurse Stella Leach (Colville), ran the health clinic and was a leader in the occupation toward the end (Eagle 1992, 89, Johnson 1996, 124). Dr. Dorothy Lone Wolf Miller (Blackfoot), the Director of Scientific Analysis Corporation, used her office as the headquarters for Indians of All Tribes and procured an education grant to start Rock School on the island and to set up the island health clinic. She also printed the newsletter of the occupation (Eagle 1992, 78). Numerous community members, such as twenty-three year old Wilma Mankiller, had volunteered support for the occupiers from the mainland and visited the island. Wilma credits Alcatraz with being the catalyst for her initial political awareness, stating, "It gave me the sense that anything was possible. Who I am and how I governed was influenced by Alcatraz" (Winton 1999, 10).

The government offered the occupiers a cultural center at Fort Mason next to Fisherman's Wharf, but the protesters wanted title to the island itself (Eagle 1992, 123). Stella Leach warned the government that they would create another Wounded Knee Massacre if they tried to remove the protesters (Price 1998, 99). Some criticized the atmosphere on the island during the last few months as being a combination of constant powwows and street fighting. It has been argued that violence and chaos increased as the occupation changed from mostly students to a larger base of people from the streets (Price 1998, 97). It is difficult to know how many infiltrators might also have contributed to dissension.

The federal government was eventually able to outwait and outmaneuver the Alcatraz occupiers and finally removed them from the island on 11 June 1971, but the landmark protest had left its impact (Eagle 1992, 114). Many more occupations were to follow in areas across the country for the next few years, including a three month occupation in March 1970 at Fort Lawton in Washington state that was successful in procuring land for the Daybreak Star Cultural Center; and occupation near Davis, California, that was successful in establishing DQ University in 1971; an occupation of Ellis Island; a 1970 Thanksgiving occupation of the Mayflower by AIM; and numerous occupations of BIA offices, including the headquarters in Washington, D.C. (Eagle 1992, 147; Johnson 1996, 224). These later occupations were all for short periods of days or weeks (Johnson 1997, 32).

Alcatraz helped to shape public opinion and influence public policy. A top aide to President Nixon later cited at least nine major policy shifts that resulted from the occupation of Alcatraz, including passage of the Indian Self Determination and Education Act, revision of the Johnson O'Malley Act to improve Indian education, and passage of the Indian Financing Act and an Indian Health Act, and the return of Mount Adams to the Yakima in Washington State as well as the return of 48,000 acres of the Sacred Blue Lake lands to [End Page 121] Taos Pueblo in New Mexico. Nixon had also quietly signed papers ending the Termination policy during the occupation (Eagle 1992, 148; Winton 1999, 9). Perhaps most importantly, Alcatraz raised political consciousness, as noted by John Trudell: "Alcatraz made it easier for us to remember who we are" (Winton 1999, 9). Before Alcatraz, Indian activism had been more tribal and regional, with a focus on specific treaty issues. Alcatraz remains the longest occupation of a federal site by Indians to this day. Alcatraz heralded an inter tribal militancy that awakened the American public to the status of American Indians. Cross-country marches by Indian groups continue to use Alcatraz as their starting point, as it was the beginning of a new movement and of a newfound pride and racial consciousness.
Women Led the Fish-In Movement

Fish-in protests began as a response to Washington state policy that tried to use state laws to restrict Indian fishing rights guaranteed by federal treaties. The 1854 Medicine Creek Treaty guaranteed Northwest Indian tribes unrestricted use of natural resources, an important right since fishing traditionally formed the basis of diets, culture, and spirituality (Ziegelman 1985, 30). With high poverty rates, the ability to fish continued to be a significant contributor to family survival. The fish-ins protested the discrepancy between treaty rights, which guaranteed fishing on and off reservations and official state policy that supported the routine arrest of Indians when they fished off the reservation (Ziegelman 1985, 24). In 1974, after a decade of protest, the United States v. Washington State, more popularly known as the Boldt decision (after Judge Hugh Boldt), recognized the treaty rights of tribes regarding fishing. This landmark decision allocated half the salmon harvest to the tribes.

The fish-ins started out as nonviolent civil disobedience, but after violence from state and city law enforcement, game wardens and white vigilantes, including the use of tear gas, clubs, beatings, and shootings, Indians responded in self-defense. In most cases, it was women who carried the arms during the fish-ins. Regional newspapers carried photos of older women with rifles, quoting them as saying, "No one is going to touch my son or I'm going to shoot them" (Jaimes 1992, 312). Coastal tribes had a strong sense of sovereignty and would routinely escort IRS staff off their reservations at gunpoint. In the fall of 1970, at the Puyallup fish-in camp, spokesperson Ramona Bennett was quoted as saying, "We are armed and prepared to defend our rights with our lives. If anyone lays a hand on that net, they are going to get shot. . . we're serious. There are no blanks in our guns" (Ziegelman 1985, 27). The armed women in this protest movement faced violence from state officials and white vigilantes; armed men at the later occupation of Wounded Knee were met by with massive federal paramilitary forces. [End Page 122]

There were shoot-outs and firebombing at fish-ins, though most injuries were born by the protesters (Ziegelman 1985, 27). Both Hank Adams (Anishinabe) from NIYC, and Tribal Chair Ramona Bennett, spokesperson for the Puyallup fish-ins, were shot by white vigilantes, Ramona while seven months pregnant (Johnson 1997, 18). Statements from public officials such as Governor Dan Evans who declared that Indian treaties were worthless, bolstered the violence of state officials and vigilantes. State attorneys even challenged the tribal status of the small tribes (Akwesasne 1974, 26). The BIA did not defend Indian fishing rights, even though it is supposedly obligated to assist tribes in claims against the state (Ziegelman 1985, 28). Organizers had pursued civil protest because it seemed more effective than meetings with bureaucrats in overturning policy (Price 1998, 90).

Women were key public figures in the fish-in movement, not an unusual role for them in Northwest Coastal tribes. Women comprised the majority of protesters and half of those arrested. One of the first protests occurred in 1961: of twenty-seven protesters, only eight were men. When men were arrested, women ran the fishing boats (Katz 1995, 279). Janet McCloud (Tulalip) was one of the key leaders in the fish-in movement. Her name is as important in history as that of Rosa Parks. One event that spurred McCloud's activism occurred in 1961, when state game wardens broke into her home searching for deer meat. Another motivating factor, according to McCloud, was the need to keep busy in order to deal with overwhelming grief after her sister died in 1961. Women leaders initially met resistance from male leaders of large tribes such as the Yakama. When she turned to them for support, McCloud was made fun of because she was a woman and a half-blood. As McCloud summarized, "Now you hear them talk and they act macho, they act belligerent, they act rough, but when it comes right down to the bottom line, they couldn't fight their way out of a paper bag. The only people I've ever seen them fight are Indian women and children. And yet they're controlling everything now. Establishment." McCloud acknowledges that one of her most consistent sources of support was female elders (Payne 1994, 6).

In 1964 Janet McCloud and Ramona Bennett founded the Survival of American Indians Association to raise bail funds and moved their regional movement to some national prominence, as Hollywood stars like Marlon Brando and Dick Gregory lent their support, going so far as to be arrested themselves at fish-ins (Johnson 1997, 15; Price 1998, 90). By 1964 the movement was also supported by college students including Hank Adams and other staff members of the NIYC.

The fish-ins unified the small fishing tribes in the state: the Makah, Nisqually, Puyallup, and Muckelshoot, among others (Ziegleman 1985, 23). According to Vine Deloria, the state avoided confrontations with the larger tribes, but concentrated on smaller ones that had fewer resources with which to defend themselves (Akwesasne 1974, 26). [End Page 123]

Janet McCloud went on to found the Northwest Indian Women's Circle, which focused on issues such as sterilization abuse and problems with the foster care placement and adoption of Indian children (Payne 1994, 7). McCloud was a founding member of WARN, Women of All Red nations, and more recently, the Indigenous Women's Network, a coalition that covers tribes from Chile to Canada. At a major AIM conference following Wounded Knee, McCloud proposed that one of the main issues AIM should work on was the need for Indian men to lead the fight against domestic violence in their communities. Russell Means says that he still regrets that they didn't act on her suggestion (Means 1995, 432).

Along with McCloud, Ramona Bennett, Chair of the Puyallup Tribe for seven years from 1971 to 1978, played a pivotal role in this movement. At a time of few female tribal chairs, Ramona faced attempts to exclude her from the National Tribal Chairmen's Conferences. At her first conference for this group, she had to fight her way into the room. On her way out of the meeting, she saw Ada Deer of the Menominee sitting outside the door where she had been told to wait with the wives of tribal chairmen (Katz 1995, 157). Ramona completed a Bachelor's degree from Evergreen University and a Master's in Education from the University of Puget Sound (Malinowski 1995, 32). To get a sense of the atmosphere of the times, Ramona remembers an incident where she requested Kotex pads to use for flesh wounds from supporters in Seattle The people bringing the supplies brought a case of tampons instead. When Ramona pointed out the error, they made the case that the tampons could be used for Molotov cocktails. . . and so they were kept (Katz 1995, 155).
The Women of Wounded Knee

In July 1968, AIM was co-founded by Mary Jane Wilson (Anishinabe) Clyde Bellecourt (Anishinabe) and Dennis Banks (Anishinabe) in Minneapolis (Baylor 1994, 2). The group initially planned to use the name Concerned Indian Americans, but then rejected it since the acronym would have been CIA. Roberta Downwind suggested the name AIM since "you say you aim to do this and that" (Baylor 1994, 74; Sinclair 1996, 35). Pat Ballinger, known as the mother of AIM, chaired the St. Paul chapter (Churchill 1990, 114; Weyler 1992, 36). AIM was modeled after the Black Panthers (Johnson 1997, 243). Members wore red jackets to patrol the Twin Cities community monitoring police harassment. AIM rhetoric was often couched in spiritual terms. Members of AIM saw it foremost as a spiritual movement (Bellecourt 1976, 66; Sinclair 1996, 69). By 1971, it had become a national organization with seventy-five chapters, but was in decline by 1979 (Baylor 1994, 2). The official symbol of AIM was an American flag flown upside down (Matthiessen 1983, 36). They staged media events that carried powerful symbolic messages, such as the 1970 [End Page 124] takeover of the Mayflower on Thanksgiving, where they buried Plymouth Rock under several inches of sand and received their first national media coverage (Crow Dog 1990, 189; Johnson 1996, 230). In June 1971, they threatened to hold the Statue of Liberty hostage (Johnson 1996, 232). The media responded to the image of male warriors (Sinclair 1996, 51). Some viewed the long hair, feathers, and militant rhetoric as being more exciting to the white media than to reservation populations (Matthiessen 1983, 39).

In 1972, AIM was one of eight groups that organized the Trail of Broken Treaties' cross-country march (Akwesasne Notes 1974, 2). The march was patterned after the 1963 March on Washington of the African-American Civil Rights Movement (Ziegelman 1985, 64). Marchers planned to arrive in Washington, D.C. during the final weeks of the presidential campaign and present their grievances to both candidates (Ziegelman 1985, 64). Three groups—Alcatraz, Pacific Northwest, and Oklahoma—were led by spiritual leaders with stops at historical sites such as Sand Creek and Wounded Knee (Akwesasne Notes 1974,3). Tongue-in-cheek, AIM proclaimed that the plan was to retake the country from West to East like a wagon train in reverse (Weyler 1992, 42). AIM's national news editor Anita Collins (Paiute Shoshone) served as secretary of the events, and Lavonna Weller (Oklahoma Caddo), first woman president of NIYC, served as treasurer (Akwesasne Notes 1974, 2).

When the group reached the Capitol, AIM occupied the BIA office. An occupation had not been originally planned, but when the group of 700-1,000 marchers arrived at BIA headquarters in November 1972, they found that anticipated accommodations had not been made (Ziegelman 1985, 73). Their numbers were not large, compared with recent anti-war demonstrations in the Capitol of a quarter million. If the protest had remained peaceful, it might have received little media attention and had little impact. But when riot police tried to remove protesters from the building, police were pushed into the streets and the doors blocked (Price 1998, 115-16). A human barricade of multiracial supporters kept police at bay (Weyler 1992, 51). On the third day, leaders were given $66,000 in travel money to leave town (Ziegelman 1985, 74). Madonna Gilbert/Thunderhawk and Russell Means collected documents from BIA files (Means 1995, 235). They left this occupation with U-Hauls full of 1.5 tons of documents that would reveal the widespread practice of sterilization abuse and other abuses (Price 1998, 119). AIM leaders were later criticized because the marchers got $25-$100 each while each leader was accused of receiving $5,000-$10,000 of the total money (Ziegelman 1985, 92).

AIM served as a portable response unit in the Midwest. When injustices were ignored, community members sometimes called on AIM to raise awareness. Murders and sexual assaults of Indians in border towns, when committed by whites, had seldom been prosecuted (Ziegelman 1985, 103). Some family members, tired of government and tribal cold shoulders, called on AIM. In [End Page 125] February 1972, AIM responded to the murder of Raymond Yellow Thunder (Lakota) in Gordon, Nebraska (Price 1998,107). His family had been unable to get tribal attorneys or the BIA to investigate his death, so one of his nephews contacted the organization (Mattiessen 1983, 59). AIM demanded another autopsy, which found that the cause of death was not exposure but a brain hemorrhage from being beaten to death. A thousand AIM members arrived in Gordon for a two-day protest at City Hall, accompanied by a call to boycott stores and businesses (Olson 1984,170). After these activities, officials began to investigate the death. After Gordon, AIM activists remained in rural South Dakota (Price 1998, 109).

They were called into a similar situation by Sarah Bad Heart Bull (Lakota) when her son Wesley was knifed to death by a white who was released with no charges (Sinclair 1996, 36). One hundred AIM members showed up in en masse at the courthouse in Custer, South Dakota (Means 1995, 243). As Bad Heart Bull attempted to get past the crowd and into the courthouse, police officers pushed her down the steps, using a nightstick on her throat (Means 1995, 244). Seeing an elder mistreated in this manner incited a riot. The police officers threw tear gas grenades; AIM set fire to the courthouse and the Chamber of Commerce. Dennis Banks and Russell Means were brought up on riot charges, though they were inside the courthouse when the incident occurred (Matthiessen 1983, 62). Sarah Bad Heart Bull got a three-to-five-year sentence for rioting and served five months. Her son's murderer, in ironic contrast, received a mere two months' probation and served no time (Crow Dog 1990, 121). Incidents such as these gave AIM a high public profile.

Russell Means characterized South Dakota, at this time, as being "the Mississippi of the North" (Johnson 1997, 248). Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota was run by a tribal Chair, Dick Wilson, whom many viewed as corrupt, and attempts were made to impeach him (Johnson 1997, 35). Pine Ridge had a murder rate 700 times that of Detroit (Baylor 1994, 191). Dick Wilson's private army, called "goons," created an atmosphere where arson, beating, and murder were common (Olson 1984, 171). Half of the BIA police moonlighted as goons (Johnson 1997, 254). Dick Wilson had banned all AIM activities on the reservation and declared on open war against supporters (Matthiessen 1983, 60). The most radical support to remove Dick Wilson came from female elders such as Gladys Bissonette and Ellen Moves Camp. As Gladys Bissonette recalled, "When we marched there were nothing but us women" (Weyler 1992,73). They publicly picketed against Wilson in an atmosphere of an internal civil war (Means 1995, 251). Older women from Pine Ridge called AIM to their reservation to discuss the situation, and a group led by Dennis Banks and Russell Means arrived in February 1973 (Johnson 1997, 250). Mostly older women, many who had lost children or grandchildren during Wilson's regime, packed the meeting in Calico. Mary Crow Dog/Brave Bird and Russell Means remember that the [End Page 126] Wounded Knee Occupation was the idea of older women (Crow Dog 1990, 113, 124; Means 1995, 265). Gladys Bisonette argued, "Let's make our stand at Wounded Knee, because that place has meaning for us, because so many of our people were massacred there" (Brave Bird 1994, 196).

The occupiers might have intended that Wounded Knee serve as political theater, but official response was massive. Federal forces were used without the required presidential proclamation and executive order. Phantom jets made daily surveillance passes overhead (Weyler 1992, 81). One occupier who was also a Vietnam Vet noted that they took more bullets in seventy-one days at Wounded Knee than he had seen in two years in Vietnam (Weyler 1992, 83). Public opinion was on the side of the Indians. A 1973 Harris Poll revealed that 98 percent of the public had heard of Wounded Knee, and 51 percent sympathized with the Indians (Mattiessen 1983, 69; Price 1998, 125). During the ten-week siege, of the 350 occupiers, fewer than 100 were men (Price 1998, 122). Women had spearheaded the dissent at Pine Ridge and performed all tasks, including carrying weapons (Sayer 1997, 54). One photo of Anna Mae Aquash (Mimac) shows her digging a bunker with a golf club. Women also ran the medical clinic (Brave Bird 1994, 179). Most of the primary negotiators with the government were female elders, including Bisonette and Moves Camp.

Five hundred and sixty-five were arrested after Wounded Knee, nearly every AIM member, and 185 federal indictments were issued (Crow Dog 1990, 243). More male leaders faced serious charges, as women in court might not pass for dangerous terrorists, especially older women (Matthiessen 1983, 84). A reign of terror followed on the reservation with Dick Wilson's goons serving as a death squad. Within the next two years, 250 mostly traditionalists were killed on the reservation, and sixty-nine AIM supporters, a third of them women (Jaimes 1992, 328). Gladys Bisonette lost her son, Pedro Bissonette, the president of the Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization, when BIA police killed him in October 1973. Her daughter, Jeanette Bisonette, was shot dead on the way home from Pedro's funeral (Matthiessen 1983, 132; Olson 1984, 172). No indictments ever occurred against the goons.

Eighty-five women were charged after Wounded Knee. Two of the several major trials after Wounded Knee were of women leaders, Madonna Gilbert/Thunderhawk (Lakota) and Lorilei Decora/Means (Ho Chunk). Madonna Gilbert, a cousin of Russell Means and thirty-three-year-old mother of three at the time of Wounded Knee, was from the Cheyenne reservation in South Dakota (Brave Bird 1994, 200). She had spent nine months at the Alcatraz occupation in 1970 to 1971 and worked as a teacher in survival schools, another project of Red Power groups. After Wounded Knee she co-founded WARN with Janet McCloud and others. Lorilei Decora/Means was the state director of Iowa AIM at age nineteen (Brave Bird 1994, 200). She joined AIM at age sixteen, and joined McCloud and Gilbert in the formation of WARN. Neither of the women [End Page 127] were present during their trials, they were too busy organizing on reservations (Sayer 1997, 128). They received scant media coverage or organizational support compared to the amount the men received. Funds were sought from white feminists, but they were offered with strings attached; namely, that the Indian women were to make Indian men more accountable regarding sexism (Crow Dog 1990, 243). Legal battles bankrupted the movement. AIM excelled at bringing media attention to problems, but the leadership was rarely united. Some of this division might have been enhanced by the constant presence of FBI agents. There had been six FBI agents at Wounded Knee and several at the Washington D. C. BIA occupation and other events (Baylor 1994, 202).
Sexism of Indian Men

The issue of sexism was raised at Wounded Knee amid criticism of male dominance and opportunism. One response was the founding of WARN shortly afterwards in 1974. While the media remained fascinated with the stereotype of male warriors, many of the male leaders, such as Dennis Banks, acknowledged that women were the real warriors (Sayer 1997, 99). John Trudell has reflected on the times, saying, "We got lost in our manhood" (Sayer 1997, 224). Mary Crow Dog/Brave Bird said that women were honored for having children and doing good beading (Sayer 1997, 99). But she also recalls, "It is to AIM's everlasting credit that it tried to change men's attitudes toward women. In the movement we were all equal" (Crow Dog 1990, 206). Moreover, Indian women had an interesting way of calling men on sexism that was not open to white women. They argued that acting sexist was a sign of being assimilated. Acting sexist was a way of exhibiting ignorance of Indian traditions.
Racism of White Women

Indian women also had run-ins with white women. A great deal of paternalism, and very little awareness of Indian women's priorities, were exhibited by most white women. Communication problems were common, as white women assumed superiority in their way of thinking and doing things. As Bea Medicine (Lakota) has noted, "Indian women do not need liberation, they have always been liberated within their tribal structure" (Daly 1994, 238). White women expected that Indian women with a gender consciousness would automatically lend their support to issues which white women prioritized, but they seldom expressed an interest in a reciprocal relationship. As Laura Waterman Wittstock (Seneca) noted, "Tribalism, not feminism, is the correct route: (Medicine 1978, 334). Few white feminists were able to grasp the nationalist content of Indian women's activism. [End Page 128]
Indian Women's Groups

A number of Indian women's groups formed in the early 1970s. A civil rights oriented group formed in 1977 out of the International Women's Year conference and was funded by the Women's Educational Equity Program (Medicine 1978, 343). Ohoyo, the Choctaw word for women, lasted just a couple of years, but produced a number of conferences for professional women (Ohoyo 1981,5). A split between the D.C. staff, more closely aligned with white feminist interests, and grassroots members, more identified with nationalist concerns, became evident and the group disbanded in 1985.

WARN, on the other hand, had a more radical focus. Made up of three hundred women from thirty nations at their founding conference, WARN shared a similar philosophy with AIM (Emery 1981, 8). Many of its efforts focused on struggles over energy resources and sterilization abuse uncovered in BIA confiscated documents. Some felt that WARN attracted urban young college-educated women more than others (Power 1986, 151). The Northwest Indian Women's Circle was founded in 1981 by Janet McCloud and worked on issues connected to Indian women and children.

Indian women's groups raised different issues than their counterparts in white women's groups. Sterilization abuse, as mentioned previously, was uncovered when AIM took BIA documents during their 1972 occupation. From these files, they learned that forty-two percent of Indian women had been sterilized, the majority without their consent (Shoemaker 1995, 326). In 1980, sterilization abuse was the theme of the Longest Walk across America (Tomkin 1981, 17). Another issue for Indian women's groups was that of adoption. In earlier times, children had been taken away from Indian families at young ages and shipped to boarding schools at great distances. Today, Indian children are placed in foster care and adoption at high rates (Emery 1981, 191). Sometimes the reasons children are removed from homes are based in cultural differences and differing family models that value extended families among Indians (Brave Bird 1994, 190). Indian women's groups have also raised awareness of their high infant mortality rates, and the fact that Indians have the highest school dropout rate of any group in the United States. Indian women's groups also organized around land and resource struggles.

It could be argued that the last thousand years of European history have been more uniformly patriarchal than most of Indian history (Wilmer 1998, 8). Many nations are matrilineal and have female gods and messiahs. Women [End Page 129] currently comprise 25 percent of the top-level governmental leadership positions in Indian nations, a figure not yet reached in the United States or many other countries.

While some white feminists view motherhood with suspicion and claim that it is a key site of women's oppression, many Indian women find the role empowering. The high status of motherhood results in less stigma for unmarried Indian mothers than it does for women in dominant society, and some Indian women have not been as receptive to family planning services (Green 1980, 266). Being a mother or grandmother increases one's status in Indian country. White women are also more likely to view aging as something that decreases women's status. Aging may not hold the negative connotation to the same degree in traditional Indian communities where it is a sign of power and status, something women might look forward to (Green 1980, 263; La Fromboise 1990, 460).

Indian women are more likely to organize around issues that impact children as well as women; they also organize around issues regarding tribal rights. Inter-generational organizing among women is also more likely to occur than in white women's groups. Many female elders find that their status as elders enhances their political participation and contributions to future generations. Due to lower life expectancies, Indian women may be perceived as elders at younger ages than the dominant population. The women who participated in political events of the 1960s and 1970s are now our revered elders. Elders do not last forever in any community. It is important that their contributions receive recognition in their lifetime and in generations to follow.

© by Donna Langston

Donna Langston is Chair of the Ethnic Studies Department at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. She is a tribally enrolled Cherokee and the author of The American Indian Encyclopedia published by John Wiley and Sons in 2002.

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§American Indian Women's Activism in the 1960s and 1970s
by donna hightower langston (delshay1953 [at]
I woul like to correct your article--I am Janet McCloud's daughter, I grew up in the fishing rights struggle and Ramona Bennett did no and I repeat was not a founding member of the Survival of American Indian Association---she might have came in much later but she was not a founder of this organization - If your going to write about our mother maybe it would best to ask us what she did for all Indians thoughtout the USA she was a remarkable woman who sacrificed for the good of all people throughtout the world, she went to africa for a international woman's conference after our father died of cancer, she was instrumental in funding programs to empower women and to strengthe the children, she loved her people, children, grandchildren and she had many many adopted children throughout the world - she adopted brothers, sisters mothers - she changed people's life in a positive way.

But I thought I would clarify the founding members of the survival of american indians and Ramona was not one, infact she came into the fishing rights movement much later - her and Janet don't exist on the same page..

Nancy Shippentower- Games daughter of Janet & Don McCloud
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