All For the Right to Pray (13)

Part Three – The Legacy of Wounded Knee

Chapter 13 – The Spiritual Reawakening of the People

By Ghost Dancer

Thunder Eagle Ghost Dancer

Today, if you asked most people what they know about the American Indian Movement or AIM, you would most likely get a blank look.

For those who have heard about AIM, their impression would most likely reflect the characterization of federal authorities as militant radicals, even terrorists.

Only the most informed would recognize AIM as activists fighting for survival in a world that had been determined to annihilate them for hundreds of years.

AIM members, Laura Waterman Wittstock and Elaine J. Salinas, in their 2003, Brief History of the American Indian Movement give a clear picture:

“In the 30 years of its formal history, the American Indian Movement (AIM) has given witness to a great many changes. We say formal history because the movement existed for 500 years without a name. The leaders and members of today’s AIM never fail to remember all of those who have traveled on before, having given their talent and their lives for the survival of the people… The movement was founded to turn the attention of Indian people toward a renewal of spirituality which would impart the strength of resolve needed to reverse the ruinous policies of the United States, Canada, and other colonialist governments of Central and South America. At the heart of AIM is deep spirituality and a belief in the connectedness of all Indian people.”

What is not generally known is that the seed of the American Indian Movement was planted in Stillwater Prison in Minnesota in the late 1960ies by the two primary founders, Clyde Bellecourt (Nee-gon-we-way-we-dun “Thunder Before the Storm”) and Dennis Banks. The purpose was to re-awaken the traditional spiritual practices, languages, culture, and honor back to all the people. To revive all the old ways and instill this in all members to help all Native peoples.

Back in the day the government came up with many ways to kill the spirit of Native American people. Separating children from their families and sending them to boarding schools is very well known. Another was the Indian Relocation Act of 1956 which was designed to encourage Native people to assimilate. As a result, many Native families were sent into the inner cities where they lost connection to their extended families, elders, tribe, culture, language, and especially to their traditional religious beliefs and customs. This continued for years and many Natives wound up in prisons. A major problem in the prison system was that the Native population was such a minority that many were being victimized by the other races and gangs. 

Dennis Banks, Russell Means, Clyde Bellecourt

As prisoners themselves, Dennis Banks and Clyde Bellecourt decided that this had to end. They called all the Native brothers to become united and to protect each other no matter what tribe they were from. They also put forth that all members must strive to learn their own tribe’s history, language, culture, and specifically, the traditional religious beliefs. United, they all would become spiritual warriors and walk a sacred path.  This was the very beginning of what would grow to be the revival and spiritual awakening for all Natives nationwide.

This spiritual movement spilled over from inside the Stillwater Prison to the outside world, to the reservations, to other prisons. This was the motivation that all Natives needed to lift their spirits up and give them something positive to focus on. Being inside a prison, with little hope of any better life on the outside, most Natives didn’t care. But with this new spiritual awakening they all had something to look forward to and to be a part of something that could help so many of their own tribal members and all Natives. The movement began to grow rapidly, bringing back respect and honor to all the spiritual teachers, elders, and pushing for better education and better health care for our people.

Clyde Bellecourt speaks to the heart of the American Indian Movement:

“This generation of little children is the 7th Generation. Not just Indian children but white, black, yellow and red. Our grandfathers said the 7th generation would provide new spiritual leaders, medicine people, doctors, teachers and our great chiefs. There is a spiritual rebirth going on.”

The deeper motivation of A.I.M. was to lift the people out of poverty and to restore the pride of heritage and traditional way of life. Most people today do not know about the Red Earth Survival School in Minneapolis, MN, or what it was put there for. Many Natives were dropping out of school so early that the lack of education was hurting our people. These schools and programs were, and still are, vital to helping Natives get their education and to stay connected to their cultural traditions as well.

Drug and alcohol addiction ran rampant. Members of AIM formed the PIPES Programs (People in Prison Entering Sobriety) which has been extremely successful by introducing Natives in prison to the spiritual ways and responsibilities of their traditional ancestors.

AIM was formed in the 1960’s and what most folks fail to give recognition and respect to is that if AIM had not come along, none of the following would have been accomplished or addressed or won for Native people:

  • The first AIM patrol was created in 1968 to address the brutality by police to Natives in Minneapolis, MN.
  • In 1969, when AIM activists reclaimed and occupied Alcatraz Island for 19 months, they symbolically reclaimed federal land in behalf of all Native nations. The very first Indian radio broadcasts – Radio Free Alcatraz – was heard in San Francisco and the Bay Area.
  • In 1970 AIM founded the Legal Rights Center, giving Native people legal representation for all our legal issues.
  • In 1971 AIM took over property on the Naval Air Station, drawing attention to Indian education, which led to getting grants for Indian education.
  • The first takeover of the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) office in Washington, DC., the citizen’s arrest of old John Crow: 24 members of AIM were arrested for trespassing and later were released. The BIA commissioner became a member of AIM.
  • The occupation takeover of the Northern States Power Plant Dam in Wisconsin in which AIM gave support and assistance in helping the Lac Courte Orieles Ojibwa. This dam flooded much of their reservation. This takeover drew attention from the media and government alike and eventuality led to the return of over 25,000 acres of the tribe’s land back to them, also giving them settlement monies and job opportunities and business opportunities.
  • In 1972 the Heart of the Earth Survival School, K-12 opened to teach educational and cultural programs as well. This school serves as model for other schools to come.
  • Red School House was the second Heart of the Earth Survival School to open, offering K-12 education and cultural based programs.
  • The Trail of Broken Treaties March on Washington DC, a caravan of Native nations was led by AIM and ended with the occupation of the BIA Headquarters from November 2 to November 8, 1972.

At this time, AIM put forth the following 20-Point Resolution Paper to President Nixon

1. Restoration of treaty making (ended by congress in 1871)

2. Establishment of a treaty commission to make new treaties (with sovereign Native    nations)

3. Indian leaders to address congress

4. Review of treaty commitments and violations

5. Unratified treaties to go before the senate

6. All Indians to be governed by treaty relations

7. Relief for Native nations for treaty right violations

8. Recognition of the right of Indians to interpret treaties

9. Joint congressional committee to be formed on reconstruction of Indian relations

10. Restoration of 110 million acres of land taken away from native nations by the U.S.

11. Restoration of terminated rights

12. Repeal of state jurisdiction on Native nations.

13. Federal protection for offenses against Indians

14. Abolishment of the Bureau of Indian Affairs

15. Creation of a new Office of Federal Indian Relations

16. New office to remedy breakdown in the constitutionally prescribed relationships between the U.S. and Native nations.

17. Native nations to be immune to commerce regulations, taxes, trade restrictions of states.

18. Indian religious freedom and cultural integrity protected.

19. Establishment of a national Indian voting with local options: free national Indian organizations from government controls

20. Reclaim and affirm health, housing, employment, economic development and education for all Indian peoples

The Legacy of Wounded Knee

Traditional elders and religious leaders from Pine Ridge, S.D. contacted AIM and asked for help because of overwhelming brutality and killings on the reservation against any who resisted the totally corrupt tribal chairman, tribal council, and the BIA which supported them. These entities had formed a group called the “Goons” which was provided support and weapons by the U.S. government.

This is what led to the second Wounded Knee, as it came to be called, a siege that lasted 71 days. Civil rights activists from AIM battled the armed forces from the U.S. government, as well as local law enforcement and outside glory hunters who were racially prejudiced.

In the words of Dennis Banks:

                                                                                                “What we did in the 1960s and early 1970s was raise the consciousness of white America that this government has a responsibility to Indian people. That there are treaties; that textbooks in every school in America have a responsibility to tell the truth. An awareness reached across America that if Native American people had to resort to arms at Wounded Knee, there must really be something wrong. And Americans realized that native people are still here, that they have a moral standing, a legal standing. From that, our own people began to sense the pride.

In 1974, the Wounded Knee trials began in Minneapolis, MN, home of the AIM movement and the principals involved in the 71-day siege. To this day, I believe this was the longest federal court trial in U.S. history. So many issues of government misconduct were presented and revealed in this trial that the federal judge dismissed all charges against AIM. The judge stated that the whole case was polluted by the government’s own misconduct.

Following the resolution of the Wounded Knee incident, AIM continued its activism for the civil rights of Native peoples:

This is just a small list of documented facts about the mission, goals and accomplishments of AIM.  But there are so many more successes that AIM is directly responsible for. Throughout the 1970’s, AIM’s message was being delivered and taught in prisons. For the first time, Native prisoners began educating themselves and organized to stand up for their cultural and religious rights. A handful of prisoners from across this country filed suit in federal court.

The first was Bear Ribs, who filed in California from Lompoc Federal Prison. In 1977 he won the right to practice his religion as did others across this country. These cases expanded and brought more attention to the discrimination towards Native peoples. On august 11,1978, the president of the United States signed into law the Native American Religious Freedom act.

Later more cases were fought and won, including, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons act of 2000, the Native American Languages Act of 1990, the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, Recognition of Native American Sacred Sites, and even the return of artifacts and bodies which had illegally been taken by museums, schools, etc.

None of this would have ever come about if not for AIM!

The message and spiritual awakening that AIM brought has inspired Native peoples everywhere and proven that they can make a change, they can win, and they can find justice.

AIM has awakened the hearts of all Native women, allowing them to pick their hearts up from the ground and bring back our sacred hoops for our people. In Native cultures, the women are the key to bringing in the seventh generations. Just as the messengers were female: Redbird, Daughter of the Sun (ani-yun-wiya) Cherokee, Apache Fire Princess, Snake Woman, Hopi Corn Maiden, Dineh (Navajo) Corn Maiden, Anishinaabe Corn Woman, Lakota White Buffalo Calf Woman, Rainbow Serpent Woman (Coweta, Cusseta, Hitchiti, Iste, Biloxi), and so on and on. Women are the guardians of the heart. Heart of the Mother Earth, and heart of all life.

I was young when the standoff at Wounded Knee was going on and not at all important, but I was an avid learner and I well remember how special it was to everyone when a young woman, Mary Crow Dog, gave birth to a baby amid the turmoil. Warriors all know that the love of a woman will give them strength beyond anything else except Spirit. The AIM song was given to them by the wicasa wakan (the holy men). It is a song for the morning sun, and in its original form as it was sung, we are thanking Grandmother Sun for sharing her love with us and her daughter Mother Earth. As we all know Grandfather Moon is always chasing one of them. He loves them both and whenever he is closer to one than the other, we all feel it too.  If you listen to the vibration of the song you will truly understand the meaning of love in your heart.

The Spiritual Awakening was the opening and rebirth of our people!

Now when I speak of the Rainbow People or Rainbow Children or Nation, I’m referring to the prophecy that was made and given hundreds of years ago and has been the repeated message of all the special awakened holy ones. The prophecy is referring to all the different children or peoples of all nations who come together because Spirit has touched their hearts to come back home to the sacred circle of life. They come to heal their hearts, and the hearts of all and Mother Earth too. It is through this awakening that true understanding of love and beauty can come forth.

So many of the people have been mixed in different races, that it is like a rainbow. Yet all these people know in their hearts that what they have been living, what they have learned, or even been experiencing in their spiritual life even, isn’t working for them. They feel this yearning inside to be connected; wanting something more; to understand why the stars, forests, oceans, mountains, animals, and birds all are calling to them.

Rainbow people don’t understand why they have dreams about things they don’t understand. They don’t fit in with what other’s lives or society say it should be. They feel that society has lost its honor, respect, truth, generosity, compassion, humbleness, loyalty, and love. To them the beauty of life means the beauty of family, the beauty of friends, the beauty of helping those in need, the elders, handicapped, sick, or injured. They see the beauty of children and the importance of protecting them and helping them in every way, especially in providing them lots of love and support.

 Being a Rainbow person means caring for all nature: trees, plants, rivers, creeks, lakes, oceans, animals, birds, mammals, reptiles, forests, mountains, deserts, swamps, grasslands, and prairie. It means caring about breathing fresh air, drinking clean fresh water, and about being able to see the stars at night. If your heart feels a longing a connection to any of these or to anything that is connected to the Native American way of life, then you are a Rainbow Child.

Somewhere in the past, no matter how long ago, an ancestor was a guardian of our Mother Earth and a Native person. The vibration in your body, your spirit, is different than those others who are content with the chaos and destruction of love from all around. Are you emotional? Can you hear a song and it will bring tears?  Can you watch a movie and find yourself tearing up? Even though you know it is just a movie or just a song, still, you feel it touching your heart.

You watch the news and are sickened by all the violence, chaos, greed, lies, and destruction all over. Tears flow again, and you feel this in your heart. Politicians and leaders, even religious leaders, prove to be so caught up in the lust for power and money that your heart turns away from them. You feel so alone, yet you have no clue what to do. What is wrong with you? Your heart is telling you to wake up! Your life isn’t supposed to be like this. It is not living when you just go through the motions and are miserable most of the time; filled with worry, insecurity, doubts, fears, and surrounded by overwhelming negative energy.

This is the way I felt all those years ago. I so wanted to change; to hold my head up and begin living. I wanted to feel loved and appreciated and respected in every way. I was so ready to open my heart to the heart beat of Mother and my ancestors’ spirit; to come back to the Sacred Spirit and begin walking the sacred red road.

Clyde Bellecourt and Dennis Banks paved the way for me and everyone to come to the circle. Leaders like Russell Means, Crow Dog, and so many others, all were messengers passing on the flame of the awakening of our inner spirit. When I first heard the message and saw these individuals, I knew, I felt this was what I had been looking for all my life. Learning the sacred traditions touched my heart then and still touch my heart today. I felt the true power and meaning of their words as they pierced my heart. I knew then I would walk this path forever.

No matter what people thought about me, or what society said, never again would I be silent. Never again would I stand by while atrocities were done or those who need protection would have to worry. I knew also that I needed to learn more, understand more about all the different practices of Native religion and customs, for every act, every song, every item, every prayer requires an understanding of a higher meaning. Just as I am made of billions of cells connected, so too, is all life connected and to learn all the universe, I would first need to learn myself; who I was, what I was, and what am I to become. Because I am part of everything in the universe, to know myself was the answer to knowing the universe.

In my years of traveling to reservations, I saw how our people had given up hope, living just in mere existence, but not really caring what happened to them, or if they live or die. All around, there was so much alcohol addiction and domestic abuse. What happened to our people?

After four trips to Oklahoma, I didn’t want to go back; it hurt too much seeing the spirit dead in everyone’s eyes. Until AIM came into our lives, we were silent, wallowing in what could have beens and what ifs.  My own family had been scared to even let outsiders know they were Native Americans. They always told folks we were Black Irish, or such. Especially for the ones with darker complexions. The notion had been so beaten into all the Southeastern Native people that if they found you, they would hang you, kill you or worse. So for generations, we all lived by a code of secrecy.

Now days almost everyone you meet from the south will tell you they have Native blood from their ancestors. They can say that now because of AIM It was the leadership and determination of the warriors in the American Indian Movement that made Natives proud to be Natives again. This is what I’m saying about awakening our spirit.

How many people feel the urge to connect to their Native heritage at the deepest level; to truly feel life has purpose; that you have a destiny, a real life, beautiful, rewarding, and fulfilling. How many long for a life that you know you belong in and you fit in; where you aren’t judged by how you look, but how you are inside. What you do does matter. Your heart is the key. AIM opened the door for us all. We just need to step inside, let our true spirits come to life and take control.

Published by Sings Many Songs

I'm an 80-something child of the great depression and WWII. Throughout my life I have been a seeker, an outsider, never quite belonging anywhere, still always looking through cracks in the fences of life, questioning, challenging, learning, trying to make sense of the world and its conventions. A lifelong student with many interests and a love of writing and editing, my elder's path led to encouraging and assisting some remarkable people to write out their amazing stories. This calling became the magic elixir that keeps me growing, keeps me alive.

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