Wednesday, August 3, 2016
August 3, 2016: Native American Leaders: Remembering the American Indian Movement
[August 1st marks the 150th anniversary of Cherokee Chief John Ross’s death. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Ross and other native leaders, leading up to a weekend Guest Post from one of our most talented and significant Native Studies scholars.]
On why and how we should better remember the 1960s activist leaders.
Of the many social movements that originated in and out of the 1960s, I’m not sure that any has been as completely disappeared from our national narratives about and collective memories of that decade as the American Indian Movement (AIM). There are certainly historical reasons for that absence: the movement represented a far more specific community than, say, feminism; it wasn’t responding as overtly to controversial contemporary events like the anti-war and hippie movements. There are also, and just as certainly, symbolic reasons for AIM’s absence from our memories, factors rooted in our centuries of mythmaking about Vanishing Americans and our concurrent inability to engage in any consistent or in-depth way with the continuing national presence of Native Americans. Yet the simple truth is that you can’t tell the story of either the 1960s or Native Americans in the 20th century without better remembering the American Indian Movement.
It’s also important to note, however, that among AIM’s tactics was a kind of militancy that often directly and provocatively challenged national power structures (as in the 19-month occupation of Alcatraz between 1969 and 1971 or the much briefer takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1972), and that could turn into violence with relative ease. No event seemed to highlight that potential for violence more than the June 1975 murder of two FBI agents, Jack Coler and Ronald Williams, on the Pine Ridge Oglala Sioux Reservation, a shooting for which AIM activist Leonard Peltier has been imprisoned since shortly thereafter. Yet like so much of our history, and most especially the history of Native American communities and their relationship to the US government, the story is a lot more complicated than that. As usual, I can’t begin to get into all the details here, but whatever happened to Coler and Williams and whoever was responsible, it is certainly significant to note that a large number of AIM activists had themselves been killed on the Reservation in the years prior to 1975, and that a heavily armed, pro-government gang of tribal enforcers had established a kind of martial law in, it seems, at least implicit association with the FBI over those years.
As with so many of our darkest historical events, it seems clear that we’ll never know what really happened at Pine Ridge. But what we can and must do is to try to tell and remember these stories, and to do so by engaging as broadly and deeply as possible with both the multiple communities and perspectives to which they connect and the many national narratives and identities they implicate. And when it comes to Pine Ridge, it is, interestingly, a British filmmaker, Michael Apted, who has perhaps done so with the most complexity and success, in a pair of complementary 1992 films: the documentary Incident at Oglala and the feature film Thunderheart. Each is, I believe, a masterpiece of its genre, and each likewise blurs the lines between document and story, fact and fiction, in ways that do justice to the nuances of the event and our history and force us to think and engage ourselves with what is being portrayed, to engage with these narratives long after the film has ended. At its heart, such historical and cultural engagement is precisely what the American Indian Movement has been advocating for since its inception.
Next leader tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Native American leaders or figures you’d highlight?