On this dayFeb 11, 1978

Native American Activism

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In the 1960s and 1970s, growing social unrest and national protests for civil rights within the black community influenced action within other groups–including Native Americans, a segment of the American population that had remained largely marginalized, disadvantaged, and disproportionately impoverished since the United States government completed its policy of removal more than a century before.

On March 8, 1964, a small group of Sioux demonstrators affiliated with a San Francisco organization known as Indians of All Tribes (IAT) occupied Alcatraz Island for four hours, asserting that the land was due to be returned to the Sioux people. The temporary demonstration was to raise awareness of government violations of binding treaties–but a longer protest followed. Beginning November 20, 1969, the IAT and allies again occupied the island. Lasting more than eighteen months and, at its height, including as many as 400 people, the protest did not result in renewed tribal ownership of the land, but did raise national and international attention and inspire continued activism.

Another advocacy organization, the American Indian Movement (AIM), in October 1972 organized members to march to Washington, D.C. in the “Trail of Broken Treaties,” and upon arrival occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs for several days. AIM’s twenty-point list of demands sought multiple reforms to U.S.-Indian treaty policy, as well as restoration of land and rights, and abolition of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The occupation ended when the U.S. government agreed to negotiate, but change was slow.

On February 11, 1978, AIM began “The Longest Walk,” a five-month, cross-country march from Alcatraz Island to Washington, D.C. to protest legislation pending in Congress and to raise public awareness about the growing governmental threat to American Indian sovereignty. The activists and allies arrived in D.C. on July 15, 1978, and held rallies addressing their demands and concerns. Though President Jimmy Carter refused to meet with the marchers when they arrived in the capitol on July 15, 1978, Congress responded to the public pressure by vetoing an anti-treaty bill and passing the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

Today, AIM and many other organizations continue to fight for sovereignty and combat the poverty, substance abuse, and mental illness still plaguing American Indian communities. A second "Longest Walk," organized in 2008, included participants from more than 100 American Indian nations.

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