Bureau of Indian Affairs building takeover
The Bureau of Indian Affairs building takeover occurred from November 3 to November 9, 1972. On November 3, a group of around 500 American Indians with the American Indian Movement (AIM) took over the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) building in Washington, D.C., the culmination of their participation in the Trail of Broken Treaties, intended to bring attention to American Indian issues such as living standards and treaty rights. They had arrived at the BIA to negotiate for better housing and other issues; the siege began when a government mistake was interpreted as a doublecross. The incensed protesters then began to vandalize the building in protest. They were not evicted on the first night. The takover quickly gained national media attention. The demonstrators upturned large tables and desks against the windows of the building. Documents were destroyed by setting fires, literally, in the middle offices and lobbies of the building. The demonstrators started to run out of provisions after several days. They would not allow police or any government representative to approach the building, so two children of BIA employees were recruited to bring in provisions. After a week, the protesters left, having caused $700,000 in damages. Among the damage caused was loss, destruction, and theft of many records, including treaties, deeds, and water rights records, which some Indian officials said could set them back 50 to 100 years.
AIM researched, organized and prepared in 1972 after the brief BIA takeover in 1971. Understanding the law was essential to bringing the just claims of Indian tribes and the urban populations forward to policy makers and the courts. Volunteer attorneys and other scholars researched the laws, Executive Orders, and BIA budgeting and practice to inform the AIM agenda of exposing government misdirection and illegal practice. There was one issue for nearly all Indians: land. Land had been stolen and the BIA was the instrument of the theft. Making do on smaller and smaller sovereign nations, tribal chairmen held onto their fiefdoms on with controls of association and small electoral bases. Smallness meant greater power but it also meant vulnerability to the federal government’s next termination tactic. There was nearly no one among them who would call the U.S. on its rough handling. Particularly among young Indians, tribal chairmen were nearly as incompetent as the BIA because for both it was not who they were precisely, but what they represented as the image of defeat and irresponsibility. Momentum and support grew for AIM. Unlike 1971, the groups were prepared and focused on their target. Sympathetic groups joined the planning:
- The National Indian Brotherhood of Canada
- Native American Rights Fund
- National Indian Youth Council
- National American Indian Council
- National Council on Indian Work
- National Indian Leadership Training
- American Indian Committee on Alcohol and Drug Abuse
Others who endorsed the effort
- Native American Women’s Action Council
- United Native Americans
- National Indian Lutheran Board
- Coalition of Indian-Controlled School Boards
- Black Panther Party for Self Defense
Indians from around the country swept into groups and converged on the BIA building on November 2, 1972, and stayed there for seven days. Richard M. Nixon celebrated a landslide presidential victory on November 7 as AIM’s 'twenty points' were presented to him. It reminded Nixon how unprepared he was to deal with Indian issues across the country and how he had failed in his effort to quell Indian pressures for reforms. The twenty points were clear and potent reminders of the lack of faith set in motion in the early 1950s by Harry Truman’s BIA Commissioner Dillon S. Myer. They tell in twenty sentences the story of everything that was wrong with the government’s supposed trust responsibility. Twelve of the 20 points directly or indirectly address treaty responsibility in which the U.S. fell dramatically short.
- Restoration of treaty making (ended by Congress in 1871).
- Establishment of a treaty commission to make new treaties (with sovereign Native Nations).
- Indian leaders to address Congress.
- Review of treaty commitments and violations.
- Unratified treaties to go before the Senate.
- All Indians to be governed by treaty relations.
- Relief for Native Nations for treaty rights violations.
- Recognition of the right of Indians to interpret treaties.
- Joint Congressional Committee to be formed on reconstruction of Indian relations.
- Restoration of 110 million acres (450,000 km2) of land taken away from Native Nations by the United States.
- Restoration of terminated rights.
- Repeal of state jurisdiction on Native Nations.
- Federal protection for offenses against Indians.
- Abolishment of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
- Creation of a new office of Federal Indian Relations.
- New office to remedy breakdown in the constitutionally prescribed relationships between the United States and Native Nations.
- Native Nations to be immune to commerce regulation, taxes, trade restrictions of states.
- Indian religious freedom and cultural integrity protected.
- Establishment of national Indian voting with local options; free national Indian organizations from governmental controls
- Reclaim and affirm health, housing, employment, economic development, and education for all Indian people.
Meanwhile, as AIM was occupying the BIA building in Washington, D.C., representatives of the Nixon administration were meeting with tribal chairmen at the other end of the country in rural Oregon. Using the president’s reelection funds (The Committee to Reelect the President - dubbed CREEP), the new organization was born, and called The National Tribal Chairman’s Association. NTCA was presumably an outgrowth of the National Congress of American Indians, founded in 1944. Nixon promised the support of the federal government for “federally recognized” tribes, which of course did not include all tribes, and it excluded the thousands of Indians Dillon S. Myer had so carefully removed from their native homelands during his tenure. The hope was to engage Indians in an intercine battle for legitimacy: Who would be a legitimate member of the tribe and who wouldn’t?
NTCA was given comfortable offices within the National Council on Indian Opportunity.” By helping to form NTCA, Nixon intended to divide Indian strength and thus weaken demands on the federal government. Sadly he was correct as one after another tribal chairman in his elite group spoke of excluding “urban Indians” from tribal benefits; these who were once their own tribal members before relocation and migration to cities for economic reasons.
One thing Nixon did not count on was AIM itself and its ability to organize and gather thousands of Indians and other supporters from the U.S. and around the world, bringing them right to the doorstep of the White House. When AIM left the BIA building on November 8 the White House had agreed to discuss all 20 points except amnesty, which was to be addressed separately. An “interagency task force” was created to be co-chaired by representatives of the White House and to include dozens of Indian organizations. In its usual fashion the Nixon administration hoped to drown the effort in large numbers. The occupiers agreed to leave the building with the assurance that the White House would examine: eligibility of Indians for governmental services; adequacy of governmental service delivery; quality, speed, and effectiveness of federal programs; Indian self-government; and, congressional implementation of necessary Indian legislation.
Unlike Truman, Nixon could not avoid the continuing pressure against his administration. In a year on December 22, 1973 Nixon would privately sign the Menominee Restoration Act and return Menominee Indians to full tribal status and return tribal assets to trust status. At that point he was headed for the crushing circumstances that would lead to his resignation on August 9, 1974.
- Paul Smith and Robert Warrior, Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee. New York: The New Press, 1996
- "Amnesty Denied to Indians". The Washington Post. 10 November 1972.
- "Justice Eyes Way to Charge Indians". The Washington Post. November 10, 1972.
- Visions and Voices: American Indian Activism and the Civil Rights Movement, Laura Waterman Wittstock, Elaine Salinas, Susan Aasen, Part 1, page 54