WOUNDED KNEE, S.D. — Rachel Thunder stood on a snowy hill in Wounded Knee, inspired to continue the work of those who occupied this village 50 years ago in a historic stand for Indigenous rights.
About to embark on the 570-mile trip back home to Minneapolis this week, Thunder was determined to join other members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) in their modern quest for justice. Soon, she would be testifying at the Minnesota Legislature, seeking funding for an alternate plan to stop the Roof Depot warehouse from demolition by the city of Minneapolis, amid neighbors’ concerns of spreading contaminants. It’s just one of a series of challenges that many of today’s Indigenous leaders are trying to address.
“The guidance that those Wounded Knee veterans gave to us,” she recalled, “was to never give up, to always do the right thing and stand up for the people even if it’s hard.”
AIM members from across the country highlighted their efforts during 50th anniversary events. Some from the Southwest had protested the Kansas City Chiefs’ team name and use of the tomahawk chop at the Super Bowl in Arizona. Others in South Dakota are strategizing how to stop gold-mining proposals in the Black Hills. Many are grappling with how to help the homeless, confront racial harassment, curb substance abuse and pass down cultural practices.
“With the founders (of AIM) all passed away, it’s interesting where the movement is going to go,” said Julian Rodriguez Jr., who drove up from San Diego in the same pickup he used to occupy Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Some say AIM isn’t needed anymore, he said, but “there’s still Indians … there’s still people that need help. Maybe it’s not as militant as what it was in the past.”
Days before police killed George Floyd, AIM co-founder Clyde Bellecourt named Lisa Bellanger and Frank Paro of the Twin Cities as co-chairs of the AIM Grand Governing Council. They revived AIM patrols to protect south Minneapolis from riots and crime, and continue to meet at Powwow Grounds on Franklin Avenue on the weekends before their teams head out to provide security for the neighborhood.
Bellanger, now 61, was in middle school when her mother, Pat Bellanger — known as “Grandmother AIM” for her leadership in the movement — left without warning for a few weeks in 1973 and headed to Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Their St. Paul home was later a gathering place for AIM members during trials of Wounded Knee leaders Russell Means and Dennis Banks at the nearby courthouse, and Lisa Bellanger recalled constant federal surveillance. To this day she doesn’t like to leave the curtains open.
Lisa Bellanger recently joined an event in a Porcupine, S.D., school gymnasium to watch archival footage on the importance of women at Wounded Knee. She wiped tears from her eyes as her mother came on the screen and spoke of receiving a call for help at the AIM office in 1973 from a Lakota woman on the reservation who said, “We want you AIMs to come down here.” Pat Bellanger, who died in 2015, also coordinated the national response.
After seeing footage of her mother, Lisa Bellanger joined a powwow alongside Paro and other Minneapolis AIM members. Afterward, she told the assembly, “I stand here as a daughter of a Wounded Knee veteran. I just want to say appreciation to all of our people … who stand for our homeless, who stand for our brothers and sisters who are locked up, who stand for children, who stand for our water and who stand for Mother Earth.’’
Upon her mother’s death, Bellanger took over her seat on the International Indian Treaty Council, which was formed the year after the Wounded Knee Occupation brought attention to violations of Indian treaties. She is preparing to speak on water issues before the United Nations on behalf of the council this month. The treaty council is also grappling with issues such as climate change, which has already hurt the cultivation of Ojibwe wild rice.
As Minneapolis AIM members sold hats, badges and shirts during another powwow on Pine Ridge, a man named Mad Dog walked outside to point out a new bus that AIM adherents in Rapid City have been using to help Indigenous people — relatives, as they call them. He’s the son of the late Leonard Crow Dog, a revered spiritual leader who advised AIM members and played a prominent role in the occupation. Mad Dog and others say spirituality is still an important part of their movement, and he and fellow outreach workers pray on the nights they take the bus around Rapid City. They bring in Natives who are homeless to offer food and shelter in frigid weather. They try to help Indigenous people on the streets and station themselves in high-crime areas.
The yellow, white and black flag emblazoned with a red AIM logo flies on the back — “to let the Indian community know,” as Mad Dog put it, “we’re still alive. We care about them. We try to make sure our relatives don’t freeze and they’re not hungry and they have a safe bed.” He walked inside the bus, where a group of mostly young Natives — some in their 20s, one just 14 — decked out in AIM gear spoke enthusiastically of their mission even as they lamented the poor treatment of Natives in their city.
The Rapid City crew plans to come to Minnesota in several weeks for the memorial of Clyde Bellecourt and his wife, Peggy Bellecourt, who both died last year; the group hopes to talk to AIM members in Minneapolis about how they do outreach. Inspired, the Bellecourts’ son Crow Bellecourt said he would like the Minneapolis AIM to get a similar bus.
The AIM Grand Governing Council officially sanctions more than a dozen chapters across the country, but many other people claim the mantle of AIM. They consider it more of an idea and a mission rather than a formal organization. That includes Thunder, who left the Grand Governing Council after organizing an AIM walk to Washington last year to advocate for the release of Leonard Peltier, who is still in prison for his conviction in the 1975 killings of two FBI agents on Pine Ridge.
As she rode a warmup bus during part of a 7-mile walk to Wounded Knee, Dee Dee Manzanares Ybarra, director of AIM in Southern California, spoke of seeking recognition for tribes not given that status by the government, advocating for the honoring of Indigenous People’s Day in local cities, working on a state curriculum teaching Native history, and helping formerly incarcerated Native Americans find jobs.
She said many Indigenous people “do not trust the government … but if they know they’re coming to their own people, it makes a world of difference.”
Ybarra, 66, sees some younger activists who want to pursue the more militant strategy of the early days, like when AIM members seized the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington in 1972. Ybarra said she told them there was a time when AIM was nothing but warriors, but asked, “Do you think you could ever go back and take over the BIA today?” She shook her head. “You’d be done, every one of you.”
As hundreds marching from four directions converged on a hill at Wounded Knee on Monday, Bellanger took in the significance of it all. Older generations couldn’t talk about their experiences or practice their traditions due to forced assimilation, “so it was with AIM and red power and all the different liberation movements that people are feeling more empowered to speak and share the narrative, even though it’s hard and horrible,” she said. Her interests lie in education — her team wants to revive the AIM Interpretive Center that closed due to a lack of funding, and she’s wondering how she can bring one to Pine Ridge, along with creating more courses on Native history.
Several speakers urged unity, including Crow Bellecourt, who said that it didn’t matter which faction of AIM they represented – they were all one.
Thunder agreed as she stood with the crowd on the hill in solemn remembrance. In the ‘70s, she noted later, there was only AIM, while today there are many organizations working for Native people. But Thunder feels deeply that AIM is still needed; the Roof Depot fight had been going on for years and neighbors’ calls for help after exhausting every option was “this last line of defense,” she said. Thunder and other Indigenous people occupied the site for days before police forced them out. The day after a court delayed the demolition set for this week, Thunder left for Wounded Knee.
She looks up to women like Madonna Thunder Hawk, one of the dwindling number of Wounded Knee vets at the gathering. “As a young woman now in the movement I look at … how they stood in their power as women to fight for our people, and I think for myself and a lot of women today that those kind of examples are really powerful,” said Thunder, 31. “And we can’t let that fight for our people die. It has to continue on.”