The Trail of Broken Treaties: A March on Washington, DC 1972

“The idea of a convergence upon the nation’s capital was discussed and accepted as a reasonable effort to sensitize both the Republican and Democratic parties to the profound problems faced by Indian people, and to exact from them firm pledges for enlightened, immediate changes.”

Black and white photograph showing a large crowd of men and women gathered in front of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C., including on the roof of the building. The American flag is flying upside-down on the flagpole.
Black and white photograph of Russell Means walking out of the Bureau of Indian Affairs carrying a framed photograph of President Richard Nixon.

In 1972, AIM activists Dennis Banks and Russell Means, along with members of the Rosebud Sioux, organized the Trail of Broken Treaties and Pan American Native Quest for Justice, a caravan of automobiles that would cross the nation in a political protest concluding at the White House. On October 6th, three caravans departed from Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. The caravans were accompanied by Native spiritual leaders and they passed through several Indian reservations on the way to Washington. At each reservation stop, AIM activists held drum circles and workshops to gain support for their Red Power protest.

The three caravans eventually convened in St. Paul, Minnesota where they drafted a 20-point “The Trail of Broken Treaties” position paper.* The manifesto demanded legal recognition of treaties, restoration of the treaty-making process, the return of 110 million acres of Native land to indigenous communities and the reform of federal-tribal relations. A fourth caravan departed from Oklahoma and symbolically retraced the path of the Trail of Tears. When the caravan departed St. Paul for D.C., the Trail of Broken Treaties caravan was over four miles long and included some 700 activists from more than 200 tribes and 25 states.

Black and white photograph of seventeen AIM men standing in front of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C. Photo was taken at night and several of the men are holding clubs and sticks.
Black and white photograph of a man and two small children walking around a tipi in front of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C. during the AIM sit-in at the government office. A crowd of people is standing between the tipi and the building, and eight people are sitting on the roof.
“We have now declared war on the United States of America -–seek your stations”
- Vern Bellecourt

On November 2nd, the caravan arrived in Washington, D.C. Expecting to deliver the 20-point manifesto directly to President Nixon, AIM members spent the day participating in religious ceremonies. The plan was derailed upon learning that Nixon was out of the county. AIM’s request to hold a ceremony in Arlington Cemetery was denied and meetings between AIM leaders and government officials at the Department of the Interior (BIA), Department of Labor and the Department of Commerce were canceled without notice. AIM leaders and caravan members entered the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters to discuss the situation. BIA security guards attempted to remove the caravan members by force, escalating the tensions and initiating AIM’s week-long occupation of the BIA building.

Black and white photograph of a drumming session in the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C. on the first day of demonstrations. ”Trail of Broken Treaties” and ”AIM” are painted on the drum.

"We are all outraged by the conduct of these Indians..."
Download the FBI memorandum from November 11, 1972

Black and white photograph of sixteen Black, Native, and White men and women protestors inside an office in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Some of the BIA employees are also in the room.
Black and white photograph of protestors inside the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Most of the protestors in the photograph are gathered on the left side of the photograph. On the right side of the photograph the chairs and other furnishings have been thrown into a large pile. January 31, 1973 memo to the Acting Director of the FBI claiming theft and destruction of government property during the November 2 – 8, 1972 takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building. March 12, 1973 FBI Warrant for Russell Charles Means for impeding and interfering with Federal Officer at Wounded Knee.

During the occupation, AIM leaders cultivated media attention by building a tipi on the BIA lawn and promoting the Trail of Broken Treaties manifesto. However, the media also reported on the damage to the BIA building by AIM members during the occupation. TV footage of destroyed furniture, claims of the theft of federal documents and $2 million worth of damage turned national opinion against AIM and some members of the Indian community. AIM countered the charge of document theft arguing that Native people had a right to the documents, and that damages to the BIA building were exaggerated.

Seeking a peaceful end of the occupation of the BIA, Nixon sent three top-level officials to negotiate with AIM. The agreement was hammered out to end the occupation with the federal government agreeing to form a task force to consider the 20-point manifesto, conduct a six-month review of Indian policy and provide $66,650 for the safe travels of all protesters back home. Although the demands made in the Trail of Broken Treaties manifesto were officially rejected by the task force, aspects of the 20-point plan became the foundation for Nixon’s Self Determination Policy and set a new direction in Indian and U.S. relations.

Black and white photograph of Russell Means and AMI supporters in the office of a government official. Official is seated at his desk.
Black and white photograph of a man walking down an urban sidewalk away from the camera wearing a U.S. flag sewn onto a larger cloth, draped across his shoulders.

“One of our grandmas said that the BIA is something like a boil. It causes great pain in the area closest to it, but it comes from some sickness or poison away down deep somewhere. And when you break the boil to relieve the pain, it’s bound to be messy. Sometimes it goes away, sometimes it comes back someplace else, and sometimes it just won’t go away.”

Faces of AIM

President Richard Nixon

Black and white photograph of President Richard Nixon autographing a book. There is a crowd of men and women close to the President.

"The First Americans---the Indians---are the most deprived and most isolated minority group in our nation, … on virtually every scale of measurement----employment, income, education, health---the condition of the Indian people is at the bottom."

January 9, 1913 – April 22, 1994
Occupation: 37th President of the United States (January 20, 1969 – August 9, 1974)

Richard Milhous Nixon (1913–1994), served as the 37th President of the United States from 1969 to 1974. These were years of significant social unrest in American society. Nixon appealed to the socially conservative citizens of his day, a group he called the “silent majority.” The Red Power movement emerged during Nixon’s presidency, and while Nixon was a proponent of “law and order” he advocated for “self-determination without termination” for Indian tribes. Nixon’s remarks signaled a significant change in federal Indian policy that continues at present. In Nixon’s landmark speech to Congress on July 8, 1970 he said,

“Both as a matter of justice and as a matter of enlightened social policy, we must begin to act on the basis of what Indians themselves have long been telling us…The time has come to break decisively with the past and to create the conditions for a new era in which the Indian future is determined by Indian acts and Indian decisions.”

By the end of 1970, Nixon signed a bill restoring access to Blue Lake, in New Mexico to members of the Taos Pueblo, describing his action as one that may be seen as: “---a new road which leads us to justice in the treatment of those who were the first Americans.”

The following year Nixon signed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which transferred 44 million acres of land to Alaska Natives. In all Nixon signed 52 legislative measures supporting American Indian sovereignty. Nixon’s most significant achievement was advocating for the passage of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act which was passed in 1975, after he was out of office. Native communities responded to the new direction in federal Indian policy by seeking the affirmation of tribal sovereignty in legislative and court decisions.

J Edgar Hoover

Black and white photograph of a young J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the FBI from 1924-1972, sitting at a desk holding a pen above a sheet of paper. The photograph was taken on May 16, 1932.

"Justice is merely incidental to law and order."

J. Edgar Hoover
January 1, 1895 – May 2, 1972
Occupation: Director of FBI (1924 – 1972)

View FBI files on AIM at William & Mary Libraries

Securing a filing position with the Department of Justice in 1917, J. Edgar Hoover quickly gained notoriety within the government as a vehement proponent of conservatism and discipline. In 1918 he led the General Intelligence Division of the Department and in the next few years rose rapidly until he was made Director of the Bureau of Investigation in 1924. He was only 29 years old. Though the organization’s name changed in 1932 and again in 1935 (finally becoming the Federal Bureau of Investigation), Hoover would remain a constant – he was Director until his death in 1972.

Hoover made radical changes to the Bureau, including strict vetting processes for recruitment, increased funding to aid forensic labs, and strictly regulating the FBI’s public image. Bending to paranoia about the Communist threat and counter-culture movements in the United States, Hoover’s suspicions of potentially subversive groups propelled his acquisition of unparalleled power. This power allowed him to personally influence presidents and politics and secured his position for 48 years.

Hoover’s crusade against perceived domestic threats at times involved abuses of power and illegal behavior, including a counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO) that targeted organizations and leaders that he deemed to be dangerous, including the Ku Klux Klan, the Black Panthers, and the Socialist Workers Party. Though the FBI claims that the termination of COINTELPRO in 1971 preceded their investigation of the American Indian Movement, internal documents raise doubts about this. Hoover died before some of the FBI’s most violent conflicts with the American Indian Movement, but his influence on the Bureau would shape the way the organization handled (and at times mishandled) its run-ins with indigenous groups.