Journalist and writer Laura Waterman Wittstock and photographer Dick Bancroft have recorded, written and taken pictures of the American Indian Movement (AIM) for over 40 years.
Their book, We Are Still Here published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press, is a testament to that effort. It includes Wittstock’s reflections on covering the native American civil rights movement as a young reporter in Washington, D.C., as well as some of Bancroft’s striking and iconic images as the movement struggled for Native independence.
An exhibit of Bancroft’s photos opened May 10 at All My Relations Gallery on Franklin Avenue, celebrated by drummers performing the AIM honor song, traditional foods and a gathering of AIM activists, including Clyde Bellecourt and Bill Means. Bellecourt, a member of the White Earth band of Ojibwe, reminded the crowd what it took for them to get to this place.
“Our people were so beaten down,” he shouted to the crowd, “We didn’t think we could pull ourselves up,” he said as he went on to tell people how AIM began as a group of people meeting on the Northside of Minneapolis. After years of enduring poverty and abuse from police, the Indian activists decided to take matters into their own hands. It wasn’t just about better living conditions for Native Americans on and off the reservation, but about reviving their culture and demanding the federal government honor its treaties and show native nations the respect they deserved. In 1972, Bellecourt and others traveled to Washington in a protest called The Trail of Broken Treaties to demand the federal government remove officials running the Bureau of Indian Affairs who AIM accused of being corrupt and greedy. That’s where the photos of Bancroft’s and the words of Waterman Wittstock come into play.
Photos of the BIA building takeover showed American Indian men and women not as the cowboys and Indians of the John Wayne movie-myth making era, but as anxious and restless souls overturning desks, banging on drums and demanding the ear of federal officials to say that Indians were still here. After three days, the protesters left the BIA building, taking with them the jobs of three officials in charge of the decision making. It had been a victory, but AIM members would take another militant stand at the impoverished village of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in just a few months. Bancroft would also be at that 1973 armed confrontation between activists and their supporters on one side, and reservation officials and federal authorities on the other. Bancroft had gotten a camera as a birthday gift from his wife and was seen as an unofficial reporter within the movement. He remembers being the only one with a camera and the ability to afford the film.
Judging by Bancroft’s body of work, it was also the ability to know when to click the shutter.
“I found that I didn’t write worth a darn. No one is going to listen to me talk,” Bancroft said during an interview with The UpTake. “The only way for me to express what I was experiencing was with a camera.” The exhibit features nearly 100 of Bancroft’s images taken at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1972, the Longest Walk in 1973, the forming of an International Indian Treaty Council and a trip to the United Nations in 1981, plus images of everyday Native people struggling to live their lives.
Wittstock describes herself in her book as a young reporter working for an organization in Washington known as the Legislative Review. No one, she remembers, was talking about Indian Activism with the exception of her immediate family and those in the community. She remembered the way in which the BIA building takeover was depicted in the press — the Indians were portrayed as a bunch of hoodlums destroying government property.
“All of the major press — Time, Life, New York Times, the Washington Post — they were all sort of on the side of government,” Wittstock said.
” ‘These are hoodlums, coming into the building destroying public property. This is the taxpayers who will be paying for this,’ ” she says, recalling the words written by reporters at that time. “That was the story. It was not the story of the largest group of American Indians from all over the country who had ever come to one place for one reason. And that was to talk to the White House.”
After 40 years of knocking down doors, AIM now focuses its attention on educating youth and adults about their culture and creating a community where Native people can be proud. Some of those are the same values taught back in the day. Indeed, Bellecourt and others worked hard for Indian education by creating the now closed Heart of the Earth Survival School and the Red School House in the 1970s. Pictures of those early days depicting circle time and smiling Indian children are also on display at the gallery. Their biggest achievement, Bill Means has said, is the development of a Native American cultural corridor along Franklin Avenue, one where Native owned businesses and organizations can thrive and uphold the community as a model of cultural pride. Some of that work is already evident at All My Relation Gallery and at the Native American Community Development Institute.
“I feel very proud first of all to have known such quality people,” Means says. “Honorable people, men and women across the country and later on throughout the world…Indigenous leaders. And, to think that it started right here on Franklin Avenue. It means that we’ve come full circle,” he said amidst the drumming and singing taking place in his honor.
Even though tensions with Minneapolis authorities and police have eased, especially with the hiring of Janee Harteau as police chief, there is more work to be done. As an olive branch, however, the city council paid AIM its due respects in connection with the photo exhibit at All My Relations: City Council member Robert Lilligren, an enrolled member of the White Earth Anishinabe, read the proclamation by Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak declaring May 10 American Indian Movement day in the City.
“We Are Still Here” runs through June 30.