March 12 marks the 44th Anniversary of an important part of the Indian Civil Rights Movement, when 12 Indian employees at the Bureau of Indians Affairs’ Plant Management Engineering Center filed a formal complaint against the bureau stating discriminatory practices in training, hiring and promotions, and misusing government funds meant for Indians. The group formally filed complaints against the BIA with Edward. E. Shelton, the Director of Interior Department’s Office of Equal Employment Opportunity, and BIA commissioner Louis R. Bruce.
“It was called the country clubs of BIA’s, everyone knew in the office that they were enjoying Colorado on the BIA’s dime.” one activist said of the misuse of funds at the BIA office. “Instead of improving the structure at the office after our protests, they shut it down.”
The group, who would be later called the Littleton Twelve, consisted of Indians from a variety of tribes, many of whom had been brought to Denver during the Indian Relocation Act. Vaughn Arkie, Phyllis Culbertson, Corrine Durmace Deal, Enola Freeman, Toni Guerue, Robert Henderson, Ellen Hickman, Fray Laforge, Katherine Sherman, Carson Sine and Glenda Tom would spark a movement in Denver that utilized direct action and non-violent civil disobedience to secure Indian hiring preference at the BIA. The complaint gathered support from many other Indian activists who supported the Littleton Twelve, including activists who would later participate in strategic arrestable actions.
On March 16th, 1970, several local and national Indian organizations threw their support behind the Littleton Twelve by picketing the PMEC office in Littleton. On the evening of March 19th, unsatisfied with the bureau’s response, eleven of the activists escalated their direct action by occupying the Littleton office. Using snow chains pulled from an activist's’ family station wagon, the eleven locked themselves in the building for three days, refusing to leave until the BIA addressed their concerns. The following morning, when other BIA employees arrived, those employees were sent home. Telephone calls made to the office while the Indians were occupying the building were often answered, “[t]hank you for calling the BIA, but this office has been occupied and closed for the day.
On March 21 Commissioner Bruce visited the Littleton Office to meet with the eleven activists and share a dinner of corn soup, fry bread and wojapi as they spoke about their demands. As the group met inside with Commissioner Bruce, Indians marched around the building chanting and holding signs. After the meeting Commissioner Bruce would suspend three BIA top officials, including Chief Official Charles McCrea.
Nine activists of the group occupying the Littleton office were arrested and charged with trespassing and interference based on a complaint filed by the suspended McCrea. The nine were a diverse group including Patty Baker (Mandan-Blackfoot), Linda Benson (Sac and Fox), Lynda Bernal (Taos Pueblo), Duane Bird Bear (Mandan-Hidatsa), Madelyn Boyer (Shoshone-Bannock), John Gill (Sioux), James Jones (Cherokee) and Virginia Reeves (Navajo). The nine activists were later acquitted of all charges by Arapahoe County Court on June 23, 1973.
The first occupation of the office in Littleton sparked more protests in Denver, and later in Illinois, California, Washington DC, New Mexico and Pennsylvania, all utilizing direct action and non-violent civil disobedience to push their demands for hiring preference in the BIA. The protests would result in a lawsuit, Freeman vs Morton that would be fought all the way to the Supreme Court with the Court ruling in favor of Indian Hiring Preference.
The story of the Indian Civil Rights Movement is a complex one with many facets and stories waiting to be explored and told. Stay tuned for more….
Jennifer K. Falcon is an enrolled member of the Fort Peck Assiniboine Sioux tribe. She grew up an urban Indian in Denver, and is now a progressive political organizer in San Antonio Texas. Follow her on Twitter: @yourmomentofjen.