The week before Election Day 1972, the Trail of Broken Treaties caravans pulled into Washington, D.C., to present federal policymakers with solutions to the myriad problems in Native America. Within 24 hours, the TBT captured the world's attention as it took over the Bureau of Indian Affairs building and held it for six days.
Organizers had crisscrossed the U.S. for months publicizing the gathering, but no one expected or adequately planned for the 800 people who drove to the nation's capitol from some 25 states.
Once the TBT was in Washington, its planners said that local churches mysteriously withdrew offers of housing and food. Some stayed at a pre-arranged lodging site, but it was too small and the rats were too big for most.
They converged on the BIA building on Nov. 2, looking for help with the housing problem. The leaders met with BIA Commissioner Louis R. Bruce (Mohawk & Sioux), while other TBT people watched films and compared notes about problems in their territories.
It is more the case that the BIA building was abandoned than taken over.
It was the end of the workday for Washington bureaucrats and few BIA employees remained in the building after 4:30 p.m. TBT negotiators accepted the federal offer to move from the BIA to the Labor Department, but no one clued in the General Services Administration officers, who had orders to clear the building at 5:00 p.m.
GSA police clashed with TBT people in the lobby at the very time that American Indian Movement leader Dennis J. Banks, Leech Lake Chippewa, was conducting a press conference out front. Within minutes, GSA withdrew from the building and the TBT was barricaded inside.
D.C. police surrounded the building and snipers took positions on the roof of the Interior Department across the street. The BIA building was not an ordinary structure. It was only six blocks from the White House and connected to it by the system of underground tunnels beneath federal buildings in that part of Washington.
That night, my husband, Frank Ray Harjo, Wotko Muscogee, and I drove to Washington with friends. We were producers at WBAI-FM Radio Station in New York City and went to the BIA building as press. We stayed in the fourth floor "Iroquois Embassy," which was neutral territory.
The next morning, a Sac & Fox electrician proudly assured us that we were safe from outside intruders because he had wired the fire escape with 40,000 volts. When we asked what he suggested in the event we needed that route to escape, he quickly grasped the problem and dutifully undid his handiwork.
Indians were camped all over the building, busy with security and other tasks, but mostly reading documents. Everyone talked about the thick carpeting, leather couches and chairs, running water and indoor plumbing that were more comfortable and modern than most Indian homes.
Harjo and I did live feeds and taped interviews with dozens of people. We were summoned to a crowded room with an open walk-in vault containing tape recorders and cameras, and asked to give a tutorial on recording and photographing. "See what happens when they educate us," said the person who was handing out blank tapes and rolls of film. It made me smile to see Indian people all over the building interviewing each other and documenting our time.
Another pre-occupation of many people in the building was making weapons, primarily war clubs out of chair legs and scissor blades. Beautifully carved and painted, many were museum quality in both form and function. The only firearms I saw that week were at the nearby YMCA facility, where some elder Indian women were staying. They said they felt safe with their rifles at hand and their pick-ups parked right outside.
The main Indian person negotiating for everyone's safety was Henry L. Adams, Assiniboine-Sioux, author of the far-reaching policy paper, "The 20 Points," which became part of the negotiations for leaving the building. The paper and the federal response to it can be found in "Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties" by Vine Deloria Jr., Standing Rock Sioux.
Adams - head of Survival of American Indians Association from the Frank's Landing Indian Community in Washington - was chosen by the TBT as its lead negotiator with the White House.
During the first level of negotiations with Interior officials, Adams received a call from Rep. Julia Butler Hansen, D-WA. "Just the fact that she was calling strengthened our hand and made them pay close attention," said Adams. "They were impressed because she chaired the House subcommittee on Interior appropriations."
Adams remembers Hansen's exact words to him: "It's about time someone went in there and tore that damn place apart."
Tensions mounted inside the building with each new deadline and threat of eviction. At one point, Harjo and I were talking with Onondaga Chief Bill Lazore and Faithkeeper Oren Lyons in the "Iroquois Embassy," when we heard a voice amplified by a bullhorn say, "We're going to blow the building."
We scrambled downstairs, taking great care not to disturb the bottles of various sizes and shapes that lined the stairwell wall. They were filled with flammable liquid and stuffed with cloth and cardboard wicks. The smell of gasoline on the second floor was nearly overpowering.
AIM leader Russell Means, Oglala Lakota, was on the first floor, near the bottom steps, giving a high-volume speech with exaggerated gestures that could be seen from a distance - part Hollywood Indian sign-language and part Arthur Murray dance instructor moves (one of Means' jobs prior to joining AIM).
With a theatrical flourish, Means lit a long fuse to the Molotov cocktails and yelled, "It's a good day to die." A chorus of voices exclaimed, "Bulls**t." Harjo, Lazore and Lyons stamped on the glowing fuse until it was not only extinguished, but also shredded.
"You can't do that," Lyons said sternly to Means. "You can't kill the people and destroy all those records. This is only a battle, not the war."
Many Indian people could have lost their lives in the BIA building that day. I might not have borne Duke Ray Harjo II, Hodulgee Muscogee & Cheyenne, who will be 30 on this Christmas Day. He has Harjo, Lazore and Lyons to thank for saving his life that day, and Adams for saving us all that week.
We could have been deprived of the leadership and productive final years of Phillip Deere, Muscogee, Martha Grass, Ponca, Reuben A. Snake Jr., Winnebago & Sioux, and Josette Wahwasuck, Prairie Band Potawatomi.
We might have lost Alison Bridges and Suzette Mills, Nisqually & Puyallup sisters, who started WaHeLut Indian School and many of the programs at Frank's Landing; or Ramona Bennett, Puyallup, who led the grassroots campaign for the Indian Child Welfare Act and runs the Puyallup foster care program today.
Anita Collins, Paiute, would not have had a chance to chair the Walker River Paiute Tribe. Myrna Doney, Assiniboine-Sioux, would not have become a leading advocate for children and victims or founder of the Walks Far Society.
Sid Mills, Yakama & Cherokee, John Trudell, Santee Sioux, and other veterans who survived Vietnam could have been killed in Washington, D.C. We might not have known the creative side of Trudell, who had not made the transition from AIM leader to poet.
We might have missed the dignified struggle for Indian justice embodied by Frances Wise, Waco & Caddo, administrator for the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes. "We came from Indian communities," she said. "When the flamboyant stuff was over, most of us went back home to help make our communities strong."
Years later, I interviewed John Ehrlichman, after he had served time in prison for Watergate crimes. He had been Pres. Richard M. Nixon's top domestic affairs aide and I asked about his Indian policy discussions with his old boss. He said there weren't any. He could recall Nixon actually saying only one thing, during the occupation of the BIA building: "Get those goddamn Indians out of town."
Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., and a columnist for Indian Country Today.