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Eddie Chuculate

Special to Indian Country Today

MINNEAPOLIS — The American Indian Movement often is associated with events of the past, like the 1970s occupations of Wounded Knee and Alcatraz Island.

But the recent unrest here has shown the group remains a powerful force, with members guarding Native housing and more than a dozen Native-owned businesses and organizations against looting and riots.

“AIM has stepped in to ensure the Native community, its members and organizations are being protected,” said Minneapolis American Indian Center Director Mary LaGarde, White Earth Ojibwe. “They’ve organized and brought the community together.”

George Floyd’s death in police custody last weekend happened blocks from the home of AIM's last surviving co-founder, Clyde Bellecourt.

Clyde Bellecourt (Courtesy AIM)

Just the day before, the 84-year-old Bellecourt named two new leaders to the group, which has 14 chapters and six support groups, including one in St. Paul.

Bellecourt, who has been battling prostate cancer, said on Native Roots Radio last Sunday that he’s stepping down from day-to-day duties to deal with health issues.

He named Frank Paro, Grand Portage Chippewa, board chairman and president; and Lisa Bellanger, Leech Lake, executive director.

“I’m not going anywhere or retiring,” said Bellecourt, White Earth Chippewa. “I’ll always be there to support the community and do the work the creator wants us to do. I ask the movement to support these two young people who’ve been around from Day One.”

AIM Executive Director Lisa Bellanger (Courtesy Lisa Bellanger)

Bellecourt said he and others started AIM on Minneapolis' Franklin Avenue in 1968 to protest police violence.

“From there, we went all the way to Washington, D.C., to take over the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) and ended up at the United Nations to get their involvement in Indigenous issues," he said during the radio announcement. 

AIM members took part in the 1969-71 occupation of Alcatraz Island, the site of the former prison in San Francisco Bay. 

The group also grabbed headlines in 1973 when it took over Wounded Knee, on the Pine Ridge Reservation, in a protest against both the U.S. and tribal governments. The armed takeover led to a 71-day standoff with federal agents; member Leonard Peltier remains in a Florida federal penitentiary serving two life sentences in two agents' deaths.

Still, the events raised awareness of broken treaties, unfair treatment and miserable conditions on reservations and in cities.

“What AIM did in this country is awaken Indian people — Indian tribes and urban Indian people who had been so beaten down,” Elaine Salinas, former director of the now-defunct Heart of the Earth Survival School, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2019.

“AIM said, ‘We are proud people, we are a resilient people, and we have to challenge institutions that marginalized us and destroyed our lives.’ It was a very powerful message,” she said.

The group continues that mission to this day.

During the violence here, its members have stood guard over the city's Native corridor, which includes tribal offices, the Indian center, the Native American Community Clinic and Little Earth of United Tribes housing, considered the nation’s first complex dedicated to urban Natives.

Floyd, who is black, died at the intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue after he was pinned face-down on the street with a white officer’s knee to his neck in an incident caught on video. Bellecourt lives about a half-mile away in south Minneapolis.

The resulting outcry led to protests that have devolved into ongoing looting and rioting that has spread nationally to Philadelphia, New York City, Denver, Los Angeles and other cities.

AIM members were defending a Minneapolis Native youth nonprofit when it caught fire Thursday night from embers that blew over from a U.S. Post office that was torched by looters.

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However, they could do nothing to prevent the fire, which started on the roof of the Migizi Communications building. People have been donating to the organization online, and volunteers have helped with cleanup.

On Friday night, AIM and volunteers staged at the Indian-owned Pow Wow Grounds coffee shop and diner before dispersing to locations on and around Franklin Avenue to protect against arson and looting. Like other community patrols, they were given an exemption to an 8 p.m. curfew by Gov. Tim Walz.

Bellanger has said at least 50 people from the Twin Cities, northern Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota participated in Friday’s patrols, after she issued a call through social media.

Banks, galleries and the boarded-up Indian center were patrolled. No damage to any of the buildings was reported.

Even before the rioting, AIM maintained a community presence as it still fights to bring awareness to local and national issues across the country.

“AIM is the very expression of community,” said American Indian OIC chief executive Joe Hobot, Standing Rock Sioux. “They’re all nations of Indigenous people coming together to support one another, to advocate and give our community voice and create alliances with other communities of color.”


Also on Friday, AIM members who were guarding the Leech Lake tribal urban headquarters prevented four white teenagers from Wisconsin from making off with boxes of liquor and groceries from a nearby looted liquor store, turning over the merchandise to the owners Saturday.

Residents who saw the pilfering in progress notified the AIM members, who stepped in and detained the teens, filming the incident and posting it on Facebook.

Muckwa Roberts, who was among those protecting Little Earth this week, told WCCO-TV that he and others came out "for the safety of our family and our homes."

"Don't get it mistaken — the Native community supports, we support George Floyd," he said. "There's been incidents with police here in the past. ... So we understand, and we know that justice needs to be served."

Paro, 68, vows continued support for tribes across the country, emphasizing community.

Joe Rodriguez, left, and Frank Paro (Photo by John Arthur Anderson)

“We don’t need chapter leaders out there taking selfies and trying to make a name for themselves on social media, looking at the camera and saying, ‘Look at me,’” Paro told the radio station. “It’s not about you or me. It’s about the people.”

Since 4,100 National Guardsmen moved in and strictly enforced the Minneapolis' curfew, AIM and other community patrols have been told to stand down at night, but work continues during the day.

A donation center at Pow Wow Grounds on Franklin Avenue has filled with groceries and other items for Twin Cities Natives who have been affected by rioting or the coronavirus pandemic.

Donations for Natives needing groceries in the Twin Cities filled up at Pow Wow Grounds coffee shop and diner in Minneapolis amid civil unrest, looting and rioting on Saturday. (Courtesy All My Relations Gallery)

On Saturday, AIM took 15 bags of donated food and supplies to Elders Lodge in St. Paul, an independent living facility for senior tribal members. 

They planned to distribute more to elders Sunday night before the curfew, when highways will shut down until Monday morning.

“A lot of the elders out there can’t get access to groceries because of the curfew, no transportation, or their grocery store is destroyed,” said Bellanger, 58.

“The support has been tremendous. A group is on their way from Leech Lake (200 miles north) bringing more groceries and utensils. It’s moccasins on the ground, connecting.”

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Eddie Chuculate, Creek/Cherokee, is a writer in Minneapolis. Contact: Follow him on Twitter: @eddie_chuculate


This story has been updated to add comment.