Not Just a Bunch of Radicals: A History of the Survival Schools
In the fall of 2011, I called Pat Bellanger, a Leech Lake Ojibwe activist, at her home in Minneapolis. As a longtime Twin Cities resident, an early American Indian Movement organizer, and a survival school founder, teacher, and parent, she had a long-term perspective on AIM and the schools that she generously had shared with me over the course of multiple interviews. Because she recently had spent weeks of rehabilitation recovering from an injury, I wanted to see how she was doing.
As I should have anticipated, rather than recuperating quietly at home, Bellanger was busy organizing something. When I first met her ten years earlier, though she was then in her sixties and not in good health, she was planning events for Indian youth and elders, supporting Native language programs, developing diabetes education initiatives with doctors at the Native American Community Clinic, and lobbying the state government on water quality issues. At the time, Bellanger did most of her organizing from the back room of her brother’s Native arts and gift shop on Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis; this recently revitalized urban corridor lined with Native agencies and businesses once had been the heart of the “Indian ghetto.” Every time I went to see her there she was smiling and laughing, her black eyes bright with purpose, wearing a T-shirt supporting an Indian cause or proclaiming Indian pride, and in the middle of organizing something for the Twin Cities Indian community. As I got to know her, I came to see Bellanger’s activism as the continuation of a forty-year-long commitment to working for the well-being of Indian people that had begun as an AIM organizer in the 1960s.
When I called her on this November day in 2011, Bellanger was applying her organizing skills to a project designed to tell the story of AIM itself. She was planning for the American Indian Movement Interpretive Center, an ambitious initiative that she and other AIM founders and supporters had launched to collect, preserve, and exhibit AIM’s history. As envisioned by Bellanger and other members of the executive board, the Center would hold an extensive archive of documents, artifacts, photographs, and audiovisual media and provide space for interpretive exhibits, community meetings, and public programs. That winter the group was developing plans and raising funds for the renovation of a nineteenth-century mansion to house the Center. The building, located in the Dinkytown neighborhood near the University of Minnesota’s East Bank campus in Minneapolis, sits across the street from the former site of the Oh Day Aki/Heart of the Earth survival school, which Bellanger had helped found in 1972.
Over the time that I had known her, Pat Bellanger had spent hours talking to me about AIM’s early history in the Twin Cities and its work to improve the lives and conditions of Indian people there. She had shared stories of the AIM survival schools’ founding, development, and decline, and explained what they meant to those who created them and whose lives they influenced. Through these interviews and conversations, she had helped me understand the history of AIM and the survival schools so that I could tell their story to the world. Now, through the American Indian Movement Interpretive Center, she and other AIM founders and supporters were working to create a space in which they could tell their own story, on their own terms. Together, this book on the survival schools and the archives and exhibits of the AIM Interpretive Center will offer vital new perspectives on the American Indian Movement, its contribution to educational self-determination for Indian people, and its place in Indigenous history.
The history of the American Indian Movement, as most Americans understand it, goes something like this: AIM was organized in Minneapolis in July 1968 by local Indian people fed up with the racism, discrimination, and socioeconomic disparities they experienced in the city and seeking to secure and expand Native American civil rights. Local leaders Clyde Bellecourt and Dennis Banks soon began organizing national protest actions to assert treaty rights and demand reforms in federal Indian policy. By the early 1970s, AIM had become the most prominent Indian organization of the “Red Power” activist movement, with multiple national chapters and significant media attention. Between 1969 and 1973, AIM members participated in the occupations of Mount Rushmore and Alcatraz Island, organized the Trail of Broken Treaties, spearheaded the occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C., and led the occupation of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, resulting in an armed standoff with U.S. military forces. After the Wounded Knee takeover of 1973, AIM splintered under the pressure of federal prosecution, FBI infiltration, and internal dissension. By the mid-1970s, it had dissolved as a national organization.
While this is on the surface a true history of AIM, it is incomplete. It ignores the vigorous and wide-ranging local activism in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul that both preceded and outlasted the movement’s national political actions. This version of AIM’s history also oversimplifies organizers’ concerns, motivations, and goals. It fails to fully explain the movement’s origins, inadequately answering the question of just how and why this movement came into being in the summer of 1968.
Origins can be tricky things to trace. When the historical record consists largely of multiple individual memories rather than a single official document, finding the beginning becomes even more complicated. AIM emerged from a collection of experiences, an accumulation of choices, that developed and converged over time. So it is difficult to answer the question simply of how and where the movement really began.
According to one version of its origin story, AIM was formed at a community meeting held in north Minneapolis on July 28, 1968.1 A group of Minnesota Ojibwe people, including Dennis Banks and George Mitchell from the Leech Lake reservation and Clyde Bellecourt from White Earth, organized the meeting for local Indian people to discuss the many challenges of life in the Twin Cities, and to find new solutions to the problems they faced. Some two hundred people attended the meeting, most of them Ojibwes with ties to Minnesota reservations. During the gathering, people voiced their frustrations with slum housing conditions, unemployment, police harassment, and discrimination by employers and landlords as well as in the schools, the welfare system, and the courts.2
During the meeting, Clyde Bellecourt rose to speak. In his 2004 memoir, Dennis Banks remembered Bellecourt urging people to take immediate action on the problem of police harassment. Describing Bellecourt as a “man in a hurry to get things done,” Banks recalled that “he spoke with such intensity that his enthusiasm swept over us like a storm. In that moment, AIM was born.”3
As Bellecourt has remembered it, he delivered a more wide-ranging “firebrand talk” in which he decried the damage done to Indian people by the federal government, the Christian church, and the Euro-American educational system. In an interview he described the argument he made that night:
. . . that these three institutions worked hand in hand, day in and day out, to strip us of our language, our culture; remove us from our land, our home; relocate us into large urban areas and then go in and steal what we had left. That we had to look at these three institutions as the three worst enemies of Indian people, that’s the way I looked at it. I got up and gave this in my talk: these are our enemies, this is what we have to deal with every day, these three agencies work hand in hand to take what we have from us, and we had to design a program to confront every one of them, and to change the lives and conditions of Indian people.
By the end of the meeting, many of those in attendance had committed themselves to creating a new organization, with Bellecourt as chairman and Banks as field director. Charles Deegan, another White Earth Ojibwe man, was named vice chairman. Other early AIM organizers included Leech Lake Ojibwe Patricia (Pat) Bellanger and an Ojibwe man from the Lac Courte Oreilles reservation in northern Wisconsin named Edward (Eddie) Benton-Banai. All of them were in their early thirties at the time that AIM formed.4
As for a name, they first called themselves “Concerned Indian Americans,” but after someone pointed out that this had the unfortunate acronym of “CIA,” they reconsidered. Dennis Banks and Clyde Bellecourt both credit one of the group’s elder women for suggesting “AIM.” Banks remembered her saying, “You always ‘aim’ to do this and to do that. Why don’t we just call ourselves ‘AIM’?” So they did, and within a few weeks they had become the American Indian Movement. Then and later, calling themselves a “movement” was critically important for people who sought to create not just another organization, but a new collective force for change. The desire to create such a movement began well before the first organizing meeting in July 1968. For both Banks and Bellecourt, it began in prison.5
By the early 1960s Dennis Banks was living in the Minneapolis “Indian ghetto,” working intermittently, drinking hard, and finding camaraderie through the struggles of city life with other Minnesota Ojibwes he knew from boarding school and military service. Like many other young Indian men, Banks spent time in prison. In 1966 he was arrested for burglary and spent two and a half years at Stillwater State Prison, where he “became politicized.” He followed the social and political movements gathering strength outside the walls of Stillwater: the African American civil rights movement, Black Power, the student movements on college campuses, and the growing antiwar protests against U.S. involvement in Vietnam. He also read American Indian history and researched Indian civil rights issues. As Banks described it in his 2004 memoir, “Inside Stillwater, I made a commitment to myself that there would be an Indian movement.” After his release from prison in May 1968, Banks reconnected with his old boarding school friend and fellow Leech Laker George Mitchell; together they organized “a series of meetings to get the Indian community in Minneapolis behind an effort to begin making the changes that we needed.” That summer, Banks and Mitchell helped convene the meeting where AIM was formed.6
By the time Dennis Banks arrived at Stillwater State Prison, Clyde Bellecourt already had served his time there. Bellecourt was sentenced to Stillwater for robbery in 1962. Because he frequently broke prison rules, he spent considerable time in solitary confinement. While in solitary he was approached by Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe Eddie Benton-Banai and an Irish-American caseworker named James Donahue, who wanted to create an Indian cultural studies group for Native prisoners. Bellecourt helped organize the group, which brought him a sense of identity and purpose. After his release from prison in 1964, he organized efforts to improve Indian life in the Twin Cities and introduce urban Native people to knowledge about their cultural heritage. This work eventually brought him together with Dennis Banks, George Mitchell, and others at AIM’s first organizing meeting. As Bellecourt once told a reporter, “People always say that the American Indian Movement started in 1968. But to me it started in the hole at Stillwater in ’62.”7
With its seeds planted in prison and cultivated through years of community organizing, AIM took root in Minneapolis in the summer of 1968. Soon Dennis Banks, Clyde Bellecourt, and other AIM leaders would become the public face of a national Indian movement that forcefully rejected the status quo, both in the conditions of Indian people’s lives and in Native activists’ responses to them. In their first few years in the Twin Cities, AIM organizers launched multiple community initiatives to improve Native people’s lives in Minneapolis and St. Paul, including the founding of two alternative schools in 1972: first the A.I.M. Survival School (later named Heart of the Earth, then Oh Day Aki) in Minneapolis, followed by the Red School House in St. Paul. AIM’s origins and its local work in the Twin Cities are much less well understood than its national politics, and the schools that AIM people founded have received little attention in either scholarly or popular histories.8
This book provides a history of the Twin Cities survival schools from their opening in 1972, through the closing of Red School House in 1996, to the closing of Oh Day Aki/Heart of the Earth in 2008. In telling this story, I also illuminate the origins and the early work of the American Indian Movement in Minneapolis and St. Paul from AIM’s founding in 1968 to the schools’ creation in 1972. Examining AIM through the lens of the survival schools reveals a group of parents and community activists working to nurture Native youth, strengthen and protect Indian families, and achieve self-determination within urban institutions. The survival schools’ story demonstrates that rather than disappearing in the mid-1970s, AIM people continued to work for change in Minneapolis and St. Paul for decades. Thus the movement’s long-term impact on Indian people’s lives becomes more clear. While AIM is best known for its national protests and political demands, the schools foreground its local and regional engagement with issues of language, culture, spirituality, and identity.
The survival schools also allow us to see Native women’s importance as community organizers and cultural leaders. Ojibwe historian Brenda Child has noted the lack of attention to women’s roles in the American Indian Movement, despite women’s significant contributions to AIM’s community activism in the Twin Cities. She notes in particular how women’s work during AIM’s early years in Minneapolis and St. Paul “laid a foundation for new institutions for education and social welfare that have been extraordinarily long-lived in the Indian community.” While AIM’s male leaders made public speeches and got the attention of the national media, Child argues that “women held the majority of sustained leadership roles in the community through their participation in the less sensational but no less important or visionary work of organizing new schools” and advocating for the rights of Native families and children. “Their body of work,” Child asserts, “is a breathtaking achievement that led to increased well-being for Indians in Minnesota and greater sovereignty for Indian people nationwide.” The survival schools were part of this important work.9
On one level we can trace AIM’s origins, and those of the survival schools, to a particular time, place, and set of conditions within the Indian communities of Minneapolis and St. Paul in the 1960s. Yet, as the schools’ story demonstrates, AIM also responded to the long history of Euro-American efforts to sever Native people’s ties to their homelands, eradicate their distinctive societies, and transform their cultural identities, a campaign waged most aggressively within the federal boarding schools of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Indian people in the Twin Cities organized AIM in part as an antidote to the long-term effects of historical assimilation policies. They also resisted ongoing systemic efforts to assimilate Indian people in the postwar urban communities where they lived. In this way, the AIM survival schools are part of the story of Indigenous colonization, resistance, survival, and revitalization in the United States. Because these also have been transnational processes, we must understand the AIM schools in the larger context of the Indigenous decolonization movements that began taking shape around the world in the 1960s. The history of the survival schools, then, is both intensely local and thoroughly global.
Through the AIM survival schools, I illuminate the postwar experiences of Indian people in Minneapolis and St. Paul, including Native families’ relationships to Twin Cities public schools. Although not a comprehensive local study, this contributes to our understanding of the history of urban Indian communities. My book also helps bring the history of Indian education beyond the federal boarding schools and into the twenty-first century. At the same time, it reveals how profoundly and persistently the legacy of boarding school education has continued to shape Indian people’s lives.
By telling the survival schools’ story, I also make a significant contribution to the scholarship on postwar Indian activism. Most studies of the “Red Power” movement have focused on the high-profile protest actions of the 1960s and 1970s: the fish-ins in the Pacific Northwest, the occupations of Alcatraz and the BIA headquarters, and the confrontation at Wounded Knee. Yet the same period saw the beginnings of a national movement for educational self-determination among Indian people and the emergence of the first community-controlled Indian schools. Listening to the voices of those who criticized mainstream education and created their own alternatives reveals another kind of activism during this time, with a sustained focus on familial, cultural, and community-based concerns.
Both the substance and the style of AIM’s activism have generated controversy since its founding in 1968. In my hometown of Cass Lake on the Leech Lake reservation in northern Minnesota, a 1972 AIM protest over the tribal council’s position on treaty rights met resistance from both Indian and non-Indian residents, who questioned AIM activists’ motivations and challenged their right to speak for local people. The Cass Lake protest and its aftermath raised racial tensions and created social conflicts that still shape reservation politics today, and some locals remain critical of AIM’s long-term impact on the community. Some critics have faulted AIM spokesmen like Clyde Bellecourt and Dennis Banks for creating images of militant Indianness that garnered national media attention but accomplished little of real value for Indian people. Others have criticized some of AIM’s most prominent male leaders for the size of their egos, their treatment of women, their substance abuse, and their criminal records.
Although these are legitimate critiques, the picture they paint is incomplete. Over time, the perpetuation of such a one-dimensional public image—owing in part to the actions of some AIM leaders themselves—has obscured a much more complex historical reality and limited both academic and popular understanding. This book tells a different story: of AIM’s origins and its early activism in the Twin Cities, of the survival schools and their meanings for Indian people, and of the place they hold in Indigenous history.
Seminole historian Susan Miller asserts that “the ultimate purpose of Indigenous historiography is to place Indigenous peoples and communities at the center of historical narratives and to reflect their behavior and motives in terms of their own realities.” I have told this story as much as possible from the perspectives of those who were close to the schools, drawing from the memories of those I was able to talk to and the voices that spoke most clearly from the written records. While I acknowledge other points of view, I do not develop them as thoroughly. Although I have not ignored the conflicts and disappointments present in the schools’ history, overall I have interpreted their story as one of perseverance, creativity, and hope. In the end, my position is a relatively sympathetic one. I did not set out to valorize AIM organizers or survival school founders, any more than I would want to villainize them. But I listened when Clyde Bellecourt told me that they “were not just a bunch of radicals,” that they “were sincere about our children, and our family, and our community.”10
This is not the whole history of the American Indian Movement. AIM people will continue to tell their own story, in speeches and presentations, in interviews with journalists, at conferences, and now through the American Indian Movement Interpretive Center. I would not presume to write their history for them. But I do have what I believe is an important story to tell about the AIM survival schools, one that draws from multiple conversations and extended interactions with AIM organizers and other survival school people. I also have a deep knowledge of American Indigenous history and a broad theoretical perspective gained from comparative analysis of global Indigenous experiences. My perspective also has been shaped by the personal experience of growing up in the part-Indian community of Cass Lake and spending years living in Minneapolis, both places that I love. I have brought all these dimensions of my intellectual and emotional self to the task of researching and writing a history of the survival schools. This book is the result.