By Larry Long
In 1969, I was involved with a council that made recommendations for funding to the United Way. My main contacts with AIM were Clyde Bellecourt, Eddie Benton-Banai and Pat Bellanger. After the report was completed, we recommended that AIM and the American Indian Center be funded by the United Way, which happened.
When I had submitted the report, I got some pretty naive questions from United Way members. I realized that there was a need to explain to the dominant society what this invisible minority was doing.
What do I do to help? I asked Pat Bellanger. She said, “What do you do?” I told her that I took pictures. “Well, then,” Pat said, “take pictures.” Pat and Vernon Bellecourt were the two who encouraged me to do this.
I came out of World War II with conservative views. But the more concerned you become, the more involved you become. I was on the board of directors of Hallie Q. Brown Neighborhood Center at age 25 and witnessed firsthand the distress when I-94 wiped out Rondo Avenue in the black community. You begin to listen to people who are getting pushed around.
I had been fascinated by the Peace Corps and influenced by President Kennedy’s “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” speech. But in 1966, I was 39 years old with four children. I would have been assigned to an administrative post in the Peace Corps. So I went to East Africa and worked for a church for two years.
When I left the U.S., I supported the war in Vietnam. In Africa I had the luxury to observe the U.S. from a distance. I returned with strong anti-Vietnam War sentiments. It was 1968, a volatile time. I photographed peace marches in Washington, D.C., and New York. The marchers weren’t “effete snob” [per Vice President Spiro Agnew], they were everybody’s neighbors.
They were just people who were fed up, hundreds of thousands of them. The Indian community was not getting any press when I met with them in 1969. I could be a participant and a recorder. I was an Indian advocate who used a camera.
Nixon was president in 1971 when Indian people wanted to achieve an agreement with the federal authorities to use an abandoned building on the Naval Air Station. There’s a clause in most of the contracts that were made with Indians. That is, when property is no longer being used by the federal government, it reverts to the original owner.
AIM acted on this and occupied the building for over a week in hopes of having a survival school there. But military personnel were embarrassed by this takeover without weapons. Dennis Banks and Russell Means were prominent in their leadership roles at the Naval Air Station.
AIM hoped to negotiate with Senator Mondale for this building, but the administrative branch of the U.S. government had a different agenda and sent in federal marshals to retake the building. Before Mondale arrived, tear gas and guns came in at night with the federal marshals from other parts of the country.
Pat Bellanger called me. The occupiers had been taken down to the Federal Courthouse. Before Mondale arrived to negotiate, the AIM men were behind bars and the women at the front door of the courthouse.
Mondale was upset about this. He had wanted to talk, not bust heads. An Indian woman took his hand and put it on the lump on her head where she had been struck by the U.S. marshals. Fritz [Senator Mondale] asked me if this was true. It was.
The administration and the military had taken over. He and I were devastated by the deceit of the government in this action. This was my baptism of fire.
In 1972, the Trail of Broken Treaties took place. This caravan began in the state of Washington and went to Washington, D.C. The size of it doubled in the Twin Cities. Everybody in the caravan had a copy of the position paper.
AIM had been promised 11 churches for housing in D.C. The federal government went to most of the churches and convinced them to not house the Indians. So they went to the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] on Constitution Avenue. There was nowhere else to go.
It was late October; the weather was reasonable. They decided to stay. There was a little fracas, and the security guys left. So we occupied the building which was not a part of the plan but a necessity. During the occupation, 2,000-3,000 people gathered there.
But a planned assault against the occupiers never happened. Nixon didn’t want blood on his hands on the eve of his election. The media was all over it in D.C.
We were there from late October through the presidential election. At the end of the occupation, a team of 10 Indians was chosen to remain in D.C. to negotiate. The others got $66,000 in $100 dollar bills in two attache cases for gas and expense money to go home. At no time was I included in that budget; I paid my own way.
When we vacated the BIA building, motorcycles escorted us out of town. One outfit from St. Paul left in their purple truck stacked with files. They disseminated them to various reservations on their way home.
The reaction of the U.S. government to the issues and the tactics used by AIM at the BIA building changed with the occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973. The government brought out the assault forces, including the army and the FBI.
This assault on Native Americans was in the press worldwide. As a result of the occupation of Wounded Knee, Dennis Banks and Russell Means were tried in the Federal Courthouse in St. Paul in 1974, and their case was thrown out by the judge, primarily because of the misconduct of the FBI.
In 1975, Russell Means, Bill Means and others started the International Indian Treaty Council (IITC), a non-governmental organization. The IITC achieved consultative status to the United Nations. In 1977 and 1981, the Indigenous Nations of the Americas took their issues to the U.N. in Geneva, Switzerland.
In 1981, Clyde and Vernon were invited to Nicaragua by the Sandinistas. I went with them and was made aware that Indian issues in the U.S. were similar to the Indian issue of Latin America. The objective of my work was always to support the work of the Indians. I was drawn in because of the personalities of Dennis, Clyde, Pat and others.
I still work with a heavy camera, a Nikon. The camera has always been my weapon of choice.
My exposure to Native American people for the last 35 years has had a profound effect on my values and quality of life, and for this I am eternally grateful.