Native Americans Take Over Bureau of Indian Affairs: 1972

26 Mar

By Bob Simpson
From The Montgomery Spark, November 29, 1972. page 13 & page 14

Trail of Broken Treaties Participant: 1972

Sign of distress by unidentified Trail of Broken Treaties protester. From the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

The takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs [BIA] by militant Native Americans in early November [1972] began almost by accident.

Leaders of the Trail of Broken Treaties were negotiating with the Interior Department over the question of housing. Suddenly fighting broke out between several GSA security guards and a group of young Indians.

Apparently the guards misunderstood that the BIA had given the Indians permission to stay in the building past closing time. The guards were quickly overpowered and escorted from the building. Indians ran through the BIA building at 19th & Constitution breaking up furniture to barricade entrances and manufacture makeshift weapons. The occupation was on.

Trail of Broken Treaties Press Conference: 1972

Before the takeover. From the D.C. Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Trail Required Concerted Effort

The Trail of Broken Treaties had originally come to Washington as a concerted effort by militant Native Americans from across the continent. Numbering well over 1,000, they had to negotiate over a series of 20 demands.

These demands involved the abolition of the BIA, whose paternalism and corruption is infamous, plus a whole series of reforms leading to greater self-determination for Indian people. Both urban and reservation Indians had joined the protest. Discriminated against in jobs, their land ripped off by greedy whites, water rights threatened, possessing a terrible infant mortality and T.B. rate, the Indians of over 250 tribes were represented.

Rumors of Police Violence

When the Indians seized the building Nov. 2, the government began a series of complex legal maneuvers to force the Indians out. A deadline was set for the night of Nov. 3. Rumors of impending police violence led the Indian leadership to put out a call for support.

Prepared for the Worst at the Bureau of Indian Affairs: 1972

One Native American is prepared for the worst. From the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Groups began to appear outside the BIA with food, supplies and political support. On the night of Nov. 3, several hundred non-Indians formed a line of bodies to interfere with the expected police assault. Confronted with hundreds of armed Indians plus their supporters, the government backed down. The waiting game was on.

From the beginning the government game was clear, keep the occupiers in a constant state of doubt and suspense to wear down their morale.

Deadlines Repeatedly Postponed

With the election on Nov. 7, the Nixon administration could not afford a massacre until after this date. So they kept setting shifting, fluid deadlines. They sent dozens of undercover agents to spy on the occupation force.

Army buses would ride by and ominously park in front of the building. Pig cars would race around the block. From across the street, cops would stand and photograph demonstrators. This type of harassment failed to break the spirit of the fighters.

Housekeeping During the BIA Occupation: 1972

Protesters set up basic services during the occupation. From the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

A relatively efficient system of organization was set up. Armed Indian security ringed the building. Child-care was set up. A paramedical team from the University of Maryland contributed themselves and their resources. Food distribution was organized.

Tribal ceremonies were held and large council meetings of all the occupiers kept people informed and allowed for democratic decision-making. Communication was set up with support groups.

Native Americans Take Over BIA in DC: 1972

The occupation on Nov. 5, 1972. From the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Tensest Moments

The tensest moments of the occupation occurred on Monday, Nov. 6. The judge had given an order that the Native Americans must vacate the building by 6 p.m. or face forcible eviction. A large force of GSA [General Services Administration] and Civil Disturbance Unit riot police were quartered about a block away.

Tension mounted Monday afternoon as the Indians broke down into teams of four and established military perimeters. Armed with clubs, knives and spears they passed out rags to cover their mouths against the expected tear gas. Inside the building itself, firebombs and other more potent weapons were prepared. Some Indians barricaded inside reportedly had guns. People broke up pieces of iron grating for missiles and Indians on the roof prepared to rain down destruction upon the expected invaders.

Molotov Cocktail in BIA After Native Americans Leave: 1972

At the BIA. From the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

As the deadline approached, Indian leaders spoke on the steps of the BIA. Russell Means spoke of the telegrams of support they had received from the Irish Republican Army and the Black Panther Party.

He spoke of the occupation of the BIA office in Seattle, Washington. Indians had seized the Indian Affairs office in Ottawa, Canada and had all their demands met. The Canadian police had refused to march on the occupation force. Means reminded those present that the mostly black GSA riot squad was using one oppressed group to smash another.

Plead for No More Massacres

After the Civil War, Freedmen had been used in all black cavalry regiments in the Indian wars of the west. They had a reputation for brutality and harshness. Means pleaded for the black riot police not to follow in the infamous footsteps of their post-civil-war predecessors and aid in the smashing of Native American aspirations.

He asked all non-Indians to stand in solidarity, comparing the anticipated massacre at Washington, D.C. with American actions like the massacre of Vietnamese at My Lai, and the slaughtering of Indians by the 19th Century cavalry at Wounded Knee and Sand Creek.

Native Americans Vow to Fight

The Indians had come to Washington in peace, but had been given the prospect of war. They were ready. Many of the young warriors had daubed on war paint, signifying that they had taken vows to fight until death.

Had the government decided to attack, much death and injury would have resulted. The 6 p.m. deadline came and went. Soon the word was out that the judge had extended it until Wednesday, Nov. 8. There was much rejoicing as once again the government had backed down.

Documents Liberated from BIA Commissioner’s Safe: 1972

Documents were taken from BIA commissioner’s safe. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

On Election Day the leadership held several press conferences. It was announced at the first press conference that many records had been removed in order to expose the record of corruption and scandal within the BIA. It was revealed that massive corruption was involved in the building dams on Seneca land in upstate New York, and that Senator Mike Mansfield was involved in shady real estate dealings in his hometown in Oklahoma. It was stated that the files would be kept in secret hiding places until Native American lawyers could untangle them and expose their content.

Indian leader Russell Means explained that people would begin leaving but that an occupation force would remain the building until the Wednesday deadline. He announced that the BIA was effectively abolished. Prosecution for activities was expected, but [he said] that they would meet this bravely.

DC Police Spy Captured

Later on in the day, a metropolitan police detective was captured while spying in the building. After being chased, captured, and knocked around a little bit, he was taken back inside the building for questioning.

Bill Cross at Trail of Broken Treaties Demonstration: 1970

Bill Cross of the Dakotas, a participant during the protest. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post

Indians called on his police band walkie-talkie and the cops at headquarters freaked. He was brought outside in his own handcuffs and forced through a humiliating press conference. He said his name was Roger O’Day of Criminal Investigation but pleaded ignorance to other questions. He was eventually turned over to his superiors.

By late Tuesday afternoon, it was clear that a settlement was in the offing. The Indians were demanding a twelve person commission be set up with seven of their leaders and five top Nixon aides. This commission would work to implement the 20 demands.

Settlement Reached

On Wednesday, Nov. 8, a settlement was reached. As a task force was set up to deal with the demands, amnesty for the occupiers was agreed upon. As the Indians left, they took with them many paintings and artifacts. Police made no attempt to stop them.

Marilyn Nuttle at Trail of Broken Treaties in DC: 1972

Marilyn Nuttle of the Pawnee during protests. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Although they left the building interior totally destroyed, it was not set afire or blown up as had been threatened. Although over $2 million damage was done, these acts of destruction were nothing compared to the destruction that whites have wreaked upon the Indian people.

Before you join the ranks of those condemning this action, think who was it who stole the Indians’ land, ravaged it, despoiled it, polluted it, and put up fences and ugly stinking cities. The real criminals are where they have always been in the highest corporation and government offices in this land. If there is to be prosecution, let the real criminals go on trial.

US Betrayal on Amnesty
[Originally published as a sidebar]

Although representatives of Nixon signed an agreement with Native Americans occupying the bureau of Indian Affairs recommending against prosecution, the government has decided to go ahead and begin indictment proceedings.

This means the White House has broken yet another treaty with the Indians. A White House spokesperson claimed the amnesty agreement did not mean that the government couldn’t prosecute the Indians for stolen property and destruction of the building.

Total damage to the building was estimated by the government at over $2 million. The government said damage was the third heaviest ever to government buildings, surpassed only by the burning of Washington by the British in 1814 and the destruction of government buildings in the San Francisco earthquake in 1906.


Floyd Young Horse at Trail of Broken Treaties in DC: 1972

Floyd Young Horse, a participant at the Trail of Broken Treaties. From the DC Public LIbrary Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Postscript: March, 2013

The Trail of Broken Treaties was originally proposed by Robert Burnette during a Sun Dance ceremony in South Dakota. Burnette was a former tribal chair of the Rosebud Indian Reservation. Others at the ceremony agreed that a demonstration in Washington was needed because of numerous treaty violations and widespread poverty among Indian people.

A dozen Indian organizations eventually signed on to the caravan idea including the American Indian Movement (AIM). When the caravan reached Minneapolis, the coalition drew up a 20 point document, mostly written by Hank Adams, a longtime fishing rights activist in the Pacific Northwest.

Central to the 20 points was that Indian people were members of sovereign nations and should be negotiated with on that basis. When the caravan arrived in Washington DC, there was a major communications breakdown between the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the caravan members, resulting in the takeover of the BIA building. AIM then assumed a dominant role in the leadership of the Trail of Broken Treaties.

At the Trail of Broken Treaties in DC: 1972

Unidentified participant in the Trail of Broken Treaties. From the DC Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

AIM’s role in the BIA takeover as well the armed occupation of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1973, put it directly in the crosshairs of federal COINTELPRO-type repression.

AIM supporters on the Pine Ridge Reservation were assassinated by mysterious death squads widely believed to be linked to the FBI. AIM was infiltrated by informants who spread rumors that various leaders were actually working for the FBI, leading to divisions and violence within the group.

The mayhem on the Pine Ridge reservation led to the shooting of two FBI agents under murky circumstances. AIM member Leonard Peltier is serving 2 life sentences for the killings even though the evidence against him was contradictory. Two other AIM members indicted for the killings were found not guilty. There has been considerable international pressure to free Leonard Peltier.

AIM survived in a weakened state and eventually split into two different AIM organizations, one headquartered in Minneapolis and the other in Denver. Both continue to be active today.

As for the 20 points originally raised by the Trail of Broken Treaties, most still remain unaddressed.


Robert “Bob” Simpson is a former University of Maryland and Washington, DC area social justice activist who moved to Chicago, Illinois in the mid-1970s. He is one half of the Carol Simpson labor cartoon team. Bob remains active in greater Chicago and is a regular contributor to the Daily Kos, Counter Punch and has his own blog The Bobbosphere.


See the Trail of Broken Treaties photos in larger sizes and with more description at the Washington Area Spark Flickr set: BIA Takeover 1972


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3 Responses to “Native Americans Take Over Bureau of Indian Affairs: 1972”

  1. michael February 18, 2016 at 10:20 pm #

    Remember it well, one of the first events to spark my interest in Native Americans, and of course my invovlement in the anti war movement.

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