'We Are Still Here,' photo history of American Indian Movement

BOSTON (Reuters) - Dick Bancroft has been photographing the American Indian Movement (AIM) since it was founded in the late 1960s by activists with a vision of self-determination and a strategy of confrontation.

Unidentified American Indian youths ride a car adorned with a buffalo skull as the “Longest Walk” approaches Washington in this July 1978 handout photo. REUTERS/Dick Bancroft/Handout via Reuters

“We Are Still Here: A Photographic History of the American Indian Movement,” published earlier this year with text by Native American journalist Laura Waterman Wittstock, is his record of the group’s fight for civil rights.

AIM gained attention with occupations of sites such as a vacant U.S. naval building near Minneapolis and the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, and its campaigning against police harassment.

But the group’s image was marred by violence, including an armed 71-day standoff with U.S. authorities in 1973 at Wounded Knee, South Dakota on the Pine Ridge reservation, and the killings of two FBI agents at Pine Ridge two years later. AIM split into two factions in 1993 as a result of infighting.

AIM is active in job-training, health and housing projects and worked for the adoption in 2007 of a United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.

Over a 20-year period Minnesota-based Bancroft, 86, photographed AIM member Leonard Peltier, whose imprisonment for the FBI killings is protested by Amnesty International.

Bancroft spoke with Reuters about his work with AIM, which began in 1969 when he headed a charity committee in Minnesota that gave it early funding.

Q: How did you get involved with AIM?

A: After they got the money, I then asked them what could I do to help? And they said, ‘What do you do?’ Well, I take pictures, and they said, ‘Well, start taking pictures.’ At the time the native people were of an oral tradition. They didn’t document everything that they did.

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Q: How did you present your pictures?

A: At first I was photographing the peace movement. I was doing a lot of slide shows in schools, and I continued to do that with the Indian slides. I’m fascinated by 15-year-olds. They’re a restless, challenging group. They think they understand unfairness. And the Indian issues in this hemisphere are full of unfairness.

Q: What kind of feedback did you get from AIM?

A: At first there was no feedback, just requests that I go here or there. Right now I’m enjoying the fruits.

Q: How would you describe AIM’s strategy?

A: The strategy was occupation. In the fall of ‘72 they went to Washington with a 20-point position paper. There was no place for us to stay. They only thing they knew was the Bureau of Indian Affairs building. The Indians descended on it and decided to stay there. They wanted a hearing on these 20 points.

It was November. The election took place while we were in the building. (Then-President Richard) Nixon wasn’t all that bad about Indian issues. They were interested in getting the Indians out of Washington. They came over with $6,600 in $100 bills. Every car got a $100 bill, including mine. And then they gave us a motorcycle escort out of town.

Q: It appears that the authorities showed restraint. What changed?

A: Wounded Knee. I was never in Wounded Knee; I couldn’t get in. The tolerance of the federal government toward Indian issues was altered dramatically. From that point on all of the stress situations were met with force. It got rough.

Q: Was your picture of Leonard Peltier from 2000 the last taken of him?

A: As far as I know, yes. Now they won’t let any journalists in.

Q: What has AIM accomplished?

A: You have to see Franklin Avenue (in Minneapolis) and see what’s been accomplished by the vigor of this ‘soft revolution.’ All of that has emanated from the movement’s struggle of the ‘70s, but instead of going out and occupying, they’ve taken it upon themselves to improve the quality of life through normal channels, through education, housing and jobs.

The despair on the reservations across the West is still there. Police are still leaning on Indians but not the way they were. The other aspect of it is the spiritual aspect, returning to the red road. Every time I go to an Indian event there is a spiritual element to it.

Q: What was AIM’s global impact?

A: The declaration passed in 2007 was a result of (AIM) going to the U.N. At least the native people in this part of the world have stood up and demanded to be recognized for their rights. And that’s significant.

Editing by Patricia Reaney and Steve Orlofsky