The Trail of Broken Treaties, 1972

A crowd stands in front of building
American Indian activists occupy the Bureau of Indian Affairs building during the Trail of Broken Treaties demonstration.

Photo by Paul Schmick. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Start Collection.


Inspired by the Civil Rights Movement at home and the Third World Movements abroad, newly empowered and organized Native Americans embarked on a new campaign for Native American Rights in 1972. Called the Trail of Broken Treaties, the demonstration brought caravans of Native American activists from the West Coast to Washington, D.C. to demand redress for years of failed and destructive federal Indian policies. Although the campaign was ultimately overshadowed by the activists’ week-long occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) building and the negative press that resulted, the activists themselves remained steadfast in their objectives. These objectives were outlined in a Twenty-Point Position Paper that established an agenda for the Native American rights struggle in the years to come.

By 1972, years of Native American activism had brought about the end of the disastrous policy of termination. Responding to demands from Native American rights organizations like the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), in 1968 President Lyndon B. Johnson called for Indian “self-determination”—a new federal stance that would end termination and promote equal access to economic opportunity for Native Americans.[1] These reforms continued under Johnson’s successor, President Richard Nixon, who made a number of policy changes and commitments that would officially end termination.[2] But 200 years of federal Indian policy had stripped Native American communities of most of their land, resources, and ability to act as independent nations. Rebuilding those communities required not only the end of termination, but also a reversal of the most destructive policies and recognition of the Native American rights guaranteed to the various tribes by treaties with the federal government.

Coalitions and Confrontations

The Trail of Broken Treaties was the product of years of grassroots organizing among Native American activists. Organizations like the National Indian Youth Council (NIYC), which had played a key role in the Poor People’s Campaign, and the Survival of American Indians Association (SAIA) drew upon the direct action tactics of the Civil Rights Movement to advocate for Indian rights. In 1964 SAIA, led by Hank Adams, began organizing “fish-ins” after the state of Washington refused to recognize the treaty-protected right of Pacific Northwest tribes to fish in ancestral waters. The state of Washington had imposed restrictions on the amount and type of fishing that could take place in its waters. But Pacific Northwest tribes, for whom fishing was a vital economic activity, argued that these restrictions were a violation of their treaty rights.

Consciously modeled on the sit-ins in the American South, the fish-ins triggered a wave of resistance across the Northwest and the nation. In acts of civil disobedience across Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, Native people began fishing and hunting to assert their own treaty-protected rights. Conflicts over Indian land rights, tribal sovereignty, and self-determination unfolded across the country, inspiring a new generation of American Indian activists who adopted confrontational tactics first brought to the attention of the American public through the Civil Rights Movement: sit-ins, occupations, and direct action. As Standing Rock Sioux activist and historian Vine Deloria, Jr. explained, “The increased militancy of Indians began to spread across the country as people heard about the fishing-rights issue. Indians began to examine the conditions under which they lived, and they soon seethed with discontent and a new determination to correct the injustices.”[3] But this was more than an extension of the Civil Rights Movement. The era of “Red Power” had begun.

The formation of the American Indian Movement (AIM) in July 1968 and the nineteen-month occupation of Alcatraz by a group of American Indian activists calling itself the Indians of All Tribes beginning in November 1969 hailed the arrival of Red Power. Dennis Banks and Clyde Bellecourt organized the American Indian Movement in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1968, with the immediate goal of addressing the various socio-economic issues faced by urban Indians: housing, education, employment, and police violence. But they quickly became interested in federal Indian policy as they recognized that policy as the root of Indian issues. The takeover of Alcatraz the following year mobilized Native Americans across the country, and influenced the direction of AIM’s work. Increasingly, AIM and other Native activists focused on mobilizing Native Americans across the country to protest federal Indian policy through a series of direct-action demonstrations called “confrontation politics.”

The new movement for Native American rights gave Indians more power in their dealings with the federal government. For most of American history, tribal governments tended to deal with the government on a one-to-one basis. Now, acting in solidarity with other tribes, Indians gained strength in numbers. The new direct-action tactics, moreover, brought Native American issues to the center of American politics. As Clyde Bellecourt explained years later, “Native people saw that confrontation politics was the only way we could get things done. We had to take control, occupy, and fight-whatever it took to bring our grievances to the forefront.”[4] No longer would Native issues be pushed to the margins.

On the Trail

Galvanized by the Alcatraz occupation and the growing movement across the nation, the American Indian Movement mobilized to bring confrontation politics to the nation’s capital. Hank Adams, together with Dennis Banks and Russell Means of AIM, assembled eight Native organizations, including AIM, the Indians of All Tribes, the National Indian Youth Council, and others to bring their grievances directly to the government in the Trail of Broken Treaties.

The plan called for a cross-country caravans of thousands of Native Americans bound for D.C. The caravan was meant to generate publicity that would draw Americans’ attention to the government’s failure to uphold its treaty obligations. At the journey’s end, the demonstrators planned to bring their demands directly to government officials in the BIA and the White House. Timed to arrive in Washington the week of the 1972 presidential election, the intention was to place American Indian issues at the center of political debate and obtain a commitment from both candidates to honor Indigenous sovereignty.[5]

On October 6, 1972, three caravans departed from Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles. A fourth caravan later departed from Oklahoma, symbolically retracing the Trail of Tears. Along the way, the caravans passed through several Indian Reservations, where they held ceremonial demonstrations, workshops, and listening sessions, taking note of the specific grievances faced by the different communities they visited. As the caravans wound their way eastward and listened to the struggles faced by Native communities, participants gained a broad perspective on the extent of discontent in Indian country that would guide the movement in the coming years.

Before their arrival in Washington, D.C., the original three caravans met in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where they drafted a document that laid out their specific objectives to the federal government. Known as the Twenty-Points Position Paper, it distilled their analysis of Native American issues into a list of twenty demands, and proposed a new framework for the relationship between Indian tribes and the federal government.[7] Among other things, it called for a restoration of the treaty-making process, the legal recognition of existing treaties, the return of 110 million acres of land to indigenous communities, the repeal of the termination laws and restoration of terminated tribes, and the protection of religious freedom. It also called for attention to crises in health, housing, and education in both rural and urban Indian communities.[8]

The overriding objective of the Twenty Points was the recognition of Native American Sovereignty and the restoration and enforcement of Indigenous rights, as guaranteed by treaties. This powerful document not only served as a guide in the Native American rights movement to come, but also was later presented to the United Nations and formed the basis of the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.[9] But in the fall of 1972, the objectives laid out in the Twenty Points plan were overshadowed by the events that unfolded after the caravan’s arrival in Washington.

The Occupation of the BIA

The ambitions of the Trail’s organizers began unraveling almost immediately upon the caravan’s arrival in Washington, D.C. on November 2, 1972. The organizers had planned meetings with several government officials and hoped to deliver the Twenty Points proposal directly to President Nixon. But upon their arrival, they learned that Nixon was out of town. Scheduled meetings with officials at the Department of Interior, the Department of Labor, and the Department of Commerce were canceled without notice. Adding insult to injury, the National Park Service denied AIM’s request to hold a ceremony at Arlington Ridge Park, where Pima Indian Ira Hayes is memorialized in the United States Marine Corps War Memorial. Among the demonstrators were many who had fought for the United States in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.[10]

Though the participants could only suspect it at the time, later investigations would reveal that individuals within the BIA had been actively working against the movement. Typically, when Indian delegations came to Washington, the BIA assisted them with logistical matters such as locating housing and scheduling meetings with officials. But shortly after the caravans departed in October, the Assistant Secretary of the Interior prohibited the BIA from extending any assistance to the caravan.[11] Frustrated at every turn, tensions continued to build when organizers discovered their accommodations in the basement of a rat-infested church to be woefully insufficient. The demonstrators went to the BIA, seeking assistance in obtaining better lodging. When the BIA denied them assistance, tensions boiled over, initiating a week-long occupation of the BIA building.[12]

On November 2, roughly 500 Native American demonstrators initiated a sit-in at the Bureau of Indian Affairs building. With more demonstrators continuing to arrive from around the country, that number quickly grew to more than 1,000. Department of Interior officials had asked the D.C. police to evict the squatters at 5:00 p.m., and when they arrived to evict the demonstrators, they touched off a violent skirmish at the building’s entrance. The demonstrators acted quickly to barricade the doors with furniture. After negotiations with a White House aide failed, the demonstrators unfurled a banner that read “NATIVE AMERICAN EMBASSY.” The occupation had begun.[13]

Over the following week, the demonstrators continued to barricade themselves within the BIA, prepared to defend the building with Molotov cocktails and weapons fashioned out of furniture. In the midst of the occupation, demonstrators went through hundreds of boxes of BIA documents, which participants say proved the mismanagement and outright theft of money and other resources from Native Americans that were supposed to have been held in trust by the government.[14]

Despite the damning evidence gathered by the demonstrators, the occupation backfired, at least in the immediate aftermath. The press fixated on damages to the BIA building, showing images of broken furniture and spray-painted walls. The press largely overlooked the Twenty Points, which articulated the demonstrators’ reason for being there. To bring a peaceful end to the siege, the Nixon administration made a deal with the caravan leadership that provided the participants immunity from prosecution and roughly $66,500 in travel expenses to return the demonstrators to their homes. The administration also established a task force to consider the Twenty Points, but the task force eventually rejected the demands.

"One Hell of a Smoke Signal"

Although the Trail of Broken Treaties did not accomplish all that its organizers had hoped, it would be a mistake to call the demonstration a failure. Though Nixon’s task force initially rejected the demands set forth in the Twenty Points, many of these objectives were later incorporated into American Indian policy in the coming years, setting a new course for self-determination and tribal recognition, a reversal of the disastrous policies of the past.

The Trail of Broken Treaties also marked a new beginning for Native peoples for whom Washington, D.C. was their ancestral homeland. Prior to the Trail’s arrival in November of 1972, an advance party went to the capital to set up an AIM office and prepare for the caravans’ arrival. It was then that Billy Tayac, a Piscataway salesman, first encountered the American Indian Movement. The Piscataway peoples had long since ceased to live as a people, as European and American colonization in the 17th and 18th century had disrupted and dispersed tribal organizations. But many Piscataway families had persisted in the region, bearing their traditions through the generations. Among these was Billy Tayac’s father, Turkey Tayac. Inspired by the movement unfolding at his doorstep, the younger Tayac soon became involved in the AIM Resurrection Project, which organized the remnant communities of peoples and local tribes along the East Coast. In 1974, Billy Tayac was instrumental in the Piscataway Resurrection.[15]

For AIM organizer Dennis Banks, the Trail of Broken Treaties and the takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs had been a victory. It established new solidarity among tribes across the country, bringing Native Americans together in numbers more powerful than ever. “For the first time ever,” he wrote, “members of some two hundred tribes had acted together for a common cause. I was proud to have been a part of this. If nothing else, we had sent up one hell of a smoke signal.”[16]

[1] Alysa Landry, “Lyndon B. Johnson: Indians are ‘Forgotten Americans,” Indian Country Today, 13 September 2018, accessed 20 March 2022.

[2] Landry, “Richard M. Nixon, ‘Self-Determination Without Termination,” Indian Country Today, 13, September 2018, accessed 20 March 2022.

[3] Vine Deloria, Jr., Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties: An Indian Declaration of Independence (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1974), 27.

[4] Clyde Bellecourt, The Thunder Before the Storm: The Autobiography of Clyde Bellecourt (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2016), 94.

[5] Nick Estes, Our History is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance (New York: Verso, 2019), 183; Kent Blansett, A Journey to Freedom: Richard Oakes, Alcatraz, and the Red Power Movement (New Haven: Yale University Press), 250.

[7] Deloria, Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties, 48

[8] Say We Are Nations, 160.

[9] Estes, Our History is the Future, 183.

[10] Steve Hendricks, The Unquiet Grave: The FBI and the Struggle for the Soul of Indian Country (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2006), 38.

[11] Hendricks, The Unquiet Grave, 38; Deloria, Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties, 47.

[12] Bellecourt, The Thunder Before the Storm, 119.

[13] Hendricks, The Unquiet Grave, 38-39; Bellecourt, The Thunder Before the Storm, 119-120.

[14] Bellecourt, The Thunder Before the Storm, 126.

[15] Gabrielle Tayac, “Spirits in the River: A Report on the Piscataway People,” Smithsonian Libraries and Archives, 1999, 56-57.

[16] Dennis Banks and Richard Erdoes, Ojibwa Warrior: Dennis Banks and the Rise of the American Indian Movement (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004), 144.

Part of a series of articles titled The Struggle for Sovereignty: American Indian Activism in the Nation’s Capital, 1968-1978.

Last updated: June 26, 2024