The Trail of Broken Treaties Caravan is primarily known as an American Indian Movement (AIM) protest that occurred in 1972. Events such as this were designed to bring attention to the mistreatment and bleak future the First Nations found themselves facing as a result of the colonization process and its after effects. The Native Caravan to Ottawa in 1974 is a Canadian example of a similar type of protest. In her book Slash, Jeannette Armstrong presents the Trail of Broken Treaties Caravan as a tool AIM used in order to increase awareness of Native issues; garnering support and understanding for AIM's philosophy on land and land rights was also an important objective. At the time, the Caravan was viewed as a style of protest that could be far reaching in its influence on the political process and public opinion.
Today, the Trail of Broken Treaties Caravan is known mostly as being organized by AIM. The media focused its attention on AIM because they were much more militant than the other groups involved. In fact, eight Indian organizations were involved in putting together the Caravan; they were, AIM, the National Indian Brotherhood (a Canadian organization), the Native American Rights Fund, the National Indian Youth Council, the National American Indian Council, the National Council on Indian Work, National Indian Leadership Training, and the American Indian Committee on Alcohol and Drug Abuse (Grossman 368). One frequently overlooked fact is the Caravan was not the sole result of AIM's ideas and actions.
In the summer of 1972, activist leaders, including Dennis Banks and Russell Means of AIM, held a meeting in Denver to plan the Caravan. A presidential election was close at hand and Native leaders thought that much media attention and support could be generated by a First Nations caravan from the West Coast to Washington D.C. during the final month of the presidential campaign. The protesters, consisting of several First Nation groups, left the West Coast in October by car, bus and van. In Minneapolis, where many Chippewas joined the caravan, the Twenty Points paper was drawn up (Olson 346). At this point, AIM became the lone voice of the Caravan because it was their leaders that drew up the paper. This paper became essential in helping define why exactly the Trail of Broken Treaties Caravan was taking place and what AIM wanted to accomplish.
The Twenty Points paper sought to revive Native American sovereignty. Essentially, the Twenty Points paper advocated the following: the repeal of the 1871 federal statute that ended treaty making; the restoration of treaty making status to Native governments; the establishment of a commission to review treaty violations; the resubmission of unratified treaties to the Senate; that all Indians be governed by treaty relations; and, the elimination of all state jurisdiction over American Indian affairs (Johansen 326). Even though the government agreed to consider the Twenty Points paper during the occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) offices in Washington, nothing ever came of it. As usual, Native concerns were not taken seriously by the American government. One could say that the Caravan was a futile attempt at persuading the government to alter its position regarding Native rights; however, the Caravan did demonstrate that unity among many of the First Nations was possible.
The Caravan simultaneously generated widespread publicity for Native activism and brought attention to the treatment of Indians in American history. In Slash, the route taken by the main character during the Caravan is the route known as the Trail of Tears. This is the same route taken in 1838 by Tribes in the south-eastern U.S.A. who were marched under military custody from Georgia to Oklahoma in order to make room for white settlers; thousands died on the route (Armstrong 95). By having her character take this route, Armstrong directly links the Trail of Broken Treaties Caravan with a past incident. This is important because the horrendous American legacy of abuse of indigenous peoples should not go unnoticed or be diminished in significance.
In Slash, Armstrong not only portrays the Caravan as an event used to increase awareness of Native issues, but she also presents the Caravan as an event where people from different backgrounds have an opportunity to meet each other and share stories. Tommy, the main character, meets a woman named Elise and discovers they have different reasons for participating in the Caravan. An Okanagan from Canada, Tommy does not yet know much about the treatment of Indians in the United States. He says to Elise, "You know we weren't pushed out of our land into another part of the country that was totally alien like some people here were" (Armstrong 95). Then Tommy and Elise discuss how disease was used to rid the land of Indians in the Okanagan Valley. Elise is in the Caravan to support AIM's agenda; as she says to Tommy, "I'm here to go to the length that's needed to state our case. I support the American Indian Movement for that reason. You are here to learn" (Armstrong 98).
The Caravan marked a strategic shift in AIM's protest agenda. AIM tried to put the focus of this protest on the rural reservations and away from AIM's urban origins, therefore creating a link with the more traditional segments of Native society. The Caravan, in moving from reservation to reservation and gathering ever more people on its way to Washington, was reaching out to many more people than would be possible if the protest was held strictly in one geographic location. However, with the occupation of the BIA offices, the Trail of Broken Treaties Caravan essentially became known by the general populace as an urban incident which took place in Washington (Nagel 168).
When the Trail of Broken Treaties Caravan arrived in Washington, there
was insufficient accommodation for the protesters. During the week of November
3-9, nearly a thousand American Indians reached Washington (Deloria xi).
Whether the lack of accommodation was the result of poor planning by the
organizers of the Caravan or the government reneging on a promise is up
for debate. Either way, many protesters made their way to the BIA offices;
when the security guards tried to eject them, the protesters forcibly took
over the building. This is where the Trail of Broken Treaties Caravan ended.
The Caravan may not have accomplished all of its objectives, however, a
powerful statement concerning the injustice facing the First Nations was
heard across the continent.
Armstrong, Jeannette C. Slash. Penticton: Theytus Books, 1988.
Deloria, Vine, Jr. Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties. An Indian Declaration of Independence. New York: Delacorte Press, 1974.
Grossman, Mark. The Native American Rights Movement. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 1996.
Johansen, Bruce Elliot. Editor. The Encyclopedia of Native American Legal Tradition. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc., 1998.
Nagel, Joane. American Indian Ethnic Renewal. Red Power and the Resurgence of Identity and Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1996.
Olson, James S. Editor. Encyclopedia of American Indian Civil
Rights. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc., 1997.
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