In the decades since AIM's founding, the group has led protests advocating Indigenous American interests, inspired cultural renewal, monitored police activities and coordinated employment programs in cities and in rural reservation communities across the United States. AIM has often supported other indigenous interests outside the United States, as well.
Founders of AIM, according to Peter Matthiessen's book In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, include Dennis Banks; Clyde Bellecourt, who directs the Peace Maker Center in Minneapolis and administers U.S. Department of Labor job-development services; Eddie Benton-Benai, author and school administrator for the Red School House in Minneapolis and at Lac Courte Oreilles, Wisconsin; and Russell Means, who has worked as an actor and remains politically active, running for Governor of New Mexico and for president of the Oglala Sioux nation in 2002. Another well-known AIM member is Leonard Peltier, who is currently serving a prison term for his conviction in the murder of two FBI agents at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1975.
AIM's original mission included protecting indigenous people from police abuse, using CB radios and police scanners to get to the scenes of alleged crimes involving indigenous people before or as police arrived, for the purpose of documenting or preventing police brutality.
They also played a role in the women's movement by helping Betty Friedan to found NOW (National Organization for Women)
The seizure of the Mayflower replica on Thanksgiving Day in 1970 during ceremonies commemorating the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrim’s landing at Plymouth Rock, the occupation of Mount Rushmore in 1971, the Trail of Broken Treaties march and takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C. in 1972, AIM’s occupation of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge reservation in 1973, the Longest Walk in 1978, and other events during the 1970s were designed to achieve this effect. All of these events were undertaken to ensure AIM would be noticed in order to highlight its belief that the rights of Indian people had eroded.
In view of the nature of its more provocative advocacy for Indian rights and the experience of other minority groups during the civil rights era, AIM encountered a similar reaction from the government. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) used paid informants to report on AIM’s activities and its members. Local authorities and the FBI were also not averse to using violence against AIM or its members.
Although commonly associated with the American Indian Movement, the Alcatraz Island occupation of 1969 was actually organized by a loose confederation of Indian groups called the "Indians of All Tribes." While the nascent AIM's role in the occupation was at most minimal, this event should be understood as a catalyst to AIM's rapid growth and development.
The U.S. Government held that the American Indian Movement was an "extremist" organization, because of "illegal bombing, bomb-making, or other terrorist activity." AIM members are alleged to have bombed the visitor's center at Mount Rushmore on June 27, 1975, and to have planted additional bombs at power plants around the Pine Ridge reservation that same year.
The 1973 stand-off centered around AIM's allegations of federal and tribal police brutality on the Pine Ridge Reservation and allegations of brutality by a tribal group affiliated with the tribe's government Guardians Of the Oglala Nation (GOONS).
On June 26, 1975, a gun battle between AIM members and FBI agents resulted in the shooting deaths of Joseph Stuntz and two FBI agents, Jack Coler and Ronald Williams. Leonard Peltier was eventually convicted of the agents' deaths. Many AIM activists claim that the AIM members who shot at the FBI agents were engaged in self-defense, and thus the killing was not a murder. Indeed, two of Peltier's co-defendants in the murder case were acquitted on grounds of self-defense in a separate trial. Peltier's critics, on the other hand, point out that both of the agents were shot and killed at close range after being wounded, one of them with his hands up. This killing and the subsequent conviction of Peltier have been major bones of contention between activists and FBI agents.
US Court of Appeals Judge Gerald Heaney concluded that "Native Americans" were partially culpable for the 1975 firefight in which Stuntz, Coler and Williams died, but that the federal government had "overreacted" during and after the 1973 Wounded Knee stand-off. Heaney said that overreaction created a climate of terror that led to the fatal shoot-out.
As of 2007, the Sioux nations have yet to accept a settlement they were offered in compensation for the Black Hills. Since 1973, several AIM-affiliated groups have set up camp at the Black Hills to resist what they see as an arbitrary settlement.
AIM maintained that Wounded Knee residents had invited their assistance in 1973 to defend their homes against official and vigilante attacks, but that the FBI then surrounded them, effectively holding the AIM members hostage. Many Wounded Knee residents dispute this, and say that the AIM occupation led to the destruction of their community and homes. Several trials of AIM members resulted from the confrontation, which resulted in some court-room brawls with U.S. Marshals, but few AIM members were convicted for their roles in the standoff.
Attorney Larry Levanthal, who served as counsel for AIM said, "The courts found that there was illegal use of the military, illegal wiretapping, false testimony, bribing of witnesses, covering up of crimes, subornation of perjury, deception of the counsel and deception of the courts."
AIM has been the subject of much controversy, some of it centering around the 1977 trial of Leonard Peltier, the AIM member convicted of the 1975 Pine Ridge murders of two FBI agents. Some activists doubt that he was responsible for these killings, and Amnesty International, among dozens of others throughout the world, has called for his release. Other activists say the murders occurred in a war-like environment, and that Peltier's role in the killings should be viewed in that context.
Another famous AIM member was Anna Mae Pictou-Aquash, for whose 1976 murder two other 1970s AIM affiliates, John Graham and Arlo Looking Cloud, were indicted in 2003. Looking Cloud was eventually convicted. Graham was extradited from Canada to the US in December 2007. His trial is scheduled for June, 2008. In the decades before the indictments, some activists alleged that the FBI played a part or covered up her murder. In his book, American Indian Mafia, Former FBI Agent Joseph H. Trimbach alleges that several of the original activists were themselves involved as co-conspirators. Folk singer Larry Long detailed the anti-FBI allegations in a song titled Anna Mae (re-released on Run For Freedom/Sweet Thunder, Flying Fish, 1997). Singer-songwriter Buffy Saint-Marie wrote Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, referencing both Peltier and Pictou-Aquash. The song was recorded by the Indigo Girls for the 1200 Curfews album.
AIM has been committed to improving the conditions that face Native peoples. AIM has founded institutions to address those needs including the Heart of The Earth School, Little Earth Housing, International Indian Treaty Council, AIM StreetMedics, American Indian Opportunities and Industrialization Center (one of the largest Indian job training programs), KILI radio, and Indian Legal Rights Centers.
During the Sandinista/Indian conflict in Nicaragua of the mid-1980s, Russell Means sided with Miskito Indians opposing the Sandinista government due to allegations of forced relocations of as many as 8,500 Miskito. Predictably, this stance damaged some of AIM's support from many White dominated left wing organizations in the U.S., who opposed Contra activities and supported the Sandinista movement. Contra activities included insurgent recruitment among Nicaraguan Indian groups including some Miskitos. Means' position recognized the difference between opposition to the Sandinista government by the Miskito, Sumo, and Rama on one hand, and the Reagan administration's support of the Contras, who were dedicated to the overthrow of the Sandinista regime.
More recently, Banks and the Bellecourts have rallied in support of John Graham and Arlo Looking Cloud, who were indicted in 2003 for the 1976 murder of Anna Mae Pictou-Aquash. Means and other AIM affiliates believe that those who ordered Aquash's murder, even if they are AIM leaders, should be held accountable. Means argues that Looking Cloud's conviction has made Looking Cloud a scapegoat for those who actually ordered Aquash's murder. Each of the current AIM factions accuses the other of complicity in Aquash's murder.
Many AIM chapters remain committed to confronting the government and corporate forces that seek to marginalize indigenous peoples. Some of these activities included challenging the ideological foundations of anti-indigenous policies, which they believe are exemplified in national holidays such as Columbus Day and Thanksgiving. AIM argues that Thanksgiving should be a National Day of Mourning, and protests the continuing theft of indigenous peoples' territories and natural resources.
In 2004 AIM held protests against the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial, and even threatened to blow up the keel boat of the nationally recognized re-enactment group .
In December 2007, a delegation of Lakota Sioux, including Russell Means, delivered to the U.S. State Department a declaration of secession from the United States to the U.S. State Department. Citing many broken treaties by the U.S. government in the past, and the loss of vast amounts of territory originally awarded in those treaties, the group announced its intentions to form a separate nation within the U.S. known as the Republic of Lakotah.
The split was formalized when the latter group issued its "Edgewood Declaration" in 1993, citing organizational grievances and authoritarian leadership by the Bellecourts. However, ideological differences seem to have simmered for a long time, with the Grand Governing Council (GGC) presenting a spiritual, albeit more mainstream, approach to activism. The GGC tends toward a more centralized, controlled political philosophy. The autonomous chapters argue that AIM has always been organized as a series of decentralized, autonomous chapters, with local leadership that is accountable to local constituencies. The autonomous chapters reject the assertions of central control by the Minneapolis group as contrary both to indigenous political traditions, and to the original philosophy of AIM.