Trail of Broken Treaties Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

American Indians took over the offices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs to protest U.S. government treaty policies. The crisis ended after six days, but nothing had been resolved.

Summary of Event

Against the backdrop of political activism in 1969, the rise of “red power” began with the occupation of Alcatraz Island, which became a symbol of American Indian unity. New tribal alliances were formed around a common purpose: to bring attention to continuing failures in the bureaucratic administration of American Indian affairs. During the summer gathering at Rosebud Sioux Reservation, residents and members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) began plans for a caravan to Washington, D.C., just prior to election day. Trail of Broken Treaties American Indian Movement Native Americans;activism Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S. [kw]Trail of Broken Treaties (Oct. 6-Nov. 8, 1972) [kw]Broken Treaties, Trail of (Oct. 6-Nov. 8, 1972) [kw]Treaties, Trail of Broken (Oct. 6-Nov. 8, 1972) Trail of Broken Treaties American Indian Movement Native Americans;activism Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S. [g]North America;Oct. 6-Nov. 8, 1972: Trail of Broken Treaties[00900] [g]United States;Oct. 6-Nov. 8, 1972: Trail of Broken Treaties[00900] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Oct. 6-Nov. 8, 1972: Trail of Broken Treaties[00900] [c]Indigenous peoples’ rights;Oct. 6-Nov. 8, 1972: Trail of Broken Treaties[00900] Adams, Hank Banks, Dennis Bruce, Louis R. Camp, Carter Carlucci, Frank C. Garment, Leonard Loesch, Harrison Means, Russell Morton, Rogers Patterson, Bradley Peltier, Leonard Pratt, John Ware, Ralph

Eight American Indian organizations planned the event, known as the Trail of Broken Treaties or the Trail of Broken Treaties Caravan, and four national groups endorsed its concept. The new alliance included tribes from Canada and Latin America. Planning for the possibility of 150,000 participants, cochairs Reuben Snake, Snake, Reuben a Winnebago, and Robert Burnette, Burnette, Robert a Lakota, organized eleven committees, including media, medical, congressional contact, emergency legal needs, and participant accreditation.

The spiritual foundation of the caravan was declared in a public statement inviting “all Indians, spiritual leaders of the Western Hemisphere, and Indian interest groups to participate,” but excluding all persons who would “cause civil disorder, block traffic, burn flags, destroy property, or shout obscenities in the street. . . . Each trail would be led by spiritual leaders who carried the Sacred Peace Pipe and Drum . . . and every pipe smoked was to remind America of the manner in which the treaties were signed.” Burnette emphasized the serious purpose of the caravan: “We should be on our finest behavior . . . ban all alcohol and drugs, with expulsions guaranteed to violators. The Caravan must be our finest hour.”

Native American activists occupy the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington, D.C., on November 8, 1972, during the Trail of Broken Treaties march.

(Library of Congress)

Departing for Washington, D.C., on October 6, 1972, caravans passed through historic sites, stopping to offer prayer. Requests had been made for a police escort into Washington, adequate housing, permission to conduct honoring ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery, and formal presentation to the presidential administration of the Twenty Points, a document that covered requests for treaty reform, Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) reform, new land policies, improved cultural and economic conditions, and criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians on reservations.

Even as the caravan traveled, obstructions were being planned in Washington, D.C. In a memorandum to BIA commissioner Louis R. Bruce, dated October 11, Harrison Loesch of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) stated, “This is to give you very specific instructions that the Bureau is not to provide any assistance or funding, either directly or indirectly” to the AIM demonstration in early November.

The caravan of the first five hundred participants arrived in Washington, D.C., at 4:00 a.m. on November 2. Denied the official recognition of a police escort, they proceeded through downtown, blowing horns and stopping traffic. At 6:00 a.m., they paused in front of the White House to drum and sing a victory song, after which their police escort arrived. The early caravanners faced more barriers when the U.S. Army denied permission for ceremonies at Arlington and the housing arrangements that had been made included a building full of rats. Caravanners then headed for their only home—the BIA—where they were permitted to await accommodations.

With no solution by afternoon, confusion and hostility escalated. When the building’s guards changed shifts at 4:00 p.m., the new guards were unaware of the earlier shift’s agreement to allow the caravanners to wait, and in trying to clear the area, they began to remove the American Indians forcibly, attacking several with clubs. The misunderstanding escalated into panic as the injured protesters alerted others of impending attacks. Riot police surrounded the building while protesters inside barricaded doorways with desks and chairs. The protesters broke off table legs for clubs and stacked typewriters upstairs to drop out the windows on intruders. The Twenty Points and the significant spiritual purpose of the caravan were disregarded in the conflict over housing and food.

The likelihood of the protesters’ gaining public support for their cause was hindered by the news media attention to the unplanned takeover. Still, the presentation of the Twenty Points was attempted. Appeals for help were telegraphed to the United Nations and the Vatican, as negotiations with government officials were delayed or postponed daily.

During the six-day occupation, the BIA offices were ransacked, American Indian artifacts were taken, files were seized, and much damage was done to the building. AIM leaders claimed that federal agents had infiltrated the occupation and had done much of the damage. Some American Indians who had occupied the building and went on official tours of the site weeks later asserted that there was extensive damage in rooms where they were certain there had been no damage before. Slogans, names, and addresses covered walls where there had been no marks at the time of their departure.

The protesting Native Americans received unexpected support from several people during the occupation. Presidential candidate Dr. Benjamin Spock Spock, Benjamin and African American activist Stokely Carmichael Carmichael, Stokely appeared at the scene. Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm Chisholm, Shirley telegraphed support, and Judge John Pratt delayed holding a show-cause hearing demanded by the federal government to determine if the protesters were in contempt of his order to leave the building. LaDonna Harris, a Comanche and wife of Oklahoma senator Fred Harris, and Louis Bruce stayed the first night in the BIA building; as a result of his support for the cause, Bruce was suspended from his post as BIA commissioner.

The protest ended on November 8. After several attempts at getting a response from White House officials and a series of court actions, demonstrators agreed to leave the BIA building. On behalf of the White House, Leonard Garment (White House minority affairs adviser), Frank C. Carlucci (director of the Office of Management and Budget), and Bradley Patterson (Garment’s assistant) signed documents granting immunity to the protesters, funding their transportation home, and committing to respond to the Twenty Points within sixty days.


The number of participants in the Trail of Broken Treaties was estimated to have been five thousand. Although Secretary of the Interior Rogers Morton asserted that they were mostly urban activists, more than 80 percent of those who had made the journey were traditional reservation Indians. Among the elders were Frank Fools Crow and Charlie Red Cloud, both chiefs at the Pine Ridge Reservation, and Tuscarora medicine man Mad Bear Anderson, also a leader at the Alcatraz occupation. Early estimates of damage to the BIA building ranged from half a million dollars to more than two million dollars; however, the final estimate was set at a quarter million dollars, because most artifacts and documents were returned.

The crisis had ended, but nothing had been resolved. Public reaction showed that much of the previous support for the American Indians’ cause had been lost. Before winter had passed, echoes of the same demands were heard amid the gunfire during the occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota.

Six years later, in July, 1978, several hundred American Indians marched again into Washington, D.C., at the end of the Longest Walk from San Francisco. The event was intended to reveal continuing problems faced by Native Americans and to expose the backlash movement against treaty rights. Unlike earlier conflicts, it was a peaceful event. “Red power” had come full circle—from the lively Alcatraz days, through times of violent confrontation, to the spiritual unity celebrated at the end of the Longest Walk. Trail of Broken Treaties American Indian Movement Native Americans;activism Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Banks, Dennis, with Richard Erdoes. Ojibwa Warrior: Dennis Banks and the Rise of the American Indian Movement. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004. Compelling autobiography of the cofounder of the American Indian Movement that includes a firsthand account of the Trail of Broken Treaties, which he helped organize.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Deloria, Vine, Jr. Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties: An Indian Declaration of Independence. 2d ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985. Lawyer-theologian Deloria discusses the doctrine of discovery, treaty making, civil rights, American Indian activism, sovereignty, and the Trail and Wounded Knee occupations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harvey, Karen D., and Lisa D. Harjo. Indian Country: A History of Native People in America. Golden, Colo.: Fulcrum, 1998. Discusses historical and cultural perspectives, contemporary issues, and ceremonies. Presents time lines (50,000 b.c.e. to twentieth century), summaries, lesson plans, and resources. Appendixes and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"


    Trail of Broken Treaties: BIA, I’m Not Your Indian Anymore. Rooseveltown, N.Y.: Akwesasne Notes, 1973. Contains articles published during and after the Trail events; text of the Twenty Points; the White House response; replies suggested by Trail leadership; and an update on the BIA one year later.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Waldman, Carl. Atlas of the North American Indian. Rev. ed. New York: Facts On File, 2000. Comprehensive coverage of history and culture, land cessions, wars, and contemporary issues. Illustrations, appendixes, and over one hundred maps.

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Categories: History