There were a series of events that led to the liberation and self-determination of Indian peoples known as, The Indian Self-Determination Education Assistance Act (ISDEAA). One of those events was the “Occupation of BIA” which occurred by accident in 1972 as told in the Washington Area Park article entitled, “Native Americans Takeover Bureau of Indian Affairs: 1972”. It reportedly started because of a scuffle between a BIA security guard and a Native man during the Trail of Broken Treaties. How could I have never heard of this event in all my education about the United States and its history? Native American people did not begin to really fully govern themselves until after this incident which occurred in 1972! This is nearly fifty years ago and only after Native people endured generations of trauma at the hands of the United States government. In comparing the United States government to Great Britain, we are a young government. Now compare the United States government’s years they have on functioning to tribal nations; this helps me understand why tribal systems struggle immensely today.
In my career as a Project Coordinator with the National Criminal Justice Training Center, I serve as the training and technical assistance provider for tribal nations that receive federal funding; this event in history is the literal reason that I have a job today. In President Nixon’s Special Message to the Congress on Indian Affairs, he says, “Appropriate technical assistance to help local organizations successfully operate these programs would be provided by the Federal government.” Due to Occupation BIA, I have the privilege to serve tribal nations by providing their training and technical assistance which in turn, they get to exercise their sovereignty and rights to self-determination. Occupation of BIA reportedly lasted six days before police were able to gain control of the BIA building. Bob Simpson, the author of “From the Montgomery Spark” and a former social justice activist write:
“Leaders of the Trail of Broken Treaties were negotiating with the Interior Department over the question of housing. Suddenly fighting broke out between several GSA security guards and a group of young Indians.
Apparently, the guards misunderstood that the BIA had given the Indians permission to stay in the building past closing time. The guards were quickly overpowered and escorted from the building. Indians ran through the BIA building at 19th & Constitution breaking up furniture to barricade entrances and manufacture makeshift weapons. The occupation was on (www.washingtonareapark.com).”
The article goes on to share that by the time the Leaders of Broken Treaties left the BIA building, they caused $2 million worth of damage. Due to the property damages and the chaos, this incident could be seen as a negative in American history. I choose to see it as a mark in history that leads the Indian people to liberation from the federal government and the BIA. I believe Occupation BIA had a positive influence on our history. It lit the flame for many hot conversations that needed to be had between Congress and tribal nations, even for years to follow. I like to believe that nothing happens by accident. Without this event occurring, who knows what the relationship would be like today between tribal nations and the paternalistic oversight of the federal government, which had already been proven to be extremely harmful and ineffective. Unfortunately, the Trail of Broken Treaties and Occupation BIA were deemed “unsuccessful”, and their twenty demands formulated by the Trail of Broken Treaties were not met. I would say that the win from these social justice initiatives came years later in the form of The Indian Self-Determination Education Assistance Act (ISDEAA) in 1975.
The fact that tribal nations are now able to create, manage, and implement programs that are culturally relevant to them and the needs of their people come from this act! I am able to serve all tribal nations as their training and technical assistance provider to aid in the infrastructure of their government. I was hired not only because I was qualified as a social worker, or because I myself was raised in tribal land, but because I personally experienced a lot of these nuanced issues of tribal communities. Working alongside tribal communities allows me to advocate in different ways. Some days I explain to the federal government the cultural importance of things that may not translate the same, such as ceremonial burials that may take priority over work days and the need for the federal government to honor those differences in how they manage and operate their government.
The more I understand the "why" of the United States law, the better I understand why the state of uncertainty we are experiencing as tribal nations makes so much more sense. I have so much hope that each tribal nation will reclaim its culture, establish as many self-determination programs as it can, and begin to live without the paternalistic approach and monitoring of the United States government.
Love & Light,
Native Americans Take Over Bureau of Indian Affairs: 1972 by Bob Simpson from the Montgomery Spark
Richard Nixon, Special Message to the Congress on Indian Affairs (1970)