Trail of Broken Treaties Overview

The Trail of Broken Treaties was designed to generate media coverage, providing a useful medium to articulate the goals and changes they wanted to see occur in federal Indian policy. The activists, and in particular the American Indian Movement, used the mass media in an attempt to sway depictions of themselves, which allowed them to generate stronger political support by having sympathetic news reports. American popular culture had already begun to readdress the way Native Americans were portrayed in Hollywood and the history books. Films like Little Big Man and monographs such as Dee Brown's popular Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee shifted popular perceptions about American Indians. Mass media became another vehicle in which to portray and communicate political issues facing Native peoples, and they attempted to manage the terms in which their image was "framed," or how the media placed the activists within an interpretive framework.

In August 1972, Rosebud Reservation tribal chairman Robert Burnette voiced the idea of a march on Washington D.C., dubbing the march the “Trail of Broken Treaties.“ Indian activists began coordinating across the country for the proposed march. Burnette began organizing in New York, Winnebago leader Reuben Snake led the effort in the Midwest, and Assiniboine Hank Adams orchestrated plans on the West Coast.

The plan began to take shape. Seven caravans would leave Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Rapid City, and Denver and trek east, visiting communities, reservations, and spiritual sites, while picking up additional Native peoples for the demonstration. The activists planned to converge on Washington D.C. during the final week of the 1972 presidential election between George McGovern and Richard Nixon . Upon their arrival, the activists planned to present to the federal government a Twenty Points Position Paper. Largely the brainchild of Hank Adams, the document outlined the group's goals, including a demand for the government to revive the treaty-making process with American Indian nations, the creation of a treaty commission to review violations and supply compensation, and called upon the federal government to conduct Indian policy in the framework of treaty relations.

In early October the caravan, composed of activists and representatives from the National Indian Brotherhood of Canada, the National Indian Youth Council , the American Indian Movement, the Native American Rights Fund , and the American Indian Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse, began winding their way across the United States. On November 1, the marchers began arriving in Washington, coinciding their arrival with the intent of pushing Native issues to the forefront of the presidential campaign.


In the postwar decades both Native Americans and politicians became dissatisfied with the colonial-type relationship between Indians and the federal government. Growing white guilt on the Left and the desire of the Right to end what they perceived as the collectivist and socialistic nature of reservations intersected to begin dismantling the reservation system. The Burea of Indian Affair's relocation program and federal government's termination policy both worked to deconstruct the reservations and relocate American Indians to urban centers with the intent of improving their economic standing and integrate them into "mainstream" society. Between 1930 and 1970, nearly 118,000 Indians left the reservations for major relocation centers in Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose, Minneapolis, and St. Louis.

Media coverage of the activists focuses more on the occupation and federal property than the agenda of the activists More. The decision to occupy the BIA doomed the chance for the activists to engage in a dialogue about the Indian-federal relationship, instead turning media attention to the spectacle rather than the message.

The debate between integration and separation continued into the 1970s and became a central critique by the Caravan activists. Media interest in the Trail of Broken Treaties gave Native voice to the debate and allowed them to present an unvarnished message to the public. Integrating Native voice into the debate had the potential to shape public policy on Indian affairs. One of the goals of the Caravan activists was calling for the abolition of the Burea of Indian Affairs and a new system for the Indian-federal relationshipMore.

Between the end of September and the end of October print media took little interest in the Trail of Broken Treaties caravan as it traveled eastward. The New York Times and the Washington Post ran only two stories prior to the caravan's arrival at the end of October More. The stories that appear are short pieces that refrain from detailed analysis or space to let the activists explain their goals.