Final Thoughts on the ICC

In reviewing the initial question raised by Ta-Nehisi Coates: what are the benefits of this project for transitive justice? Besides the $600 million dollars- which was certainly a large sum of money to the impoverished tribes, but not in comparison to Royce’s map of adjudicated lands. It did provide a measure of confidence for tribal members. The Creek Nation received $4 million from an ICC Judgement, but due to its large population, each Creek member only received $111.13. Despite the relatively small amount of money, one tribal member commented: “I’ll always say it was that Indian Money that freed us from bondage… because so many of those who had been so down on the Indians had to face up to us over that money.”7 It is peculiar then that one of the topics spiked at a time when Indian Country was at its most combative and volatile in over 50 years. While Native Americans were taking back their land by force, the ICC was focused on its most technical cases concerning money and accounting claims.

Image of grafiti painted by AIM members who occupied Alcatraz.

AIM Invades the BIA

On November 2, 1972 members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) forcefully took over the BIA building in Washington, DC. This occurred days before the 1972 Presidential election, a very politically charged period.8 On February 27, 1973, AIM violently entered another significant space on the Pine Ridge Reservation, Wounded Knee. AIM members held this for 71 days until May 8. This occupation was significantly more violent with both tribal members and federal officials trading fire. Two tribal members were killed and a federal agent was shot and paralyzed. These violent actions rejected the traditional Federal-Indian policies based on treaties, agreements, and trust relationships in favor of a separatist movement influenced by Black Nationalists like the Black Panthers or Nation of Islam.

Five months after the end of the occupation of Wounded Knee, members of the Indian Claims Commission decided Docket 279-C and 250-A. These dockets initially awarded awarded no money to the tribe but required the government to perform an accounting of the tribes' monies. This 85 page decision listed the exact ways in which the United States would conduct an accounting of the tribes money in very detailed ways. The highly technical acts of the Indian Claims Commission contrast with the violence and rhetoric used by members of AIM. One operated wholly within “civil” society, the other operated wholly outside of the rule of law. Yet both of these actions earned the attention of President Richard Nixon.

In 1975, President Nixon announced his Self-Determination doctrine for tribes.10 This announcement officially ended the Termination Era and returned Federal-Indian policy towards sovereignty and a nation-to-nation relationship. Scholars and Indian activists continue to argue how much “justice” the ICC brought to Indian Country, but what is clear is that at the end of the process, the amount of sovereignty held by tribes had significantly increased. Work remains to unpack the connections between AIM's occupations and the ICC's accounting efforts, but it was the distant view of these decisions that enabled me to make the initial connection with crucial events of the 1970s.


7. Theda Purdue, “Presidential Address: The Legacy of Indian Removal”, Journal of Southern History, Vol. 78:1, Feb 2012, 32.

8. Yvonne Bushyhead, “In the Spirit of Crazy Horse: Leonard Peltier and the AIM Uprising,” in The Winds of Injustice: American Indians and the U.S. Government, New York, Garland Publishing, 1994, 81-82.