These pictures were made in November of l972, about the time Nixon was getting re-elected. The Indians, marching as part of the American Indian Movement, went to Washington and simply took over the Bureau of Indian Affairs building. They chased out the guards, the secretaries, the RELATED ARTICLE
“The Best Picture I Never Took”
– Steve Northup
bureaucrats, the bosses and the bossed. They then trundled the duplicating machines up to the roof and lined the parapets of the building with them. As no guard of the General Services Administration wanted to be the first man to die for his country by being hit with a flying photocopy machine, the Indians held the building. For three days.

It may have been the first time the government had run up against demonstrators really willing to die for their cause. But not without a fight. The Indians went across the street to where a State Department building was going up and collected lengths of steel reinforcing bar, which, after being wrapped with burlap, formed a serious weapon, a long, sharp lance. Their shields were made from the chair seats of secretaries, the seating part slit to form arm straps, the hard seat bottom facing out for protection. These guys meant business, and the government knew it and wisely did nothing.

After a few days, money was said to change hands, the Indians dispersed and the government got its building back—needing serious redecoration. The place was trashed, pure and simple. But amid the trash were clear messages written on the walls. My favorite, the quotation from Chief Joseph, “They made us many promises…” was left on the wall of the head man’s office. It was removed but it should have stayed there.

These photos were made for Time magazine. I was a photographer in the Washington Bureau at the time, and only one of those pictures ever saw the light of day. The picture story received First Prize from the White House News Photographers Association for 1972 and a few more were printed in the association’s annual publication, but they have seen very little true editorial use. It’s good to get them out.

Steve Northup, a 1974 Nieman Fellow, is a photographer and rancher who divides his time between Santa Fe and Palomas Creek, New Mexico.

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