Intellectual Origins

Sensing the new atmosphere in American politics, Indian intellectuals among the protesters began to define their distinguishing characteristics. The first group to undertake the task of comprehending the new movement and provide an ideology was the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), which acquired new leadership in 1964 in the person of Vine Deloria, Jr. Born a Standing Rock Sioux in Martin, South Dakota, he initially sought to become a minister like his father. In 1963, he received his theology degree from the Lutheran School of Theology in Rock Island, Illinois, and then received a law degree from the University of Colorado in 1970. Deloria served as the executive director of the NCAI from 1964 until 1967.

Beginning in the late 1960s Deloria issued sharp criticisms of federal Indian policy. His greatest contribution was a book he published in 1969 entitled Custer Died for your Sins: An Indian Manifesto, which provided Indian activists with the first ideology that defined problems, offered solutions, and identified the agents of change—all essential to the development of social movements. The problem with American Indians in society, Deloria maintained, was that they were viewed as invisible: "To be an Indian in modern American society is in a very real sense to be unreal and ahistorical." Anthropologists, missionaries, and government authorities were all guilty of wrongs against the Indians and appropriating stereotypes. Deloria nominated urban Indians as the agents of change, contending that "urban Indians have become the cutting edge of the new nationalism" and the government and tribal leaders took a perilous risk by ignoring the activists. The widely read book become required reading for Indian radicals and secured Deloria’s spot as spokesman and leading intellectual for the emerging activists.

A host of other books as well as examinations of Indians by Hollywood thrust American Indians into American popular culture. A younger generation of Americans, anguishing in self-criticism over Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, and the environment, were more receptive to criticisms of what Peter Collier, writing in Ramparts, labeled "America’s Most Neglected Minority." A number of books released between 1968 and 1970, including The New Indians by Stan Steiner, Custer Died for Your Sins, and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown, helped to obtain popular support for Indians. As the nation confronted Watts, My Lai, and Watergate, Hollywood revised the concept of the Old West by portraying Indians more favorably. Films like A Man Called Horse, Soldier Blue, and Little Big Man imbued the American public with a new attitude towards American Indians.

Despite the tough rhetoric of Deloria and NCAI, they continued to operate within the conventional confines of legislative lobbying, legal action, and grass roots organizing focused mainly to assist Indians on reservations. This approach frustrated a younger generation of Indians who expected a rapid reverse of government policy. To confront this quandary, a new organization, the National Indian Youth Council, detached itself from the tactics of the NCAI, a move similar to other activist groups of the 1960s. The journey from Black civil rights to Black nationalism occurred because of dissatisfaction with the moderate approach taken by the NAACP and Black leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. These older groups advocated integration and nonviolence in order to cast light on the injustices of Jim Crow laws and foster its demise. Stokely Carmichael, leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), scoffed at their ideas and formed a new political coalition, dropping the ideas of racial integration, their alliance with liberals, and the commitment to nonviolence.

A group of young student activists, primarily led by Clyde Warrior, engineered the militant development of Indian activism. Born to a traditionalist Ponca family in Oklahoma in 1939, he became a respected fancy-dancer at powwows across Oklahoma. He remained active in tribal culture and was admired for his knowledge of tribal songs and stories. Spurred to action by the slow progress of NCAI, a younger generation of Indians realized integration was unlikely and looked beyond their own experiences for ideological insights. Warrior proved critical in the evolution of their thinking. Warrior's long-time commitments to Indian politics led him to assume the presidency of the National Indian Youth Council at the age of twenty-eight. Following a conference at the University of Chicago in 1961 that produced "A Declaration of Indian Purpose,"— a manifesto laying out what the more conservative activists hoped to achieve—a younger, more radical element at the Chicago conference formed the National Indian Youth Council. Although similarly critical of the federal termination policies as NCAI was, more criticism was leveled at their establishment elders and tribal leaders who, they argued, represented white society more than Indians.

In February 1967, Clyde Warrior articulated Red Power's evolving ideas. In testimony before a presidential commission, Warrior explained that Indians "are not free. We do not make choices. Our choices are made for us." His testimony was remarkably similar to Carmichael's essay published a few months before. Warrior expressed frustration with the "not-so-subtle racist vocabulary of the modern middle class" and attacked assimilation and those sympathetic to integration. His frustration stemmed from the paternalistic nature of those wanting to help the "deprived" Indians.

As student radicals like Jerry Rubin declared "war against Amerika," Indians shifted their ideas to focus on confrontational action to encourage social change. NIYC and Warrior borrowed rhetoric and tactics from the Black Panthers to root its new ideas. In a nation that all-too-well remembered the threat of fascism and totalitarianism, Warrior condemned whites as racists, fascists, colonialists, and reactionaries and derided moderate and conservative Indians as "Uncle Tomahawks" or "Apples"—red on the outside but white on the inside. Paralleling the SNCC demands for Black Power articulated by Stokely Carmichael, NIYC and Warrior called for "Red Power" and supported direct confrontation with the federal government, using tactics based on the civil rights, anti-war, and New Left movements:

What can you do when a society tells you that you should be nonexistent? As I look at it, the situation will not change unless really violent action comes about. If this country understands violence then that is the way to do it. Some of the young Indians are already talking revolution. "We have tried everything else," they say. "The only thing left is our guns. Let's use them."

Warrior's rhetoric was influential in shaping the way Indians conceived of the world around them. This shift is evident by examining the attitude towards political demonstrations within the Indian community. NCAI, which took an essentially conservative approach to confronting federal termination policies, continued flying a banner in late 1967 proclaiming "Indians Don't Demonstrate," and such a belief ran through the rest of the Indian community. Future AIM leader Dennis Banks insisted in 1965 that "demonstrations are not the Indian way." These beliefs would all change by 1970, when confrontations became the staple of AIM's political tactics.

Red Power's militancy found expression in its evolving protest tactics. On November 20, 1969, for example, eighty Indians calling themselves Indians of All Tribes occupied the island of Alcatraz, a former federal prison shut down six years earlier. Basing their justification on a clause the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, they claimed the land was theirs "by right of discovery" and announced their plan to convert the island to a Native American Cultural Center. The publicity generated by the event convinced many activists that confrontational politics was the path to success. In the months following, short occupations occurred at Milwaukee, Lake Michigan, the Twin Cities Naval Air Station in Minneapolis, Fort Lawton near Seattle, Sheep Mountain in North Dakota, and an attempted takeover of Ellis Island in 1970.