Red Power Rising: The National Indian Youth Council and the Origins of Native Activism

Red Power Rising: The National Indian Youth Council and the Origins of Native Activism


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806143651
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 07/11/2014
Series: New Directions in Native American Studies series , #5
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 296
Sales rank: 1,254,517
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Bradley G. Shreve is Managing Editor of the Tribal College Journal, a publication of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.

Shirley Hill Witt is a founder and former vice president of the National Indian Youth Council. A distinguished anthropologist and former foreign service officer, she is a member of the Akwesasne Mohawk Nation, Wolf Clan.

Read an Excerpt

Red Power Rising

The National Indian Youth Council and the Origins of Native Activism

By Bradley G. Shreve


Copyright © 2011 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-8499-9


"Freedom for Our People"

Foundations of a Movement

Clyde Warrior always had a great deal of respect for tradition. He learned the Ponca language from his grandparents, memorized traditional ceremonies and songs, and became a highly respected fancy dancer. Warrior also had only admiration for those elders who had fought for Native people throughout history. When the National Indian Youth Council set about establishing a scholarship for college-bound Native youth, Warrior suggested they name it the Geronimo Scholarship, in honor of "a true Indian patriot." Clyde Warrior was not alone in this regard. When he and other students gathered in Gallup, New Mexico, to draw up the NIYC's articles of incorporation, they recognized "the inherent strength of the American Indian heritage" and paid tribute to the ancestors who had come before them in their quest to build a brighter future for all Native peoples.

Indeed, movements for social change do not emerge in a vacuum. They are built upon precedent, they incorporate and borrow ideas from the past, and they may find inspiration from contemporaries. This certainly proves true for the NIYC and the origins of the Red Power movement. To be sure, those young people who founded the council in 1961 started something new and different. They laid out a militant pan-Indian ideology and incorporated direct action methods into the Native struggle for sovereignty, self-determination, treaty rights, and cultural preservation. Still, their movement can be characterized as an evolution in intertribalism. They followed on the heels of earlier generations, even while they blazed a new trail.

Intertribalism or pan-Indianism—that is, Native peoples from different backgrounds and parts of Indian country coming together in common purpose—is nothing new. Various tribes have united for mutual benefit throughout history. Some of the most common examples include the Haudenosaunees, or Iroquois League of Six Nations, which brought many of the Iroquoian-speaking peoples along the Atlantic seaboard into confederacy. The Senecas, the Oneidas, the Cayugas, the Onondagas, the Mohawks, and late, the Tuscaroras found it expedient for defensive purposes and regional stability to develop a political alliance. Similarly, just to the west, Algonquian tribes such as the Shawnees, the Ottawas, the Delawares, the Potawatomies, and the Miamis, among others, united to challenge, first, the powerful Iroquois League and, later, European invaders. Under the great Ottawa chief Pontiac, Algonquian tribes came together in the early 1760s to deal the British Army a series of devastating blows west of the Appalachian Mountains. A few decades later, many tribes in the region coalesced under the leadership of the Shawnee leader Blue Jacket and the Miami chieftain Little Turtle to defend their lands against the newly independent United States.

Such intertribalism also found form west of the Mississippi. In the Spanish colony of New Mexico, the various pueblos of the Rio Grande valley overcame linguistic differences and united in 1680, driving their colonizers out of the region. The Pueblo Revolt stands as one of the most resounding Indian victories since the European invasion—it took twelve years and an invitation to return before the Spanish made their way back into New Mexico. Out on the Great Plains, Siouan-speaking tribes forged alliances and staked out a massive inland empire. As white Americans moved west, they ran up against the Ihanktunwans, Tetonwans, and Isanti Sioux, as well as the Northern Cheyennes. The United States suffered some crushing defeats before overcoming the alliance and assuming control of the region.

Back in those days, language, common culture, and region proved to be the greatest factors in the development of intertribalism. The alliance the Shawnee chief Tecumseh forged remains the one great exception. Television documentaries and popular history books have portrayed Tecumseh as a great military leader—a warrior whose prowess, bravery, and fighting skills made him the stuff of legend. No doubt Tecumseh was a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield, but even more significant was his political savvy. He recognized that all Native people—not just those in his Ohio River valley homeland—must join forces and work together in confronting the onslaught of white expansion. Tecumseh therefore looked beyond language, culture, and region, traveling south to forge friendships with different tribes. Tecumseh only partially succeeded in realizing his vision. He did develop a wide alliance, but the War of 1812 broke out before he could solidify his power. The great Indian leader died at the Battle of Thames River toward the end of the war, and his dream of a great intertribal alliance that brought all Native people together in common purpose was put on hold.

Nearly one hundred years later, in October 1911, Professor Fayette A. McKenzie of the Ohio State University's Sociology Department called together the best-known college educated Indians in America with the purpose of establishing the first Indian-controlled intertribal organization. Like the predominantly white Indian rights groups of the period, such as the Women's National Indian Association or the Indian Rights Association, this new entity was very much a product of America's "progressive era," a time of reform and change. The laissez-faire capitalism and great industrial growth of the late nineteenth century created fissures in the social fabric of the nation, thus prompting a vast array of new organizations and special interest groups that sought social justice, greater governmental oversight of business, and widened political rights. White progressive reformers lambasted the treatment of Native people and insisted that with proper training and new policies that encouraged acculturation, American Indians would become "productive" U.S. citizens. The Native leaders who met in Columbus during the autumn of 1911 shared this nominally progressive approach to Indian affairs. Calling themselves the Society of American Indians (SAI), the founding members believed that Native people needed to move away from the past, reject tradition and custom, and embrace currents of "modern civilization."

Carlos Montezuma, Charles Eastman, Sherman Coolidge (Arapahoe), Thomas Sloan (Omaha), Henry Roe Cloud (Winnebago), Elizabeth Roe Cloud (Ojibwe), Arthur C. Parker (Seneca), Charles Daganett (Peoria), and Gertrude Bonnin were among the founding members who played pivotal roles in the SAI. Their initial platform centered around three themes: assimilation, self-help, and social justice. SAI members aligned themselves with the prohibition movement and other progressive causes of the day. They rejected notions of racial superiority or inferiority but believed that "natural laws of social evolution" placed Native people below Europeans. Only through hard work, individual initiative, citizenship, and perseverance could the Indian advance up the hierarchical ladder. Moreover, the government could make strides toward social justice by breaking up the reservations and continuing its policy of allotment.

No one in the SAI voiced this platform of assimilation and self-help as forcefully as Dr. Carlos Montezuma. Born in Yavapai country in southern Arizona and adopted by whites at a young age, Montezuma attended the University of Illinois before earning his medical degree in 1889 at the Chicago Medical School. Montezuma eventually developed a close friendship with Richard Henry Pratt while serving as a physician at the Carlisle Indian School. As head of Carlisle, Pratt maintained that Indian identity and culture needed to be wiped away. He developed an ethnocentric curriculum that more or less forced students to shed their tribal backgrounds and adopt white customs and habits. It was Pratt who coined the famous slogan "Kill the Indian, and save the man." Mirroring Pratt, Montezuma believed that traditional Indian culture held Native Americans back. In order to overcome this handicap, Indians, especially children, should be thrust into the mainstream of American society, rather than secluded and isolated on reservations. In a speech delivered before the University of Illinois's Illini Club, Montezuma declared, "Away with your excuses to keep the Indian children from enjoying the Christian homes of our eastern states! It is not climate or civilization that kills my people. It is bondage to the tribe, and ignorance of the advantages of civilized life that kills." He concluded that Indians "must be surrounded with that which is highest and best in order to rise above the inherited bad tendencies of the race."

Montezuma's call for complete assimilation eventually led him to target the Office of Indian Affairs for perpetuating the reservation system and slowing the process of acculturation. He insisted the SAI stand firm—without dissent—against the government agency and adopt a resolution calling for its abolition. The society, however, refused to pass any sweeping condemnation of the federal government, as many members believed they could reform the system from within. So in 1915, at the SAI annual meeting in Lawrence, Kansas, Montezuma went on the offensive, delivering his famous speech "Let My People Go." He ridiculed the society for its hesitancy in condemning government oversight and launched into a tirade against federal policies. "We are wards, we are not free!" he exclaimed. "There is only one object for this Society of Indians to work for, namely—'Freedom for our people.'" The Indian agency's "blood stained paws" held Native people down by encouraging "beggary, gambling, pauperism, and ruin," while reservations only encouraged that "Indians remain as Indians."

Although Montezuma influenced many of the SAI's rank-and-file members, he remained at odds with the organization's leadership. A year after his fiery speech in Lawrence, he founded the newsletter Wassaja, which he funded and distributed himself. Montezuma used the column "Arrow Points" to press his militant, uncompromising stance on the Indian Bureau and to attack society members who failed to fall in line with his thinking. He disparaged SAI officers Arthur Parker and Sherman Coolidge for their efforts to create a national American Indian Day to highlight Indian history and development. Indians needed to forget their past, Montezuma claimed; even the slightest hint of celebrating the traditional culture of Native people was unacceptable.

If Montezuma's broadsides against society members who failed to fall in line with his rigid ideology were not enough, the controversy over the ritual use of peyote led to further fissures within the SAI. Some influential members, such as Thomas Sloan, staunchly supported peyoteism and the right of its adherents to conduct ceremonies as they saw fit. Others, such as the society's secretary, Gertrude Bonnin, felt differently. Bonnin, also known as Zitkala-Ša, joined Montezuma as one of the SAI's most outspoken members. An ex-Carlisle teacher, she was engaged to marry the physician before the two clashed over Pratt's curriculum at Carlisle. Zitkala-Ša argued that Indians should attend college or university rather than pursue outmoded industrial education. But more than anything, it was the emergence of peyoteism that bothered Bonnin; she believed that the hallucinations or visions that resulted from the ingestion of peyote corrupted Native people and inhibited their progress. She insisted that the SAI adopt a platform condemning the use of peyote and backing legislation to outlaw possession of the cactus.

The society's internal struggles over peyote seemed minimal when compared with the profound ideological differences between the SAI and the only other intertribal organization of the era, the Brotherhood of North American Indians. Founded in Washington, D.C., just months after the SAI, the brotherhood adopted a platform that stood in stark contrast to the positions that Montezuma and Bonnin had staked out. Richard C. Adams (Delaware), founder and chief spokesman for the brotherhood, called for cultural retention, treaty rights, compensation from the federal government for lost lands, and the preservation of the reservation system. Due to its radical agenda that challenged the basic assumptions of the SAI and other progressive organizations of the day, the brotherhood never garnered the publicity or support that propelled the society. Moreover, severe criticism from both SAI leaders and the Indian Office led to the brotherhood's downfall just two years after its founding.

The society, in contrast, lasted as a viable organization until 1923, when Carlos Montezuma died. That same year the SAI held its final conference. Montezuma's death undoubtedly contributed to the society's demise, as did America's changing social and political climate. In 1924, Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act, which conferred all the rights and privileges of American citizenship on Native people. The act seemed to negate much of the SAI's purpose, leading to waning interest in the organization. Moreover, the progressive impulse of the twentieth century's first two decades had come to an end.

Many SAI leaders abandoned Indian affairs, but others continued to involve themselves in some capacity. Charles Eastman served as the head chief of the Teepee Order of America, an urban-based, fraternal Indian organization. Toward the end of his life, however, the onetime assimilationist dropped out of the mainstream and returned to his Sioux tribal roots in the remote reaches of Minnesota. In 1926, Gertrude Bonnin pieced together remnants of the SAI and founded the National Council of American Indians, an intertribal outfit geared toward organizing the Native vote. Although Bonnin's organization claimed members from fifty-one tribes, it never achieved the widespread appeal or prominence of the SAI. By the 1940s, her council had faded into obscurity.

If Eastman and Bonnin held together some semblance of intertribal organization—no matter how tenuous—Henry Roe Cloud proved to be the one SAI leader who would most deeply affect the course of federal Indian policy. The Brookings Institution drafted the Yale graduate and educator to join a government-sponsored research group commissioned to conduct a full-scale study of Indian policy and tribal conditions. The secretary of the interior at the time, Hubert Work, had come under immense pressure from reformers critical of the Indian Office and its way of doing things. The result was the 1928 publication of The Problem of Indian Administration, better known as the Meriam Report.

This massive indictment declared the federal government's policies of assimilation and allotment complete failures. Indians lived in poverty, destitution, and misery, with little hope of progress, the report asserted. The Indian Office's education of Native children needed revision; the vocational training taught in many Indian schools was antiquated, while boarding schools stunted growth by tearing young children away from their home communities. To amend the horrendous situation, Roe Cloud, Lewis Meriam, and the report's other primary authors detailed necessary reforms in health care, education, economic development, family and community life, and policy formulation in general. The 872-page survey was the first of its kind and ultimately set a new course in federal Indian policy.

It took a new president, however, to bring about change. In 1932, in the midst of the nation's worst economic depression, the American people elected Franklin D. Roosevelt to the presidency. Roosevelt promptly appointed a cadre of visionaries and intellectuals known as the Brain Trust to steer the country in a new direction. Harold Ickes landed the job as secretary of the interior and in turn nominated John Collier as the new commissioner of Indian Affairs. Collier would prove to be the most influential commissioner in the agency's history, laying down a radical new direction in Indian policy.

For years, Collier, like Carlos Montezuma, had been one of the agency's greatest critics. He also shared Montezuma's refusal to compromise, his zealotry, and his rigid thinking. But unlike Montezuma, Collier lauded Native culture and embraced an agenda of cultural retention and preservation. In 1923, the same year the SAI disbanded, he established the American Indian Defense Association (AIDA), which emerged as the foremost defender of the Indian land base and Native control over natural resources on tribally owned land. The AIDA also took issue with continued efforts to assimilate Native people. Collier infuriated missionaries and other Christian reformers when he argued that religious proselytizing exploited and degraded Indians. He defended the Indians' rights to their cultural traditions, acknowledging the value in Native religion, art, and customs. Just because these practices seemed foreign to whites did not mean that Native cultures were devoid of value. Collier even went a step further, asserting that Euro-American culture had much to learn from American Indians, who stood as the "possessors and users of the fundamental secret of human life." Their communalism, sense of shared identity, and spirituality could very well redeem the United States.


Excerpted from Red Power Rising by Bradley G. Shreve. Copyright © 2011 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
Foreword, by Shirley Hill Witt,
1. "Freedom for Our People": Foundations of a Movement,
2. "We Are Born at a Time When the Indian People Need Us": The Regional Indian Youth Council,
3. "Nationalism Is a Journey, a Journey from Fear into Hope": The Workshop on American Indian Affairs,
4. "We Believe in a Future with High Principles Derived from the Values and Beliefs of Our Ancestors": The Founding of the National Indian Youth Council,
5. "The Time Comes When We Must Take Action!": The Fish-in Campaign and the Rise of Intertribal Direct Action,
6. "We Cannot Be Afraid of Power; We Must Use It": The Growth of Red Power Militancy,
7. "Slug Them in the Mouth or Shoot Them": Reform, Revolt, and Reorganization in the NIYC,
8. "The National Indian Youth Council Is a Process, Not an Event": Continuity and Transformation in the 1970s and Beyond,

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