American Indian Activism in the Civil Rights Era

Collective memory of Native American activism in the era of civil rights is most closely associated with the American Indian Movement (AIM), a radical grassroots civil rights organization founded in Minneapolis in 1968 that captured headlines for a standoff against the FBI at Wounded Knee in 1973. While AIM, with its militant tactics, was centrally important to the visibility of Native Americans' struggles, it was far from the only organization fighting for the cause. The resources in this collection contextualize AIM and explore the actions and legacies of a generation of American Indian activism.

The Day the Native Americans Drove the KKK Out of Town

The North Carolina Klan thought burning crosses would scare the Lumbee tribe out of Robeson County. That’s not how things went down.
Some of the incidents of intimidation and violence American Indians endured during the civil rights era stemmed from their treatment as a racial or ethnic minority. For instance, in Robeson County, North Carolina, the KKK feared people with racially mixed ancestry.
Fish in water next to rocks at the base of Kinzua Dam

Halted Waters

The Seneca Nation and the building of the Kinzua Dam.
Other trials, often about land ownership and sovereignty, stemmed from their legal status as recognized tribal nations. In 1956, the Seneca nation invoked the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua to oppose the U.S. federal government on two fronts: against the Indian termination policy that tried to dissolve tribal governments, and against their displacement by the Army Corps of Engineers who sought their land to dam the Allegheny River.

The Tragic Story of the Man Who Led the Occupation of Alcatraz

A new book traces the role of Richard Oakes in the turbulent but transformative civil rights era of the 1960s and '70s.
Richard Oakes's experience growing up amidst the Mohawk opposition to the dam in the 1950s prompted him to become an activist and civil rights leader in the late 1960s. He defined Red Power in a way that did not require suppressing national identity in the service of pan-Indian coalitions.
Alcatraz Island prison sign painted over to welcome Indians to Indian land.

The Art of Stealing Human Rights

Native peoples face similar struggles with the federal governments in the U.S. and in Canada.
An episode of Radio Free Alcatraz in which John Trudell, broadcasting from the occupied island in 1970, finds solidarity with the struggles First Peoples simultaneously faced in Canada.

Why Alcatraz Matters to Native Americans

Fifty years ago, the occupation of the island put Indians’ rights on the national agenda.
"In the same way Montgomery, Ala., is widely viewed as the birthplace of the civil rights movement, Alcatraz Island should be recognized as the launchpad for the current era of Native American rights and activism."
Spread from Vine Deloria, Jr.'s essay "The Bureau of Indian Affairs: My Brother’s Keeper."

The Bureau of Indian Affairs: My Brother’s Keeper

An excerpt of “My Brother’s Keeper,” the essay that chronicles the Bureau’s various crimes over two centuries.
Writing history can serve as a form of resistance. Native American lawyer, activist, and intellectual Vine Deloria Jr. is best known for his 1969 manifesto of Indian rights, 'Custer Died for Your Sins,' which proved consciousness-raising and inspirational for Alcatraz-Red Power and AIM activists. In 1972, he published this critique of the BIA's long history of exploitation and dereliction of its mission.
Clyde Bellecourt speaking outside the Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, GA, 1974.

Damn Hard Work

Clyde Bellecourt taught Native people that colonizing society is weak because of its sense of superiority.
While AIM often grabbed headlines with its militant tactics, its co-founder Clyde Bellencourt focused more on the importance of the “the damn hard work” of organizing that took decades and never received media attention, but provided critical support for causes like affordable housing, youth programs, and legal aid.

A History and Future of Resistance

The fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline is part of a centuries-long indigenous struggle against dispossession.
From the 1890 Ghost Dance movement and Wounded Knee massacre that formed "the modern roots and spiritual center of indigenous struggle," through AIM's leadership in organizing the 1972 Trail of Broken Treaties and bringing national attention to the 1973 Wounded Knee occupation, to the 2016 natural gas pipeline protests at the Standing Rock Reservation, events in North Dakota reveal the continuities in the long history of Native American resistance.
Activists march in a protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) in Washington, D.C. (March 10, 2017).

DAPL and the American Indian as 'Protector'

Native Americans' fights for environmental protection should not be seen as battles against progress.
The image of the "Crying Indian" ad, created by the Keep America Beautiful organization and the Ad Council in 1971, is potent -- and misunderstood. The "stereotype of the anti-progress traditionalist Indian opposed to all forms of industrial development" has persisted for decades, and distorts the ways in which "American Indians have been contributing to a national and international conversation about environmental health and justice since the 1960s."
A woman walking toward an isolated house on the Navajo reservation.

The Native American Women Who Fought Mass Sterilization

Over a six-year period in the 1970s, physicians sterilized perhaps 25% of Native American women of childbearing age.
Women played important leadership roles in resistance, as well, for instance, in response to a 1970 federal law promoting the sterilization of Native American women. This article details the work of chief tribal judge Marie Sanchez, who first opposed the program on the Northern Cheyenne reservation, then at the United Nations, and finally through the establishment of Women of All Red Nations (WARN).
Rescue workers look through the roof of a submerged Rapid City house for flood victims on June 12, 1972.

A Largely Forgotten Flood Ignited The Environmental Justice Movement

The Rapid City flood helped define pervasive environmental injustice and catalyze action.
Disaster can be a important catalyst of activism. A 1972 flood devastated a heavily Native American neighborhood in Rapid City, laying bare the effects housing discrimination and economic inequality. After the flood, "Rapid City and the Black Hills became an epicenter of the Red Power movement."
Protestors gathered at Wounded Knee in 2022, waving the flag of the American Indian Movement and an upside down United States of America flag. (Photograph by Eunice Straight Head)

The Siege of Wounded Knee Was Not an End but a Beginning

Fifty years ago, the Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization invited the American Indian Movement to Pine Ridge and reignited a resistance that has not left.
While the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee -- like the 1890 massacre there before it -- is often viewed as the end of the era of militant protest, it served as a catalyst for many American Indians nationwide to learn more about their heritage and to become more engaged in cultural preservation and civil rights activism.

Perhaps the World Ends Here

Climate disaster at Wounded Knee.
The author makes a pilgrimage to Wounded Knee, "a reservation that routinely tops the list of the poorest places in the country, and that one study likened to a post-disaster landscape." Surveying the aftermath of a flood, he reflects on Wounded Knee's history and its meaning for the future: can such a site of genocide and resistance provide insight into survival in an age of climate crisis?
Drawing of four red fists intersecting the U.S. Capitol building

The Rebirth of Red Power

The tribal sovereignty movement from the late 1960s never really ended. To find the future of the Native left, look to the past.
Although the Red Power movement is often defined to have ended in the mid 1970s, its ideas continue to shape Native American resistance. The author returns to the ideas of movement founders Richard Oakes and Vine Deloria Jr., and traces their legacy through subsequent grassroots organizing legal actions to protect American Indian sovereignty and civil rights.