Beginning in the late 1960s, and through the 1970s, Native Americans emerged from the political shadows and launched a “Red Power” movement to protest poverty, lack of jobs and poor health care on reservations, the disrespect shown Indian history and culture in American movies and television, and the lengthy list of treaties with Indian nations signed and broken by the federal government.
the early 1960s, as the historian James Wilson wrote, conditions in “most Indian communities were appalling . . . more than 90 percent of their housing was substandard; their infant mortality rate was more than twice the national average; their incidence of preventable diseases such as tuberculosis, meningitis, and dysentery exceeded the general population’s by anything up to a hundred times; their average age of death was forty-three years [as opposed to almost 70 for the general population]; and, with unemployment running between 40 percent and 80 percent, their average family income was only around 20 percent of their Anglo-American neighbors.”
The political ferment of the 1960s moved young Native Americans to take direct action against oppressive white laws. The National Indian Youth Council (NIYC), for instance, conducted “fish-ins” in 1964 to assert tribal fishing rights in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho where pollution and the construction of dams, along with the intrusion of commercial fishing companies, had sharply reduced fish stocks in local streams, lakes and rivers. The three state governments had implemented conservation laws that applied equally to non-Natives and Natives, even though for the latter group the fish were “not only the staple food . . . but also one of the central motifs of their cultures.”
Indians had also been promised by 19th century treaties with the federal government that they would be allowed to fish in “their usual and accustomed” places. Young Native Americans blamed the depletion of local trout and salmon not on Indian fishers but on commercial fisheries. The NIYC began to deliberately disobey local fishing laws, and game wardens arrested the protestors. As the arrests multiplied, the protests began to draw national attention.
“Fish-ins began to erupt throughout the Northwest . . . bringing Native Americans from across the United States – at one gathering there were more than a thousand people from fifty-six tribes – into the area to support the beleaguered fishing peoples,” Wilson wrote “At the same time, hundreds of non-Indians including [actor] Marlon Brando and the black comedian Dick Gregory, publicly demonstrated their solidarity with the Indians by joining the protests and risking imprisonment.” In 1966, under escalating pressure the Justice Department announced that it would defend in court, upon request, any Native person protected by federal treaties charged with violating state fishing regulations.
The American Indian Movement, founded in 1968 by two members of the Chippewa Nation, George Mitchell and Dennis Banks, became perhaps the most influential and powerful “Red Power” group among Native Americans. Formed in Minnesota, AIM organized “patrols to protect Indians from police brutality” and used federal funds to “establish ‘urban alternative’ schools, where Native American children who had dropped out of the school system could develop greater cultural awareness and self-respect and learn how to survive in both the Indian and non-Indian worlds.”
Native American groups in the late 1960s and early 1970s sought to speak not just for individual tribes, but for all indigenous people victimized by white oppression. Such was the approach when an invading force that called itself “Indians of All Tribes” on November 20, 1969 seized control of Alcatraz Island, a closed federal prison in San Francisco Bay. The force included 300 Native Americans from 50 different Indian nations. The occupiers laid siege for 19 months, demanding that the government turn the property back over to its proper Indian owners and calling for the construction of an Indian cultural center on the site that would include an “Indian college, museum and ecology center.” Federal marshals ousted the last 15 Native American protestors on June 11, 1971.
The cultural center was not built, but one leader of the Alcatraz occupation believes the action had a positive impact on the indigenous community. “Alcatraz was a major turning point in my life,” said one Native American, Francis Wise. “For the first time in my life, I was proud to be an Indian and an Indian woman. I grew up in an all-white area. It was very difficult. You were constantly struggling to maintain any kind of positive feeling, any kind of dignity. Alcatraz changed all that.”
A dynamic new leader of AIM, Russell Means, continued to raise the visibility of the Indian cause by staging protests at two sites cherished by white America: Mount Rushmore, the sculpted tribute to four American presidents (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt) created on a mountain on Indian land in South Dakota, and at the Mayflower II, the replica of the Pilgrim ship in the harbor at Plymouth, Massachusetts. The Indian movement, and the Indian-admiring white counterculture, dramatically changed the way whites saw Native Americans.
Prior to the late 1960s, Westerns had consistently been the most popular American movie genre and in these films, Native Americans were almost always portrayed as inarticulate buffoons, or menacing killers with no regard for the life of the defenseless. Westerns began to disappear from theaters by 1970. One of the few to be released that year, "Little Big Man," had as its hero a man interviewed in modern times at the epic age of 121, Jack Crabb (played by Dustin Hoffman.) Crabb, audiences learn, spent his life being captured back and forth by whites and by an Indian tribe that called themselves “The Human Beings.” It is the Native Americans who are funny, wise, and compassionate in the film, and the whites who are drunks, fools, and murderers. George Armstrong Custer, the Army Indian fighter long portrayed in American folklore as a hero, is conceived in this film as a ruthless killer willing to step over the bodies of murdered Indian children and unarmed women as he pursues military and political fame.
In the Oscar-winning film " Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest" (1973), an insane asylum run by a heartless, autocratic nurse serves as a metaphor for the United States during the Cold War and the Vietnam War. The hero (Randall Patrick McMurphy, played by Jack Nicholson) finds his strongest, most steady ally in a Native America, nicknamed with ironic humor “Chief,” who shows compassion and intellectual clarity as the inmates rise up in rebellion. In contrast to real life, it is the Native American who is the only inmate sane enough to escape the clutches of a mad American society by the film’s end.
Indian pride fueled another protest action at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, scene of a late-19th-century massacre of Native Americans by the U.S. Army. On February 27, 1973, about 200 Native Americans armed themselves and took over the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in Wounded Knee to overthrow a corrupt Indian leader enjoying white support who tried to crush AIM. “The young kids tied eagle feathers to their braids, no longer unemployed kids, juvenile delinquents or winos,” recalled one participant, Mary Crow Dog. More than 300 National Guardsmen and US marshals surrounded Wounded Knee village, filled with “hundreds of Sioux and – at various times – members of 64 other tribes and a handful of black, chicano, and Euro-American supporters who had managed to slip past the government roadblocks,” as Wilson said.
This siege lasted 71 days. Across America, Native American and Chicano protestors rallied in support of the Indians and some were killed by police violence. Shootouts at Wounded Knee killed two Indians, with one federal marshal injured. In May, the Indians agreed to lay down their weapons. “Appropriately, perhaps, the Wounded Knee siege was the high-water mark of Native American activism,” Wilson observed. “Although the radical movement continued in 1974, for instance AIM established the International Treaty Council to try to win recognition of Native American sovereignty from the UN and other nations – it was never again able to attain the same level of public awareness and support. With U.S. withdrawal from two conflicts – the Vietnam War and the War on Poverty . . . the country gradually drifted towards a much more consensual, cautious mood . . .”
Michael Phillips has authored the following:
White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006)
(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)
“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)
“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ” in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)
“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)
(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013).
“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).
He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.