American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Red Power Movement

"Red Power" was the term given to a generally post-1960 succession of highly visible, often confrontational Native American protest movements and actions that had as their goal the affirmation of American Indian identity and the reclaiming of power—political, social, and economic—over the people's lives. The movement grew out of years—centuries—of Indian poverty and political and cultural repression on reservations and, more recently, in urban environments. Characteristic of the Red Power Movement (RPM) were charismatic leaders, a conscious building on past resistance and social movements, the tactic of property seizure, the assertion of a pan-Indian identity, the formation of national activist organizations such as the American Indian Movement (AIM), and an agenda of self-determination for Indian people and communities.

Early national Indian reform movements, led by organizations such as the Society of American Indians (SAI), were composed of well-educated Indian professionals who favored assimilation as the solution to the poverty and misery of reservation life. These people were involved in the Indian policy debates of the 1920s and 1930s. The SAI and other reform groups laid the groundwork for a modern national Indian policy and an Indian lobbying force in American politics, which came to fruition with the formation of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) in 1944.

In the 1950s, in an early representation of Red Power, the people of the Iroquois League used passive resistance and militant protests to block various New York State projects. They demonstrated their opposition to the building of power projects such as the Kinzua Dam in upstate New York that required the displacement of Indians and the flooding of Indian land. Localized activism began to build during this period, as Indian people orchestrated more than twenty major demonstrations or nonviolent protests. These were aimed at ending further reductions of the Indian land base, stopping the termination of Indian tribes, and halting brutality and insensitivity toward Indian people. This rise in Indian activism was largely tribal in nature, however; very little, if any, pan-Indian or supratribal activity occurred at this time.

The 1960s witnessed a continuation of localized Indian protest actions such as the brief Indian occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1964. Preceding this event, however, were two major events. One was the American Indian Chicago Conference in 1961. Held on the campus of the University of Chicago, this conference was the first major modern pan-Indian event. Roughly 500 people from ninety tribes and bands from across the country met to share information, discuss issues, and formulate a vision for Native America. Dr. Sol Tax, professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago, originated the idea of the conference. Among the conference's major achievements were the publication of a Declaration of Indian Purpose and a dramatic advance in pan-tribal consciousness and activism.

The other major Red Power event in the 1960s consisted of the "fish-ins" along the rivers of Washington state. The fish-in movement began when tribal members and their supporters fished in waters that were protected by federal treaty rights but restricted by state and local law enforcement. In the mid-1950s, Washington authorities tried to control Indian fishing in off-reservation areas on the Puyallup River. The Indians argued that these were "usual and accustomed grounds and stations" within the meaning of the 1854 and 1855 treaties. In 1963, the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the rights of Indian people to fish in accordance with the guaranteed treaty rights. In 1964, in defiance of the Supreme Court decision, Washington State courts closed the Nisqually River to Indian fishermen in areas off of the Nisqually Reservation. In the same year, the Survival of American Indians Association (SAIA) was formed as a protest organization and achieved success in asserting and preserving off-reservation fishing rights.

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, Native Americans had a rich and long legacy of social movements. Most were tribally centered on treaty or land issues. Others were multitribal, led by groups such as the NCAI, and composed of loose coalitions of tribal groups or members allied temporarily to struggle against a common external threat, such as termination. Most Indian social movements were aimed at issues of injustice, deprivation, or suppression, and the RPM was not unique on this score. It was not unusual for the RPM to rely on a history of past incidents to inform and organize their members and leadership. The RPM drew selectively on many elements of Indian history, especially symbols of resistance. Geronimo, the Apache leader who fought against U.S. control over reservation communities in the 1880s, was a special symbol for the Alcatraz Island occupiers. Custer's defeat in 1876 was used as a symbol of Indian victory and defiance, and the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890 became a major symbol of Indian repression during the Wounded Knee seizure in 1973.

The RPM was very different from earlier and contemporaneous Indian social movements. The members of the RPM sought change and inclusion in U.S. institutions, while preferring to retain Indian cultural identity. This was a form of nonassimilative inclusion that was not well understood at the time, but which later helped form the contemporary vision of a multicultural society. The defining characteristics of the RPM were its emphasis on a supratribal identity and the tactic of property seizure, which was used only sparingly by other Indian social movements. Most Indian social movements, while often multitribal, were temporary alliances in opposition to a common threat or issue, and they did not strive to build a nationwide supra-tribal identity. While there had always been Indian activism, the Red Power Movement broke new ground in terms of tactics, new identity formation, visibility in U.S. society, and bringing attention to Indian issues.

The 1960s and early 1970s were a time of urban unrest across the nation. The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was founded in April 1960, as a nonviolent group consisting of black-led sit-in activists. SNCC provided a powerful paradigm, and, combined with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), founded in 1962, it formed a new movement that came to be called the The New Left. Young African Americans were hearing an angrier and more militant voice, a voice coming from former members of SNCC and participants in the Civil Rights Movement. Many Indian activists observed the Civil Rights Movement and contemplated how this activity could be brought to bear on Indian issues. At the same time, the United States was deeply involved in an unpopular war in Vietnam. All of these currents, plus the Black Power Movement, the rise of Latino movement La Raza, and the stirring of the new feminism were sweeping the nation, particularly college campuses. Ubiquitous demonstrations raised the level of consciousness of college students. People of all ages were becoming sensitized to the unrest among minority and gender groups, who were staging demonstrations and proclaiming their points of view, many of which were incorporated by student activists. Sit-ins, sleep-ins, teach-ins, lockouts, and boycotts became everyday occurrences on college campuses.

By the late 1960s, more than 50 percent of American Indians lived in cities. This trend toward urbanization of the American Indian population began during World War II as a result of wartime industrial job opportunities, federal Indian urban relocation programs, and the general urbanization of the U.S. population as a whole. In the San Francisco Bay Area, which was one of the largest of more than a dozen relocation sites, newly urban Indians formed their own organizations to provide the support that the government had promised but failed to provide. Eventually, some thirty Bay Area social clubs were formed to meet the needs of the urban Indians and their children—children who would want the opportunity to go to college and better themselves. These people represented a population that was poised on the brink of activism: disillusioned Indian youth from reservations, urban centers, and universities who called for Red Power in their crusade to reform the conditions of their people. These discontented urban Indians were speaking out against the treatment they were receiving from the local, state, and federal governments, both in the cities and on the reservations. The Alcatraz occupation came out of the Bay Area colleges and universities and other California college campuses where young, educated Indian students joined with other minority groups during the 1969 Third World Liberation Front strike and began demanding that colleges offer courses relevant to Indian students. Indian history written and taught by non-Indian instructors was no longer acceptable to these young students, awakened as they were to the possibility of social protest to bring attention to the shameful treatment of Indian people. Despite the failure to achieve their immediate objectives, the Alcatraz occupiers created a watershed moment in Native American protest that resulted in an escalation of Indian activism around the country. The occupation, which caught the attention of the entire country, provided a forum for airing longstanding Indian grievances and for the expression of Indian pride. Indianness would now be judged on whether or not one was present at Alcatraz, Fort Lawson, Mount Rushmore, Detroit, Sheep Mountain, Plymouth Rock, Pitt River, or other protest sites. The RPM controlled the language, the issues, and some of the nation's attention.

The underlying goals of the Indians on Alcatraz were to awaken the American public to the reality of the situation faced daily by Native Americans and to assert the need for Indian self-determination. In this they succeeded. Additionally, the occupation of Alcatraz Island was a springboard for the RPM, inspiring the large number of takeovers and demonstrations that began shortly after the initial landing and that continued into the late 1970s. These included the Trail of Broken Treaties, the BIA headquarters takeover in 1972, and Wounded Knee II in 1973. Many of the approximately seventy-four occupations that followed Alcatraz were either planned by or included people who had been involved in the Alcatraz occupation or who had gained their strength from the new "Indianness" that grew out of that movement.

During and after the occupation of Alcatraz Island, RPM activists spread across the country using the protest tactic of occupying mainly federal property. There were dozens of Alcatraz-type occupations undertaken by Indians from a variety of tribes sharing a common interest in Indian and tribal rights broadly conceived. RPM protest events were sited initially in urban centers and at national monuments and landmarks, but later activism spread to Indian reservations as well. Red Power activists took their early tactical cues from the Alcatraz occupation. An example was the event of November 3, 1970, in Davis, California, in which scores of Indians scaled a barbed wire fence and seized an old Army communications center. Raising a big white tepee on the surplus government property, seventy-five Indians occupied it for use in development of an Indian cultural center.

These RPM occupations represented a tactic designed to draw attention to American Indian historical and contemporary grievances: unsettled land claims, conditions on reservations, recognition of cultural and social rights, tribal self-determination. Most occupations were short-lived, lasting only a few days or weeks, such as those that occurred during 1970–1971 at Fort Lawton and Fort Lewis in Washington, at Ellis Island in New York, at the Twin Cities Naval Air Station in Minneapolis, at former Nike missile sites on Lake Michigan near Chicago and at Argonne, Illinois, and at an abandoned Coast Guard lifeboat station in Milwaukee.

A number of protest camps were also established during the early 1970s, including those at Mount Rushmore and the Badlands National Monuments. During the same years, government buildings, including regional Bureau of Indian Affairs offices in Cleveland and Denver, as well as the main headquarters of the BIA in Washington, DC, also became the sites of protests. Many of these protests and occupations included celebrations of Indian culture and ethnic renewal, while others included efforts to provide educational or social services to urban Indians.

As the 1970s proceeded, American Indian protest occupations lasted longer, and some took on a more serious, sometimes violent tone, revealing the depth of grievances and the difficulty of solutions to the problems confronting Native Americans after nearly five centuries of non-Native contact. An example was the November 1972 weeklong occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, DC. This unplanned occupation occurred at the end of the Trail of Broken Treaties, a protest event involving caravans that traveled across the United States to convene in Washington at a large camp in order to dramatize and present Indian concerns at the national BIA offices. The breakdown of arrangements resulted in the occupation of BIA offices and the seizure of BIA files by protesters; the protest ended a week later after a series of negotiations with federal officials.

Beginning in 1972, the Alcatraz-style takeovers and occupations ceased as the RPM strategy shifted. The reasons for the clustering of Alcatraz-like events and the reasons for the shift from occupations of federal property to a different form and terrain of contention after 1972 are linked to the organizational underpinning of supratribal collective action, its urban population base, and the major Red Power movement organization, the American Indian Movement (AIM).

The prominence of AIM in Red Power protest after Alcatraz makes inclusion of this important and influential organization important in any discussion of the Red Power Movement. The nineteen-month occupation of Alcatraz demonstrated beyond all doubt that strong actions by Indians could not only result in broad public exposure of the issues and substantial national/international support for Indian rights, but also could potentially force significant concessions from the federal government.

This observation suggests that the Alcatraz occupation marked not only a turning point in American Indian protest and ethnic identity; it also had an important impact on the future course of AIM. Before Alcatraz, AIM was essentially an Indian rights organization, mainly concerned with monitoring law enforcement treatment of Native people in American cities. However, Alcatraz captured the imagination of AIM as well as the rest of the country, and as a result AIM embarked on an historic journey into Indian protest activism.

AIM influenced the direction of the RPM in several ways. First, networks of urban Indian centers, Indian churches, and Indian charitable organizations helped plan and support collective actions by AIM. Also, protest activities and strategies moved through Indian communities via Indian social and kin networks, and through the "powwow circuit," which passed information along to Indian families engaged in travel between the cities and reservations. A third, and perhaps the most important factor contributing to AIM's informal influence on the RPM, was through the news media. AIM leadership was particularly skillful at encouraging the various news media—newspapers, radio, magazines, and television—to dramatize Indian problems and protests.

AIM's first attempt at a national protest action came on Thanksgiving Day, 1970, when members seized the Mayflower II in Plymouth, Massachusetts, to challenge a celebration of colonial expansion into what then was mistakenly considered to be the New World. During this action, AIM leaders acknowledged the occupation of Alcatraz Island as the symbol of a newly awakened desire among Indians for unity and authority in a white world. From this beginning, AIM mounted actions both off the reservations and on them.

The involvement of urban Indian individuals and groups, such as AIM, in protest actions situated on reservations revealed tensions inside Indian communities. These tensions were not only between urban and reservation Indians, or between AIM and tribal governments, or between different age cohorts. They also took place among the political divisions on the reservations themselves. All of these tensions became magnified as the activism of the 1970s progressed. The tone of protest became less celebratory and other-directed and more harsh and inward. No single event of the RPM era more clearly illustrated the combination of Indian grievances and community tensions than the events on the Pine Ridge Reservation in the spring of 1973, a ten-week-long siege that came to be known as Wounded Knee II.

The conflict at Wounded Knee, a small town on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, involved a dispute within Pine Ridge's Oglala Lakota (Sioux) tribe over the controversial tribal chairman, Richard Wilson. Wilson was viewed as a corrupt puppet of the BIA by some segments of the tribe, including those associated with AIM. For his part, Wilson viewed AIM as no less than a group of Communist stooges. An effort to impeach Wilson resulted in a division of the tribe into opposing camps that eventually armed themselves and entered into a two-and-one-half-month-long siege that involved tribal police; government, AIM, reservation residents; federal law enforcement officials; the BIA; local citizens; nationally prominent entertainment figures; national philanthropic, religious, and legal organizations; and the national news media.

The siege began with the arrival of a caravan of approximately 250 AIM supporters, led by Dennis Banks and Russell Means, on the evening of February 27, 1973. Although the armed conflict that followed AIM's arrival is generally characterized as a standoff between AIM and its supporters and the Wilson government and its supporters, the siege at Wounded Knee was really only one incident in what had been a long history of political instability and factional conflict on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The ensuing weeks were characterized by shootouts, roadblocks, negotiations, visiting delegations, and the movement of refugees out of various fire zones. When the siege ended on May 9, 1973, two Indians were dead and an unknown number were wounded on both sides. Many of the AIM members involved in the siege spent years in litigation, exile, and prison as a result of the siege and the several armed conflicts that followed in its wake. Although the action at Wounded Knee was inconclusive in terms of determining the balance of power in the Oglala Lakota tribal council, the long siege became an important component of the RPM repertoire of contention.

In the next few years there ensued a number of long- and short-term occupations. Many, but not all, of these occupations were similar to Wounded Knee in that they occurred on reservations and involved tribal factions associated with AIM or urban tribal members. These events included the six-month occupation of a former girls' camp on state-owned land at Moss Lake, New York, in 1974; the five-week armed occupation of a vacant Alexian Brothers noviciary by the Menominee Warrior Society near the Menominee Reservation in Wisconsin in 1975; the eight-day takeover of a tribally owned Fairchild Electronics assembly plant on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico in 1975; an occupation of the Yankton Sioux Industries plant on the reservation near Wagner, South Dakota, in 1975; and the weeklong occupation of a juvenile detention center by members of the Puyallup tribe in Washington in 1976.

As the 1970s proceeded, the RPM protests were increasingly enacted in an atmosphere of heightened confrontation. The last major event of the RPM occurred in July 1978, as several hundred Native Americans marched into Washington, DC, at the end of the Longest Walk, a protest march that had begun five months earlier in San Francisco. The Longest Walk was intended to symbolize the forced removal of Native Americans from their aboriginal home-lands and draw attention to the continuing problems of Indian people and communities. The event was also intended to expose and challenge the backlash movement against Indian treaty rights that was gaining strength around the country and in Congress. This backlash could be seen in a growing number of bills before Congress to abrogate Indian treaties and restrict Indian rights. Unlike the events of the mid-1970s, the Longest Walk was conceived as a peaceful event that included tribal spiritual leaders and elders among its participants; the protest event ended without violence. Thus, Red Power had come full circle, from the festive Alcatraz days, through a cycle of violent confrontation, to the traditional quest for spiritual unity that marked the end of the Longest Walk.

Troy R. Johnson

Further Reading
Catalogue of Federal Domestic Assistance, 15.022 Tribal Self-Governance. Available at:; Champagne, Duane, ed. 1994. The Native North American Almanac: A Reference Work on Native North Americans in the United States and Canada. Detroit, MI: Gale Research.; Cornell, Stephen. 1988. The Return of the Native; American Indian Political Resurgence. New York: Oxford University Press.; Deloria, Vine, Jr. 1985. American Indian Policy in the Twentieth Century. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.; Getches, David H., Charles F. Wilkinson, and Robert A. Williams, Jr. 1998. Cases and Materials on Federal Indian Law, 4th ed. American Casebook Series. St. Paul, MN: West.; Gordon-McCutchan, R. C. 1991. The Taos Indians and the Battle for Blue Lake. Santa Fe, NM: Red Crane Books.; Grossman, Mark. 1996. The ABC-CLIO Companion to the Native American Rights Movement. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.; Johnson, Troy, Joane Nagel, and Duane Champagne. 1997. American Indian Activism: Alcatraz to the Longest Walk. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.; Johnson, Troy. 1996. The Occupation of Alcatraz Island: Indian Self Determination & The Rise of Indian Activism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.; Matthiessen, Peter. 1992. In the Spirit of Crazy Horse. New York: Penguin.; Nagel, Joane. 1996. American Indian Ethnic Renewal: Red Power and the Resurgence of Identity and Culture. New York: Oxford University Press.; Ryser, Rudolph C. (principal investigator). 1995. Indian Self-Government Process Evaluation Project, Preliminary Findings. Olympia, WA: Center for World Indigenous Studies.; Senese, Guy B. 1991. Self-Determination and the Social Education of Native Americans. New York: Praeger.; Smith, Paul C., and Robert Allen Warrior. 1996. Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee. New York: The New Press.

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