How did Native American advocacy shift towards direct action and militant tactics?

Written by Alan Peral

The Secrets of the 60s

What do you know about the 60s? Maybe you remember something about the Cold War, or about the assassination of president Kennedy. Maybe you like the Beatles, or listen to Jimi Hendrix. You might have been taught that there were a lot of protests and social movements in the 60s. But less celebrated are the steps that Native American (also called American Indian) people took to fight back against the U.S. government’s horrible historical treatment of them.

Indian – Government Relations

I’m going to say it one more time: the U.S. government has always been horrible to the Indian tribes, and that is putting it extremely lightly. In reality, they have tried to destroy their way of life, using the military and other legal means. They used the military to forcibly take the native’s land, and when their military was too weak (which was often the case), they didn’t hesitate to trick the Indians into turning in their weapons in exchange for peace – a peace that never came.1 In fact, there are 371 treaties that the U.S. government made with Native American Tribes between 1770 and 1890; the U.S. broke all of them. It would take me too long to list the other hundreds of ways that the U.S. has wronged the Native people. To learn more about that go here and here

Land taken from Indians

Termination, the NCAI, and the NIYC

The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) was set up in 1944 in response to the government’s tactics of termination and assimilation.2 What did termination mean for the Natives? It meant that in the stroke of a pen, the government dissolved formerly sovereign Indian nations. From one day to the next, certain Indian nations ceased to exist. The NCAI sprang up to protect the treaty and sovereign rights of the Tribes. However, it was formed as a more conservative organization that did not believe in direct action: “The NCAI, indeed, believed that any kind of protest or direct action was distasteful and contrary to the Indian way. Well into the 1960s, the organization displayed a banner that read, ‘Indians Don’t Demonstrate'”. 3

This is where the National Indian Youth Council (NIYC) comes in. It was founded in 1961 and consisted mostly of college educated Native students from reservations4. It was the first independent Native student organization to be formed, and it served as the more militant alternative to NCAI.

How and why did the NIYC steer towards direct action?

You must remember that in the 1960s there was a lot going on. One of the founders of the NIYC, a Native called Clyde Warrior, was heavily influenced by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and their work in the Civil Rights Movement. He decided to model a lot of NIYC’s tactics after the ones he observed in SNCC. This meant that NIYC would support protests and other concrete methods of action. The decision to take the NIYC in that direction ended up being important in 1964, when several Tribes from the Pacific Northwest requested NIYC’s help in their fight to maintain their traditional fishing rights, as guaranteed by earlier federal treaties.3

Seizing the opportunity, the NIYC jumped at the chance to support their fellow Indians and decided to hold “fish-ins”, inspired by the SNCC’s sit-ins, to protest Washington State’s policies.3 With the help of Marlon Brando, a famous actor (Don Corleone in The Godfather), their “fish-in” garnered national attention and transformed the NIYC into a nationally recognized and respected organization.

Now it must be mentioned that even in the Native American community, the NIYC did not pioneer the concept of direct action. In fact, Indians such as Billy Frank (Nisqually) and Bob Satiacum (Puyallup) had fished and endured arrest, assault, and imprisonment. Their arrests, however, failed to garner media attention and did not result in any policy change5. By mid-1964, “the National Indian Youth Council stood as the foremost intertribal protest organization in operation.”3

One of the Nations involved in the “fish-ins”, the Nisqually Nation, wrote a letter in 1965 titled “We Will Resist.” A close examination of this letter gives us an idea of why the NIYC supported their movement. They list some faults of the government, stating that the Bureau of Indian Affairs was created to protect American Citizens, not Indian People. They also state that the U.S has denied the Indian people their rights and powers, and compare the condition of Indian people in the U.S. to that of Jews in Nazi Germany. They further state, “Be it also resolved that we will resist to the best of our abilities the continued attacks upon the Indian people. We also declare that we are weary of being forced into pauperism upon our own land.”6 These people were suddenly not allowed to fish where they had been fishing for centuries. There happened to be only one course of resistance, and the NIYC recognized it – direct action.

The Rise of Red Power
We are ready to define the best approaches to strike at that great monstrosity that threatens to engulf Indian people and destroy Indian life… We cannot be afraid of power; we must use it
–Mel Thom, president of NIYC

The tactics of direct action were not the only thing the NIYC learned from SNCC and the Civil Rights Movement. The organization also borrowed the idea of Black Power and turned it into something more suitable for them – Red Power. In an essay titled “Which One Are You?” Clyde Warrior talked about Indian identity to present types of “undesirable” Indians, before presenting the better (though not ideal) Indian: “an angry nationalist who upheld Native Culture and disliked ‘uncle tomahawks’”.3 Red Power, in effect, was the name given to Native American confrontational protest movements and actions that sought to take back political, social, and economic power.

In 1968, the American Indian Movement (AIM) would be founded and would continue to support the idea of Red Power, even going as far as having a militia to defend Indian communities. However, the importance of the National Indian Youth Council in pushing for direct action and militant strategies cannot be underscored.

The NIYC still exists as an organization today.

The sewage of Europe does not flow through my veins
-Clyde Warrior

Works Cited

1 War Churchill and Jim V. Wall, Agents of Repression: The FBI’s Secret Wars Against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement (South End Press, 1988), 103-134.
2 National Congress of American Indians,
3 Bradley G. Shreve, Red Power Rising: The National Indian Youth Council and the Origins of Native Activism (University of Oklahoma Press, 2011).
4 Bruce E. Johansen, Encyclopedia of the American Indian Movement (Greenwood, 2013).
5 Loretta Fowler and Daniel M. Cobb, Beyond Red Power: American Indian Politics and Activism since 1900 (School for Advanced Research, 2007).
6 Daniel M. Cobb, “We Will Resist (1965) Nisqually Nation” in Say We Are Nations: Documents of Politics and Protest in Indigenous America since 1887 (University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 143-145.