People often try to pinpoint specific events when they talk about the birth of wars, happenings, fads, and major movements. For instance, it is easy to say America entered into a war with Japan after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. It is a lot harder to retrace historic and cultural events which paved the way for Japan to ally itself with Germany and Italy. The same concept applies with consideration over what paved the way for the Red Power Movement of the 60s and 70s among the Native Americans. Similar to a chef adding various ingredients to some meal a variety of events occurred among Indians, over a thirty to forty year period, that created the recipe which brought forth the Red Power Movement. It is a complex issue that could easily require a volume of text to do justice. However, for the sake of brevity, I will point out some of the predominant ingredients which helped create the socio-political concoction known as the RPM: government policies, poverty, perseverance, and place paved the way for the Red Power Movement.
A variety of government programs and policies were instrumental in creating the environment and attitudes that fueled what became known as the Red Power Movement. For instance, the government adopted various views over the years on how Indians should be educated. There were times when the government made no effort to educate Indians. There were times when quick indoctrination in rundown single-room schoolhouses was the norm. But constant policy failures meant even more changes. Early in the twentieth century a policy was instituted that was nothing less than government sponsored kidnapping. It became mandatory for reservation families to turn over their children, who were then transported to Catholic run boarding schools, often hundreds of miles away. And a large segment of the younger generation would stay at the boarding schools for several years: sometimes half their childhood or longer.
There are occasional testimonies by Indians who lived at the boarding schools who claim the overall experience was a positive one: teaching them to cope in the White man’s world, and getting to do things they could never have done on the reservation. However, there are far more testimonies from ex-boarding school students that emphasize the negatives. Physical, mental, and emotional abuse appeared to be a routine practice at the majority of the boarding schools. In an effort to indoctrinate the captive children quicker systematic punishment was doled out in an effort to break the children away from speaking their native languages, following their beliefs, praying to their gods, etc. They even had to give up their Indian names for White names. As a result of the indoctrination many students lost their individual identities, communal ties, and sense of purpose. Many others rebelled, as much inwardly as outwardly, and adopted a “what’s the use” attitude. A large segment of the boarding school students found no real acceptance in the White world after leaving the school. Then, upon returning to the reservations, they felt out of place there as well. And these and other testimonies became well-known among the tribal communities. It naturally had an adverse effect. In other words, while the government attempted to Americanize Indians externally (actions and appearance) they continued to alienate them internally (personally and culturally).
Inevitably, such drastic changes in education policy and programs, along with the poor overall results, only fostered additional changes. Eventually the government began to pay Indians to attend college off the reservation and help to secure jobs. With more Indians in schools, especially during the sixties, Native American studies and clubs made their way onto campuses. However, the unbalanced results of prior policies created two notable effects: the fore mentioned identity crisis and alienation among many Indians, and the government continually underestimated the Indians ability and desire to turn their newfound education back on the government.
Another set of policies and programs used by the government involved the constant flip-flop on party politics with regard to the “Indian Problem.” First, they want to push them aside, then steal their land, then shrink what land is left through allotments, then phase out the tribes and reservations, only to turn around again and say, “We want you to live on the reservations and act like Indians again.” And yet, it is all under the watchful eye of Big Daddy Government who still retains the final word, trumping tribal council decisions if they so chose. Such policies only alienated Indians further, and their drive for sovereignty and self-determination continued to grow.
Most of the government policies – not just those 30-40 years prior to the Red Power Movement – created negative economic outcomes for the majority of tribal communities. There were a few exceptions to the rule, but for the most part, reservation life was a life below the poverty line for the majority of reservation households. And the constant struggle in such poor conditions took a massive toll on Indians individually as well as the tribes collectively. The unemployment, dropout, crime, alcohol, and suicide rates continually surpassed national averages. Likewise, teen pregnancy, birth defects, and various other medical statistics had poor showings as a result of the equally poor medical services available on most reservations.
Generation after generation of poverty polarizes communities into two primary camps: those who give up and accept the status quo, and those who find a way to continue fighting. The group that gives up consists of not only the alcoholics, addicts, and constant welfare recipients, but also those who simply plug along from check to check with the belief that nothing will ever change. On the other hand, the group that continued to fight was not just the well-off or those with rebellious or militant personalities. Many elders, veterans, and traditional believing parents kept stoking the embers over remaining true to the Indian way no matter how poor and bleak reservation life became.
The persevering undercurrent appeared to lose ground more often than not after government policies continually undermined tribal progress in various areas. For instance, helping several reservations set-up lumber mills and receive government contracts with one policy only to sever government ties in an attempt to terminate reservations with a later policy. The move cost those specific tribes the advancements they had made, and forced them to fight for tribal recognitions again.
Fortunately, there always seemed to be a group among the tribes that remained vigilant and optimistic. Some relied on faith and love. Some moved forward on pride alone. Others burned with righteous anger. Whatever the personal motivation it had a collective result. The victories, no matter how small, reaffirmed to the community, and to the nation, that Indians were not going away. They would find a way to preserve their way of life, and they would not stop fighting until they regained self-determination and their sovereignty was recognized.
Place actually fulfills two elements in the recipe that led to the Red Power Movement. One element was the sense of place inherent in the majority of Indians. It is a sense of who they are as a community: where they came from, where they were, and where they need to be. And the other element of place is what business people like to call “location, location, location.”
Where were many of the Indians who were instrumental in igniting the initial fires of the Red Power Movement? Many were urban Indians. They were working and/or attending colleges and universities in various cities around the country. And where were they in terms of career? They were lawyers, writers, artists, journalists, politicians, entertainers, and numerous other fields. And those who were not informed became informed, and the small internal fires found breath in knowledge and power in numbers, and the socio-political winds began to blow. The National Congress of American Indians, the National Indian Youth Council, and American Indian Movement, among others, formed and fought in a variety of ways: some more militant than others. But each group had a purpose and they were dead set on fulfilling those purposes.
The government thought it was possible to educate the Indian out of Indians. They had a splash of success. They had a deluge of failure. The government thought they could manipulate a widely diverse cross-section of indigenous people indefinitely. Sheer numbers and force of arms enabled predominant success in spite of some blatant moral and ethical faux pas. But it alienated the Indians and solidified the feeling of injustice within them, and the need to persevere. Government policies and programs insured poverty on reservations: sometimes intentionally, and other times inadvertently. But some other policies and programs intentionally and inadvertently placed Indians and knowledge together. And the years of pent-up anger, poverty, identity crisis, lies, stifled traditions, and a thousand other personal and collective inspirations and experiences became the turbulent Santa Ana winds that caught hold of the many stoked embers and small fires, and formed the flames into a national movement: Red Power.