Thursday, May 24, 2012

Sherry L. Smith's "Hippies, Indians and the Fight for Red Power"

Sherry L. Smith is University Distinguished Professor of History and Associate Director of the Clements Center for Southwest Studies at Southern Methodist University. She is the author of Reimagining Indians: Native Americans through Anglo Eyes, 1880-1940; The View from Officers' Row: Army Perceptions of Western Indians; and Sagebrush Soldier: William Earl Smith's View of the Sioux War of 1876.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, Hippies, Indians, and the Fight for Red Power, and reported the following:
On December 12, 1969, the Indians of All Tribes held a benefit concert at Stanford University’s Memorial Chapel. The purpose was to raise awareness, sympathy, and financial support for their recent takeover of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay.

Page 99 takes the reader to that concert and encapsulates one of the central themes of my book: Native American activists needed non-Indian support to realize their demands for observance of treaty rights, tribal sovereignty, and cultural revitalization. Occupying Alcatraz symbolized those demands. Indian activists particularly targeted liberals, leftists and counter-culture types. But they also knew such supporters could be problematic assuming that such allies’ understanding of Indian affairs was likely to be superficial and fleeting. As Cree folksinger Buffy Sainte-Marie, headliner of the evening saw it, fans would listen to her music but not actively support Indian political demands.

The rest of the book challenges Sainte-Marie’s skepticism and reveals that non-Indian support proved not only beneficial but essential to the Red Power movement. Hippies were among the first non-Indians of the post World War II generation to seek contact with Indians. The counterculture saw Native Americans as genuine holdouts against conformity, inherently spiritual, ecological, tribal, communal – the original “long hairs.” Searching for authenticity while trying to achieve social and political justice for minorities, hippies as well as progressives and even radicals of various stripes and colors were soon drawn to the Indians’ political cause. Black Panthers and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), for example, took part in Pacific Northwest fish-ins, designed to bring attention to state violations of fishing rights. The Quakers published an influential book that explained the history of these treaties. Actor Marlon Brando and black comedian Dick Gregory spoke out about the issue, as well. As the movement for Indian rights spread to California and Alcatraz, the occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Building in Washington, D.C., and eventually to Wounded Knee, support for Indian demands spread, as well, to a plethora of church groups, civil rights advocates, housewives, and blue collar unions.

Indians understood they could not achieve political change without this help. Non-Indians had to be educated and enlisted. They found in this hodge-podge of Americans willing recruits to their campaign for renewal of tribal power, sovereignty, self -determination, and protection of reservations as cultural homelands. These partnerships led to political reforms of lasting value.

The cast of characters in this book is wide-ranging: from Stewart Brand of The Whole Earth Catalog fame, counterculture figure Wavy Gravy, and actor Peter Coyote to Ralph Abernathy, Reies Tijerina, Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, Hank Adams, Russell Means, Dennis Banks, and Richard Nixon. It moves across the continent and back, tracking the amazing story of how Indians captured the nation’s attention in the late 1960s/early 1970s and strengthened their position as a result. It is also a story of non-Indians who listened, learned, and helped.
Learn more about Hippies, Indians, and the Fight for Red Power at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue