native american men protest march

Native American Activism: Perspectives on Sovereignty and Civil Rights Struggles

The history of Native American tribes in the United States is marred by policies aimed at their marginalization and oppression. Removal policies of the 19th century, such as the Indian Removal Act of 1830, led to the forced displacement of tribes from their ancestral lands.

The infamous Trail of Tears symbolizes this era, with thousands of Native Americans dying during these forced relocations.

During the period of assimilation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, federal policy shifted towards attempts to incorporate Native Americans into mainstream American society. Key to this period was the establishment of boarding schools for Native children, where the motto “Kill the Indian, and save the man” was taken to heart.

The Dawes Act of 1887 is another example, which aimed to dissolve communal tribal landholdings in favor of individual allotments, further destroying traditional collective land management practices.

Termination policies in the mid-20th century sought to end the recognition of Native tribes as sovereign nations. This led to the dismantling of tribal governance structures and the loss of legal and territorial sovereignty for many tribes.

The consequences of these policies were devastating—economic, social, and psychological—and they left a profound impact on Native communities that is still felt today.

The legacy of these policies has fueled ongoing activism by Native American groups, demanding the restoration of rights and recognition of sovereignty. The struggle is a testament to their resilience and determination to reclaim what has been unjustly taken.

Overview of Native Activism Rising in 1960s-70s, Inspired by Civil Rights Movement

activist event

Amidst the broader unrest of the 1960s, Native American activism underwent a significant resurgence. This period saw the emergence of numerous organizations, such as the American Indian Movement (AIM), which became instrumental in advocating for Native rights and sovereignty.

Influenced by the African American Civil Rights Movement, Native Americans organized sit-ins, marches, and legal actions to confront and address centuries of injustices. Notable events such as the occupation of Alcatraz in 1969 garnered public attention and support for the cause of tribal self-determination and the honoring of treaties.

Key Activism Milestones:

  • 1961: Establishment of the National Indian Youth Council
  • 1968: American Indian Movement founded
  • 1969: 19-month occupation of Alcatraz Island, promoting the message “Red Power
  • 1972: Trail of Broken Treaties, a cross-country protest ending in Washington D.C.
  • 1973: Occupation of Wounded Knee, site of the 1890 massacre, lasted 71 days

Through these bold actions, Native activists highlighted systemic issues like poor living conditions, inadequate education, and the erosion of native cultures. This era’s activism laid the ground for legislative changes, including the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975, which granted tribes greater control over their own affairs.

The relentless spirit and unified efforts of these activists marked a pivotal chapter in the fight for Native American sovereignty and civil rights.

Alcatraz Occupation

protest rally at alcatraz occupation

The occupation of Alcatraz stands as a significant event in the struggle for Native American rights, shedding light on broken treaties and asserting sovereignty.

1964: Brought National Attention to Broken Treaties

In 1964, a group of Lakota Sioux led by Richard McKenzie made the first notable attempt to claim Alcatraz Island. This brief occupation underlined the U.S. government’s failure to honor the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868.

The Treaty promised to return unused federal land to Native American tribes. Although the occupation lasted only four hours, it set a precedent and captured the public’s attention, emphasizing the U.S. government’s long history of broken promises to Indigenous peoples.

1969-71: An 18-Month Occupation Demanded Return of Land, Catalyzed Red Power Movement

Determined activists launched a more sustained occupation from November 1969 to June 1971. The activists, primarily students, along with other Native Americans, demanded that Alcatraz Island be turned over to them, citing the same treaty violations.

They envisioned an Indigenous cultural center and education facility. This 19-month standoff was marked by a spirit of community and self-reliance, with the occupiers establishing a school, a clinic, and regular newsletters. The occupation ended when federal marshals removed the remaining occupiers.

Nevertheless, it sparked the Red Power Movement, significantly influencing Native American activism and policies in the ensuing years.

American Indian Movement (AIM)

marching activists

The American Indian Movement (AIM) surged as a forceful advocate for Native American rights, capturing the national spotlight with its organized actions and unwavering stance on Indigenous sovereignty.

Founded in 1968 to Demand Recognition of Treaties and Sovereignty

AIM was established in 1968 to address systemic issues faced by Native Americans. Operating in the shadow of a tumultuous era for civil rights, its founders, including Dennis Banks, George Mitchell, and Clyde Bellecourt, set out a clear objective: to ensure the fulfillment of treaty obligations by the United States and to promote the sovereignty of Native American tribes.

The group was adamant in its quest to fortify the spiritual and cultural identity of Native peoples and resist the government’s attempts to undermine their rights.

Organized Protests Like 1972 Trail of Broken Treaties March and 1973 Wounded Knee Occupation

  • 1972 Trail of Broken Treaties March: AIM orchestrated a cross-country march culminating in Washington, D.C., where a 20-point position paper was presented, demanding restoration of treaty-making and the establishment of a treaty commission.
  • 1973 Wounded Knee Occupation: In a bold declaration against broken promises and assaults on their culture, AIM activists seized the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, the site of an 1890 massacre. Their 71-day standoff drew international attention, highlighting decades of grievances and igniting a national conversation about Native American rights.

Legal Victories

In a landscape often dominated by challenges, Native American tribes have secured several notable legal wins that have reinforced their rights and sovereignty. These victories have been milestones in the ongoing effort to defend Native American cultural practices and manage their resources.

1974 Boldt Decision Upheld Fishing Rights in WA

The Boldt Decision of 1974 was a landmark case for Native American rights in Washington State. The verdict recognized that treaties signed in the mid-1850s granted tribes the right to fish ‘at all usual and accustomed places’ and entitled them to up to 50% of the harvestable fish.

This decision reaffirmed the tribes’ co-management status over fish resources, a critical aspect of their cultural and economic practices.

1978 Laws Protected Religious Freedom and Tribal Jurisdiction

Two significant legislative actions in 1978 strengthened Native American sovereignty. The American Indian Religious Freedom Act acknowledged the importance of religious practices and aimed to protect and preserve the traditional religious rights and cultural practices of American Indians, Eskimos, Aleuts, and Native Hawaiians.

Simultaneously, the Indian Child Welfare Act established standards for the placement of Native American children in foster or adoptive homes. It provided tribes with exclusive jurisdiction over child custody proceedings which played a crucial role in preventing the dissolution of Native American families and culture.

The Longest Walk

The Longest Walk was a peaceful demonstration

In 1978, a significant event occurred that resonated throughout Native American communities and captured the attention of the United States government.

1978 March from Alcatraz to DC Focused Attention on Treaty Rights

The Longest Walk was a peaceful demonstration that began on February 11, 1978, orchestrated to bring awareness to Native American concerns, specifically treaty rights. Participants walked from Alcatraz Island in San Francisco to Washington, D.C., a journey spanning an astounding 3,000 miles.

They traversed through various weathers, holding strong to their commitment to reach the nation’s capital. Their arrival in Washington on July 15 united them with thousands of supporters for a rally that symbolized solidarity and purpose.


  • To educate the American public about historical treaty rights of Native Americans.
  • To assert the sovereignty of Native American tribes.


  • Increased public awareness.
  • Amplified discussions regarding treaty rights.

Prompted Defeat of Anti-Treaty Legislation

One of the primary objectives of The Longest Walk was to oppose legislation that threatened Native American sovereignty.

There were 11 bills under consideration in Congress that aimed to abrogate treaties with various tribes, which if passed, would have led to significant loss of Native rights and land.

Legislative Impact:

  • The march directly contributed to the defeat of these proposed bills.
  • Demonstrated the political influence of Native activism.

By mobilizing individuals to take part in this epic journey and by culminating in a significant political rally, The Longest Walk was an instrumental force in both protecting Native American treaty rights and promoting the power of peaceful protest.

It remains a testament to the commitment and resilience of Indigenous communities in preserving their cultural and civil liberties.


activists in the city

The legacy of Native American activism is a tapestry of resilience and perseverance woven through the vibrant threads of cultural resurgence and political autonomy.

It stands as a testament to heroic efforts and strategic triumphs in the ever-present quest for civil rights and sovereignty.

574 Federally Recognized Tribes Today Exercise Sovereignty

In the fabric of the United States, there are 574 federally recognized tribes, each claiming its rightful place as a sovereign entity. They engage in government-to-government relations with the United States, and hold authority over their internal affairs, justice systems, and natural resources.

The recognition of these tribes affirms their inherent sovereign powers and unbroken existence despite centuries of challenge.

Number of Federally Recognized Tribes by Region:

  • Northeast: 24
  • South: 73
  • Midwest: 36
  • West: 250
  • Pacific: 63
  • Alaska: 229

Economic Self-Sufficiency Enabling Cultural and Language Revitalization

Economic self-sufficiency has fueled a renaissance in Native American communities. As tribes bolster their economies through various ventures, they redirect resources to underpin cultural and language preservation initiatives.

These programs are crucial in revitalizing traditions that were once on the brink of extinction, fostering a sense of pride and identity within Tribal Nations.

  • Initiatives Facilitated by Economic Growth:
    • Cultural: Artisan workshops, cultural centers
    • Language: Immersion schools, language preservation curricula

Continued Activism Around Issues Like Land Return, Water Rights

Native American activists remain vigilant and assertive, particularly on issues of land return and water rights. Land, intrinsically tied to indigenous identity and heritage, continues to be a central point of contention.

Water rights, equally vital, ensure the sustainability of tribes and their ability to maintain their way of life. These topics not only hold material significance but are emblematic of broader environmental stewardship and spiritual values.

  • Land Return: Restitution, federal land transfers
  • Water Rights: Legal settlements, sustainable management policies