American Indians and the Activism for Global Indigenous Rights


By Daniel Cobb, Ph.D., The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Native activists could finally find a way to locate American Indian issues in the context of global indigenous rights after a lot of struggle and activism that took place during the 1960s. Radicals and reformers had all done their part to raise Native American issues as well as to put pressure on Congress, the courts, and several presidential administrations.

Hand holding a banner reads “INDIGENOUS RIGHTS ARE HUMAN RIGHTS” at a protest
Activists urged the Supreme Court as well as Congress to treat Native Americans better/differently. (Image: AndriiKova/Shutterstock)

How Literature and Music Helped

In the realm of literature, Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday led the way with his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, House Made of Dawn in 1969, a challenging exploration of culture, identity, tradition, and modernity set against the backdrop of one man’s attempt to adapt to civilian life in the wake of World War II.

In the music realm, artists such as Canadian Cree folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie and Dakota singer-songwriter Floyd Red Crow Westerman wrote songs that brought American Indian history and rights struggles to a wider audience. 

Meanwhile, Robbie Robertson, a Mohawk, played lead guitar for The Band, and Jesse Ed Davis, a Kiowa, used his six-string to back blues virtuoso, Taj Mahal. And in North Carolina, the legendary Lumbee musician Willie French Lowery wrote the original music for Strike at the Wind! an outdoor drama about Henry Berry Lowry, a pivotal figure in Lumbee history.

This is a transcript from the video series Native Peoples of North America. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Luiseno Artist Fritz Scholder

In the world of art, no one was like Luiseno artist Fritz Scholder. In works such as ‘Indian with Beer Can’, ‘The American Indian’, ‘Super Indian’, and ‘Indian Power’. Scholder exploded the boxes that had been constructed to contain Native cultures, art, and artists. 

His bold declarations of aesthetic sovereignty were joined by those of other cutting-edge artists, some of whom he trained at the Institute of American Indian Arts.

American Indian Higher Education Consortium

The Institute of American Indian Arts, along with the tribal college movement of which it was a part, demonstrated that the sovereignty struggle would also be carried out in higher education. Spearheaded by a new organization called the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, the tribal college movement revolutionized curricular approaches, course offerings, pedagogies, and epistemologies. 

It revisited the question of what form education should take, who it should serve, and to what end. So, too, did the American Indian Studies programs that were established with increasing frequency in public and private colleges and universities across the United States during the late 1960s and 1970s.

Among the leading figures in this intellectual movement was Vine Deloria, Jr., who followed his masterful 1969 manifesto Custer Died for Your Sins, with a series of incisive works, including We Talk, You Listen, Of Utmost Good Faith, God Is Red, and Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties. 

Learn more about assimilation and allotment.

A Shift Toward Global Indigenous Rights

Finally, Native activism made an important shift into the realm of global indigenous rights and international law during the 1970s. The International Indian Treaty Council, founded in 1974 as the international arm of the American Indian Movement, was especially instrumental. 

In 1974, the International Indian Treaty Council issued the “Declaration of Continuing Independence,” which called for, among other things, tribal representation at the United Nations. While the International Indian Treaty Council was unable to realize this goal, it did become the first tribal nongovernmental organization to gain consultative status in the UN Economic and Social Council. 

From that position, the International Indian Treaty Council advocated for an international statement recognizing the rights of all indigenous peoples, something realized after several decades of effort in the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Learn more about the Ghost Dance.

The Longest Walk

The Longest Walk at Washington in 1978
The Longest Walk started with a ceremony on Alcatraz Island. (Image: Warren K. Leffler/Public domain)

The Longest Walk, an event also spearheaded by the American Indian Movement, played a significant role in propelling this effort forward. It followed on the heels of the International NGO Conference on Discrimination against Indigenous Populations in the Americas, which was convened at the United Nations offices in Geneva, Switzerland, in September 1977. 

The Longest Walk began with a ceremony, instructively, on Alcatraz Island in February 1978. Participants then made a 3,200-mile march to Washington, DC, arriving on July 15, 1978. At the heart of the Longest Walk were several ideas: Sovereignty and treaty rights; the continued validity of traditional knowledge and teachings; an indigenous environmental ethic; ongoing concerns for the rights of indigenous women; the need for a final reckoning with settler colonialism; and the solidarity of the Western Hemisphere’s indigenous peoples.

What the Longest Walk Actually Accomplished 

Well, like the occupation of Alcatraz, the Trail of Broken Treaties, and Wounded Knee, its significance resides primarily in what it conveyed symbolically about the survival of Native nations, of tribal values and cultures, and of sovereignty and peoplehood. 

But, it would be a mistake to diminish their efficacy by characterizing them as little more than opportunities to make wild threats and militant statements, just as it would be a mistake to dismiss other forms of activism—such as working from within the system—as somehow selling out.

Taken together, all of these forms of activism during the late 1960s and through the 1970s suggest that Vine Deloria, Jr.’s distinction between militancy and nationalism may not be so easily drawn. Having re-established a foothold for tribal sovereignty, the focus turned to test its limits.

Common Questions about American Indians and the Activism for Global Indigenous Rights

Q: Who was N. Scott Momaday? 

N. Scott Momaday was a Native activist who attracted a lot of people with his famous book, A House Made of Dawn. The story of this book was about people trying to adapt to civilian life during World War II. The novel, written in 1969, won the Pulitzer Prize.

Q: Who was Vine Deloria, Jr.?

One of the greatest Native activists in the realm of higher education was Vine Deloria, Jr. In 1969, he followed his masterful work called Custer Died For Your Sins with other intellectual works such as God Is Red, Behind The Trail of Broken Treaties, and We Talk, You Listen.

Q: How did Native activists shift into the realm of global indigenous rights?

During the 1970s, Native activists shifted into the realm of global indigenous rights via the International Indian Treaty Council founded in 1974. This organization was very instrumental as the international arm of the American Indian Movement.

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