The Battle against Native American Racism


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

The National Indian Youth Council (NIYC) concentrated on building an organizational foundation and membership base to battle Native American racism from its outset. The young activists organized conferences, gave speeches on college campuses, and served on boards of other organizations. They also committed the organization to hold an annual meeting in tribal communities and they launched a campaign against racist imagery in the media.

Hands of female protester holding a banner reads “NO RACISM”
The NIYC had a major impact on controlling racism. (Image: MIA Studio/Shutterstock)

Battle for Fishing Rights

In late 1963 and early 1964, the National Indian Youth Council’s activism intersected with a grassroots fishing rights movement along the Nisqually and Puyallup rivers in the Pacific Northwest. For decades, the State of Washington had been harassing Native people for exercising their reserved rights to hunt and fish in usual and accustomed places. 

However, the crisis escalated after the passage of Public Law 280, as the state, citing concerns over conservation, started closing the rivers, arresting Indian fishers, and confiscating their fish, nets, and boats. Puyallups orchestrated demonstrations and fish-ins on the Puyallup River. 

Frank’s Landing became the focal point on the Nisqually River. Nisqually fishing rights activist Billy Frank, a former Marine, lived there with his wife, Norma, and his parents. So, too, did his sister Maiselle and her husband Al Bridges and their daughters Suzette, Valerie, and Alison. They were joined by all manner of fishing rights activists and advocates, including the actor Marlon Brando, comedian Dick Gregory, and Canadian Cree folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie. 

They were also joined by Hank Adams, an Assiniboine who grew up in the Quinault community. Adams, who was also a member of the National Indian Youth Council, played an instrumental role in coordinating a fish-in on the Puyallup River and a massive demonstration at the state capitol in Olympia in March 1964. Although the battle over fishing rights had merely begun, this event signaled an important shift in the Indian rights movement, one in which direct action was coming increasingly to the fore.

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

Vine Deloria, Jr.’s Contribution

At the same time, the National Congress of American Indians continued its push for reform. By 1964, Vine Deloria, Jr., a Standing Rock Sioux, though an unlikely choice given his youth and inexperience, became the Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians. And he quickly breathed new life into it.

With great acuity and no small amount of sardonic wit, he used his editorials in the organization’s newsletter, the NCAI Sentinel, testimonies in Congress, annual meetings, and interactions with federal officials to blunt termination and promote tribal self-determination.

Learn more about Native America in the Early 1900s.

The Indian Resources Development Act

One of his most important victories came in orchestrating the efforts to defeat the Indian Resources Development Act, legislation that Interior Secretary Stewart Udall promised would revolutionize Indian Country but that he drafted without tribal consultation.

Native American Indian schoolgirl in the countryside
The future of the Native American community looked brighter after the president favored self-determination. (Image: Ruslana Iurchenko/Shutterstock)

The National Indian Youth Council joined the National Congress of American Indians in defeating that legislation, and there was plenty of formal and informal collaboration between the organizations. But this couldn’t stop divisions from widening during the latter half of the decade.

In the spring of 1968, major breakthroughs appeared imminent. The War on Poverty, with its emphasis on maximum feasible participation of the poor and local initiative, had become a critically important source of leverage against the paternalism of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Departments throughout the executive branch had created special Indian Desks that opened new sources of funding to tribal governments.

Termination was all but stopped in its tracks and, in ‘The Forgotten American’, the first special message to Congress on Indians in the 20th century, President Lyndon Johnson disavowed the hated policy in favor of self-determination and partnership self-help.

Learn more about the Ghost Dance.

Did Native American Racism Eradicate Completely?

Five African children greeting bypassers from a colonial house balcony
Native Americans felt they had more in common with other oppressed minorities around the world than what met the eye. (Image: Riccardo Mayer/Shutterstock)

Termination, however, had already taken a terrible toll on the 100 tribes, bands, and rancherias subjected to it. 13,263 individual American Indian people’s lives were affected, not to mention their descendants, and 1.3 million acres of tribally owned lands were lost. The economic consequences were grave; the costs in terms of health, education, and welfare were high.

Moreover, the Pacific Northwest fishing rights campaign was getting thwarted by lower court decisions, the War on Poverty was being underfunded and stripped of its most innovative characteristics, racial tensions were intensifying, and the war in Vietnam was beginning to look ever more like an act of American imperialism.

Indeed, Vine Deloria, Jr., who stepped down as Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians in 1967, spoke to the currency these sentiments had in Indian Country when he observed,

We have more in common with the Africans and Vietnamese and all the non-Western people than we do with the Anglo-Saxon culture of the United States. We are a tribal people with tribal sympathies. An Indian doesn’t have to know or understand anything about Kenya, or Burma, or Peru, or Vietnam. He feels the way they feel.

Common Questions about the Battle against Native American Racism

Q: What caused major protests against demolishing fishing rights?

The harassment fueled by Native American racism had been ongoing for years. But after the passage of Public Law 280, the state started confiscating the equipment of Indian fishers. This led to protests against unnecessary harassment.

Q: What were some of the accomplishments of Vine Deloria Jr.?

Vine Deloria Jr. used his editorials written for newspapers combined with constantly interacting with federal officials and testimonies in Congress to advance the idea of self-determination for Indians and, in turn, eliminating Native American racism.

Q: What were the costs of termination for the Indian community?

Termination led to many Indians losing their land. More than 100 tribes were negatively affected. This act of Native American racism had a ripple effect on future generations.

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