The Rise of American Indian Youth Movement in the 1960s


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

An important development during the late 1950s and early 1960s was the rise of the American Indian youth movement. The youth movement grew out of an influx of Native people on college and university campuses following WWII. Indian clubs became places for them to develop a sense of community. But, the actual politicization of these and other students took place elsewhere.

Silhouette of a Native American Indian girl in the sunset while holding a dream catcher
The American Indian youth movements helped the next generation gain better insight into the sociopolitical realities. (Image: Ning Je taime/Shutterstock)

Voices of American Indian Youth Movement

Among the most important places was the Workshop on American Indian Affairs. According to the formal literature, the workshops were conceived of as an interdisciplinary summer course that provided leadership training, promoted college retention, and equipped young people to help their communities deal with the prospect of termination.

But the workshops came to be much more than that—especially after a Cherokee anthropologist named Robert K. Thomas placed his mark on the curriculum during the late 1950s and early 1960s. In fact, they came to serve as an intellectual training ground for a cadre of young people who would, in time, put forward yet another definition of freedom through an organization of their own, called the National Indian Youth Council.

The incipient youth movement intersected with and was transformed by the American Indian Chicago Conference in June 1961. The Chicago conference brought together hundreds of tribal representatives from across Indian Country to draft a “Declaration of Indian Purpose”. It was to be delivered to John F. Kennedy, the newly elected President of the United States.

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

An Unexpected Clash of Opinions

The organizers of the Chicago conference arranged to have the students attending that year’s Workshop on American Indian Affairs participate. They thought the experience would serve as an inspiration to them—that the students would be encouraged by watching their elders working together to craft a shared vision for the future. But that’s not what happened.

Instead, some of the young people involved in the Chicago conference, including Clyde Warrior, a Ponca; Mel Thom, Walker River Paiute; Bruce Wilkie, Makah; and the Mohawk Shirley Hill Witt, grew impatient. They formed their own caucus and advocated for more strident demands and harsher critiques of the federal government. As Clyde Warrior later recalled, “It was sickening to see American Indians get up and just tell obvious lies about how well the federal government was treating them, what fantastic and magnificent things the federal government was doing for us. What was happening was these tribal officials or finks were just going into that gear of appealing to the Great White Father again. You know, “Really, we like you, Big Daddy. Keep sending us things. Keep programming for us that’s causing us more frustration…Keep doing things that’ll break up the social system. Keep doing things that’ll bust families further apart.”

Mel Thom added, “We began to question what the leadership really stood for. We were supposed to be proud and have dignity. Of course, we couldn’t understand why we had dignity watching our own people going to hell.”

Learn more about the occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969.

National Indian Youth Council

Many of the young people, like Warrior and Thom, had already become familiar with one another through their participation in the Southwest Regional Indian Youth Council. And the conviction that it had fallen on them to be the ones to lead their communities into the future carried through the rest of the summer.

A black and white photo of a demonstration of the National Indian Youth Council members, carrying placards with messages like 'BIA What Are You' and 'Indians Are Red'.
The workshops and councils led to a new pan-Indian movement. (Image: Denver Public Library/Public domain)

In August 1961, they founded the National Indian Youth Council in Gallup, New Mexico. There they advocated “establishing and maintaining a greater Indian America, one founded on the inherent sovereign rights of all Indians.”

In succeeding years, the Workshop on American Indian Affairs became both a meeting ground and an intellectual training ground for this youth movement. And Robert K. Thomas, the Cherokee anthropologist mentioned previously, seized upon the opportunity to train a generation of young people to lead a new nationalistic pan-Indian movement.

Long-term Effects of a Good Workshop

Consider some of the questions that Thomas and the other instructors posed to students during the workshops. They asked them to “describe the consequences for the world and social relations of a folk people under  a colonial administration.” And, even more pointedly, they asked, “Using examples, relate colonialism to your community.” 

They also challenged the students to compare colonialism in Native America “to India, Kenya, Ghana, Maori in New Zealand, aboriginal people in the Philippines”. Moving into other areas in dire need of reevaluation, the instructors directed students to “Give what you consider to be an acceptable definition of the term ‘race’,“ and asked them to define “Who is an Indian?” The responses the students offered suggest how the workshop contributed to what D’Arcy McNickle described as an awakening.

Learn more about the Indian New Deal.

A Breath of Fresh Insights 

A Hopi student named Frank Dukepoo wrote, “I had never before thought of the Indians as compared to colonialism. I thought colonialism existed only…in places such as Africa.” Of the impact colonialism had on her Rosebud Sioux community, Janis Herman wrote, “The folk society is torn apart piece by piece… Then there is nothing, no society, refitted into where the old one was torn away.” Browning Pipestem, an Oto from Oklahoma, observed, “The people who are under colonial administration actually have no active part in governing themselves.”

A Makah student from Neah Bay in Washington named Bruce Wilkie added, “With responsibility and decision-making taken away from them, the Indian people have little, or no faith in the system of government imposed upon them…Group dignity appears lacking because the Indians are not allowed the prerequisite to group dignity— self-government.

As long as there is a colonial agency set up to administer to Indian affairs,” Wilkie concluded, “there will always be an Indian social problem.”

Common Questions about The Rise of American Indian Youth Movement in the 1960s

Q: What was the initial purpose of the Workshop on American Indian Affairs?

The purpose of the summer course was to train young American Indians to help their communities face the prospect of termination. To accomplish this, they were provided leadership training.

Q: What happened during the Chicago Conference?

The students disagreed with the course of action their leaders were taking. They believed that what they were saying at the conference was far from the truth. This was how the American Indian youth movement became political.

Q: What were some of the questions presented at the Workshop on American Indian Affairs?

The students there, many of whom were part of the American Indian youth movement, were asked questions that led to insightful answers like what “race’’ was and who qualified as an Indian.

Keep Reading
Geronimo and the Chiricahua Apache
The Nimi’ipuu: Surviving against All Odds
The Modoc and the Last Indian Wars