On an early November morning in 1969, Richard Oakes, shirtless but with his boots still strapped on, leaped off the side of the three-masted boat carrying him and a group of Native student activists to Alcatraz Island. Three others followed, racing ahead of the boat that slowly trailed them. It was perfectly cinematic, the kind of thing people might tell stories about 50 years on, which was the point. As Kent Blansett pointed out in his biography of Oakes, Journey to Freedom: Richard Oakes, Alcatraz, and the Red Power Movement, Oakes and his fellow organizers had amassed a throng of local media to witness their attempt to occupy and reclaim the former federal prison island.
Oakes, a Mohawk ironworker and activist, alongside fellow leaders of the Indians of All Tribes movement like Lanada WarJack, saw the Occupation of Alcatraz as an opportunity to publicly reckon with the federal government’s urban relocation program—which had clustered Indigenous people in places like Oakland as part of an assimilationist project—and the erasure of Indigenous history and culture within the California university system. Viewed on its own, the occupation was the perfect encapsulation of the kinds of nonviolent direct action that defined the time period in American history: As the occupiers grew in numbers, they opened their own school for the children on the island, began a radio show hosted by activist and artist John Trudell, and wrote what would become a foundational curriculum of Native history for the institutions the occupiers had become disillusioned with. Though the demands would vary as the occupation extended, the IAT wanted the United States to adhere to the treaties it signed with tribal nations. They also wanted the island returned to them so that they could build Native-focused cultural and educational centers as well as a museum. (Oakes famously offered to buy it for “$24 and glass beads and red cloth, a precedent set by the white man’s purchase of a similar island about 300 years ago.”) Fundamentally though, they were fighting for sovereignty—a demand that bridged their movement to its past and future.
Oakes’s dive and the 18-month occupation of Alcatraz signaled the beginning of the Red Power movement, a name that functioned as commentary on the intertribal nature of the organizations that made up the movement. It was the natural development from the Native nationalism that had defined prior movements, and an attempt at establishing solidarity among hundreds of tribal nations. Through the power of direct action and partnering with popular non-Native public figures like Jane Fonda and Marlon Brando, Red Power vaulted conversations about self-determination into the mainstream American zeitgeist. But it also, in its messy ambitiousness, revealed the limits of a pan-Indian movement that lacked a central political ideology and was split on the use of violent force as a way to achieve sovereignty.
While the movement as defined by historians ended in the mid-1970s, the tenets of Red Power linger in modern pushes for sovereignty in all forms, from the struggle for protection of Lakota waters and land during the Standing Rock protests, to the legal challenges to the Indian Child Welfare Act, to the attempts at securing the traditional lands of the Mashpee Wampanoag. But the politics that define these modern battles are now much clearer than they were in the time of Red Power. Conservatism has almost wholly aligned with the privatization of Native lands and the extraction of the natural resources in and underneath them. Yet the American left, even in its current resurgence, continues to lag behind on the issues of sovereignty and nationhood, leaving left-leaning Native peoples organizing their own multiracial, intertribal coalitions, trying to understand how best to infiltrate the American institutions of power to protect their lands and achieve true autonomy as nations.
The modern approaches to these issues still vary, but the goal—a healthier, equitable Indian Country built from the bottom up and not the top down—is the same vision that drove Oakes to dive into the bracing waters of the San Francisco Bay half a century ago.
The term Red Power is attributed to the late Vine Deloria Jr., the foremost intellectual to spring from the movement, thanks in part to his hugely influential manifesto, Custer Died for Your Sins. In the months after its 1969 publication and the beginnings of the Alcatraz occupation, several Native-led organizations formed or launched their own direct actions. Over a span of three years, occupations at Wounded Knee and the Bureau of Indian Affairs forced the same questions of sovereignty and broken obligations by the federal government, their supposed trustee.
They also demonstrated the necessarily fraught nature of the activism: The colonizing institutions that were its target—which had been and continue to be weaponized against Native people—were also necessary to bring about change needed in Indian Country. Among the many products of colonization is what’s called the trustee status that the U.S. maintains with tribal nations. This relationship is not a promise or a handshake deal or some moral obligation; it is the result of the federal government entering legally binding agreements with sovereign states. In exchange for the tens of millions of acres of ceded land, many of these treaties stipulated that the government would provide funding for health care, schooling, political representation in Congress, and essential supplies for as long as the U.S. held the land. In all of this, sovereignty was and is everything. In terms of a working definition, its better-known by-products—writing one’s own laws, developing community-specific economic models, engaging in nation-to-nation negotiations—are what Native people are forced to use to define it to outsiders, because expressions of legislative action and the pursuit of capital are the easiest ways for Americans to grasp the concept.
But American policies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and still today, sought to circumvent both these treaties and sovereignty. Congress forced tribes onto land that was unsuitable for building self-sustaining economies and underfunded programs like the Indian Health Service and Bureau of Indian Education; when it realized it had given many of the tribes land with access to valuable natural resources, it attempted to entirely erase Indian Country. Children were taken from their homes and placed in boarding schools where their languages were beaten out of them. Land was taken out of trust and parceled, sold away to the highest bidder. Entire communities were uprooted and moved to Brooklyn and Oakland and the Twin Cities. Until the presidency of Richard Nixon, the official American stance toward Native nations was one of political termination. Post-Nixon, America’s Indian Country approach has marginally improved, but the imbalance imposed by the federal system still looms.
“How are you going to join a Democratic Party that’s invested in your own dispossession?” Nick Estes, author, professor, and organizer, asked me rhetorically, naming the complexity of the relationship the Native left has with the American state. “You can never have a leader who’s going to fully have the interest of poor, working-class, Indigenous, Black folks in mind.” Still, it is undeniable that these colonizing institutions have a place in the fight for sovereignty. “You can’t turn away from the [Bureau of Indian Affairs]; you can’t turn away from electoralism, even if we want to criticize it,” Estes said. “These are the institutions and ways most people engage politics.”
Estes is a citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe and elected leader of the Red Nation, a socialist organization formed in 2014, initially to combat police and state violence against Native people. It has since expanded to both coasts and engages in mutual aid work and international coalition-building. Among its many functions, it’s held rallies in support of Palestine and in protest of colonist revisionism and conducted local organizing to drive support for the Red Deal, a policy outline the group drafted to center Indigenous needs and voices in the global response to climate change. The Red Nation is designed to show how a truly democratic movement can hold both the U.S. and tribal governments accountable for acts fueled by capitalism and colonization.
The organizing can be challenging. “On the left, Indigenous people are over-romanticized, especially in the environmental movement. We’re not allowed to see ourselves or talk as kind of like global actors or people who have larger structural critiques of capitalism. We’re always asked to reroute everything through this Native wisdom,” Estes said. “There is such a thing as a traditional or Indigenous ecological knowledge. But there is nothing in any culture prior to colonization that prepares people for colonization and genocide. We are products of history, and Indigenous nations are equally culpable in engaging in extractive economies, just as the larger economy is.”
Tara Houska, Couchiching First Nation, saw the complicated dimensions of mainstream political work Estes described while working on the Hill—first with internships at the White House and Department of the Interior, then in a series of tribal-focused lobbying positions. Houska said that while she was not naïve about Congress, she underestimated how fundamental “interpersonal relationships and campaign donations” are to the operations of the legislative body. She grew disillusioned. People in power in Washington “just didn’t have a good understanding of Native people and didn’t prioritize in any way that struggle.”
But in the spring of 2016, she joined Senator Bernie Sanders’s primary campaign as a staff adviser on Native and Indigenous issues. Frustrated as she was by the lack of progress she’d seen on the Hill, joining Sanders’s campaign “wasn’t a very difficult decision.” Under Houska’s advice in that campaign, Sanders became the first presidential candidate to lay out a specific plan for Indian Country—his Empowering Tribal Nations platform included reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, prioritizing federal funding for Indian Country, streamlining the land-into-trust process, and enacting a climate-focused just transition with Native communities in mind. He also made it an integral part of his campaign circuit. Where Hillary Clinton, his opponent and the eventual Democratic nominee, offered only silence as the Standing Rock protesters were hosed down and beaten by a militarized police force, Sanders rallied against it.
After the campaign ended, though, Houska took a step back from D.C. and politics. She turned her focus to the frontline work of protecting tribal lands and Indigenous people from invasive efforts by gas and oil companies through work as an organizer to stop pipelines like Line 3, an Enbridge project set to snake past three reservations in Minnesota, and Keystone XL, TC Energy’s leaky plan for Lakota land.
“I live in a world where I’m pragmatic, and I don’t think that you can pretend like the colonial government doesn’t exist,” Houska told me. “But I also very strongly believe that our liberation does not lie in solely becoming that, either.”
This push-pull mirrors the line Oakes and his fellow IAT leaders walked in the Occupation of Alcatraz. That echo also comes through in media tactics of modern direct actions, whether in Standing Rock or the Wet’suwet’en protests in Canada. Just as Oakes and others knew how to marry their activism with a sustained media campaign, the current generation took the natural next step by seizing social media as its messaging vehicle. Where once the newspapers and television news broadcasts were the only way to grab America’s attention, the introduction of social media has made it more difficult for non-Native people and mainstream media outlets to ignore or mischaracterize the violence happening almost daily.
Messaging, of course, is only a part of winning these political battles. Coalitions continue to be built among the burgeoning environmental left and the Indigenous left. But these movements have also further highlighted the need for change within the colonizing institutions. The protests exist to make a larger philosophical point about the nature of colonization and Indigenous land theft; they also exist to change the decisions made by those in power so that future projects won’t be rammed through Native land. (Even “victories” in this space are an opportunity to interrogate the same patterns: President Obama dragged his feet on the Dakota Access Pipeline before issuing an executive order in his final month as president that halted it, only to have President Trump immediately overturn it.)
This is the strange balance constantly being negotiated and renegotiated: Native peoples invest their energy in both their own communities and tribal governments and the American institutions that often limit them. It’s cyclically disappointing—inadequate funding offered in response to desperate need, politicians talking out of both sides of their mouths on Native rights, Democrats colluding with extractive industries just as enthusiastically as Republicans—but remains a necessary tactic.
Accepting this, as both Estes and Houska found, means inheriting tools and entering spaces that have steadfastly stood against Indigenous people from their creation. The federal government, through congressional appropriation packages that fund the Indian Health Service and Bureau of Indian Education, still acts as a dam between the health and success of dozens of tribal nations as political entities. Congress and the Department of the Interior hold the ability to recognize tribes as sovereign entities. These bodies can take land into trust, and, as seen recently with the Mashpee Wampanoag, they can take it back. The Secretary of the Interior—the head of the most important governmental agency to Indian Country—is not chosen by tribal leaders but by the U.S. president. The situation is not much brighter for elected politicians, as Native people have historically been disenfranchised and undercounted in the census. It’s why it took until 2018 for the first two Native women, Deb Haaland and Sharice Davids, to join Congress and bring the grand total of Native members of Congress to four House representatives, or 0.7 percent of the bicameral body.
“I think it can be easy to get wrapped up in that system and to change the perceptions of sovereignty and start defining it by colonial government and not by the people themselves,” Houska said, returning to the same conflicts of the early Red Power movement. “Where we’re at demands far more than just a presidential shift. There needs to be an emphasis on bottom-up organizing and on localities, because the decisions that are being made at local levels can really influence the reality of somebody living in a community.”
In the opening paragraph of Custer’s chapter on government agencies, Deloria wrote, “People have found it hard to think of Indians without conjuring up the picture of a massive bureaucracy oppressing a helpless people.” He observed that this depiction, of tribal nations being forcibly dependent on a malicious federal government, was often used by both the left and the right to make the case for and against socialism. Meanwhile, Indian people, Deloria posited, “fully realize that with no funds for investment in social services, they are dependent upon the federal government for services which an ordinary citizen provides for himself and which other poor do not receive except under demeaning circumstances. Yet they are also fully aware that the services they receive are not gratis services.”
The struggle for sovereignty and justice is not an easy one. There is no perfect answer as to how much we should engage with foreign institutions of historically malicious power versus institutions of our own design. And just as the Red Power movement had its fair share of bombastic and self-destructive leaders, the modern fight for a more just future in Indian Country will be littered with frustrating compromises and imperfect actors. Indian Country is not a monolith, which is obvious on its face but escapes notice in so much non-Native writing and thinking on the subject. Within these nations among individual citizens, there is a great deal of division as to what the ideal economic pursuits should be. Still, there is room to build toward a shared vision.
Oakes’s quote that “Alcatraz is not an island, it’s an idea,” speaks to this, too. The occupation, IAT, the American Indian Movement, and the countless Native organizers who have taken up the mantle of sovereignty were stewards of the idea. A half-century removed from Oakes’s dive and Deloria’s masterpiece, the same questions that defined the Red Power movement remain just as relevant. Their movement, like ours now, was partial. That’s not a reason for despair as much as it’s a fact of struggle. As with Oakes diving into the bay to speed ahead of the boat, the change we want will never come fast enough. It will take decades of organizing, maybe even longer, before the Indigenous population in the U.S. is adequately respected, represented, and understood by our American counterparts. In facing this reality, we should not find consternation but comfort. Red Power does not have a beginning or an end. The work only stops when we do.