Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Sherry Smith on Red Power

In the 1960s hippies and Indians found common cause. How so? They joined forces to challenge and overturn longstanding federal policies designed to extinguish all remnants of native life and culture. In addition, civil rights advocates, Black Panthers, unions, Mexican-Americans, Quakers and other Christian denominations, and Hollywood celebrities also supported Red Power activists’ fight for Indian rights.

Portrait of native American woman in front of teepee. c.1862?-1875? Source: NYPL Labs Stereogranimator.
In Hippies, Indians, and the Fight for Red Power, Sherry Smith offers the first full account of this remarkable story. Indians understood they could not achieve political reform without help. Non-Indians had to be educated and enlisted. Smith shows how Indians found, among this hodge-podge of dissatisfied Americans, willing recruits to their campaign for recognition of treaty rights; realization of tribal power, sovereignty, and self determination; and protection of reservations as cultural homelands. Thoroughly researched and vividly written, this book not only illuminates this transformative historical moment but contributes greatly to our understanding of American social movements.

How did hippies and Indians find one another in the first place?

The Sixties counter-culture was looking for alternatives to their own essentially Anglo, middle class, suburban way of life. This search took them in various directions: East Asian religions, drugs, and in some cases, Native Americans. Hippies assumed Indians were spiritual, ecological, tribal, communal, genuine holdouts against American conformity, the “original long hairs.” Many hippies were satisfied with using such superficial, symbolic “Indians” in their iconography and dress and went no further. But a significant number of others sought out direct contact, looking for teachers. In short, hippies initiated the interactions. In the process, they learned about the distressed state of Indian America. Indian activists, aware of hippies’ interest, enlisted them in their cause.

Hippies’ relationships with Indian people are usually understood as detrimental. Do you see it differently?

During the 1967 Summer of Love in San Francisco, Cree folksinger Buffy Sainte-Marie articulated the critique which has since become common-place: that hippies exploited Indians in their efforts to co-opt native cultures. “The white people never seem to realize that they cannot suck the soul out of a race,” she said. “The ones with the sweetest intentions are the worst soul suckers. It’s the weirdest vampire idea.” So, the complaint that hippies engaged in their own form of cultural imperialism and exploitation was there from the start. There is much truth to that criticism and my book certainly abounds with examples. My point, however, is that is not the whole story. Some counterculture people became educated and involved in the political struggles of native people. Some Indians, in turn, actively sought out their help as they worked to bring media attention to Indian issues and push the nation to live up to its treaties, trust responsibilities, etc.

Where did this happen and what did it look like? How could hippies help?

The first place the confluence of hippies, Indians, and progressive/leftist groups came together was in the Pacific Northwest in the context of the Indian fishing rights controversy. For years native fishers had challenged state efforts to interfere with their treaty rights. They endured arrests, prosecutions, and jail time. They also filed lawsuits, but little changed. Noting the success of the civil rights movement in gaining support from non-African Americans and the consequent difference that made, Indian activists such as Hank Adams, Billy Frank, and others realized they needed the same kind of help. So, they sought non-Indian allies wherever they could find them.

Consequently, counterculture and radical types such as Students for a Democratic Society, the NAACP and ACLU, Quakers and Episcopalians, Black Panthers and Corky Gonzales’ Crusade for Justice, and celebrities such as Marlon Brando and Dick Gregory showed up to support “fish-ins”. Their presence brought instant media attention. They also provided enormous material support ranging from bodies at demonstrations to financial and legal help. In the end, the Justice Department weighed in on the side of the tribes and the courts reasserted fishing rights. It was a huge victory.

It sounds like hippies were only part of the coalition.

Yes, in some respects they were the vanguard. But others quickly joined in this strange and unexpected alliance. Activists of all kinds, colors, and inclinations found Indian demands for political reform compelling. The collaboration occurred in a constellation of overlapping interests and issues. Of course, tensions frequently characterized the interactions. But the opportunities for cooperation were important and powerful. Launched in the Pacific Northwest fish-ins, they reappeared at the takeover of Alcatraz Island, during the Trail of Broken Treaties and takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Building in Washington, DC, and at Wounded Knee, to give a few more examples.

Did any elements of this loose coalition surprise you?

The role of mainstream church organizations, particularly in supporting the American Indian Movement (AIM) came as a surprise. AIM was generally considered the most radical element of the Red Power movement and its criticisms of churches’ past roles on Indian reservations was pointed, direct, quite harsh, actually. Yet the Roman Catholic Church, the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church — to name just a few — donated thousands of dollars to AIM.

I shouldn’t have been surprised, however. For starters, churches and missionaries had established relationships with Indian communities for many years. They knew the people and they knew their problems. Further, since the 1950s, churches had been increasingly involved in the civil rights movement. So, moving into the Indian rights arena was a natural progression. But there was a qualitative difference in the dynamic by the 1960s. Indian activists insisted on being in the leadership roles and on defining their own goals. This represented a significant shift away from centuries of missionary efforts to convert Indians to Christianity and dictate to Indians. Now, they willingly took a back seat and worked toward social justice as Indians defined it.

What about the relationship between African Americans and Native Americans? How did that work?

This was a bit tricky, in part because Indian activists were not demanding civil rights but rather treaty rights. They didn’t want integration but rather a clearer commitment to what distinguished and separated them from other Americans: reservation land bases, the trust relationship with the federal government, sovereign tribal governments, for instance. Some Indian activists feared that by forming coalitions with blacks, Americans would not understand the distinctive nature of Indian rights. Further, no one could be immune to the deep-seated currents of racism that characterized this nation mid-20th century. Mutual suspicion was inevitable. Yet, some individuals on both sides of this racial divide reached out and offered their help.

What can we learn from these unlikely groups working together?

One of the take-away messages of this book is that Americans have demonstrated their willingness to support social justice movements that do not serve their own, personal interests. They will support and fight for others’ interests. A willingness to learn about others — and Indian issues truly required a learning curve for people because the fundamental keystones of Indian rights are so distinctive from those of other Americans — and then act upon it to push for significant reform, is an incredible attribute. That is exactly what many individuals and groups did in the Sixties and Seventies. They had nothing to gain personally other than the satisfaction of knowing the nation was finally living up to its promises to Indian people.

It is important that this coalition building occurred across racial, ethnic, and class lines. I love the fact that both Jane Fonda and working class people (through their unions) supported the Indians who occupied Alcatraz Island. We have become increasingly fragmented in this country. But not so long ago, people overcame the things that separated them and joined together for a common cause.

Can it happen again?

Absolutely. We need more stories like this. We need to be reminded about the possibilities of cooperation and community and educated about the processes and pitfalls. People can be bigger than their selfish interests. I think our nation has been in a reactive state for forty years now, turning away from the turmoil and challenges of the Sixties. But I am heartened by the resurgence of activism — Occupy America, for example. And although things won’t return to the Sixties – I wouldn’t want them to — it is certainly possible and even probable that social and economic justice movements will be revitalized. Our nation is continually in process of moving toward its promises of freedom and justice for all. It moves in fits and starts but it’s still moving.

Sherry L. Smith is University Distinguished Professor of History and Associate Director of the Clements Center for Southwest Studies at Southern Methodist University. She is the author of Hippies, Indians, and the Fight for Red Power; Reimagining Indians: Native Americans through Anglo Eyes, 1880-1940 (OUP, 2000); The View from Officers’ Row: Army Perceptions of Western Indians; and Sagebrush Soldier: William Earl Smith’s View of the Sioux War of 1876.

Subscribe to the OUPblog via email or RSS.
Subscribe to only American history articles on the OUPblog via email or RSS.
View more about this book on the

Recent Comments

  1. James Simon

    I doubt the old AIM guard will come clean on the Wounded Knee murder of civil rights activist Ray Robinson, shot in the leg following an argument with AIM leaders. Dennis Banks reportedly shot Robinson in the other leg to finish the job. Robinson was left to bleed to death in their makeshift clinic, staffed by Madonna Gilbert Thunder Hawk and Loreli DeCora Means, both of whom helped cover up this murder (and their role in the 1975 murder of Anna Mae Pictou Aquash.) Robinson’s widow, Cheryl Buswell Robinson, knows what happened to her husband and wants his remains, buried near the village ruins, repatriated. Robinson, third tier under MLK, went to Wounded Knee to forge an alliance of the type you suggest.

  2. […] that the North American counterculture, with its openness to alternative worldviews, its embrace of Native American spirituality and other forms of holistic thought, and its rejection of crass consumption, was already well on […]

Comments are closed.