Red Power Rising: The National Indian Youth Council and the Origins of Native Activism

by Bradley G. Shreve, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma 2011

Book Review by Zig Zag

I have to admit, my knowledge of the early years of Native social movements was weak, prior to reading this book. Although I had heard of the NIYC, I hadn’t really grasped what they were, other than a group of Native university students who participated in early grassroots struggles in the 1950s and ’60s.

Shreve isn’t Native (at least I found no mention of this), but he appears to have sought out several former members of the early NIYC as sources. He also went through large amounts of historical material, including NIYC publications, meeting notes, and correspondence between members. As well, there is a highly supportive forward by Shirley Hill Witt, an Akwesasne Mohawk who was a member of NIYC and its first vice-president. According to Shreve, the NIYC is one of the most important but overlooked of the early grassroots Native movements, with the origins of the Red Power movement usually ascribed to the occupation of Alcatraz and the American Indian Movement (incorrectly, Shreve asserts).


The National Indian Youth Council was established in 1961 in Gallup, New Mexico, comprised of Native college and university students who believed, loosely, in sovereignty, traditional culture, treaty rights, and self-determination. They had formed from the Regional Indian Youth Council (RIYC), established in 1957. This generation was greatly influenced by the changed socio-economic conditions of post-WW2 America, the Cold War (anti-communism), and the Black civil rights struggle. They were also affected by federal Indian policy at the time, which was termination—the planned assimilation of Native people and the ending of reserves and tribal councils.

Shreve’s account opens with an earlier background history of Pan-Indian political organizations in the US, including the Society of American Indians (SAI, 1911) and the American Indian Federation (AIF, 1934), both of which promoted Christian beliefs and assimilation. Later, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI, 1944) would become a lobby and litigation group for tribal councils then opposed to the termination policies being pursued by the government (the NCAI sought to maintain the status quo, and were not traditionalists).

Through their writings, speeches, and actions, the NIYC challenged the old guard of the NCAI, whose conservatism was displayed in a banner at their conventions stating “Indians Don’t Demonstrate.” Yet, the NIYC was connected to such state-funded bureaucratic organizations through funding and political alliances. Eventually the NIYC became a bureaucratic organization itself, entrenched in the multi-billion dollar Native legal industry (which exists in both Canada and the US).


The early Regional IYC (the precursor to the NIYC) was based in the Southwest. It began with annual youth council gatherings in Santa Fe, New Mexico, beginning in 1955. Out of these one-day meetings, the RIYC was eventually established in 1957. The RIYC’s early efforts were focused on teaching students parliamentary processes and political organization, while instilling some sense of self-determination. Their vision was that of training future tribal leaders. The main activities of the RIYC appears to have been the annual conferences and training seminars, some of which lasted 6 weeks and went as credits towards school degrees.

The RIYC was a very diverse group lacking a common analysis, with some members being pro-assimilation conservatives, some promoting Native culture, and others being Mormons. What Shreve describes as “self-help rhetoric” characterized much of the formative discussions and debate in the first years of the RIYC:

“From the initial gatherings in Santa Fe, native youth stressed the tenets of individualism, self-discipline, a strong work ethic, and civic nationalism so fundamental to postwar America “ (Red Power Rising, p. 54).

Shreve quotes Beryl Blue Spruce, a speaker at one of the RIYC’s annual gatherings, as indicative of this sentiment among many Native students, essentially blaming Natives for their poverty:

“We’re lazy. We’re lazy and we’re proud that we’re little babies sitting in a mud puddle, sitting there and wishing that someone else would come and pull us out…” (Red Power Rising, p . 55).

Spruce’s speech was widely distributed by the RIYC, and Spruce himself became a popular speaker at subsequent conferences and gatherings. Perhaps this was an initial attempt to articulate a desire for self-organization outside of the BIA/tribal council system, albeit in a crude and highly assimilated manner.

By 1960, the RIYC had expanded with some 350 students representing 57 different tribal nations, bands, and pueblos attending its annual gathering (with over 1,000 on the group’s mailing list).

During the 1961 annual RIYC gathering in Oklahoma, a new president was elected: Clyde Warrior, a traditional Ponca from Oklahoma, and a champion fancy dancer. Warrior had been raised in poverty but had later attended the University of Oklahoma.

During election speeches made on the first night of the gathering, Warrior, a full-blood, walked to the podium after a presentation by his main opponent, a light-skinned Native. He rolled up his sleeve, and, playing the race card, declared: “This is all I have to offer. The sewage of Europe does not flow through these veins” (Red Power Rising, p . 60).

Warrior won in a “landslide.” Shreve describes him as a “A militant before militancy had spread widely among the youth of the 1960s, he captured the imaginations of people and forged a new direction in intertribal politics” (Red Power Rising, p. 61).

Unfortunately for Warrior, and perhaps the later NIYC as well, the alcohol of Europe did flow through his veins, in large quantities. Warrior was a hardcore alcoholic. In 1968, Warrior would die of liver failure at the age of 28.

Weeks after his 1961 election victory, Warrior and many other RIYC members attended the American Indian Chicago Conference, described as one of the largest intertribal gatherings of the period. Here, RIYC members resolved to establish a national youth council. Shreve paraphrases Vine Deloria Jr. describing it as a watershed event because “students broke free from the RIYC’s white sponsorship and embarked on a course of self-determination.” (Red Power Rising, p.62).

Shirley Hill Witt, the early member of the NIYC, recalled the sentiments of the youth caucus during the Chicago Conference:

“We rejected much of the ‘hang around the fort’ Indian leadership—the Uncle Tomahawks—which we saw as dedicated to appeasing the Washington bureaucracy… it was diplomatic to avoid direct confrontation with the NCAI and others—we kept reminding ourselves that honoring our elders was an important cross-cultural value among all tribes—still it was time to break the ‘youth does not speak’ rule at this threshold in Pan-Indian development, we were certain. Yes, there were many forward-thinking delegates, and we indeed sought them out as sounding boards and even sponsors of our position, but in the end we would not be swayed from our mission as we saw it” (Red Power Rising, p. 90).


In the summer of 1961, the NIYC was formed, even as the RIYC began to flounder due to funding cuts. The group’s experience in the RIYC, however, would form the basis of their new organizing efforts. The first president was Mel Thom, a Paiute from Nevada who was also a member of the NCAI (and from whom some of the initial funding was secured).

One of the first activities of the NIYC was the establishment of training programs as had been done in the RIYC. During these workshop trainings, participants came from many different tribal nations, and a sense of Pan-Indianism quickly began to form.

“They also came to embrace intertribalism, recognizing that regardless of tribe, Native peoples faced many of the same overarching problems—problems they could best confront through a united effort. The generation of Native youth who partook in the workshops thus formed a powder keg that needed only a spark to explode into a movement.” (Red Power Rising, p. 88)


AIM occupation of BIA HQ in Washington, 1972

According to Shreve, that spark was the 1964 ‘fish-ins’ that occurred in Washington state.

Two years earlier, two Washington state Natives, both university students, had joined the NIYC: Bruce Wilkie, a Makah from Neah Bay, and Hank Adams, an Assinboine raised on a Quinault reserve. Their joining NIYC shaped the group’s involvement in the 1964 fisheries/treaty rights struggle.

Following the arrests of Native fishermen and subsequent court cases in 1963, which rejected Native claims of treaty rights to the fisheries, on January 1, 1964, a group of Nisquallys went to Franks Landing on the Nisqually river. When they arrived they found the road blocked by game wardens, who had closed the river to any fishing. Arrests occurred as Natives attempted to cast their nets.

In February 1964, members of the tribes requested the NIYC’s assistance, who had just recently decided to focus on treaty rights. Adams is described as the ‘master mind’ behind the fish-ins, which he eventually developed into a strategy based on the legal and related economic interests of the fisheries industry.

Working with the Nisqually, Puyallups, and Muckleshoots, Adams and the NIYC devised a high-profile media ‘fish-in’ with the Hollywood actor Marlon Brando, who was arrested, along with a priest. In the following two days, more arrests were made, and the campaign climaxed with a rally of several thousand at the state capitol building in Olympia. The fish-in was modeled after the tactics of the Black civil rights movement (sit-ins, rallies, preachers and celebrities, etc.). Years later, the Natives won their treaty rights through subsequent legal challenges.

Shreve describes this as the first real intertribal action of the period in glowing terms:

“Years before the Indians of All tribes took over Alcatraz Island or militants in the American Indian Movement descended on Wounded Knee, native students—both men and women—from throughout the US joined with the Indians of the Pacific Northwest to confront government authorities, risking arrest and bodily harm… In mid-1964 the N I Y C stood as the foremost intertribal protest organization in operation” (Red Power Rising, p.120).

After the fish-in protests, NIYC membership grew from some 40 members to over 120 the following year. In 1965, the NIYC held its annual gathering at Neah Bay. But although the group was committed to the campaign, their members were spread across the US and lacked the resources to continually engage in organizing efforts. Eventually Adams and other NIYC’ers in Washington state shouldered most of the work.

After the fish-in, the NIYC attempted to duplicate its civil disobedience campaign in the Pacific Northwest with similar actions on the East Coast and the Southwest, but with far less success. At this time (1964), NIYC began to receive government funding and corporate grants for educational programs such as Upward Bound. In 1966, Warrior was elected NIYC president.

By the late 1960s, despite Warrior’s militant rhetoric, the NIYC was getting tens of thousands of dollars in foundation grants and government funding. At the same time, they appeared to seek legitimacy from the state. In 1967 , for example, the NIYC invited the Commissioner of Indian Affairs as the keynote speaker for their annual meeting.

While to some this might appear as clever manipulation (‘punking’ the Man), it is more often the result of opportunism and a lack of clear principles. In some ways, Warrior himself represented the inconsistency of the NIYC. He was a speaker of his Native Ponca language, a highly acclaimed traditional dancer, yet a chronic alcoholic who drunk himself to a very early death. And despite his Red Power militancy, Warrior was a staunch supporter of the right-wing Arizona senator, Barry Goldwater. Overall, the NIYC appear to have lacked a clear analysis of colonialism or its effects.

In spite of their work with government and corporate agencies, the NIYC also made alliances with the American Indian Movement (AIM) and participated in the 1972 Trail of Broken Treaties (organized by AIM and other groups). But after the subsequent occupation of the BIA headquarters in Washington DC (which resulted in substantial property destruction), the NIYC cut off all relations with AIM, afraid its own funding would be cut.

Occupation of Alcatraz Island, 1969

In 1974, the NIYC joined with traditional Navajos to oppose several planned coal gasification plants. Along with lobbying and legal challenges, the NIYC also engaged in a brief symbolic direct action, when 75 people occupied the offices of the Navajo Tribal Council for seven hours. In 1977, the US Congress rejected the coal plants, and NIYC’s campaign ended.

At the same time as this last campaign was underway, the NIYC was already charting a new direction by focusing on legal cases and securing ever-greater funding, including grants for job training programs in New Mexico and other services. By 1982, the budget of the NIYC had reached over $1 million.

Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, the NIYC devoted itself largely to pursuing legal claims regarding treaty and voting rights, freedom of religion, and environmental laws. The NIYC continues to exist to this day.


Shreve credits the NIYC for the much greater role of women, than in other similar groups:

“The NIYC also followed their elder’s example in that both men and women shaped and led the organization. Like their forebears in the Society of American Indians, the American Indian Federation, and the NCAI, women played a pivotal role in the council—the organization’s initial first and second vice presidents were women, as were five of the ten founding members. Moreover, sexism in the organization, according to at least four of the council’s early leaders, was virtually nonexistent.”

(Red Power Rising, p. 4-5)


Despite the high praise Shreve gives to the NIYC, the organization’s eventual demise as a grassroots movement and its evolution to a middle-class law firm certainly puts a dent in the shining red armour he paints on it. The non-sexist nature of the group doesn’t appear to have stopped it from total co-optation, either. And while women played a much larger role in the NIYC than, say, the leadership of AIM, it wasn’t until 1989 that a woman was elected executive director of the NIYC.

Shreve also exaggerates two other aspects of the NIYC in his efforts to revise the ‘official’ history of the time, one being that the group was comprised largely of rural Natives (thereby dispelling the ‘myth’ of urban Native origins for the intertribal movements), and the other that the NIYC constituted the birth of the Red Power grassroots movement.

While it appears that many of the early members of both the RIYC and NIYC were indeed from rural reservations, they had also become urbanized through their attendance at universities and colleges, located in urban areas (and which are themselves urban centers). Shreve confuses the origins of the members with that of the movement, for nowhere else but in urbanized areas could such Pan-Indian movements take root. The experience of AIM only appears more urban because it was started by mostly urbanized Natives (and thereafter expanded into more rural areas). Alcatraz appears more urbanized because it also occurred in a city and was comprised largely of urbanized Natives. Yet, all three examples show the role of urbanization in forming unified Native grassroots movements.

Rather than an ‘explosion’, the NIYC’s 1964 fish-in campaign might be seen more as a spark, one that had a fairly long fuse and didn’t really detonate until November 1969. That was when the occupation of Alcatraz Island occurred, organized by the Indians of All Tribes based in San Francisco and Oakland, California. The occupation saw thousands of Natives participate over the course of 18 months (that’s 1.5 years). Many were highly urbanized and acculturated; Alcatraz was, for many of these, their first exposure to traditional culture and ceremonies.

Alcatraz contributed to widespread Native land reclamations across the US during and after the Alcatraz occupation. Many tribal groups eventually gained possession of lands that had been illegally taken after the signing of treaties (mostly of government ‘property’).

Alcatraz was a real explosion of grassroots organizing, and that’s why many people conveniently refer to it as the real origins of the ‘Red Power’ movement. Alcatraz contributed more to the general awakening of Native youth than the youth councils, even if Alcatraz would not have occurred without the efforts of the NIYC and others before it. And a similar observation can be made of AIM.

Despite the controversy surrounding AIM and some of its eccentric but charismatic leaders, AIM is still seen as the embodiment of Red Power because of the militant actions it took and the sacrifices its members made. Along with scores of arrests and imprisonment, some 69 members or associates of AIM were killed by police, FBI, and paramilitary forces on the Pine Ridge reservation between 1973-76.

AIM as a movement did not become a bureaucratic, state-funded entity, as did the NIYC (although, ironically, the Minneapolis AIM Inc. chapter did). Instead, AIM was targeted by the FBI as part of a deadly counter-insurgency campaign. Leonard Peltier remains in prison to this day as a result of his involvement with AIM in South Dakota, one of the longest held Prisoners of War in the US.

Although Shreve overstates the importance of the NIYC, the book is nevertheless a good documentation of early Native youth organizing. It also sheds light on the positive contributions the NIYC made to Indigenous struggles in North America. There are also many parallels to Native grassroots organizing of today that one can learn from. And, despite Shreve’s effort to revise the history of Native grassroots struggles, it also reaffirms the fact that urban centers have served an important role in unifying these struggles through intertribal organizing.

Posted on May 31, 2011, in Decolonization, Review and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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