The Indigenous Peoples: North America has an abundance of materials that covers a vast scope, both chronologically and thematically, providing a wealth of 19th century materials and collections drawing on materials from the Arctic circle region, expanding our understanding of the inter-connectedness of Indigenous people, a fact that at times is all too easy to get lost. I, personally, was drawn to the Association on American Indian Affairs papers, which are housed at the Mudd Library in Princeton. The AAIA provided substantial legal and political support to Indigenous issues over the decades since its founding in 1922 and the files intersect with my personal research interests related to the American Indian Movement and Native activism in the second half of the 20th century.
In looking through the files, I was struck my the materials coming into the organization during the Occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973. While the organization did not have a direct role in the AIM-led occupation, many of its members turned to the organization to serve as intermediaries to communicate with the American Indian Movement itself. While many of the voices are non-native, they provide us a greater understanding of the public preception of AIM and Indigenous peoples as a whole. Velma Baker’s letter highlights traditional stereotypes of Indigenous connections to nature and the desire of many people during the period to assume an Indigenous identity, points discussed in much greater detail by people such as Phil Deloria in Playing Indian and Sherry Smith in Hippies, Indians, and Red Power. In contrast, the unsigned, handwritten reply dismissive of the occupation allows us to remember that many found the occupation misguided, both inside and outside of Indian Country. Interestingly, in contrast to previous archival research on the occupation of Wounded Knee that yielded overwhelmingly postive support for the protest, the AAIA archives include more letters of a dismissive nature (albeit still a minority).
The AAIA files also have various mailings and AIM-produced materials, including one that is housed in a number of archives and deals with AIM’s support of the Independent Truck Drivers Association. Coming less than a year after the Occupation of Wounded Knee, AIM is tackling issues every American of the 1970s experienced—declining working conditions and oil shortages. While the letter of support helps remind us that AIM and Indigenous peoples were grappling with the same issues of their non-native counterparts, it also presents the question I personally grapple with in my research: what was the nature of AIM after Wounded Knee?
All of this is nicely contemplated by the American Indian Newspapers database because at the same time that Red Power activists protested, Indigenous newspapers served as an important embodiment of cultural and political sovereignty. Prior to the 1960s the 150 newspapers that existed were small, largely informal, after the 1970 founding of the American Indian Press Association the industry rapidly grew and produced newspapers geared towards a national Indigenous audience. As an editorial in the July 1970 issue of Akwasasne Notes proclaimed, “For the very first time in history, the Indian has a means of learning of the activities being experienced by all Indians, on all reservations, and in cities where Indians still say ‘Indian’.” Richard Oakes in leading the Indians of All Tribe’s occupation of Alcatraz had proclaimed that Alcatraz was not an island but an idea, an “Indian Giant” that had awoken and would now be covered by more professionalized Indigenous news.1 The newspapers provide coverage of national and International events and their bearing on Indigenous peoples as well as the local concerns of a range of tribes that stretch from Hawaii through Canada and the American West and add in the Lumbee Indians in North Carolina.
While the newspapers chronicle political activism and the connections between national Red Power movements and local concerns, they also allow us to track the evolution of more subtle forms of cultural actvism. Native Americans, in particular the Diné and Blackfeet, have strong rodeo traditions and the tribal newspapers regularly discuss the affairs of the Indigenous rodeo circuits and the successes Indian cowboys are having beating their non-Native counterparts, a reversal of the traditional ideas of the American West and a good way of “winning the white man’s game” as the Navajo Times noted Jackson Sundown had done on a regular basis. In contrast Tom Bee (Sioux-Diné) formed the rock band XIT in Albuquerque, New Mexico in the late 1960s. XIT, which stood for X(C)rossing of Indian Tribes, reflected the melding of Indigenous peoples in the Red Power movement with a band made up of musicians from New Mexico Pueblos, Creek Nation and Kiowa and Comanche nations. Signed to Motown after the success of Bee’s “(We’ve Got) Blue Skies” for the Jackson 5, the band produced records for Motown’s Rare Earth imprint that addressed historical native issues with a contemporary rock sound. On albums such as “Plight of the Red Man,” “Silent Warrior,” and “Relocation,” the band created an image as the “spokesband” for the American Indian Movement and toured across the reservation circuit and Europe bringing the music and ideas to natives and non-natives alike. Yet while regularly billed as a Red Power band, Bee in a 2001 interview claimed he never saw the music as radical, stating, “I never felt our music to be militant, I never thought our music to be radical, I never felt our music would upset anybody, but to educate everybody."2 The newspapers provide opportunities to track these currents as well as the opinions of average Indigenous peoples through the letters to the editors sections, giving voice to local concerns in an era dominated for many by national issues.
We must also, however, always be cautious to remember that newspapers, while an invaluable tool for historical research, do not tell the whole history. Indigenous activism in the second half of the twentieth century was regularly depicted as the arena of masculine spokesmen like Russell Means and Dennis Banks who understand the power of media optics made conscious attempts to protray themselves as many of the Hollywood stereotypes come to life. Yet women have always served at the center of Indigenous activism and all too often been overlooked. AIM, in fact, earned its name from Alberta Downwind, who proposed the new name when the original—Concerned Indians of America—was rejected because operating under the acronym CIA was not the best optics. Yet these contributions are too often hidden in the historical records.
The American Indian Newspapers database provides hints of Indigenous women’s activism, while also showcasing the limitations of the database. The Women of All Red Nations, founded by activists such as Madonna Thundehawk, Lorelei DeCora Means, Janet McCloud and Phyllis Young, grew out of previous Indigenous activism, but by the mid-1970s was an independent group focusing on issues affecting Indigenous women. During the period the group advocated against the forced sterlization of Indigenous women and produced a 1980 report on the negative health effects of Uranium mining on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. Utilizing the basic search frequencies function of the American Indian Newspapers database shows that even in Indigenous newspapers, the activism seems to have regularly secured far fewer hits than AIM.
The newspapers give us as much to think about in what they do not cover as in what they do. The databases provide an invaluable opportunity to the research community at OSU and open up vibrant worlds of Indigenous sovereignty, debates, conflicts, and personal stories. It also leaves us with as many unanswered questions as it provides answers. It is in those blindspots and flickers of stories that provide access to the untold histories of Indigenous activism throughout American history.