|Photograph of Geronimo, 1887 by Ben Wittick|
Kotlowski: Alcatraz, Wounded Knee, and Beyond
Social turmoil defined the era of the late 1960’s to mid 1970’s, and the American Indian was not immune to its effects. Society seemed split between an older establishment and a young, impatient, vocal youth. This schism manifested in the Indian community with Navajo leader Peter MacDonald praising US President Richard Nixon on one side, while activists like Russell Means, Dennis Banks and others with the American Indian Movement (AIM) going as far as to stage armed protests. I can understand MacDonald giving praise to Nixon—considering that Termination was in full swing twenty years previously. Nixon thought Indians were a “safe” minority (p. 358). Nixon calculated that a generous approach to Indians would be good politically for him with younger Americans, yet he conceded that there were real injustices heaped on these people with “very few votes”. While the tribal establishment may have welcomed presidential gestures, the young radicals were itching for a fight.
In 1969, fifty Indians occupied Alcatraz Island, a closed federal facility. This was on the heels of the Kent State shooting and the Nixon Administration was loath to escalate tensions. Instead of a fight, the authorities simply waited the occupiers out. The public eventually lost interest and the Indians fell into squabbling factions where most left the island (p. 359). In 1973, Wounded Knee II found similar tactics on both sides. In the end however, Means and the Indians surrendered their weapons after the government agreed to investigate the corrupt leadership of Richard Wilson on the Pine Ridge reservation. In 1974, Mohawks at Eagle Bay, New York planned to form their own nation, then posted guards around their camp. The government responded to this action in a similar light handed fashion—to the point where it dragged out for two years until the State of New York offered a settlement. Nevertheless, amidst all this unrest, the United States was still proactive in trying to help Indians.
President Ford continued Nixon’s Indian friendly policies by adding 185,000 acres to the Havasupai Indian Reservation in Arizona. New Mexico Taos Pueblo’s and Washington State Yakima’s also physically expanded their reservations. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act was another case of the federal government giving land back to Indians. Kotlowski says Nixon and Ford were “remarkably enlightened and a tolerant” considering the challenging circumstances radical Indians had created (p. 369).
The social unrest of the period was pervasive, and many Indians were vocal activists—despite that the President had turned the tide of Termination back. It is amazing that any progress was made in light of incendiary statements and actions by AIM and others.
There is precedent for peaceful resolution with armed standoffs with the federal government. I hope this will happen in Oregon.