Hippies, Indians, and the Fight for Red Power
By Dr. Sherry Smith

Human Be-In poster. Artist: Rick Griffin.

On June 30, 1967, when the Summer of Love was in full swing, the Berkeley Barb interviewed Cree and Canadian folksinger Buffy Sainte-Marie. She was probably the most prominent native person, at least in popular culture and counterculture circles, of the day. The reporter asked her what she thought about the hippies’ fascination with Indians.  Her response was mixed: slightly bemused, dismissive and critical.

“They’ll never be Indians,” she said. “The white people never seem to realize they cannot suck the soul out of a race. The ones with the sweetest intentions are the worst soul suckers.” Comparing their sympathetic interest and inclination to mimic what they believed constituted Indianness (long hair, feathers, buckskin clothing, eating peyote, living communally in “tribes” and in harmony with nature) to a weird, vampire-like impulse, Saint-Marie placed those hippies within a tradition of people trying to identify with, and co-opt, those they conquered.

Family Dog Poster # 33

Reading books about Indians, ingesting peyote, or wearing buckskins would help no one, she said. Instead, the hippies should accept their whiteness, be “the best kind of white people they can be,” and understand there are some things white people will never have….or become. They should face their own history, accept what they (or their culture or ancestors) had done, and then do something honorable, as white people, to redress the consequences of conquest.[1]

This critique of counterculture interest in Indians was pointed and powerful. In fact, ever since, it has been the dominant interpretation of how the phenomenon has been understood. Historians and other commentators often present hippies’ attentiveness to Native Americans as mindless, superficial cultural appropriation; a continuation of the colonial process, doing more harm than good and representing only a passing fancy or fashion on the part of the appropriators. There is a good deal of truth to this. Yet, it is not the whole story. It ignores the political consequences of the phenomenon and ignores the smart, savvy ways Native American political activists of the time understood this cultural turn toward Indians and consciously used it for their own purposes. They appropriated the cultural appropriators for their own political ends and with great effect.[2]

And the influences went in all directions. The civil rights movement’s civil disobedience actions, anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, and the media attention such events elicited provided useful models for the Indians who occupied Alcatraz Island.  They wanted to focus national attention on the special concerns and issues related to Native Americans. But their tactics derived from non-Indians. It worked.  The occupation “changed the rules of Indian activism” and consequently garnered “more press attention than all the Indian struggles of the entire century,” according to Comanche historian Paul Chaat Smith.[4]

The Federal Bureau of Prisons abandoned Alcatraz in 1963. It remained unused. So, when the San Francisco Indian Center burned down in 1969, the United Bay Area Council of American Indian Affairs, as well as a group of Native American college students from San Francisco State University; University of California, Berkeley; and University of California, Los Angeles, coalesced and decided to take Alcatraz as a replacement site. [5]

Photo c/o gracelandtower

They agreed to do so using the name “Indians of All Tribes”, reflecting the tribal diversity of participants and representing their intention to address Indian issues well beyond the Bay Area.  They composed a clever proclamation, offering twenty-four dollars in trade goods for the island, a satirical reference to the bargain struck for Manhattan in the seventeenth century. The group claimed Alcatraz particularly suitable for Indian land, noting with irony, that the island lacked fresh running water, adequate sanitation, health care facilities, and natural resources. What they wanted: a Center for Native American Studies, an American Indian Spiritual Center, an Indian Center of Ecology, and a training school.[6]

The occupation lasted nineteen months, in part because the Nixon White House decided on a policy of restraint rather than forced removal. During that period Indian and non-Indian support, in material and non-material terms, proved impressive. From the counterculture sailors of Sausalito who ferried the original occupiers to the island under cover of darkness, to the underground (and mainstream press) that covered the story with sympathy, the longshoreman’s union that donated money and Richard Nixon’s Aunt Ruth Milhouse who counseled her nephew to give the island to the occupiers, the Indians of All Tribes scored a phenomenal public relations coup. [7]

In the end, the action petered out when federal marshals escorted a last handful of occupiers off the island, June 14, 1971, and released them. The Indians of All Tribes did not obtain title to Alcatraz or establish any centers there.  Yet, in garnering tremendous attention to Indian claims and complaints, it was remarkably successful — inspiring changes in attitudes and ultimately policies. As one occupier put it, “We won the war—we just didn’t know it at the time.”[8] Counterculture types were among the vanguard of supporters and remained engaged for years to come. Buffy Sainte-Marie’s call “to do something honorable” had fallen upon receptive ears.

Alcatraz

ENDNOTES

[1] John Bryan, “Buffy on Hippies—‘They’ll Never be Indians,’” Berkeley Barb, June 30, 1967, 10.

[2] This is the basic thesis of my book, Hippies, Indians & The Fight for Red Power (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

[3] Ibid., 18-42.

[4] Adam Fortunate Eagle, Alcatraz! Alcatraz! The Indian Occupation of 1969-1971 (Berkeley: Heyday Books produced in cooperation with the Golden Gate National Park Association), 1992, 15; Paul Chaat Smith, Everything You Know About Indians Is Wrong  (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), 131-2. Fortunate Eagle’s book has been reprinted as Heart of the Rock: The Indian Invasion of Alcatraz (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2009).

[5] Fortunate Eagle, Alcatraz!, 41. See also Troy Johnson, The Occupation of Alcatraz Island: Indian Self-Determination and the Rise of Indian Activism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996).

[6] For the complete text of the proclamation see “Indians of All Tribes November 1969 Proclamation,” in Red Power: The American Indians’ Fight for Freedom, 2nd edition, ed. Alvin M. Josephy Jr., Joanne Nagel, and Troy Johnson (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999), 40-43.

[7] For  more details on the nature and extent of non-Indian support for the Alcatraz occupation see Smith, Hippies and Indians, 87-112.

[8] “Indians Mark ’69 Culture Clash on ‘The Rock,’”  November 8, 1999, San Francisco Examiner.

 

About the Author

Sherry L. Smith is an American historian, and University Distinguished Professor at Southern Methodist UniversityFrom 2008 to 2009, she was President of the Western History Association. She is the author of “Hippies, Indians, and the Fight for Red Power

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