The American Indian Movement: Civil Rights for First Nations

It is fair to say that there are links to the American Indian Movement and the American Civil Rights Movement.  Each of the campaigns did take sustenance from each other, and often when issues were getting out of hand, the leaders of the section of society sought assurances and strength from the other camps.  In essence, both the American Indian Movement and the Civil Rights Movement were actions to seek redressal to human beings. They were the assertion of rights and values by groups of people who were put in disadvantaged positions for the color of their skins and more importantly due to cultural settings.

Over the years and long after the movements seeking rights to the Native Indian peoples and the movements setting right the wrongs perpetrated on African Americans got over, it came to be recognized that some incidents did form decisive moments in history.  But it has to be understood that these moments did bring greater focus at times, but the broader issues that brought about practices in society did not come about in a short time but as targeted programs that started in small ways but ended up keeping whole sets of people in bondage.  

Thus if the yoke of oppression were to be lifted from the shoulders of the trodden people, the first realization that it is possible to aspire for a better life and a better way of life has to be brought onto the people.  The incidents like the Rosa Parks protests actions have to be seen in the context of taking a stand, and it is then that it became evident to the ordinary person in the street that it is indeed possible to make a difference.

A Brief History of the African American People

The African American people were mostly descendants of the former slaves that were brought into the American colonies by the colonial powers of the 1700s and the 1800s. If a proper study of slavery and its origins were studied, it would be evident that the slave trade was nothing but an opportunist moment for some to exert their power over an unsuspecting group of people.  That the early colonies did need enormous manpower to cultivate the land and also to help bring a somewhat untamed countryside under control.

It must be said that the slaves were a solution to the harsh conditions that prevailed in the early days of the United States of America.  But the latter days of slavery was about subjugating an unwilling group of people than the pressing need to have sufficient manpower to keep the plantations and farms functioning.

What the slave trade did was to introduce a sense of commonness among the African population that came to America.  Till then it was never a single African people but separate nations, owing allegiance to different chieftains. On the arrival of the early slaves to the new land, the first thing they developed is a sense of camaraderie which was not present in their native lands far away in Africa. The African American population was under a yoke from their first days of arrival in America.

How the American Indian Fell Under Oppression

The history of the Native Indian American Tribes was entirely different to the African Americans.  Historically, the Native Indian tribes were the first inhabitants of the Americas. But among these were some distinct groups which took on a life of their own for various reasons and to a lot of people these visible groups more or less defined what the Native Indian people stood for.

It would be correct to describe early America before the coming of the European settlers, as being the homelands of the Native Indian people.  There were distinct separate nations among these people and each with its own set of broad laws and rules. Cultural practices were never codified but more seen as the way to do things and passed on from one generation to the next.

Much before the arrival of the European settlements, there were territorial disputes between the Indian nations.  Often conflicts arose due to the needing for fresh grazing grounds for the cattle as would be sources of precious minerals too. America was traditionally seen as a land where nature was bounteous.  The rivers yielded forth gold nuggets on panning them. And the one people who stood guard of the treasures of the earth were the Native American Indian tribes.

When the European settlers first came to America, the first conflicts arose with the Indian tribes to control territories. After that, the fights were over fishing grounds and trails which gave better access to some mineral-rich areas.  Some of the arid regions of the Southern United States had a topography which enabled people to control trade routes by getting access to the vantage points. This was the best way to leverage the smaller numbers often compromising the new settler colonies.

Often there are those who wondered if there were the Native Indians in America before the arrival of the European settlers, why take the trouble of bringing in the slaves from far off African colonies. The answer is pretty simple. The Native Indian communities were rather small. Thus it would not have been possible to have a large number of people needed to tame the rather rough lands. Secondly, the black slaves were physically stronger than the Indians and more suited to an agrarian setting. The Indians could act as effect scouts and guides to help the settlers move around the country.

The Early Civil Rights Movement with Respect to the Native Indian Community

It is a fact that the African American people were kept in check and control from the very early days of their arrival as slaves in the country.  Thus it was as though there was no such period in their history that they were truly free. The lack of freedom was the lack of civil rights and liberties.  The traditional view was that the slave was owned by his master and thus all matters were to be decided by the slave masters.

This sort of a situation led to cases of severe deprivation and exploitation. Thus the rise of the civil rights movement was more a means of freeing the people from oppression through the guaranteed rights of the individual under the American constitution.  The fundamental argument was to be treated on the same level footing as the white folks who basically ran the whole system.

When speaking of the civil rights movement, it must be said that the rise of the black power was in situations that were designed to keep the people in check. Thus for good effect, it was more of a rebellion that took place and not exactly a peaceful movement.

One of the most noteworthy ideas that were used to good effect by the leaders like Martin Luther King, was the idea of non-violent protest.  As opposed to the call to arms that some of the more belligerent leaders espoused, the non-violent movement had a fair amount of followers. More than the idea of non-violence, it was the charismatic leadership being offered by the leaders of the movement that attracted such colossal following.   

The issues of the Native Indian tribes were that the European settlers had put enormous controls on how they could conduct their tribal worship and enact the traditional law enactments. As the African American groups clamored for equal standing with the white folks, the Indians too asked for the recognition as equal partners in the country.  In effect, this was a call to restore the political freedom that was denied to them after having restricted their influences to the many reservations in the country.

When it came to exercising power over the Indian people, it was the clan chiefs who had the upper hand. The single act that removed the sanctity of the Indian tribes was the disenfranchisement of the village chiefs and rendering them as mere decorative figures. This made the clans and tribes ineffectual in staying together.

No doubt, the American Indian Movement did take heart and support from the successes of the Civil Rights Movement. The incidents of the Rights Movement did influence the kind of demands that the representatives put forth to the future negotiations.

The Essential Goals of the American Indian Movement

Formally the American Indian Movement was started in 1968 by Russell Means and a group of people to address the need to provide the Native Indian tribes their pride of place and relevance in society. The charter of demands could be condensed into the following points.

  • Restore the power of the ancient tribal councils and such power sources.
  • Respect the treaties and covenants that were entered into between the European settlers and the Native Indian tribes which were abandoned when their utility was outlived, and the advantage lost to the Settlers.
  • Allow the natives to practice their faiths as has been done by the forefathers.

What the American Indian Movement sought to do was to restore the Indian people to the former glory of their days. But the Indian people were not easily given the said freedoms, and it took a number of sessions with the committees and bodies before a workable solution to many pressing issues were brought to force.

Even today, the vestiges of the past struggles of the Native American Indian tribes stand among the people. The final story has not been written yet and the thirty years of the moment’s history has seen some critical periods and occurrences, but the struggle still continues.

Using the Longest Walk to Highlight Indian Mistreatment

An incident that occurred in 1978 was known as the longest walk, and it sought to highlight the pressing issues of the Native Indian Community by going to the people of the country.  In an age when television and radio quite did not have the expressiveness of today, the idea to use the long walk to good effect is noteworthy.

The longest walk was nothing but a meeting the people program thought out by the American Indian Movement.  It managed to cover most of the inhabited areas of the country and in quick time too. More than just the issues alone, the longest walk was able to get the citizens of the country talking about the issues that were being raised.

A vital point of the march was that key individuals who were committed to the Civil Rights Movement gave moral support to those in the demonstrations. It was evident to both the sides that there was a confluence of interests in each group and this should be used to strengthen each other.

The direct result of the Longest Walk of 1978 was the granting of freedom of belief to the Native Indian tribes and Congress on its part refused to give sanction to earlier treaties. So primarily it was a mixed set of results for the Native American Indians.


Considering the kind of resonance that both the Civil Rights Movement and the American Indian Movement had with each other, there were elements in each camp that gave support to the other. At times it was mere vocal support, but there were instances of both groups getting to be on the same platforms from time to time.

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