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“Let’s Raise Some Hell”: Clyde Warrior and the Red Power Movement

Clyde Warrior and others display the Red Power sign at the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) parade, 1966. Courtesy of the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Siege of Wounded Knee, the 71-day occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, by American Indian Movement (AIM) activists. For many historians, the resolution of the conflict with the federal government marks the end of the Red Power movement. While the precise periodization of the Red Power movement in the United States remains a point of discussion among historians, many pinpoint its origin as the 1964 direct action protests over fishing rights on the Puyallap River in Washington State.

The fish-in protests, which brought together thousands of people from tribes and Nations across North America, also marked the public emergence of an important leader of the Red Power movement. On the second day of the protest, activist Clyde Warrior (Ponca) asserted, at a rally on the steps of the State Capitol in Olympia, Washington, that “March 3, 1964, marks the beginning of a new era in the history of American Indians.”[1]

Warrior with his grandparents, William and Metha Collins. Courtesy Western History Collections, Special Research Collections, University of Oklahoma Libraries, American Indian Institute Collection, folder 9, box 5, A.

Named Ma’He Ska (White Knife) in the Ponca language, Warrior was born on August 31, 1939, and raised on the White Eagle Agency in northwest Oklahoma, the homeland for the Ponca after the federal government forcibly removed them from Nebraska in 1878. While his home life was spent deeply immersed in Ponca culture, Warrior was educated in the local Ponca city public school system. As such, he experienced and felt the deeply embedded racism of mid-twentieth century Oklahoma while simultaneously being raised to be proud and unashamed of his Ponca identity. It was this life experience that turned Warrior toward social justice and Indigenous rights activism as an adult, beginning with his campaign speech for leadership of the Southwest Regional Indian Youth Council at the 1961 annual conference. Sleeves rolled up, arms thrust forward, his speech consisted of twenty four words: “I am a full blood Ponca Indian. This is all I have to offer. The sewage of Europe does not run through these veins.” He won in a landslide. [2]

Warrior rose to prominence in the 1960s during the Termination Era, which saw the U.S. government’s elimination of Native rights and reversal of New Deal laws and policies that had partially expanded Native self-determination and governance after decades of assimilationist policies. Congress passed legislation in 1953 that aimed to “terminate” the treaty trust relationship between sovereign Native nations and the federal government. This policy ultimately aimed to strip Native people of their tribal citizenship and land, removing federal protection and treaty obligations. At the same time, Congress introduced a program that pushed for relocation from reservations to major U.S. cities. In the midst of these policies, individual state legislators saw opportunities to assert their own infringements upon Native Peoples.

The roots of Red Power extended back much further than the period of termination and relocation, with the early movement focusing not just on the abrogation of treaty rights but also pushing back against generations of paternalistic federal oversight of every facet of Native lives. The emergence of Red Power as a slogan of resistance can, however, be traced to a singular moment in the mid 1960s. The moment the words were first uttered publicly was when Warrior and other National Indian Youth Council (NIYC) members, including his wife Della (Otoe Missouria) and Mel Thom (Paiute), gatecrashed the July 4, 1966, National Congress of American Indians annual conference parade. They did so in a rental car with a piece of paper attached to one side reading, “Red Power, National Indian Youth Council,” and another piece of paper with “Custer Died for Your Sins” attached to the other side. Warrior, Thom, and Herb Blatchford (Navajo) were part of the collective that formed the NIYC—which they specifically described as a movement rather than an organization—in 1961. It was Warrior and Thom who together created Red Power as a slogan in July 1966, two weeks after hearing Stokely Carmichael’s iconic Black Power speech.[3]

Warrior was an astute political observer whose rhetoric of resistance connected the Indigenous right to self-determination and local and national treaty rights with the wider geopolitical issues of the era such as the Cold War and the decolonization movements sweeping across Africa. In the years between his declaration of a new era in 1964 and his untimely death on June 7, 1968, Warrior was a relentless advocate, attending rallies and conferences, and fighting for government reform. Within that period, he wrote and presented several significant essays and speeches outlining the theories and arguments he ultimately labeled Red Power. His rhetoric focused on key areas of Indigenous discontent, including: self-determination for Native nations; the protection, preservation, and recognition of tribal treaty rights by the federal government; the introduction of culturally sensitive/responsive education; freedom from coercive federal and state policies designed to control and dictate to American Indians; and an end to stereotypical representations of American Indians in the media and education systems.

Treaty rights were a core component of Warrior’s vision. Those rights pre-existed the treaties themselves—their insertion into treaties was meant to be a way for nations to protect specific aspects of their cultures and lifeways. These included rights to fish in traditional areas. The campaign for fishing rights in Washington State had been going on for several years, led by Billy Frank Jr. (Nisqually) and later the Survival of American Indians Association (SAIA), before Hank Adams (Assiniboine-Sioux), a member of both the SAIA and the NIYC, invited Warrior and other colleagues to become involved. In his Olympia speech, Warrior argued against the U.S. government’s continual breaking of treaty rights, calling such rights a relationship with God and slamming the United States’ betrayal, arguing that:

The sacred relationship between the Indian and God has been cut apart. The Treaty has been broken. Now, because of this, the American Indians in the state of Washington are being deprived of a way to feed their families. Indians are being arrested for fishing—fishing as they have done from time immemorial.[4]

In addition to the recognition of treaty rights, Warrior was concerned with societal perceptions of Indigenous people. Later that year he attacked prevailing misconceptions and stereotypes, ranging from the “slob” to “the angry nationalist,” for creating distorted interpretations and expectations of Indigenous identities and behavior. He also lamented the ways that Native youth themselves had internalized and acted upon those distorted expectations. Writing in a follow-up essay a few months later, he insisted that Native youth should simply “reject” these expectations “and make his own definitions as he sees fit.”[5]

Warrior also berated the stifling effect of government policies and laws on Indigenous people’s ability to thrive and succeed in the modern world. In testimony before the President’s National Advisory Commission on Rural Poverty in Memphis, Tennessee, on February 2, 1967, he decried the ways in which these policies diminished Native nations to a state of dependency upon federal funding and programming. He lamented that:

We are not free, we do not make choices. Our choices are made for us; we are the poor. For those of us who live on reservations these choices and decisions are made by federal administrators, bureaucrats, and their “yes men,” euphemistically called tribal governments. Those of us who live in non-reservation areas have our lives controlled by local white power elites.[6]

One common theme ran throughout Warrior’s essays and speeches—the need for, and inevitability of, direct action against government policies on the part of disaffected Indigenous youth. This rhetoric of resistance through direct action epitomized the spirit of Red Power and Warrior’s vision of a new era of history. Twice he used the imagery of raising hell, asking in 1964, “How about it? Let’s raise some hell,” and echoing the same refrain a few years later when he challenged his peers to action. “Will American Indians wait,” he asked, “until their reservations and lands are eroded away, and they are forced into urban ghettoes before they start raising hell with their oppressors?” [7] In an interview with journalist and author Stan Steiner in 1966, Warrior went further, discussing the the legal, political, and economic, systems of the United States. “[T]he only way you change that structure,” he warned, “is to smash it. You know, turn it over sideways and stomp on it. And it appears to me that’s what will happen around here.” Given what followed with the 1969 occupation of Alcatraz Island, the 1972 Trail of Broken Treaties march, and the siege at Wounded Knee in 1973, this question was remarkably prescient.[8]

If May 8, 1973, marked the end of Red Power in its most recognizable form, Indigenous resistance and direct action against longstanding settler colonial policies of assimilation and oppression did not end then. In fact, the movement shifted federal policy and public perception alike, leading to the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975—legislation which restored many (but certainly not all) aspects of tribal sovereignty and control over Native children’s education. While Red Power may be seen as a movement of the past, the fight for treaty, territorial, and sovereign rights it embodied still continues in many forms today. Several recent examples of the continued fight for those rights include the 2016–2017 Standing Rock protests, when Indigenous water protectors and allies tried to block the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline on unceded Standing Rock territory. Similar, smaller, protests continue to occur on Indigenous territories across the United States. More recently, in 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that the state of Oklahoma had no jurisdiction over major crimes in Mvskoke Creek Nation territory as their reservation boundaries had never been relinquished. In 2023, the Supreme Court also ruled in favor of the constitutionality of the Indian Child Welfare Act, ensuring the continuation of a 1978 law that protects the rights of Native children to remain within their own communities and cultures rather than being adopted out of them. As can be seen, Warrior’s words and his justification for direct action protest and the need to raise hell are just as important in the fight for Indigenous rights today as they were in articulating his vision of Red Power sixty years ago.

Paul McKenzie-Jones is a settler associate professor of Indigenous Studies at the University of Lethbridge and an external research affiliate with the Purai Global Indigenous and Diaspora Research Center of the University of Newcastle, Australia. He is committed to working in solidarity with Indigenous Peoples across the globe through research, teaching, and advocacy. He is the author of Clyde Warrior: Tradition, Community, and Red Power. His current research projects focus on Indigenous intellectual, political, and cultural resistance to, and at, the Canada-U.S. border since 1924; and transnational Indigenous environmental, cultural, political, resistance across the CANZUS states. He is co-editor of Challenging Borders: Contingencies and Consequences, forthcoming from Athabasca Press in May 2024.

[1] Paul R. McKenzie-Jones, Clyde Warrior: Tradition, Community, and Red Power (2015), 46. Fish-ins were mass protests which emerged from local efforts organized by Billy Frank Jr. (Nisqually) and later the Survival of American Indians Association (SAIA), resisting repeated attempts by Washington State to break treaty-protected rights of Native people in the state—particularly the Nisqually and Puyallup—to fish in rivers that lay within their traditional territories. In 1974, Judge George Boldt of the U.S. District Court for Western Washington State ruled in favor of tribal sovereignty and their right to fish in United States v. State of Washington.

[2] Ibid., 15.

[3] Stan Steiner Papers, folder 13, box 23 (Department of Special Collections, Stanford University, Stanford, Calif.).

[4] National Indian Youth Council, “Ponca Protests Treaty Making by Washington,” ABC: Americans Before Columbus, 2 (May 1964), 3.

[5] Clyde Warrior, “Which One Are You?” ABC: Americans Before Columbus, 4 (Dec. 1964), 1; Clyde Warrior, “How Should an Indian Act?” ABC: Americans Before Columbus, 5 (Jan. 1965), 2.

[6] Clyde Warrior, “We Are Not Free,” ABC: Americans Before Columbus, 7 (May 1967), 4. This essay was a reprint of Warrior’s testimony.

[7] Clyde Warrior, “Which One Are You?” ABC: Americans Before Columbus, 4 (Dec. 1964), 1; Clyde Warrior, “This Indian Revolution,” in The Way: An Anthology of American Indian Literature, ed. Shirley Hill Witt and Stan Steiner (1972), 111.

[8] Clyde Warrior interview by Stan Steiner, September 1966, Stan Steiner Papers. Recording in author’s possession.