The foundations of Red Power : The National Indian Youth Council 1968-1973
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The period from 1969 until 1973 represented the height of “Red Power” for American Indians. Pan-tribal activists participated in hundreds of demonstrations and dozens of militant takeovers demanding tribal sovereignty. The National Indian Youth Council (NIYC) was at the forefront of this period of direct action even though it continued to receive funding for educational programs and advocated reform through legal means. Operating under an entirely new leadership, the NIYC of the early 1970s resembled the Youth Council of the mid-1960s by continuing to balance indirect action and legal reform with direct action and militant language. But by the end of 1973, the Youth Council ceased supporting direct action as a legitimate tactic for pressuring social change. By 1973 it became clear that pan-tribal protests could quickly upset the gains that American Indians were making in federal reform. Wealthy benefactors funded the NIYC throughout the period, but they never overtly pushed the Youth Council into a more moderate direction. Instead, outside funding increased the NIYC’s operational space and allowed it to gain a modicum of power within the federal agency responsible for Indians, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). The NIYC found itself able to pressure the BIA into negotiating on a range of issues, and the NIYC developed allies that shared its goals and ideology within the agency. However, the NIYC’s continued ability to negotiate with the federal government was vulnerable to controversy, and the highly confrontational episodes led by the American Indian Movement (AIM) tended to upset the pace of reform within the federal government. AIM’s 1972 takeover of the BIA national headquarters and AIM’s 71-day occupation of Wounded Knee created setbacks for the NIYC even as the events garnered national attention and support. Moreover, the political climate became receptive to supporting the self-determination of tribal governments, and pan-tribal organizations like the NIYC had to shift their focus in the context of newly empowered tribes. Foundation support allowed the NIYC to help open the way for tribes to negotiate with the U.S. state directly, and this very success made pan-tribal demonstrations increasingly obsolete by the mid-1970s.