February 12, 2014

Self Determination, Not Termination: Past, Present, and Future of the American Indian Movement

Walter Echo-Hawk

Since the arrival of European settlers in what is now the United States, their relationship with American Indians has been characterized by expropriation, betrayal, and genocide. By the 20th century, disease, war, and forced assimilation had reduced the indigenous population to a mere shadow of what it had once been. By the 1950s, as Hollywood westerns had transformed the Indian into a tragic symbol of lost freedom and innocence, the federal government had adopted a policy designed to eliminate Indian Tribes as discrete groups. The legacy of conquest continues to shape U.S. policy and inflicts ongoing suffering on Native communities to this very day.

Against overwhelming odds, however, Native Americans fought back. The Tribal Sovereignty Movement has proved to be a profoundly important social movement which eventually succeeded in establishing modern Indian nations. With the National Congress of American Indians, the National Indian Youth Council (NIYC), other American Indian organizations, and tribal leaders struggling for Indian self-determination, the government eventually, in 1970, reversed its policy. As these victories were being won, many American Indian activists adopted a more confrontational stance. The American Indian Movement (AIM) combined militant tactics with traditional spirituality to instill Native pride, insist on the continued presence and relevance of Native America, and meaningfully implement self-determination. The Trail of Broken Treaties called attention to the U.S. government’s long and sorry record of betrayal, while occupations from Washington, DC, to Wounded Knee directly confronted that government, provoking the reprisals and prosecutions that would lead to AIM’s collapse. Obviously, the struggle is not yet won, as American Indians have suffered an enormous and unresolved historical trauma, but the experiences of both patient engagement with official channels and militant confrontation continue to inform current struggles for Indian self-determination.

In this essay, Walter Echo-Hawk lays out the history of as well as the next steps for securing the rights of the United States’ indigenous peoples. Echo-Hawk is a Pawnee Indian, working as attorney, law professor, tribal judge, author, and activist. His activism began in the late 1960s in the Red Power workshops of the NIYC. As a Native American rights legal advocate since 1973, he has represented American Indian tribes and indigenous groups in the United States. Echo-Hawk persuasively argues that the framework of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which the United States has endorsed but not yet implemented, offers the best path for redressing the injustices that American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians continue to suffer. It is time for all Americans—whether Native or non-Native—to come together to bring the United States in line with international human rights standards and thereby begin to undo the original contradiction at the heart of the American experiment.