Sherry L. Smith is the author of Hippies, Indians and the Fight for Red Power (Oxford University Press, 2012), which covers the period from the mid-1960s Northwest “fish-ins” through the 1973 Wounded Knee standoff and explores the alliance of leftists, hippies and other whites who supported Native American–led Red Power movements. Indian Country Today Media Network spoke with Smith, distinguished professor of history at Southern Methodist University, about how citizens of all colors united to give American Indians a stronger voice in their own land.
What was it about American Indians that drew hippies to them?
I think there was this perception that Indian people lived outside the mainstream of American culture, and in that perception of what Indian values were—I’m not talking about realities here, but stereotypes even—these were people who lived simply, lived off the land, and lived lives of deep spirituality. Also, hippies were seeking alternative ways of living. They were rejecting suburbia and white middle-class values, capitalism and they looked around the landscape and latched upon Indians—or their own ideas of what they assumed they were all about. In some cases the peyote movements brought some Indians and hippies together—a ‘long-hair convergence’—but some Natives were really willing to engage with them because they saw them as politically useful.
What made Indians realize they needed the help of whites?
Those Indians most politically active realized having allies was essential for several reasons. As you know, the Native American population in this country is small percentage-wise, so they simply didn’t have the political power to change things without any non-Indian allies. There was also the whole matter of educating Natives about political issues, so they also used non-Indians as conduits into the process of political change. They found people sympathetic to write about Indian issues to help give greater attention to them. They also found lawyers—of course Native American lawyers were involved as well—to get issues into the courts.
Do you think the Northwest ‘fish-ins’ helped jumpstart the Red Power movement on a national scale?
Yes. For a long time—long before Marlon Brando showed up—there’d been Native people in the Northwest fishing at their accustomed places, and they’d be stopped and prosecuted. And I really wouldn’t call it civil disobedience because they had the treaty rights to do so, but the state of Washington saw this as a violation of state law. But in the mid-1960s they started getting people like Marlon Brando, Dick Gregory and kids from colleges coming into places like Frank’s Landing and providing their support. One of my sources in the book, historian Richard White, was there. It comes down to the political realities of the time, but he said having white kids there brought greater attention. So when they got roughed up, their parents would be like, Wait a minute, what’s happening to my kid here? It’s kind of complicated, but there were other ways that non-Indians were crucial in getting things into court and then eventually to Washington D.C.
Do you feel that Indians didn’t want to be compared with the black Civil Rights Movement so that their specific treaty concerns weren’t overlooked?
Yes. Another person articulating that distinction was Vine Deloria Jr. In his writings he made it very clear that what Native Americans in the ’60s and ’70s were protesting weren’t Civil Rights, but treaty rights and the acknowledgement of sovereignty. They had a whole set of issues that were fundamentally different from those of African-Americans. They were afraid that if those two issues were put together, their very distinctive demands would be lost or diluted in the process. I think that’s a very important distinction that even today people don’t understand.
On the other hand, the Civil Rights Movement was very important in terms of fermenting strategy. Hank Adams (Assiniboine-Sioux)—a real important person and I think the hero of the book, actually—was a brilliant strategist. He looked at the Civil Rights Movement and realized that some of the same techniques could be applied. For example: the fish-ins could be correlated to the blacks’ lunch counter sit-ins. I think Hank Adams was consciously seeking non-Indian allies in a way that African-Americans sought them.
How did Marlon Brando become involved with Native rights?
Marlon Brando was heavily involved with the Civil Rights Movement when Hank Adams met him. Marlon told him, “You Indian people should help out with Civil Rights.” But Hank Adams told him, “No, I actually think you should come and help us.” So I believe it was Hank Adams who invited Marlon Brando up to the Pacific Northwest for the fish-ins. Brando really didn’t know anything about Natives, but in the early ’60s he took a fairly quick course and began to understand what treaty rights were about, what fishing right were about, and he got it. So for the rest of the life he did support Indians—sometimes in not-so-public ways like providing money, and other times very publicly, like refusing an Academy Award and having Sacheen Littlefeather accept the award on his behalf. He understood that these were very different kinds of equalities compared to Civil Rights, but he supported both of them. He’s probably the most famous non-Indian who was an advocate of treaty and sovereignty rights in the ’60s and early ’70s. Sometimes people who were well-meaning really didn’t understand what this stuff was all about, but Marlon Brando really did.
Do you feel that Natives eventually started to become leery of whites trying to exploit their cultures?
The idea that whites were there to steal the culture didn’t appear in my research of the early 1960s on over to the 1970s time frame. But I do think in the ’70s you had white people who became wannabe Indians with the New Age movement, and people suddenly claiming to be shamans and selling ‘experiences’ that were stolen from Native people. But earlier, for the most politically active, that didn’t seem to be a major concern. Hippies were by no means universally welcomed, and there were concerns about what they represented, but there were other reasons that some Indians were suspicious and resentful of them, and those dealt with things like recreational drug use, sexual behavior and parents being concerned that their own kids would be drawn into that.
What’s the main message you hope to convey with your book?
In the end I think the message of the book is that we’re all in this together, and through cooperation and coalition building some real important changes have taken place. There comes a time when white people are no longer speaking for everyone, and black, Indian and Chicano people are speaking for themselves, and it’s incredibly important that they took those leadership roles. The support from whites seems to be mostly from behind the scenes, and so I think that was a big and important change. I always stress this in lectures and in the book: In no way am I saying that non-Indians are the most important part of the story. I’m saying they’re part of the story, and we must consistently acknowledge those who put their lives on the line, who worked hard, who sometimes lost their lives—and they weren’t only non-white people. This is just one of many aspects of the overall narrative I felt needed writing about.