- “We are among the poor, the powerless, the inexperienced and the inarticulate”Clyde Warrior’s Campaign for a “Greater Indian America”
The 1960s was a turbulent decade as cultures merged, clashed, and often created subcultures within American society. Mass protests, demonstrations, riots, and violence scarred the nation’s psyche as America’s youth, of all colors and creeds, demanded a new style of leadership and new rules for living. One such activist was Clyde Warrior (Ponca), a founding member of the National Indian Youth Council (NIYC). Warrior was a leading influence upon the generation of college-educated Indians who participated in the Red Power movement of the 1960s. Long before “Red Power” became the jingoistic slogan of the American Indian Movement at the end of the 1960s and in the early 1970s, Warrior and NIYC cofounder, Mel Thom (Paiute), adopted the phrase as a tongue-in-cheek response to the Black Power movement. Although he always disputed the idea, to many people Warrior was not only an advocate of American Indian rights until his tragically early death in 1968 but the leader of the Red Power movement.1
Warrior’s many speeches and articles bristled with anger at federal imposition upon and colonial administration of Indian nations and peoples, and yet he was much more a cultural than a political activist. His primary focus was always on what could be done for and by Indians rather than against what was being done to Indians. As such, Indians themselves were often the targets of his speeches. As an early advocate of tribal self-determination, Warrior’s rhetoric was extremely proactive with regard to finding solutions to the “Indian problem.” Intent upon finding new ways for Indians to take their place in this world on their own terms rather than on those of the dominant white society, he was acutely aware of the seismic societal changes affecting America and the [End Page 224] rest of the world. He often sought political answers and examples from the global decolonization efforts of other indigenous peoples in the cold war era. Despite this awareness of other cultures and societies and Indian communities, Warrior neither represented nor adopted a pan-Indian, or pantribal, approach to these issues, as many scholars contend.
In 1955 Dr. James Howard described pan-Indianism as the process by which tribes were “losing their tribal distinctiveness and in its place are developing a nontribal ‘Indian’ culture” that was “one of the final stages of progressive acculturation, just prior to complete assimilation.” In 1962 Warrior’s mentor, Robert Thomas (Cherokee), described a “Pan Indian movement which is . . . designed to achieve and improve understanding of Indianism to the dominant society” before adding in 1965 that it was “the creation of a new identity, a new ethnic group, if you will, a new ‘nationality’ in America.”2
Contrary to Howard’s and Thomas’s descriptions, though, Warrior’s identity, ethnic group, and nationality were all purely Ponca. It is somewhat ironic that even though Warrior knew and was influenced by both men, his own speeches and rhetoric more closely resembled the intertribal cultural motif of the powwow world. His own cultural and tribal identity, heritage, and community always buttressed his messages with an acknowledgment of shared meanings and symbols rather than any attempt at a generic Indian identity. While this tribal ethnocentrism was obvious in his later speeches, all of his speeches focused upon the unyielding yet reciprocal relationship between the individual and the community. He often talked about the obligations of the individual as an agent of change to aid his or her community and people.3
Warrior’s upbringing was such that this ethnocentrism was hardly surprising. He was born in Ponca City in 1939, and his maternal grandparents ensured that he was deeply immersed in traditional Ponca culture from a very early age. He was fluent in his tribal language, songs, dances, and history, and his grandparents’ stories often formed the backdrop to his rhetoric. An accomplished Fancy Dancer whose “whole body was just fluid with the drum and singing . . . it just blended in with the music,” Warrior was also involved in his tribe’s revitalization of their...