James Merdith
Flag and Symbo of the American Indian Movement

Awareness of the deplorable conditions under which American Indians were living was a major impetus for activism among Native Americans in the 1960s. The native American population had almost doubled between 1950 and 1970, with an unemployment rate ten times the national rate. Conditions on reservations, on which more than half of all Native Americans lived, were horrible. Poor infrastructure, poverty, alcoholism, and other structural and social deficiencies were the norm. As Congress was discussing the Economic Opportunity Bill in 1964, Native Americans and other sympathizers demonstrated to encourage Congress to include American Indians in the bill. When the bill was passed, it had been changed to include Native Americans so that, for a time, many residents of reservations were able to plan and implement anti-poverty programs. Nevertheless, as has been the case throughout most of American history, most governmental promises fell through.
In 1961, more than 400 members of 67 Native American tribes met in Chicago and drew up a Declaration of Indian Purpose, emphasizing the "right to choose our own way of life" and the "responsibility of preserving of preserving our precious heritage." In the same year, President Kennedy appointed a Task Force to visit tribes to collect data to be considered in Indian policy. A member of the Task Force, Philleo Nash, waws appointed Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Although many praised him for his genuine attempts to meet the needs of the Native American community on its own terms, he resigned in 1966. His successor was Robert La Follette Bennett, a Wisconsin Oneida.
Toward the end of the 1960s, many angry American Indians used direct action to bring attention to their concerns. Many young, college-educated Native Americans insisted on being called "Native Americans" rather than American Indians, and some adopted the term "red power," an echo of Stokely Carmichael's concept of "black power." In 1968, Dennis Banks and other Indians founded the American Indian Movement (AIM). AIM promoted self-sufficiency for Native Americans, publicized the plight of Native Americans on reservations; and focused on problems of alienation, alcoholism, poverty, unemployment and the weakening of Indian cultural bonds. The organization sported an upside-down American flag as a symbol of its anger at the crimes of the United States against the Indian nations. In the same year, Congress passed the Indian Civil Rights Act, requiring that Indian consent be given before a state can take jurisdiction on reservation land.
Although the Indian Civil Right Act was a sign of progress, there was still a wide range of issues that had yet to be seriously addressed. On November 9, 1969, Dennis Banks and 78 other Native Americans of various tribes seized Alcatraz Island, the site of an abandoned federal prison. They proclaimed that they had come to seize Indian territory. By the end of November, almost 600 Indians from 50 nations camped on the island. The demonstrators offered to pay $24 for Alcatraz, mocking the $24 purchase of Manhattan Island, and compared Alcatraz to an Indian reservation. After announcing their intention to build a center of Native American Studies on the island, and having occupied the island for 18 months, the protesters were forced off. Banks and AIM continued active protests through the 1970s.