Even photographer Edward Sheriff Curtis felt that Indian cultures were “vanishing,” and sought to keep as many of them as possible alive in words and images. To Curtis’s credit, his time of work, the years on either side of 1900, were probably the nadir for Indians. According to the US Census Bureau, there were only 237,196 Indians left in the country in 1900.
Indians have not disappeared—Fletcher and Curtis would both be happy with that. And in fact their resurgence did have something to do with the 1950s and 60s Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King was aware of Indian history, which he naturally interpreted in racial terms in his 1963 book, Why We Can’t Wait:
Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shores, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society. From the sixteenth century forward, blood flowed in battles of racial supremacy. We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its Indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade. Indeed, even today we have not permitted ourselves to reject or feel remorse for this shameful episode. Our literature, our films, our drama, our folklore all exalt it.
King trumpeting the Indian story nationally in such graphic terms had to have had an impact. And Indians did follow what was happening with American blacks. The NCAAP, the oldest civil rights group, was formed in 1908. NCAI, the National Congress of American Indians, the first national Indian lobby, was formed in 1944, and NARF, the Native American Rights Fund, was modeled after the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund in the mid-sixties, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement.
Today, sovereignty and treaty rights, not always secure, not always playing out the Indian way, are acknowledged and of moment across the country—with a much greater understanding by white liberals. It’s all speculation, but one might argue that AIM, Alcatraz, the second Wounded Knee, none of it would have happened without the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King. And the way King brought Alvin’s third Indian alternative—extermination, or, in 20th century terms, genocide—to the fore has certainly had a sobering influence on policy makers and Indians themselves over the last 50 years.
As King and Indian leaders would say, there is still much work to do, but we are a long way from 1900 and a “vanishing race.”
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