“The Creation of Red Power”: Review of McKenzie-Jones’s Clyde Warrior Biography

In 1966 Clyde Warrior, Mel Thom, and other young American Indian activists crashed the National Council of American Indians’s parade in Oklahoma City with a rented car that had a sign reading “Red Power National Indian Youth Council” on one side and “Custer Died for Your Sins” on the other. The incident not only marked the first use of “Red Power” but highlighted the growing rift between the older NCAI and the younger NIYC that advocated a more forcible approach to native activism. Yet Warrior’s Red Power was not the pan-Indian ideology rooted in militant, direct-action protests famously embodied by the occupations of Alcatraz Island, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and Wounded Knee, South Dakota between 1969 and 1973. In contrast, as Paul McKenzie-Jones documents in Clyde Warrior: Tradition, Community, and Red Power, Warrior advocated a Red Power rooted in tribal traditions and community that sought to reform the system rather than burn it down.

McKenzie-Jones’s book, the first expanded biography of Clyde Warrior to be published, chronicles Warrior’s activism with the National Indian Youth Council during the 1960s and the formation of Red Power and how Warrior sought to achieve it. Warrior famously gained attention with activists when he ran for president of the Southwest Regional Indian Youth Council in 1961 and his campaign speech was three short sentences: “I am a full-blood Ponca Indian. This is all I have to offer. The sewage of Europe does not run through these veins.” Warrior not only won the election but the speech according to McKenzie-Jones, “Was the first time in generations that such direct, condemnatory, and anti-colonial language had been uttered publicly by an American Indian towards the hegemonic American settler culture.” (p. 46) The speech is also significant for McKenzie-Jones because Warrior’s embrace of his Ponca heritage highlighted the fundamentals of his Red Power, community and tribal traditions. While Warrior took part in some direct-action protests, a large part of the book is devoted to his contributions to studying education among Native teenagers in Oklahoma. For Warrior, improving the education system at the local level through increased training and classes that resonated with American Indians would build community and teach the traditions he saw as the building blocks for both strong individuals and the way to reshape tribal programs. Warrior never advocated for the dismantling of the Bureau of Indian Affairs like the American Indian Movement and larger activists would, instead he sought to charge the system to work for Natives, to foster traditions instead of assimilation.

Unfortunately Warrior died far too young and his goals for Red Power and the NIYC were ultimately overshadowed both by the rise of the American Indian Movement, and the occupation of Alcatraz by the Indians of All Tribes and chances in the National Indian Youth Council that saw the organization align with AIM. In contrast to Warrior, who grew up in rural Oklahoma and the Ponca culture, many of the activists in AIM and IAT were urban Indians, who McKenzie-Jones notes had less connections to specific tribal traditions and leaned towards the creation of a pan-Indian identity. McKenzie-Jones does not take too kindly to the later Red Power groups, largely viewing them as a perversion of Warrior’s more nuanced and intellectual definition of Red Power. While it’s true that the three occupations overshadow much of the work activists did on a local level, McKenzie-Jones’s quick overview of the American Indian Movement in his concluding chapter tends to minimize AIM’s contributions on a local level. AIM was more than Russell Means, Dennis Banks, and made for television occupations. Like Warrior, AIM saw the importance of education and formed “survival schools”, that had programs that sought to provide education AIM saw as lacking in other traditional avenues. Additionally, while it’s true pan-Indianism became the go-to ideology of the 1970s, many native urban activists had a firm base in specific tribal cultures.

McKenzie-Jones does a great service by providing a much-needed biography of Clyde Warrior, particularly his extensive oral histories with Warrior’s family, friends, and colleagues. That being said, the book suffers from McKenzie-Jones’s decision to structure it thematically rather than chronologically, which leads to jumping around and hinders showcasing how Warrior progressed over the course of the 1960s. Additionally, while McKenzie-Jones makes passing references to Bradley Shreve’s Red Power Rising and Dan Cobb’s Native Activism in Cold War America, he would have been well served to interact with the historiography of native activism on a more substantive level. As it stands Clyde Warrior: Tradition, Community, and Red Power provides a good overview of Warrior’s life and provides another addition to recent historiography that has sought to complicate narratives of Red Power and ask us to look beyond the narrow window of 1969 to 1973 and a select few protests. Both of these are important contributions but a deeper life and times style biography of Warrior is still needed.