United Tribes News Speech Archives

Progress on the Native Dream

How First Americans took inspiration from Martin Luther King Jr.

Harriett Skye, Ph.D.
Vice President of Intertribal Programs
United Tribes Technical College
January 21, 2008
Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Program

Dr. Harret Skye
Harriet Skye, Ph.D., UTTC Vice President of Intertribal Programs

      When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made his now famous "I have a Dream" speech in Washington, D.C. in 1963, he could not have known how his words would resonate with other people of color. As someone who had come of age in the 1950s, I was old enough to be among those tribal people who were inspired by King's non-violent leadership in the Civil Rights Movement. His words formed a vision of the kind understood by American Indians.

      The post World War II boom that ushered in an era of prosperity was not experienced in the same way by all groups in the country. In the early 1950s, during the Eisenhower Administration, Indians were reeling from the troubling affects of a pair of national programs aimed at terminating the existence of tribes and relocating tribal people from reservations into America's cities. Termination and Relocation were federal government programs that abrogated the treaties.

      A call went out to all tribes and in 1955 and I was among those who converged on Washington, D.C. for a quiet parade of peaceful protest down Pennsylvania Avenue. Not a sound was made; there were no drums, no singing, only native people from across the country dressed in regalia walking to the steps of the Capitol. It was a profoundly effective protest against the termination and relocation policies of the Eisenhower Administration.

      Nearly a decade later, when we listened to Martin Luther King Jr., we were amazed that a leader would publicly describe his hopeful visions of equality and justice that were so similar to those in Native culture. In his speech we recognized a certain kinship between us and we were thrilled to have it expressed on a national stage for the entire country to hear.

      The tradition of great oratory in Indian County prepares Natives, as much as any group, to recognize and appreciate an inspiring talk. I recall a speech by a tribal chairwoman from Oklahoma at a national conference in the mid 1980s. She told how she was born when people of her tribe, the Chiricahua Apache, were being held prisoner in a stockade at Fort Sill. When she finished telling of her experience and that of others in her tribe, she received a standing ovation that lasted for a half-hour.

      King's 1963 speech had the positive effect of motivating all kinds of under-represented groups in America: women, gays and lesbians, the disabled, Hispanics, and us as Native Americans. Whether his words were always on the minds of tribal activists cannot be known. National legislation that was initiated and shaped by Native leaders in the late 1960s and early 1970s certainly paralleled his vision to strive for a better tomorrow:

      Following the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that banned discrimination on the basis of color, race or national origin, the American Indian Civil Rights Act was passed in 1968. It specified that most of the protections of the Bill of Rights would apply to all Indian Reservations. This was landmark legislation for American Indians.

      Indian Education Act, signed into law on June 23, 1972, created new educational opportunities for Indian children and their elders. This act provides federal assistance in education over and above the limited funds appropriated annually for Indian Education programs in the Office of Education, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It is designed to help close the gap, which at that time existed between Indian Education and the general educational level of the United States.

      Indian Self Determination Act (PL 93-638) was enacted in 1975 to further the goal of Indian self-determination by assuring maximum Indian participation in the management of federal programs and services to Indian people. It also provides that tribes may enter into "self-determination contracts" with the Secretary of Interior and the Secretary of Health and Human Services to administer programs or services that otherwise would have been administered by the federal government. Such programs include education, medical services, construction and law enforcement.

      Indian Child Welfare Act, adopted by Congress in 1978, applies to child custody proceedings in state courts involving Indian children and children of Native American ancestry. It assures that Indian children can no longer be artribarily removed from their tribal reservations. Prior to the act, 25% to 35% of Indian children in certain states were removed from their homes and placed in non-Indian homes by state courts, welfare agencies and private adoption agencies.

      American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 pledges to protect and preserve the traditional religious rights of American Indians, Eskimos, Aleuts and Native Hawaiians. Before it was passed, certain U.S. federal laws interfered with the traditional religious practices of indigenous peoples.

      Even more legislation that enables American Indians to pursue the dream has been enacted since these of the 1970s. And some people say that much of this would have come along for tribes sooner or later anyway. That could be true but prior to 1963 American Indian tribes, especially in the upper plains region, were isolated and alone in facing obstacles to their very existence, like the loss of prime land to the construction of dams, the manipulated migration of our people to the cities, the loss of our languages, and acts of tribal termination. Learning from King and others in the Civil Rights Movement that these injustices were part of a larger pattern of colonialism in American life made us all the more prepared to answer the call to action against injustice.

      It is now 40 years since the death of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. Certainly, racial and ethnic inequalities are still part of life in America today. American Indians have much to praise about the role played by Dr. King in the struggle for social justice for all in America. And that is why we gather here today to remember him and celebrate his inspiration.

      Thank you.