Wilkins: 1969: A landmark year for Native America

Numbers matter. Whether one is shouting a “We’re No. 1!” chant at a sporting or political event, being reminded by your spouse that it’s your 25th wedding anniversary, or being taken out for dinner and a party on your 18th or 50th birthday, we are drawn to celebrate, reminisce, mourn, or commemorate particular numbers and the events that transpire during those moments.

For many Native peoples, the number four holds special significance. We offer prayers to the four cardinal directions – North, South, East, West – because they link us with nature and provide a stable foundation for a spiritual life. Seven is also a potent number, as it connects the sky beings, the Earth, and the Great Mystery to the four directions.

For the non-Native society, the number 40 resonates most powerfully. As Clyde Haberman noted in a recent New York Times article, 40 is vividly present in the three Abrahamic faiths of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

On the social movement front, 1969 was also a remarkable period.

In the Bible, which has an entire book titled “Numbers,” Jesus’ wilderness experience lasted 40 days and nights. Moses was on Mount Sinai for 40 days and nights. And the rains that flooded the Earth during Noah’s time were said to have lasted 40 days and nights.

The Islamic mourning period lasts 40 days, and Muhammad was said to have had 40 followers in his early ministry.

Although the number 40 does not carry quite the same significance for Native peoples, the current crop of 40th anniversaries – celebrating, bemoaning, or recalling momentous events that occurred in 1969 – the New York Jets winning the Super Bowl and the New York Mets the World Series, the unbridled optimism and outstanding music that burst forth at Woodstock, and the Apollo astronauts walking on the moon – should be joined by the equally pivotal set of national and Native-specific decisive events that shook and molded the indigenous world that year.

Let’s look at a few of these events from a thematic perspective. On the education front, a U.S. Senate report entitled “Indian Education: A National Tragedy, A National Challenge,” was produced that set the stage for additional funding in this vital area. The National Indian Education Association held its first annual meeting in Minneapolis that year.

This was also the year the Navajo Nation opened the doors of its college, Navajo Community College, now called Diné College. NCC was the first tribally-controlled college in the nation and inspired a number of other Native nations to start colleges.

Two major universities – the University of Minnesota and the University of California/Berkeley – finally got seriously involved in Native studies and created programs that gave students an opportunity to more systematically engage in the study of indigenous matters.

Dartmouth College became one of the first educational institutions to jettison its Indian mascot.

On the social movement front, 1969 was also a remarkable period. In August, the Quinault Nation closed the reservation’s beaches to non-Indians, indicating their frustration at the numerous thefts of tribal members’ fishing gear and other problems caused by non-Indians.

In November, a number of Native activists occupied Alcatraz Island near San Francisco, signaling the start of a more confrontational approach in aboriginal politics. Many commentators consider the Alcatraz takeover one of the most decisive moments in the struggle to reclaim and exercise self-determination.

On the literary front, 1969 was a particularly exciting time. N. Scott Momaday’s splendid novel, “House Made of Dawn” (1968), was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for literature, a first for Indian country. He followed that success with his autobiography, “The Way to Rainy Mountain.”

Alfonso Ortiz, a Tewa citizen and anthropologist, published an important study, “The Tewa World: Space, Time, Being and Becoming in a Pueblo Society,” that is now considered a classic work in anthropology and Native studies.

Vine Deloria Jr., a Standing Rock Sioux member, published “Custer Died for Your Sins,” a trenchant and witty account of Indian affairs and popular culture widely read by Native and non-Native audiences. The book, also the title of Floyd Westerman’s album released that year, inspired and instructed a generation of Natives and empowered them to take pride in their cultures, traditional knowledge, identities and languages.

For Native peoples, as well as the larger American society, 1969 was a time of great excitement, deep reflection, intense and spirited activism, and staunch belief in the human capacity for change and maturity.

David E. Wilkins, Lumbee, is a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota.