The Struggle for Sovereignty: Series Overview

Tipi and flag that reads "American Indian Movement" in front of Washington Monument
Tipi with a flag that reads, "American Indian Movement" on the grounds of the Washington Monument, Washington, D.C., during the "Longest Walk" demonstration in 1978.

Warren K. Leffler, photographer, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.


In the summer of 1978, more than 1,000 Native American activists camped in Greenbelt Park just outside the nation’s capital. The encampment was a staging ground for eight days of demonstrations, protests, and religious observance in support of Native American rights as part of a protest called the Longest Walk. Participants traveled from as far as Alcatraz Island, where the march began, with some making the 2,700-mile journey from California to Washington, D.C. entirely by foot. It was the fourth time in ten years that Native American activists brought their cause to the nation’s capital, bringing national attention to the cause of Native American sovereignty.

While the United States had officially guaranteed Native American rights and recognized the sovereignty of Native American nations through several legally binding treaties since the eighteenth century, the government repeatedly violated these treaties, opening land that was reserved for Indian nations to settlers, speculators, and developers. Native Americans’ right to a sovereign existence included maintaining traditional relationships to the lands and waters that Native peoples had historically used. But 200 years of treaty violations, land theft, and forced assimilation by the federal government threatened the existence of many Indian nations. In their protests to the federal government from 1968 to 1978, Native American activists demanded that the federal government honor its treaty obligations so that tribes could restore their traditional relationships to the land, an effort that continues today. The National Park Service, as a steward of many Indigenous lands, played a significant role in this history that will continue into the future.

In taking their demands to Washington, D.C., the activists on the Longest Walk followed in the footsteps of generations of Native Americans who came before them. Since the founding of the United States, Native American leaders, delegates, and activists have traveled to the nation’s capital to protest violations of their homelands and to assert their sovereign rights as independent nations. Indeed, the Longest Walk was part of a struggle for freedom dating back more than 400 years. But although this movement drew on a long history of activism, it also represented a new era of Native American resistance to colonialism.

Civil Rights Strategies in the Struggle for Native American Sovereignty

Drawing on the tactics and coalition politics of the civil rights movement, Native American activists began developing new strategies for confronting federal Indian policy in the 1960s and 1970s. The Civil Rights Movement’s success in raising public awareness and ultimately changing federal policy through marches, sit-ins, and acts of civil disobedience inspired a new generation of Native Americans. Representing a small minority of the U.S. population, Native Americans were often ignored by government officials when they protested federal Indian policies that devastated their communities. By building coalitions and engaging in direct-action demonstrations, however, Native Americans brought the fight for sovereignty to the center of American politics. But although they borrowed from the strategies of the Civil Rights Movement, the struggle for Native American rights was a separate and distinct issue.

Whereas the Civil Rights Movement was a struggle for equal rights, the Native rights struggle was about the right of Native nations to exist as distinct and sovereign nations. The most pressing issue for the Native American rights movement in the 1960s was the policy of termination. Established in 1953, the federal policy of termination called for an end to federal services and reservations and the termination of tribes as separate government entities. As a result of the policy, more than 100 tribes were terminated, resulting in the loss of more than 1.3 million acres. When Native American activists marched to Washington, D.C. from 1968 to 1978, they marched not only for their rights, but for their very existence.

Indigenous Land, Sovereignty, and the National Parks

The following articles focus on a series of major protests from 1968-1978, in which Native peoples from across the United States converged on Washington, D.C. to bring their issues to the nation’s capital, as they had done for nearly two centuries. In these demonstrations, activists traveled together in caravans from as far away as the West Coast and stopped at various cities and reservations to publicize their cause through rallies, demonstrations, and religious ceremonies.

This series begins with Native American involvement in the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968. In coalition with black, white, and Chicano Americans, Native American activists brought their struggle to the national capital as a part of the larger demonstration against poverty in America. Four years later, American Indian activists built upon the tactics and strategies of the civil rights movement in a march across the United States focused exclusively on Native rights issues. Known as the Trail of Broken Treaties, it established a framework for Indigenous rights that continues to have an impact to this day. As the nation celebrated its bicentennial in 1976, Native activists again came to the capital in the Trail of Self Determination. Foreshadowing the struggles that continue today, that march raised particular concerns about control over the vast natural resources on Native American lands. The series concludes with the Longest Walk in 1978, which served as an indication of how far the nation has come in the Native American struggle for freedom and how far it has yet to go.

Part of a series of articles titled The Struggle for Sovereignty: American Indian Activism in the Nation’s Capital, 1968-1978.

Greenbelt Park, National Mall and Memorial Parks

Last updated: March 6, 2024