H-Diplo Article Review on Tóth. “‘Red’ Nations: Marxists and the Native American Sovereignty Movement of the Late Cold War

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H-Diplo Article Review 964 on Tóth. “‘Red’ Nations: Marxists and the Native American Sovereignty Movement of the Late Cold War 

Discussion published by George Fujii on Tuesday, July 14, 2020


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H-Diplo Article Review 964

15 July 2020

György Tóth.  “‘Red’ Nations: Marxists and the Native American Sovereignty Movement of the Late Cold War.”  Cold War History (2019), https://doi.org/10.1080/14682745.2019.1645126.

Editor: Diane Labrosse | Commissioning Editor: Seth Offenbach | Production Editor: George Fujii

Review by Paul McKenzie-Jones, University of Lethbridge

The 1973 siege of Wounded Knee marked a pivotal moment in the Red Power Movement of the mid-late twentieth century.  Generations of Indigenous anger and frustration at removal, genocide, and settler-colonial impositions by the United States exploded in a stand-off of action and counter (over)-reaction between the American Indian Movement (AIM) and state and federal police forces.  At the centre of the conflict was the push for formal recognition of Native American sovereignty within their own homelands.  In “’Red nations:’ Marxists and the Native American sovereignty movement of the late Cold War,” György Tóth argues that the moment also signified a shift in the sovereignty movement into a radical transnational attempt to “put pressure on (the United States) from the outside to reinstate or advance American Indian sovereignty rights within the US nation state” by allying themselves with Cold War Marxist opponents of US imperialism (2).

Tóth describes two iterations of the American Indian sovereignty movement.  The first is the ‘moderate’ sovereignty movement in the years after the creation of the Indian Claims Commission in 1946 through to the policies and programs defined as the United States’ termination policy towards American Indians.  According to Tóth, the leading activists in this movement were “stringently patriotic” anti-Communists who “recoiled from an alliance with Soviet Russia” (4).  The second is the ‘radical’ sovereignty movement of the 1970s and 80s, which he argues was also split into two: one group which regarded Marxist regimes as “potential partners in an Indian revolutionary project,” and another which sought recognition of Indian sovereignty rights from revolutionary regimes (4).

The distinction between the two presents a flawed dichotomy.  Rather than forging a dramatic new path in American Indian sovereignty campaigning, the movement of the 1970s was merely building upon paths already forged by these “stringently patriotic” groups the author labels as the “moderate” antithesis of the radical sovereignty movement (4). In the process, and largely because of the uncritical nature of the forms of solidary offered to the latter group by European ‘Marxists,’ this dichotomy unfortunately essentializes the ‘radical sovereignty movement’ into a singular monolithic voice for American Indian rights rather than a collection of different movement working towards a similar aim.

Tóth positions his work within a very specific historiography.  As noted in his footnotes, he eschews works by Glen Coulthard, Francisco Salas Peréz, and David Michael Smith, David Bedford, and Russell Lawrence Barsch in an attempt to “move beyond [an] analysis of Marxism as ideology or scholarly approach to American Indian and Indigenous issue” (1). Instead, he places his work in long body of scholarship on transnationalism by Daniel M. Cobb, H. Glenn Penny, Paul C. Rosier, Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz and Shelley Fisher.[1]

Within the framework of transnationalism, he describes the American Indian sovereignty movement as comprised of “US domestic group(s)” who sought diplomacy with “group(s) from outside the US” or “foreign government(s)” (2). This, and the subsequent argument that the “Native sovereignty movement temporarily transcended the US nation state both geographically and in that they articulated a Native status and identity outside of the US nation state” fundamentally misrepresents both the specific sovereignty movement under discussion, as well as the long history of American Indian nations asserting their sovereignty in opposition to US settlement (2). While the groups specific to his argument were the American Indian Movement, and the International Indian Treaty Council, they were not the sole representatives of ‘radical’ arguments for American Indian sovereignty, nor were they the first groups to seek international solidarity. In 1927, Cayuga leader Deskaheh brought Haudenosaunee issues before the League of Nations and formally requested membership status for the Iroquois Confederacy.  In the 1950s, the National Congress of American Indians sought collaborations of collective Indigenous self-determination with Central American Indigenous communities and used international diplomatic rhetoric in their campaigns against U.S. assimilation policies.  In the 1960’s the National Indian Youth Council sought similar connections in South and Central America while also repeatedly drawing on the decolonial movements in Africa for inspiration in their political rhetoric.  American Indian assertions of sovereignty also have a long history in U.S. federal Indian law, beginning in 1831, when the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed the Cherokee Nation’s argument that it was a sovereign foreign nation under definition of the U.S. Constitution, in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia. One could further argue that the long history of U.S. treaty-making since the 1778 signing of the Treaty of Fort Pitt frames the Native sovereignty movement as a multi-generational movement that has long transcended the assumed sovereignty of the U.S. nation state.

The central premise of Tóth’s argument, that American Indian activists in the sovereignty movement after 1973 sought international collaborations from Marxists groups, is sound.  Beyond the central premise, however, there are multiple flaws in the broader argument.  The major focus of the paper is the alleged solidarity garnered between the ‘radical sovereignty movement’ and Marxist organizations, many of which were state-sponsored, across Europe.  Many of these organizations were not in fact political groups but rather hobbyist groups, such as that led by ‘Chiefti” who were situated within Marxist nation-states.  Thus, the central premise of ‘Marxist’ support seems somewhat flawed and over-emphasized.  Many of these organizations were focussed upon representing and appropriating a romanticized interpretations of Northern Plains’ cultures (10).  In many cases, Tóth offers no evidence of the political leanings of many of these clubs, or their members, who offered letters of support for the AIM members who were embroiled in the legal and political aftermath of Wounded Knee.

The argument of state-sanctioned solidary also seems rather tenuous in this presentation.  While Tóth presents ample evidence of East European governments, and especially the German Democratic Republic, using American Indian imagery for anti-American propaganda in films and other media, there is little to suggest that this anything other than opportunism given the news coverage of Wounded Knee and also because of the well-known German and European fascination with American Indian cultures. That is not to say that there was no government support, and Tóth describes several interactions between activists and government officials across the Eastern Bloc.  Most appear to have been undertaken for the purposes of publicity rather than for the creation of any ‘formal’ alliances between these governments and the American Indian groups.  The tenuous nature of these alliances is demonstrated in Tóth’s article, as he discusses a clampdown on expressions of solidarity for fear that such movements would lead to demands for freedom of speech and democracy in their own states, to the point of investigating hobbyists who travelled to the west, and “re-education by the Marxist state security” for those who went “too far” in support of American Indian sovereignty (14).

The strongest sections of Tóth’s article concern his discussions of the alliances that were created in the United Nations, and here we can see actual solidarity from Marxist governments in pushing votes and amendments in favor of American Indian sovereignty, but only in return for reciprocal actions elsewhere. Here too the reader encounters speculative claims, such as the connection with jailed AIM leader Leonard Peltier’s removal from solitary confinement because of Syrian threats to raise the issue in the UN General Assembly (19).  As strong as the section is, however, it would have benefitted from the historical context of James Anaya’s Walter Echo Hawk’s and Sheryl Lightfoot’s works on global Indigenous politics and rights, especially as all three offer detailed discussion of international collaborations and the United Nations.

Tóth ends his article with a discussion of schism’s that occurred with the sovereignty movements over Marxism remaining an appropriate ideology in regard to American Indian sovereignty.  While he offers a compelling argument for the personal disputes that arose between activists Russell Means and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, over the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, his attempt to provide context by introducing other actors and organizations such as Hank Adams the Indian Law Resource Center and the National Congress of American Indians is far too late to do anything but add a new layer of confusion to the issue. These issues would have been more relevant if they had been addressed throughout the article, rather than just at the end.

“’Red Nations: Marxists and the Native American Sovereignty Movement of the Late Cold War,” is an article with an interesting premise.  Tóth does an excellent job of showcasing the extent of AIM’s reach in connecting with Marxist groups ambitious for the demise of the United States, but not in any way that has not already been shown.  Rather than prove the existence of a Native-Marxist alliance in the Eastern Bloc, the article reiterates the European cultural fantasies about American Indians.  It also highlights the extent to which Eastern European governments were happy to co-opt the sovereignty movement for the purposes of their own anti-American propaganda.  Tóth never fully articulates the breadth and nuance of the radical sovereignty movement beyond a desire for a “fully independent Native America” from the two organizations he selected for this paper, organizations which were ultimately movements in their own right (24). A broader contextual framing of the long history of American Indian sovereignty and international collaborations would have helped situate the Cold War aspect of this article.  As it stands, the argument is presented too narrowly to be convincing in its claim of the significance of these tenuous alliances to the American Indian sovereignty cause.


Paul McKenzie-Jones is an Assistant Professor in Indigenous Studies at the University of Lethbridge.



[1] The works noted here include Glen Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014); Francisco Salas Pérez, “All Our Relations (of Production): Losing and Finding Marx in the Field of Indian Materialism,” Capitalism, Nature, Socialism 24:3 (2013): 160-167; David Michael Smith, “Marxism and Native Americans Revisited,” Sixth Native American Symposium, Southern Oklahoma State University, 10 November 2005; David Bedford, “Marxism and the Aboriginal Question: The Tragedy of Progress,” The Canadian Journal of Native Studies 14:1 (1994): 101-117; Russel Lawrence Barsh, “Contemporary Marxist Theory and Native American Reality,” American Indian Quarterly 12:3 (1988): 187-211; Daniel M. Cobb’s Native Activism in Cold War America: The Struggle for Sovereignty (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2008); H. Glenn Penny’s Kindred by Choice: Germans and American Indians since 1800 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013); Paul C. Rosier’s Serving Their Country: American Indian Politics and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012); Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz’s Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra War (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016); and Shelley Fisher Fishkin, “Crossroads of Cultures: The Transnational Turn in American Studies. Presidential Address to the American Studies Association, 12 November 2004,” American Quarterly 57:1 (2005):