American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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National Congress of American Indians

Having served in World War II, many Native Americans became increasingly active politically after the war, demanding equal voting rights and an end to discrimination. Their wartime experience intensified a renewed sense of Native American identity, reinforced religious beliefs, and exposed many Native Americans to life outside the reservations.

In several states, Native Americans were denied the right to vote, in spite of laws to the contrary. In other political activities, Native Americans resisted the construction of dams that threatened to flood reservation lands and destroy Indian fishing rights.

By the mid-1940s, Native American leaders realized that many non-Natives were not much interested in Indian affairs, that bureaucratic inertia and hostility to the Indian Reorganization Act were weakening potential benefits, and that their tribal treaty rights were in jeopardy. Originally called the Wheeler-Howard Act of 1934, the Indian Reorganization Act was an attempt to conserve and develop Indian lands and resources. This authority extended to Native Americans the legal structure that enabled them to form businesses, establish a credit system, and provide for a vocational education.

In an attempt to safeguard these and other Native American assertions, in 1944 reservation leaders and other prominent Native American professional men and women from fifty tribes met in Denver, Colorado, to form the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the first major intertribal organization

When the NCAI was formed, its primary concerns included the protection of Native American lands, minerals, and timber resources, as well as improving economic opportunities, education, and health care for Native Americans. Among NCAI's founding members were D'Arcy McNickle, a Flat-head and employee of the Bureau of Indian Affairs who held a seat on the first national counsel, and Napoleon Johnson, a Cherokee who served as the organization's first president. They were among the early NCAI leaders who asserted that membership should be restricted to "people of Indian ancestry." As problems mounted for Native Americans, however, membership policy was changed to include non-Indians, who were offered associate memberships if they demonstrated a genuine concern for Native American issues.

One of the few postwar innovations in Native American policy was established by Congress in 1946 when the Indian Claims Commission voted to compensate Native Americans for fraud or unfair treatment by the federal government. During the next twenty-two years, the commission heard 852 claims and awarded nearly $818 million in damages to Native Americans. Otherwise, however, much of the news regarding Native American policy was bad during NCAI's early years.

Among its early platforms, the NCAI promised to "work toward the promotion of the common welfare of the aboriginal races of North America." It promised to educate non-Indians about Indian culture, preserve treaty rights, and lobby for Indian interests before the federal government. It had concern for the preservation of Indian culture and retaining the advances made under the Indian Reorganization Act, as well as pressing for the Act's fulfillment. The National Congress of American Indians became a strong lobbying force, working with other organizations, including the Indian Rights Association, to protect Native American interests before the U.S. Congress.

In 1947, part of a comprehensive study by the federal government for ways to remove waste, duplication, and inefficiency and to reduce public expenditures recommended ending the federal government's relationship with the Indian tribes. Headed by former President Herbert Hoover, this special study, which examined all phases of the national government, recommended the termination of Indian welfare by the federal government.

Anticipating this outcome and the recommendations of discontinuance of all specialized Indian activity and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the NCAI dedicated most of its attention, for several years, to trying to correct what became known as the termination policy.

During the 1950s, the organization was a principal opponent against the termination policy, which sought to "emancipate the Indians" by terminating federal links to Indian communities and withdrawing federal support for tribal governments. The legislation called for Congress to initiate sixty separate termination bills, the last of which was to be implemented in 1962. Generally, the legislation called for the preparation of a final distribution of tribal assets to members and the removal of Indian land from federal protection.

The NCAI said that the policy of termination undermined reservation health and economic conditions and accelerated the decline of traditional cultural practices. In the wake of these negative conditions, NCAI led several tribes to campaign successfully to reverse some elements of termination. In 1953, Congress passed a resolution that called for the government to transfer federal responsibilities for tribes to the states. It also allowed states to assert legal jurisdiction over Indian reservations without tribal consent. The NCAI effectively organized opposition to these measures, with the rallying cry of "self-determination rather than termination."

Many Native Americans criticized "relocation," another postwar government program. Under the policy that began in 1948, the Bureau of Indian Affairs provided transportation, job placement, vocational training, and counseling to Native Americans who wanted to leave reservations. As a result of Native American protests, led by NCAI, federal policies began to shift away from termination and toward self-determination and the principle of autonomy.

In the 1960s, as President John F. Kennedy promised a friendlier "new frontier" in Indian affairs, the NCAI played an important role in ensuring that the federal antipoverty programs would encompass tribal communities. Additionally, this decade also witnessed the birth of several pan-Indian protest groups, with the NCAI losing its leading role to the more flamboyant, militant organizations like the National Indian Youth Council (NIYC) and the American Indian Movement (AIM), best-known for its occupation of Wounded Knee (South Dakota) in 1973.

During the 1970s even as activism accelerated, American Indians continued to be the United States' poorest minority group by many measures, including net income and mortality from several diseases. They were considered worse off than any other group, according to virtually every socioeconomic statistic. The Native American unemployment rate was ten times the U.S. national average, and 50 percent of the Native American population lived below the federal poverty line. Indian life expectancy was only forty-four years, a third less than that of the typical American at the time. Deaths caused by pneumonia, hepatitis, dysentery, strep throat, diabetes, tuberculosis, alcoholism, suicide, and homicide were two to sixty times higher than among the United States population as a whole. Half a million Native American families lived in unsanitary, dilapidated dwellings, many in shanties or abandoned automobiles. The NCAI sought solutions to these difficulties by approaching the U.S. government.

In the 1980s and the 1990s, the NCAI promoted political causes and education through the efforts of its Washington, D.C., office, as well as programs initiated at its annual convention.

The NCAI continues to be the oldest and largest Native American organization in the United States. It was born of hostile legislation and policies that were devastating to Native American tribal nations. It continues to dedicate itself to the restoration and exercise of tribal sovereignty and the continued viability of all tribal governments.

No longer are Indians a vanishing group of Americans. The 2000 Census recorded a Native American population of more than two million, five times the number recorded in 1950. However, nearly half of all Native Americans continue to live on reservations, which cover 52 million acres in twenty-seven states, while most of the others live in urban areas. As the Indian population grows, individual Native Americans have claimed many accomplishments and are widely perceived to be productive citizens. Although Native Americans continue to face severe problems relating to employment, income, and education, they will not abandon their Indian identity and culture, nor will they be treated as dependent wards of the federal government—all aims that mirror the goals of the National Congress of American Indians.

Historically, the NCAI's political activities have followed a moderate political course, bringing together and representing a wide range of Native Americans on a variety of issues. Recently, the NCAI sent petitions to Congress to force the removal of stereotypical names, such as "Redskins," from sports team logos, license plates, and other places, as Native Americans continue to battle discrimination.

Recently, NCAI has worked to secure funding for an initiative to encourage Native Americans to pursue degrees in the field of information technology and other fields of science and technology.

Working with other Native American groups, NCAI raised relief funds for Native Americans in the Gulf states, who were victimized by Hurricane Katrina. The NCAI continues to stress the importance of preserving Native American history and cultures, as well as to protect Indian welfare. The group continues to urge Native Americans to become assimilated into non-Indian culture by stressing their common characteristics and creating the organizational forms to unite all the tribes and to retain a pluralistic relationship with the larger society by working for self-determination.

While the NCAI has had it share of criticism, it has shown, historically, that it works for the betterment of Native Americans and that it continues to fight for full inclusion. It remains a powerful voice for the collective concerns and shared identity of American Indian nations and tribes.

Fred Lindsey


Further Reading
Cowger, Thomas W. 2001. The National Congress of American Indians: The Founding Years. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press; Healey, Joseph F. 2005. Race, Ethnicity, Gender, and Class: The Sociology of Group Conflict and Change. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.; Hoxie, Frederick E. 1996. Encyclopedia of North American Indians: Native American History, Culture, and Life from Paleo-Indians to the Present. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.
 

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