American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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National Indian Youth Council

The National Indian Youth Council (NIYC) is the second-oldest national Indian organization in the United States. (The oldest is the National Congress of American Indians.) Since the termination era during the 1950s, the NIYC has fought oppressive government policies. From the mid-1960s through the early 1970s, the NIYC primarily accomplished its aims through Northwest fishins, Red Power protest, and Indian nationalism. While its activities since then have made headlines less often, the NIYC continues its battles through long-term projects such as political research, antidiscrimination lawsuits, and employment services benefiting various indigenous communities. Frequently at the forefront of Indian affairs, the NIYC has promoted self-determination and sovereignty and helped create a new generation of Indian leaders.

The NIYC traces its roots to Indian youth councils and college student workshops of the late 1950s. The Southwestern Regional Indian Youth Council, originated by Kiva Club students at the University of New Mexico, provided leadership training for founders of the NIYC. Herbert Blatchford (Navajo), Melvin Thom (Walker River Paiute), and Clyde Warrior (Ponca) were among the hundreds of Indian college students from nearly twenty states who attended these youth councils and participated in debates over termination and other government policies. Each summer at the Workshop on American Indian Affairs, future founders of the NIYC stretched their minds with powerful ideas and expanded their circles of friends and influence.

The American Indian Chicago Conference in 1961 set the stage for the emergence of the NIYC. Indian college students attended this conference, along with scholars, members of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), and tribal leaders. However, these students wished to voice their own opinions on federal Indian policy and other concerns. They formed a youth caucus, guided the conference's outcome, and argued that Indians needed to use their combined political power in pursuit of self-determination. Ten of them gathered that fall in Gallup, New Mexico, to officially organize the NIYC. In addition to Blatchford, Thom, and Warrior, the NIYC's founders were Bernadine Eschief (Shoshone-Bannock-Pima), Rickard Karen Jacobson (Tuscarora), Howard McKinley, Jr. (Navajo), Joan Noble (Ute), Edison Real Bird (Crow), John R. Winchester (Potawatatomi), and Shirley Hill Witt (Akwesasne Mohawk). At this founding meeting, Indian women took two of the three positions within the presidency and four of the ten spots on the board of directors.

For the first few years, the NIYC founders decided to meet annually and discuss issues facing Indian students and youth across the nation. They began publishing a newsletter and by 1962 over 180 tribal councils had subscribed. In 1963 the NIYC and United Scholarship Service jointly published a new periodical, Americans Before Columbus. Bruce Wilkie (Makah) and Hank Adams (Assiniboine-Sioux) emerged as leaders in the NIYC. In early 1964 these two individuals played key roles in the NIYC's fishins in behalf of tribes in Washington State. This direct action proved so popular that by the end of 1964 membership in the NIYC reached three thousand.

The NIYC began receiving greater recognition in 1964. In May, leaders in the NIYC were invited to the Capital Conference on Indian Poverty in Washington, D.C. There they organized a youth session and stressed the need to aggressively seek funding for American Indians in the forthcoming War on Poverty. Eventually several members of the NIYC became Community Action Program directors. Before the year was over, Warrior helped Vine Deloria, Jr. become executive director of the NCAI. In addition, the NIYC participated in the first-ever International Indian Youth Conference and received a Canadian delegation at its December meetings.

Over the next few years, the NIYC underwent several changes. Emerging in the vanguard of the Indian movement, Thom replaced Blatchford as executive director in 1965 and served until 1968. Warrior led the group from 1966 to 1968. Warrior and other orators in the NIYC denounced the colonialism of the federal government and lectured widely on the need to preserve Indian culture and identities. In 1967, the Carnegie Corporation and the Ford Foundation awarded the NIYC nearly $200,000. This allowed the NIYC to hire a small staff, set up an office in Berkeley, California, and contract with the Far West Laboratory for Educational Research and Development.

Events in 1968 and 1969 transformed the NIYC. Stan Steiner's book, The New Indians, appeared early in 1968, describing how the NIYC helped radicalize Indian students and other youth. Soon after this, Thom and his staff took funds earmarked for education projects and spent them on preparations for the Poor Peoples' Campaign in Washington, D.C. These actions upset the foundations and contradicted the wishes of the NIYC's board of directors. The crisis worsened when Warrior died close to the time of the campaign in Washington. These developments created a leadership vacuum in the NIYC. The students who attended the NIYC's first-ever Institute of American Indian Studies in the summer of 1968 decided to take over the NIYC's board of directors. Before long, William Pensoneau (Ponca) became president and served until 1969. In the midst of this transformation, the NIYC's headquarters moved back to New Mexico. Gerald Wilkinson (Cherokee-Catawba) agreed to become executive director around this time and began working, initially without pay, at the new office in Albuquerque.

Wilkinson realized the NIYC needed to adapt to survive. Many of the Native students who had passed through the NIYC's leadership training programs began competing with the NIYC for funding and political influence. For instance, in 1969 Wilkie became executive director of the NCAI. NIYC members obtained internships in Washington, D.C., and staffed Indian desks in major departments and agencies of the federal government. At least 250 Indian students attended the NIYC's summer Institutes in American Indian Studies and helped set up similar programs on other college campuses. Members of the NIYC also became leaders of tribes and established Indian advocacy organizations. Wilkinson recognized the need to build membership and funds. A direct mail campaign and a resumption of the NIYC's periodical helped boost membership to 15,050 chapters by the early 1970s.

The NIYC changed during the 1970s from a direct action activist organization to one that pursued long-term projects. For example, the NIYC participated in the Trail of Broken Treaties, but its priorities lay elsewhere. Wilkinson wasted little time in obtaining the services of lawyers. With their help, the NIYC sued the BIA for its discrimination against students at schools like Intermountain and Chilocco and urged the adoption of a student bill of rights. By mid-decade Wilkinson had assembled an office with twenty people, including several staff attorneys. Some of the court cases launched and won by the NIYC during these decades dealt with issues such as affirmative action, environmental issues, religious freedom, restoration of tribal constitutions, and voting rights. One way the NIYC survived during these years was through federal funds that allowed it to provide job training and placement. Notable leaders during these years included LaVonna Weller (Caddo), who became the first female president of the NIYC in 1972, and Lawrence Roberts (Oneida), who served as president from 1974 to 1988.

Since the 1980s, the NIYC has expanded the scope of its activities and continued to provide services to Indian people and organizations. In the 1980s new projects for the NIYC included voter registration campaigns among tribes in the Southwest, voter surveys, national directories of Indian elected officials, and polling data on the views of these political leaders. During these years the NIYC also hired a young attorney named James Anaya, who helped the NIYC to become a nongovernmental organization (NGO) at the United Nations and to provide assistance to indigenous peoples facing oppression throughout Latin America. Wilkinson's death in 1989 brought additional changes to the NIYC. Norman Ration (Navajo-Laguna) became executive director and helped the NIYC to better serve the urban Indian population of New Mexico. James Nez (Navajo) has assisted with this effort as NIYC president for quite some time. The two of them brought Witt back onto the board of directors. These and other individuals have helped the NIYC to expand and open offices in Farmington and Gallup, New Mexico. In the last few years the NIYC has won the right for Navajo Indians to vote in tribal elections at polls in Albuquerque. Their most recent battles have been against low healthcare funding for urban Indians across the nation.

Sterling Fluharty

Further Reading
Cowger, Thomas W. 2001. The National Congress of American Indians: The Founding Years. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press; Fluharty, Sterling. 2003. "'For a Greater Indian America': The Origins of the National Indian Youth Council." Master's thesis, University of Oklahoma.; LaGrand, James B. 2002. Indian Metropolis: Native Americans in Chicago, 1945–75. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.; Parker, Dorothy R. 1992. Singing an Indian Song: A Biography of D'Arcy McNickle. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.; Smith, Paul Chaat, and Robert Allen Warrior. 1996. Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee. New York: The New Press.; Steiner, Stan. 1968. The New Indians. New York: Harper & Row.; Warrior, Robert Allen. 1995. Tribal Secrets: Recovering American Indian Intellectual Traditions. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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