National Congress of American Indians

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NATIONAL CONGRESS OF AMERICAN INDIANS. The founding of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) in Denver, Colorado, in 1944 represented a milestone in Indian history, because it signified the first successful national intertribal political organization controlled by Indians. By 1944, the legacy of off-reservation boarding schools and the Indian New Deal, coupled with recent wartime experience, had convinced a new generation of Indians of the need to organize themselves to make their voices heard in Congress and elsewhere. In particular, D'Arcy McNickle (Flathead), Archie Phinney (Nez Perce), and Charles Heacock (Lakota) largely conceived and helped organize the NCAI.

In all, eighty Indian delegates from twenty-seven states and representing more than fifty tribes, groups, and associations attended the first convention. One year later, the NCAI claimed members from nearly all the tribes of the United States. Although at the outset men largely comprised the organization, by 1955 women made up at least half of the delegates. Delegates attending the founding convention represented a fairly representative cross section of Indian leadership west of the Mississippi River. On the whole, the convention attendees represented an equal blend of young and old, full-bloods and mixed-bloods, and both highly educated and less formally educated, distinguished professionals and lesser known Indians.

In its earliest years the NCAI battled to protect the rights of Alaskan natives, to end voting discrimination, to create the Indian Claims Commission (established in 1946), to promote the right to independent counsel without federal government interference or control, to stop termination legislation to end tribal governance, and to push for greater Indian participation in the government's decision-making processes. By passing broad resolutions, the founders mapped a political strategy that appealed to many Indians. Also, by steering a moderate course, the NCAI leadership decreased the risk of distancing the reservation Indians from the urban, the more assimilated from the less, the older Native Americans from the younger, and individuals from tribal groups.

The NCAI played a significant role in late-twentieth-century Indian affairs. Its emphasis on treaty rights, tribal sovereignty, and identity issues had no equals in earlier intertribal efforts. The NCAI was less preoccupied than previous twentieth-century Indian intertribal movements had been with the benefits of Indian assimilation and more concerned with the group rights of Indians and with interests within tribal communities. In practice, the group offered tribes legal aid and information and lobbied for Indian interests before the courts, Congress, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Its leaders used the conventional weapons of politics to promote the interests of Indian peoples. Not strictly confined to national issues, it also fought campaigns on the local and regional level.

More importantly, the limited success of the NCAI helped open a broader political arena within which contemporary Indian activists have spoken out and agendas have been engaged. Beginning in the 1960s, new Indian activist groups like the American Indian Movement and the National Indian Youth Council used the NCAI's energy as a springboard to forge new political movements that employed direct confrontation and civil disobedience. The NCAI's influence diminished slightly in the 1980s and the 1990s as Indian activism shifted from the legislative arena to the courts, but it remained one of the most important Indian organizations.


Cowger, Thomas W. The National Congress of American Indians: The Founding Years. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999.

Hertzberg, Hazel. The Search for an American Indian Identity: Modern Pan-Indian Movements. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1971.

Thomas W.Cowger

See alsoAmerican Indian Movement ; Bureau of Indian Affairs ; Indian Claims Commission ; Indian Policy, U.S., 1900–2000 ; Indian Political Life ; National Indian Youth Council ; Society of American Indians .

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National Congress of American Indians