Collaborating with my daughters on my memoirs I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on the past 45 years of the American Indian Self Determination Movement and the unique modern history that I am privileged to have been a part of. Forty-five years ago, I and a cohort of national Native American activists founded Americans for Indian Opportunity (AIO), and July 8 marks the 45th anniversary of President Nixon’s Special Message to Congress on Indian Affairs. On this anniversary, I hope all Americans pause to reflect or learn more about this seminal statement and the changes in federal Indian policy. Seen as the formal beginning of our Self Determination Movement, Nixon’s message repudiated the current policy of terminating the federal recognition of Indian tribes and the devastating consequences of other detrimental policies. An understanding of this important era may help guide policy now, laying the groundwork for the next 45 years of federal-tribal relations. As I look back and as we prepare for the future, I clearly understand that we must do our best to institutionalize or make permanent positive change and the instruments that helped to create that change.
I began my national work to improve the well-being of Indigenous Peoples a few years before the Nixon Administration with an appointment by President Lyndon B. Johnson to the National Council on Indian Opportunity (NCIO). Johnson sent the first Executive Message to Congress on Indian Affairs in 1968 and Sargent Shriver enlisted my help in ensuring the inclusion of tribal governments and urban Indians in Johnson’s War on Poverty.
Over several decades, the U.S. Congress had terminated more than 70 Indian tribes, and transferred jurisdiction over Native Americans and Indian lands to certain states via Public Law 280. Essentially, the legal and inherent right to be culturally and politically autonomous for the first peoples of the United States was being systematically terminated. In addition to termination, tribal people were suffering due to other federal policies of assimilation, including the Indian Relocation Program that moved thousands of Native Americans from rural reservations to urban areas. These failed policies resulted in lost tribal lands and resources, reduced and divided communities, and underserved and impoverished tribal citizens. By the 1960s, throughout Indian country and in every major city, Native Americans suffered the worst socio-economic indicators in the country.
Lyndon Johnson was my champion. Through his War on Poverty, many Native American leaders emerged and many new social programs benefited tribal communities, like Head Start and Job Corps. Johnson appointed the first Native American Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Bob Bennett (Oneida of Wisconsin). At Bennett’s swearing in ceremony, I remember Johnson saying, “Bob, now, you go over to the Smithsonian. Get one of those Indian war clubs, and hit those departments up side the head so that they understand that Indians are citizens of the United States and are entitled to all the services the Federal Government has to offer.”
In his 1968 Message to Congress, entitled “The Forgotten American,” President Johnson outlined new initiatives and he recognized that “[n]o enlightened Nation, no responsible government; no progressive people can sit idly by and permit this shocking situation to continue.” He proposed a new goal for federal Indian programs that ended the debate about termination, erased old attitudes of paternalism, and instead stressed self-determination. He also recognized that there was “too little coordination between agencies; and no clear, unified policy which applied to all.” The War on Poverty actually ended the colonial stranglehold of the Department of Interior over Indian people and tribal governments.
To address these issues and launch a government-wide effort, Johnson established by Executive Order 11399 the National Council on Indian Opportunity. The NCIO was intended to review federal programs for Native Americans, make broad policy recommendations, and ensure that federal programs reflect the needs and desires of the Indian communities, including the encouragement of interagency coordination. The Opportunities Council was chaired by the Vice President of the United States, Hubert Humphrey and originally included six Department Secretaries, the Director of the President’s Office of Economic Opportunity, Sargent Shriver, and six tribal leaders.
Americans, today, may not understand the importance of the NCIO which marked the first time that the federal government actively engaged Native peoples and tribal leaders in national decision-making. The Council provided a space for Native Americans to identify problems and create solutions within the federal system—in other words, to be self-determining. For the first time, tribal leaders and members of the President’s Cabinet sat side by side developing federal policy to address the dire circumstances in Indian country. President Johnson’s original appointees were Wendell Chino (Mescalero Apache), William Hensley (Inupiat), Roger Jourdain (Red Lake Band of Chippewa), Raymond Nakai (Navajo), Cato Valandra (Rosebud Sioux), and me. I was the only person who was not an elected tribal official and the only woman. I focused on the plight of urban Indians who I believed to be about 50 percent of the Native population. A recent study by the National Urban Indian Families Coalition reports that the real number is closer to 75 percent.
I am proud to have served with such a strong group of effective tribal leaders and to have worked directly with Vice President Humphrey. Together, and with the help of many Native American activists, the NCIO created a revolution in policy, modified perceptions and transformed the attitude of the nation. The NCIO brokered the establishment of Indian Desks in nearly every Federal Department and agency, yet few know of its existence.
With the election of Richard Nixon, Vice President Spiro Agnew took over as Chair of the National Council on Indian Opportunity. Nixon, who had had a Native American football coach, was empathetic to Indian issues. During the Nixon Administration, the work of the NCIO was supported by Bobbie Kilberg. Having previously worked in legal aid for the Navajo Nation and as a White House Fellow, Bobbie became instrumental in keeping the NCIO active and affective during the Nixon Administration. I nurtured a remarkable relationship with Ms. Kilberg, and in the Comanche tradition, I adopted Bobbie as a daughter. Together, we fought for the return of the sacred Blue Lake to the people of Taos Pueblo, but that’s another story.
The NCIO with Bobbie’s staffing played a key role in developing President Nixon’s Special Message to Congress and the notable policies that followed. The Council presented a set of policy proposals which were assessed by Cabinet Members. The Cabinet’s responses became the essence and substance of Nixon’s Special Message of July 8, 1970. That Message to Congress set us on a clear path that led to enactment of much landmark legislation that defined and implemented federal self-determination policies.
Unfortunately, because it was never made permanent, the National Council on Indian Opportunity did not survive Agnew’s political troubles and scandal. The NCIO was moved to the Bureau of Indian Affairs where it died in 1974 when Congressional funding authorization expired. President Gerald Ford’s administration did not move to continue or renew the program.
The NCIO helped bring about the self-determination era and an American Indian movement that turned the tide of public opinion, ushering in a new dawn of tribal governance and economic development. In short, Native American activists and tribal leaders emerged from the termination era more determined to secure and preserve their cultures, and demand a seat at the table to advocate for our sovereignty.
Sadly, many of the problems Native Americans faced in the 1960s and 70s are still with us. Progress is stagnated by increased pressures on Native youth and tribal governments. For most Native Americans, the struggle for meaningful economic development and steady employment, quality education, decent housing, adequate healthcare, and sound infrastructure are all still a constant struggle. While President Barack Obama has appointed more Native Americans in his Administration than any other President (maybe all U.S. Presidents put together), tribal leaders are still often disrespected, urban Indians are mostly ignored and our right to be self-governing is under constant and organized attack.
Certainly, we’ve made great strides since 1970, both economically and in tribal-federal relations. In particular, President Obama holds an annual White House Tribal Nations Conference, and he established the White House Council on Native American Affairs. My concern is that the many appointments, the annual Conference and Council on Native American Affairs exist at the pleasure of this President. Americans for Indian Opportunity has long held that we must institutionalize tribal government and urban Indian participation within the government.
AIO developed a presentation called “Indian 101” because we found that most Americans, especially decision-makers, don’t know much about the Indigenous Peoples of the U.S. AIO learned from the demise of NCIO how little top officials and key decision-makers understand that tribes are governments and the complexities of federal-tribal trust responsibility. From Main Street to the White House, Native Americans are often either invisible or perceived as a problem. Over my 50-something year career, I have had to educate officials about Indians and tribal governments before I could get them to move forward on a particular policy or piece of legislation because we do not have a permanent, visible role in national policy-making.
My good friend and colleague, the Honorable Rueben Snake (Winnebago), once said that to overcome the lack of understanding about Indigenous Peoples, every Indian ought to adopt four Anglos and make them family. I’ve done my part but the Crow Nation had the foresight to adopt Barack Obama which began his “Indian 101” lessons when he was still a presidential candidate.
This endless educational process lead AIO to advocate for institutionalizing tribal governments within the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs. We achieved success when the Clinton Administration created the position of Tribal Liaison but we had to wait for President Obama to fill the position with the first Native.
Despite the good work of the NCIO, Indian Desks, Departmental Indian Policy Statements, tribal governments and urban Indian centers still have to cut through the inevitable “white-tape” of the federal bureaucracy, the lack of knowledge and the often conflicting or out dated policies.
I think in part because of his Crow adoption, President Obama has made significant progress in valuing tribal leaders and providing space at the national level to address Indian issues. The Obama Administration has moved us forward through the Native American appointees, with the annual Tribal Conference, the inclusion of an Indian representative on the Domestic Policy Council and hosting the first White House Urban Indian Roundtable Discussions. On the advice of tribal leaders and the advocacy of organizations like the National Congress of American Indians, President Obama created the White House Council of Native American Affairs made up of members of his Cabinet and chaired by the Secretary of Interior to coordinate government-wide initiatives such as Generation Indigenous (Gen-I) to support Native youth programs. All of these efforts are vitally important to Indian country.
Worrisome however, is that with the election of a new President, regardless of political party, these steps forward can all be lost. Now is the time to undertake the important work of institutionalizing these advances.
It is critical to the well-being of Tribal America that we protect by legislation and permanent mandate that a strong Native American advocate always be the tribal liaison in the Intergovernmental Affairs Office to reinforce the oft forgotten or little-known fact that Indian tribes are governments. The Domestic Policy Council should always include an activist for the rights of urban Indians and indigenous immigrants. The forward movement we have achieved needs to be institutionalized through policy and law.
To assess how best to address these issues, I encourage us to look back to the start of the self-determination era, and learn from our valuable experience then. Reinforced in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Native Americans have to be a part of the supervision and formulation of national policies, and the organizations, institutions and programs making policy must have significant Native representation. We know that success depends on tribal leaders and Native activists being at the table before—not after—major decisions are made. At the same time, as in the temporary White House Council and the old NCIO on which I served, it is essential that a coordinating body for federal Indian policies include members of the President’s Cabinet as well as tribal leaders and Native advocates. These measures must be made permanent so that appropriate, consistent federal commitments can be made and implemented. Without permanence, we will once again strain our precious resources to educate and bring up to speed a green Administration and a new Congress.
As we reflect on the important anniversary of President Nixon’s Special Message to Congress, we must remember how we got to where we are and how we can best move forward from here. Many federal officials, Members of Congress, and tribal leaders contributed greatly over many years to all that we have achieved. We can be proud and appreciate those small groups in the right place at the right time who played pivotal roles in creating substantial and lasting positive change. I am gratified that the National Council on Indian Opportunity played a role 45 years ago, and I hope that we can find a way to harness that spirit and effort to help move us forward to the next great generation of advancement in federal Indian policies.
LaDonna Harris, an enrolled citizen of the Comanche Nation, is founder and president of Americans for Indian Opportunity. As a national leader, Harris has influenced the agendas of the civil rights, feminist, environmental and world peace movements. She was a founding member of Common Cause and the National Urban Coalition and is an ardent spokesperson against poverty and social injustice. As an advocate for women’s rights, she was an original convener of the National Women’s Political Caucus. As the 1980 Vice Presidential nominee on the Citizens Party ticket with Barry Commoner, Harris firmly added environmental issues to that and future presidential campaigns. Her influence now reaches to the international community to promote peace as well. In past years, Harris was the U.S. Representative on UNESCO and to the OAS Inter-American Indigenous Institute. Currently, Harris serves on the board of Think New Mexico, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.