The National Congress of America Indians, which describes itself as the oldest and largest American Indian and Alaskan Native organization in the United States, was founded on November 16, 1944, in Denver, CO. NCAI was intended to serve as a link between individual tribal councils and the United States government, by defining and helping to crystallize Indian thought on the administration of Indian affairs. The Congress also aimed to educate the general public about Indians, preserve Indian cultural values, protect treaty rights with the United States, and promote Indian welfare.
At the first convention, delegates representing fifty tribes ratified the constitution and by-laws, drafted resolutions determining the direction of NCAI policy, and elected the organizations’ first officers, with Oklahoma Supreme Court Justice Napoleon B. Johnson (Cherokee) as president. The officers, as well as eight elected council members, formed the Executive Council. The Council chose the Executive Director; Ruth Muskrat Bronson (Cherokee) was the organization’s first director, from 1944-1948. “Persons of Indian blood” could join the organization either as individuals or as groups. In 1955, however, the constitution was revised to restrict group membership to recognized tribes, committees, or bands, and to make the Executive Council chosen by tribal representatives. These changes gave control of the organization to governing bodies of organized tribes, rather than individuals. A further amendment that year created a five-member Executive Committee, headed by the president, which had all the powers of the Executive Council between council meetings.
Conventions have been held annually in the fall since the formation of the NCAI in 1944. Since 1977, mid-year conferences have been held in May or June of each year, to allow more frequent and thorough discussion of issues. The resolutions passed at these conventions are the basis for all policy of the Executive Committee and Executive Director between meetings. The conventions are also used for informational sessions and meetings of standing and special committees of NCAI. One or two-day workshops may also be held on special topics or Congressional issues of particular concern.
NCAI created a tax-exempt arm in 1949 to accept charitable contributions and apply for grants, the NCAI Fund, which soon changed its name to ARROW, Inc. By 1957, however, ARROW had split off to become an independent organization, and NCAI started a new arm, again called the NCAI Fund. In the coming decades, the NCAI Fund would obtain grants from sources including the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Department of Veteran Affairs, Indian Health Service, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Ford Foundation, humanities councils and others, which they used for conferences, workshops, publications, and other projects.
In its early years, NCAI fought for the recognition of land claims of Alaska natives, the enfranchisement of Arizona and New Mexico Indians, the equitable settlement of tribal land claims, and the right of Indians to select their own attorneys. The NCAI lobbied vigorously for an Indian Claims Commission Bill, which became law in August 1946. NCAI’s lobbying efforts on behalf of this act set the pattern for the organization’s future role in legislative matters: keeping member tribes abreast of proposed legislation and ascertaining their views, and maintaining a presence in Congress through lobbying and testimony.
Beginning in 1954, the threat of termination pushed NCAI into a period of increased activity. Although some tribes were ready to terminate their relationship with the federal government, much of Indian Country felt threatened by the government’s new stated policy. NCAI therefore organized an Emergency Conference of American Indians for February 1954 to protest this new termination policy. An agreement was forged at the conference between the NCAI and the Bureau of Indian Affairs to work together toward slowly liquidating the BIA. The termination period of the 1950s and 1960s, while challenging, saw NCAI increase in confidence and political acumen.
During the 1960s, a number of other activist Indian groups sprang up and began to dilute the singular influence which NCAI had commanded. Newer, more militant groups often considered themselves at odds with NCAI, which was increasingly perceived as conservative. As the number of Indian advocacy groups grew in the 1960s and 1970s, however, NCAI actively partnered with other organizations, particularly the National Tribal Chairmen’s Association (NTCA) and Native American Rights Fund (NARF), on a variety of projects.
Charles E. “Chuck” Trimble (Oglala Dakota) served as Executive Director of NCAI in 1972 until 1977, when he resigned to lead the United Effort Trust, a project designed to fight white backlash to Indian rights. NCAI spent most of the next two years trying to find another permanent director. In 1979, Ronald P. Andrade (Luiseno-Diegueno) joined NCAI and unfortunately found a group that was demoralized and underfunded. He was able to return the organization to good health but left in 1982. Si Whitman (Nez Perce), his successor, remained at NCAI for less than a year.
Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne-Creek) became director of NCAI on May 1, 1984. Prior to taking this postions, she had served as Congressional Liaison for Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior during the Carter administration and as legislative liaison for the Native American Rights Fund, as well as working for NCAI during the mid-1970s. Harjo was also an active and published poet, as well as a frequent speaker at events around the country. The National Congress of American Indians was particularly active on Capitol Hill while Harjo was director, advocating for government-to-government status, the Tribal Government Tax Status Act of 1983, repatriation legislation, and economic development programs, among other issues. Harjo was herself very involved in the establishment of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC.
The NCAI Fund was very successful in receiving grants during this period, although they were chronically short of operating funds. Some of their most active projects during this period were the Indian and Native Veterans Outreach Program (INVOP), Inter-generational Health Promotion and Education Program (IHPEP), Environmental Handbook and related educational seminars, Solar Bank, nuclear waste disposal and transportation information sessions, and voter registration.
For years, NCAI's operating expenses had been funded by the Ford Foundation and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). In 1985, the director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, opposing the use of Federal monies to support outside organizations, began to block the payment for services due to the NCAI. This created a financial crisis from which the NCAI did not recover during Harjo’s tenure, and it became the major issue for which she was not rehired in October 1989.
Following the 1989 Annual Convention, Wayne Ducheneaux (Cheyenne River Sioux) became President of NCAI and A. Gay Kingman (Cheyenne River Sioux) was appointed Executive Director. Their first efforts were focused on recovering the financial well-being of the organization, which meant that less attention was devoted to issues in Congress. One of the successful projects NCAI pursued during the next two years was organization and presentation of the Indian pre-conference of the White House Conference on Library and Information Science, which was held in early 1991.
The National Congress of American Indians is still active today, continuing its work of lobbying, support for tribal governments, and advocacy for American Indian issues.