By Charles E. Trimble
Story Published: Nov 14, 2008
I recently read with fond remembrance that the National Congress of
American Indians passed a record number of resolutions in their 65th
annual convention a few weeks ago in Phoenix.
It brought back to mind the days in the 1970s that leaders of the
American Indian Movement and other militant groups would often refer
to NCAI as the "paper tiger," because of the great number of
resolutions we passed in convention. Having been around for some 30
years before AIM was spawned, and confident in its history, leaders
of NCAI learned to live with those colorful epithets and characterizations.
I had the honor of serving as NCAI executive director through much of
the 1970s, and I hold the organization in highest esteem, and in fond
memory. In my testimony before Congressional committees,
administration officials, and others, it always gave me great
confidence to inform them that the position I represented was the
consensus of Indian tribes in convention assembled, presented,
debated and passed by them in resolution form. No other organization
could say that, although other entities giving valuable testimony
represented important Indian professional and political
constituencies of their own.
Not only do the resolutions represent intertribal consensus on
important issues, many are requested by tribes to commemorate a
leader, or a special event. Some are requested to show support for a
special project for which they may be seeking federal funding. These
are secondary to the ones on major issues, but important to the
tribes that request them.
Tribal consensus is a powerful thing, not the stuff of paper tigers.
As I think history has shown in the positive legislation, policy, and
programs for which NCAI pressed, that the organization was very
successful in representing the tribes and their interests.
I am not taking anything away from AIM and other militant movements;
they were serious in their causes, and their militancy showed the
American people and especially the national leadership in Washington
the extent of the anger and impatience of Indian people waiting for
rights protection, justice and self-determination. Their militant
actions served to highlight NCAI's reasonable and well-thought-out
solutions to many of the tribes' problems, including appropriations.
As I write this column, my thoughts take me back to the era in which
I had served, from 1972 to 1978, when I stepped down to take the
directorship of the United Effort Trust to fight against the
so-called White Backlash.
My tenure in NCAI was truly the highpoint of my life – the greatest
honor. And I was fortunate to have served through the decade most
prolific in the enactment of legislation for new policy, programs,
and resources, as well as executive actions favorable to Indian
tribes and off-reservation Indian communities. These included the
Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, the Indian
Financing Act, the Indian Health Care Improvement Act and
unprecedented return of significant lands to tribes.
Having worked under the tutelage of Helen Peterson in the Denver
Mayor's Commission on Community Relations, I was well prepared to
assume the role of NCAI Director. I consider Helen the best Executive
Director in the history of the organization, carrying it through some
of the most dangerous history of federal-tribal relations, with
little budget or other resources. She mentored many young people to
leadership, and I am proud to be numbered in the ranks of her
The greatest lesson I learned from her was that the executive
director is not sent to Washington, D.C. to be the star of Indian
country, but to serve as facilitator for the real stars, which are
the leaders representing the tribes. The principal purposes of the
director are to keep the tribes informed on all developments that
might affect them and their members, to secure and hold tribal
consensus on issues of importance to them, and to present that
consensus to the Congress, the executive, and in some instances, to
NCAI was a part of my family, although I had never dreamed of being
its executive director. We were blessed in that my sister, Leona, was
married to Joseph R. Garry, chief of the Coeur d'Alene tribe for many
years, and long-time President of the NCAI through its fight during
the dreaded Termination era in the 1960s. My mother had faithfully
paid her annual membership dues for many years, and collected their
bulletins sent out periodically; but she could never afford to attend
Although the NCAI is in every sense of the term an "Indian
organization," its formation was not at first a tribal initiative.
The formation of a national organization was strongly encouraged by
John Collier in the waning days of his tenure in the BIA. Collier
could see the end of the era of the Indian New Deal, which was
already in decline at the start of World War II. He may have foreseen
as well a new onslaught on Indian lands and resources in a new era of
growth and expansion in post-war America. For whatever reason, he
authorized BIA support for a team of Indian men to travel around the
country from tribe to tribe to promote the need for a national Indian
political organization. From this effort the NCAI was formed on Nov. 15, 1944.
D'Arcy McNickle, a member of the Flathead tribes and one of the
founders of NCAI, had been heard to relate that on the evening before
that first convention, he and his Indian colleagues sat anxiously on
the mezzanine in the Cosmopolitan Hotel where the convention was to
be held. They wondered if ten Indian delegates, or 100 or 1,000 would
come to the constitutional convention. ... or none at all. As the
first obviously-Indian delegate, a Paiute, entered the hotel, the
planners rushed to the door to fall on the first man to make the
dream come true.
Their dream lives on in the spirit and the reality of the
organization. May the Great Spirit bless you, NCAI, far into the future.
Charles E. Trimble, Oglala Lakota, was born and raised on the Pine
Ridge Indian Reservation. He was principal founder of the American
Indian Press Association in 1970, and served as executive director of
the National Congress of American Indians from 1972-78. He is retired
and lives in Omaha, Nebraska. He may be reached at email@example.com.