Charles Trimble: NCAI made it through rocky era
Note: This is Part I of the keynote address Charles Trimble presented at the 66th Annual Convention of the National Congress of American Indians on October 14, 2009, in Palm Springs, California.

What an honor it is to have been invited to address the General Assembly here today.

I have noted several times in published columns and in speeches that my tenure as Executive Director of NCAI was truly the highpoint of my life – the greatest honor.

And I was fortunate to have served through a most prolific decade 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. That was a truly historic era, eclipsed perhaps only now with what is happening today in the Obama Administration, and with the truly impressive organization NCAI has become.

There are leaders of the past -- friends as well as some that didn’t really wish us well -- who would be so surprised to see that NCAI had even survived into the 21st Century. For, you see, almost 40 years ago, at the beginning of 1970, NCAI encountered a near-death experience. And I think it would be good for us to revisit that time to set a baseline to measure the great progress that has been made, and to get a greater appreciation of what you have now in this magnificent organization. As the prelude to the topic I was asked to address, “NCAI: What it Represents,” I will tell you about it:

Let’s go back to the late 1960s when NCAI was shaken by political movements that were developing in the urban Indian communities around the country and on college campuses in the wake of the civil rights movement. Militancy was coming into Indian affairs, brought on initially by a new generation of highly educated activists, and then other militant leaders emerged in urban areas around the country.

NCAI conventions increasingly came under attack by Indian activists, who often disrupted sessions and took the stage to rail against the NCAI leaders as "sell-outs" for not taking a more militant stand against the federal government. The conventions were always fully democratic functions, and the floor was generally open to any Indian individual who paid the modest membership dues. The new activists saw this as a ready forum to air their radical views.

And NCAI, adhering to their tolerant practices, was seen by some tribal leaders as weak, losing control, and surrendering itself to the urban Indian militants.

The first convention that was disrupted was in 1969 in Albuquerque, resulting in considerable damage to the host hotel. At that convention, the militants made inroads, when the Executive Council elected as Director a young leader and one of the founders of the National Indian Youth Council, the organization that spearheaded the new Indian militancy. The attitude of that new Director and his staff pretty much reflected the general attitude among young militants, one of disrespect for the older leaders, whom they considered sell-outs and pawns of the federal government.

In those days, the Executive Director was elected to serve for a one-year term, and was either re-elected or not, depending on performance and the politics of the times. Following a year of gross mismanagement and profligacy, the organization was in deep financial trouble and losing tribal memberships, and the Director was voted out.

The new executive director, Leo Vocu of the Oglala Sioux, a long-time member of NCAI, was literally drafted and given the onerous job of trying to save the organization. NCAI was deeply in debt, including thousands in back taxes. His predecessor’s arrogance and mismanagement – seeing their tribal dues being wasted turned off many tribal leaders by this time, and several pulled their tribes out of the organization, drastically reducing revenues. The depleted staff struggled to keep up with the preponderance of new legislation introduced in the waning years of the Johnson administration and the early years of the Nixon administration.

In addition, the proliferation of new Indian special-interest organizations was luring away NCAI leadership in the areas of health, education, and economic development. Whereas, in the past, the annual NCAI convention was the single major annual event in Indian politics, conferences were now being held throughout the year by new, better-funded Indian organizations. The well-funded National Council of Indian Opportunity, officed in the White House complex and with better entree to the higher levels in the federal departments, was replacing NCAI as the base of operation for many tribal delegations coming to the Nation's capital.

This trend provided impetus to the formation of the National Tribal Chairmen's Association. Young militant Indian leaders were attracting national press coverage with their dramatics and rhetoric, and with NCAI politically and financially weakened, some tribal leaders and federal agencies saw NTCA as the answer to the problem of who speaks for the tribes. The prevailing attitude among the core of NTCA founders was that NCAI was no longer valid and should be discredited or destroyed.

The future looked bleak for NCAI, and many Indian affairs observers gave little odds that the organization would even survive the year. A number of important tribal leaders maintained that the NCAI had outlived its need anyway, and that its seemingly imminent demise would be a merciful end.

But the organization survived, thanks much to Leo Vocu’s quiet leadership and austerity measures. Then the organization rallied through the 1970s, spurred on by exciting new legislative initiatives outlined in President Nixon’s famous Indian message to Congress. Even the great white backlash of 1976-77, which saw the rise of state-level anti-tribal groups, helped the NCAI cause. Their actions resulted in fourteen separate pieces of legislation in the 95th Congress calling for reversing Indian hunting and fishing rights court victories, terminating federal-tribal relations, and abrogating the Indian treaties.

NCAI, with the assistance of Sam Deloria and the American Indian Law Center, put together a national strategy to counter the work of the Interstate Congress for Equal Rights and Responsibilities, the national organization created to represent the state organizations in most western states. In several key meetings, NCAI was able to pull together Indian political and legal organizations such as the Native American Rights Fund and AIM and NTCA from the far opposites of Indian politics. In an emergency meeting in Phoenix the strategy was endorsed by the tribes, and many of the tribes pledged significant contributions to finance the battle under the banner of the ad hoc United Effort Trust.

NCAI pulled Indian Country together, and the backlash was defeated, including every piece of anti-tribal legislation that came out of the movement. It is interesting to note that the principal sponsors of those pieces of backlash legislation were also defeated in the following re-election campaigns.

NCAI fought its way out of the jaws of death, and back into the heart and trust of Indian Country.

Charles Trimble, Oglala Lakota from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation was a principal founder of the American Indian Press Association in 1970 and served as Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1972-1978. He is retired and lives in Omaha, Nebraska. He can be reached at cchuktrim@aol.com. His website is iktomisweb.com.

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