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National Congress of American Indians: Definition & History

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

There are hundreds of tribal governments in the USA, so how can they all ensure their voices are heard? In this lesson, we'll look at the role of the National Congress of American Indians and their role in unifying and amplifying American Indians' political voices.

The National Congress of American Indians

American Indian nations have a unique place within the United States. Each tribal government has its own sovereignty, which kind of makes it like a nation within the nation. Of course, there are hundreds of these tribal governments, so it can be difficult for all of them to get a word in on major US policies that could impact their lives. The solution: Why not work together?

While every American Indian nation is distinct in terms of political sovereignty and cultural identity, many have found a sense of unity through the time-honored tradition of strength in numbers. By coming together, American Indian communities present a louder, more unified political voice. One of the most important organizations to help this happen is the National Congress of American Indians.

A FEMA administrator from the federal government speaking at a NCAI conference in 2010
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What is the NCAI?

In the simplest terms, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) is a non-profit special interest organization. This means that they are designed to strengthen the political voice of American Indian governments and citizens. The NCAI advises on political issues, lobbies legislatures, and helps raise awareness on political or social matters. Specifically, it was founded with four priorities in mind (as stated in their constitution):

  1. To preserve rights under Indian treaties or agreements with the United States
  2. To promote the common welfare of the American Indians and Alaska Natives
  3. To enlighten the public toward the better understanding of the Indian people
  4. To foster the continued loyalty and allegiance of American Indians to the flag of the United States

To accomplish these goals, the NCAI advocates for policies that impact tribal communities. This includes a myriad of issues, which the NCAI organizes into five policy areas: community and culture, economic development and commerce, land and natural resources, tribal governance, and education, health, and human services. These are the main issues that the NCAI deals with.

How Does it Work?

The NCAI is a non-profit organization, but it functions like a representative congress. First, tribal governments must adopt a resolution in order to join the NCAI. At that point, the tribal government may elect its own delegates to represent them. Delegates from each tribal government come together at NCAI conferences and debate policies and issues facing American Indian and Alaska Native communities. They agree on issues that need to be addressed and determine courses of action that will be mutually beneficial for all members. In this way, the NCAI works very similarly to organizations like the United Nations (although the NCAI actually predates the UN- but more on its history later).

Secretary from the Smithsonian discussing the National Museum of the American Indian with former NCAI president John Gonzalez
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The delegates chosen to represent each tribal government also have the authority to select the leaders of the NCAI. Delegates elect the Executive Committee of the congress, which includes the President, First Vice President, Recording Secretary, and Treasurer. There are also 12 regional vice presidents that have roles in the NCAI's governance; they are elected by delegates from the region they represent.

History of the NCAI

The NCAI is one of the most important American Indian advocacy groups in the United States today, but where'd it come from? The history of the NCAI begins around the end of the 19th century, when the US government doubled down on assimilation policies. Hoping to teach American Indian children to embrace white American culture, boys and girls were snatched from their families on the reservations and placed in assimilation-focused boarding schools.

The assimilation programs not only failed to make these children forget their American Indian cultures, but also alienated them from families on the reservations. Many felt like they didn't fit anywhere. Still, two positive things came from this. By trying to forcibly assimilate American Indian children, the government taught these children how to navigate the American legal system. The students graduated with a better awareness of how the law could actually be used to protect their tribal rights, and many went on to become lawyers to defend tribal governments. The other thing to come from the assimilation schools was a sense of pan-Indian identity, or the recognition that even though they came from diverse cultures, all American Indian nations could work together in a common struggle for rights.

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