Congress Ratifies the National Council on Indian Opportunity

The National Council on Indian Opportunity gave American Indians unprecedented top positions in the U.S. government and, for the first time, a voice in the formulation of a federal American Indian policy in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.

Summary of Event

Since 1824, management of American Indian affairs in the United States had fallen to the Bureau of Indian Affairs Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S. (BIA), which became a subdivision of the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1849. For generations, American Indians were governed by a BIA bureaucracy that was at best well-meaning and paternalistic and at worst corrupt and incompetent. The BIA answered to the U.S. Congress, not to the indigenous peoples it governed; thus, American Indians had little voice in the formulation of federal Indian policy. Native Americans;advocacy
National Council on Indian Opportunity
[kw]Congress Ratifies the National Council on Indian Opportunity (Aug., 1970)
[kw]National Council on Indian Opportunity, Congress Ratifies the (Aug., 1970)
[kw]Indian Opportunity, Congress Ratifies the National Council on (Aug., 1970)
Native Americans;advocacy
National Council on Indian Opportunity
[g]North America;Aug., 1970: Congress Ratifies the National Council on Indian Opportunity[10870]
[g]United States;Aug., 1970: Congress Ratifies the National Council on Indian Opportunity[10870]
[c]Indigenous peoples’ rights;Aug., 1970: Congress Ratifies the National Council on Indian Opportunity[10870]
[c]Government and politics;Aug., 1970: Congress Ratifies the National Council on Indian Opportunity[10870]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Aug., 1970: Congress Ratifies the National Council on Indian Opportunity[10870]
[c]Social issues and reform;Aug., 1970: Congress Ratifies the National Council on Indian Opportunity[10870]
Johnson, Lyndon B.
[p]Johnson, Lyndon B.;and Native Americans[Native Americans]
Humphrey, Hubert H.
[p]Humphrey, Hubert H.;vice presidency
Nixon, Richard M.
[p]Nixon, Richard M.;and Native Americans[Native Americans]
Agnew, Spiro T.

Discontent with the operation of the BIA and the management of American Indian affairs grew increasingly stronger through time among the indigenous. Unhappy as they were with the BIA, however, they also feared that funding and management of American Indian programs might be “terminated” by the federal government; that is, they would be turned over to state governments that were even more difficult to deal with. By the middle of the twentieth century, American Indian distress, frustration, suspicion, and anger toward the federal government, particularly the BIA, had increased enormously.

More than four hundred leaders from sixty-seven American Indian tribes met at the University of Chicago in June, 1961, and formulated a Declaration of Indian Purpose Declaration of Indian Purpose (1961) . This document contained proposals for numerous policies and programs. More important, it argued for “self-determination,” allowing tribal groups to govern themselves on their own federally protected lands with programs organized and managed by American Indians. The help of outside specialists and outside funding would be provided only when requested. Although this declaration had no immediate impact on the BIA or general federal Indian policy, in 1964 indigenous peoples were included in the Economic Opportunity Act Economic Opportunity Act (1964) . This act allowed the indigenous to propose, plan, and administer economic opportunity programs on their reservations. In general, however, they remained discontented with federal American Indian policy and the BIA. BIA services were extremely inadequate, living conditions were deplorable, and federal paternalistic policies were preventing them from taking control over their own lives.

In the late 1960’s, a few bodies within the federal government began to sympathize with the growing American Indian desire for self-determination. Consequently, President Lyndon B. Johnson set up two governmental task forces to study American Indian affairs. The task forces’ reports, delivered in 1967, contained many program suggestions, along with the advice to involve American Indians in the formulation of educational and economic policy and programs relevant to them. The White House then began reformulating American Indian policy.

As part of this reformulation, President Johnson created the National Council on Indian Opportunity (NCIO) through an executive order on March 6, 1968, when he delivered his “Message on Indian Affairs.” “Message on Indian Affairs” (Johnson)[Message on Indian Affairs] Although Johnson’s message produced little perceptible change for American Indians, it created the first federal agency in which American Indian leaders participated on an equal footing with top-ranking federal officials to evaluate, create, and administer federal American Indian policy and programs.

Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey was named head of the NCIO, which was placed within the vice president’s office. The council consisted of seven cabinet members and six American Indian members, all appointed by the president to serve two-year terms. American Indian members of the council were to be selected on the basis of leadership and in order to obtain geographical and tribal diversity within the council. A nonindigenous executive director and a small staff of nonindigenous peoples and American Indians performed the council’s daily activities.

The NCIO’s functions were to ensure that American Indians received the maximum benefits from programs offered by different government departments, coordinate programs within the various government departments, bureaus, and agencies that affected American Indians, assess the impact and progress of federal programs pertaining to American Indians, propose improvements in federal programs used by indigenous peoples, and involve indigenous peoples in the formulation of federal American Indian policy and programs.

The reaction of American Indians to the NCIO was mixed. Many believed it was merely another federal bureaucratic organization that would not contribute significantly to improving their condition. Tribal representatives, however, found the NCIO much more sympathetic and willing to listen to their grievances than the BIA had been. The NCIO was an innovative and promising response by the executive branch of the federal government to the rising demand by American Indians that they be allowed to participate in the formulation of policies and programs that would affect their lives, both on and off the reservations. It gave them a means of communicating directly with the highest members of the federal government instead of trying to funnel information up through the BIA.

Between its creation in 1968 and its congressional ratification in 1970, the NCIO served as a forum for the exchange and discussion of bureaucratic and American Indian ideas about the nature and specific component parts of federal Indian policy. When Richard M. Nixon was elected president of the United States, it appeared that his administration might inaugurate a new federal Indian policy. Nixon had indicated during his campaign that he would not impose termination on the indigenous without their consent. The formation of the NCIO and talk of policy changes made American Indians somewhat optimistic when Nixon took office as president in 1969. Even as late as 1969, little real change had taken place.

On the other hand, during the 1960’s American Indians had become militant. Paralleling the evolution of the African American protest movement in the 1950’s and 1960’s, American Indians began holding nonviolent direct action protests, such as “fish-ins” in Washington State. In November, 1969, seventy-eight people from a mixture of tribes nonviolently occupied the San Francisco Bay island of Alcatraz, which originally had been American Indian land, and created a settlement there as a symbol of American Indians’ intent to secure their rights. Organized protests occurred across the United States, all with the common theme that the indigenous wanted an end of paternalistic federal rule, self-determination, security for their land and resource rights, and fulfillment of promises made in earlier treaties.

During the first year and a half of Nixon’s administration, studies of American Indian questions begun during the Johnson administration were continued by various government authorities. These studies were submitted to Congress in preparation for Nixon’s reformulation of federal American Indian policy. By the fall of 1969, the NCIO work load had increased as American Indians began bypassing the BIA and taking their problems directly to the NCIO. Later, the NCIO was called on to help negotiate a successful resolution to the occupation of Alcatraz.

Consequently, among the recommendations made to the Nixon administration in early 1970 was that the NCIO had proved its value and should be continued. In early 1970, American Indians had hopes that the Nixon administration’s new federal Indian policy, scheduled for unveiling in July, 1970, would respond to the concerns they were voicing to the NCIO.

To make these concerns clear and to recommend solutions, the indigenous members of the NCIO delivered a Statement of the Indian Members of the National Council on Indian Opportunity Statement of the Indian Members of the National Council on Indian Opportunity (1970) to Vice President Spiro T. Agnew and the cabinet secretaries during an NCIO meeting at the White House on January 26, 1970. In this statement, they described the suspicion American Indians felt toward the federal government and the BIA; the poor physical, social, educational, and economic conditions in which the indigenous lived; and the poor services they were receiving from the BIA. They emphasized that they wanted improved services, an end to BIA paternalism, and self-determination. Lastly, they outlined specific goals to be met in the areas of health care, housing, education, employment, agriculture, water and other natural resource rights, economic development, land titles and reparation, urban relocation, and participation in policy making.

The presentation of the American Indian members of the NCIO generated Agnew’s concern. This and other NCIO work between 1968 and 1970 thus appears to have influenced the reformulation of federal American Indian policy during the Nixon administration. In his historic “Special Message to the Congress on Indian Affairs,” “Special Message to the Congress on Indian Affairs” (Nixon)[Special Message to the Congress on Indian Affairs] delivered on July 8, 1970, Nixon showed that the executive branch had been listening to American Indians, the NCIO, and the experts studying the state of American Indian affairs. In the new federal Indian policy Nixon’s message unveiled, it was evident that he had considered the NCIO recommendations, had put some into action, and was planning to move American Indians closer to self-determination.

Calling on Congress to work with the administration to bring about American Indian self-determination, he charged the NCIO with further studying the problem of American Indian education and with sponsoring field hearings throughout the country to establish dialogue between the administration and individual American Indians. The National Council on Indian Opportunity, which had been in operation since its creation by executive order in 1968, was ratified by Congress in late August, 1970. At the same time, the council was increased to eight indigenous members. The U.S. attorney general was also added to the council.


The NCIO was created during a time of change in federal American Indian policy. One facet of this policy change was to ensure that American Indians were hired and appointed to top government positions, so that they could represent themselves instead of being represented by the BIA, as in the past. Creation of the NCIO and appointment of American Indians to its membership was one aspect of this new approach. It marked the first time that indigenous peoples had worked on an equal level with top government officials.

Serving as a mediator, the NCIO enabled many indigenous activists to express their views about the formulation of the new, and very significant, federal American Indian policy. The NCIO also opened lines of communication between the federal government and those who were occupying Alcatraz and helped bring a resolution to that protest movement.

Policy and legislative suggestions made by the NCIO also were realized during Nixon’s administration. When Nixon described his policy in July, 1970, he specifically recommended adoption of many of the organizational and program changes that had been put forward by the NCIO in its January 26 statement. Within the year, action was taken to follow through on the recommendations made by the NCIO and others with regard to Nixon’s federal Indian policy.

In addition to helping Nixon’s staff prepare legislative bills, in one series of hearings the NCIO brought the bills to American Indian leaders around the country and asked for their input, revisions, and additions. In a second series, held from October through December, 1970, the NCIO gathered their reactions and suggestions for revisions and new proposals. Lastly, the NCIO helped introduce bills into Congress.

In the long run, the results of the work of the NCIO varied. Some concrete changes were made. For example, the NCIO helped develop a plan, which was implemented in December, 1970, to return the Blue Lake region to the Taos Indians in New Mexico. In addition, with input from the NCIO, the BIA undertook structural, procedural, and philosophic changes that improved service to American Indians and allowed them to achieve self-determination. Some of the federal proposals suggested by the NCIO, such as the concept of the “Indian Desk,” were implemented. In addition, the NCIO helped develop proposals for providing federal services to urban Native Americans. These changes, along with the bills proposed by the Nixon administration with the input of the NCIO, set the stage for the realization of American Indian self-determination.

The NCIO was disbanded during Nixon’s administration, but by 1975 Congress had enacted many of the programs it had suggested and reviewed during its existence. Then, in 1975, the Indian Self-Determination Act was passed by Congress, giving tribes the option of operating BIA and Indian Health Service programs under contract with the government. The NCIO thus had a hand in securing increased indigenous control over reservation life and tribal programs in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Native Americans;advocacy
National Council on Indian Opportunity

Further Reading

  • Jackson, Curtis E., and Marcia J. Galli. A History of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Its Activities Among Indians. San Francisco: R & E Research Associates, 1977. Chapter 17, “Indian Self-Determination,” concisely describes the state of American Indian policy and self-determination at the beginning of the Nixon administration, outlines Nixon’s approach, and summarizes some of the results of his proposals in the areas of recruitment, education, finance, and land restorations.
  • Josephy, Alvin M., Jr. Red Power: The American Indians’ Fight for Freedom. New York: American Heritage, 1971. A collection of sometimes-hard-to-find documents, addresses, essays, and other primary materials pertaining to the American Indian fight for self-determination in the late 1960’s and 1970’s. The excellent introduction and preface to each document help place this fight for self-determination and each selection in historical perspective. Includes several documents on the creation and activities of the NCIO.
  • Levitan, Sar A., and Barbara Hetrick. Big Brother’s Indian Programs—With Reservations. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971. Although it provides no specific information on the NCIO, this work contains good historical background and a wealth of information on the state of federal American Indian programs on the reservations in the early years of the Nixon administration.
  • Prucha, Francis Paul. Documents of United States Indian Policy. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1975. A very useful collection of documents pertaining to federal American Indian policy. Contains excerpts from the texts of President Johnson’s March 6, 1968, message to Congress as well as President Nixon’s July 8, 1970, message on Indian affairs, among others relevant to termination, self-determination, and the NCIO.
  • Taylor, Theodore W. The Bureau of Indian Affairs. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1984. Provides a wealth of information on the BIA. The creation of the NCIO, its background and context, and the recommendations it made cannot be understood completely without understanding the BIA and its operations. Describes the programs that were started after the change of federal American Indian policy and discusses changes they have produced in American Indian life.

U.S. Government Encourages American Indians to Settle in Cities

Native Americans Lose Government Special Status

Indian Civil Rights Act Is Passed

American Indians Occupy Alcatraz Island

New Mexico’s Blue Lake Region Is Returned to the Taos Pueblo