By Daniel Lewis, Product Manager, ProQuest
On March 6, 1968, in a special message to Congress, President Lyndon Baines Johnson announced that “the time has come to focus our efforts on the plight of the American Indian.” He told the Congress that the United States was now in a position “to deal with the persistent problems of the American Indian” since the enactment of “recent landmark laws” such as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Economic Opportunity Act, and the Manpower Development and Training Act. He added a moral component: “No enlightened nation, no responsible government, no progressive people, can sit idly by and permit this shocking situation to continue.”
In conjunction with this speech to the U.S. Congress, President Johnson signed Executive Order 11399 establishing the National Council on Indian Opportunity (NCIO). He pledged that the NCIO’s formation would “launch an undivided, Government-wide effort” in order to allow American Indians to gain “full participation in the life of modern America.” As Johnson made clear, he very much wanted American Indians to be beneficiaries of the gains made by the Civil Rights Movement and his Great Society program.
ProQuest History Vault’s American Politics and Society from Kennedy to Watergate module includes the records of the NCIO. The NCIO collection documents the NCIO’s activities, federal government policy toward Indians, and the lives of reservation and non-reservation Indians in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The NCIO began operations in 1969 and worked through the end of 1974. Throughout its existence, the NCIO focused on improving federal government programs for American Indians and it was also the main point of contact for Indians wishing to communicate with top government officials. NCIO’s deliberations and activities centered on six key areas: health and medical care; education; community services; civil rights; jobs and economic development; and claims of Alaskan Natives.
One of the interesting episodes chronicled in the NCIO collection is the occupation of Alcatraz Island, site of the notorious prison, by American Indian activists from November 1969 to June 1971. Claiming the abandoned island as Indian land, the activists from the American Indian Movement (AIM) wanted to make a statement about the treatment of American Indians by the U.S. government. During the nineteen-month occupation, the Alcatraz takeover raised the public’s consciousness as to the problems of Native Americans.
On June 1, 1971, Conchita G. Rials of Los Angeles wrote to President Richard M. Nixon about the occupation of Alcatraz Island: “You took this land from them by plunder, trickery, and murder, and have since treated them with unwarranted scorn and abuse. Isn’t it about time that you did something to atone for your dastardly deeds?” When Rials wrote to the president, the occupation of Alcatraz was almost two years old. [Photo above is Rials' letter.]
Rials’s letter is just one of many in this collection that shows the passions this event aroused. During the course of the occupation, the protesters demanded that the federal government turn over ownership of the island and also provide funding for them to build and operate a university, a cultural center, and a museum on the island. NCIO Executive Director Robertson met with the protesters in January, March, and June 1970 in an attempt to resolve the situation. After the June meetings produced no meaningful results, in July 1970, Robertson advocated expelling the Indians from the island. On June 11, 1971, ten days after Rials wrote to President Nixon, federal law enforcement officials forcibly removed the fifteen remaining Indians from the island.
The Alcatraz occupation is just one instance of Indian protest against U.S. government policy and actions that is covered in the NCIO files. The American Indian Movement (AIM) seized the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) headquarters in Washington, D.C., on November 3, 1972. This takeover was intended to bring attention to the federal government’s inaction regarding Indian grievances about living standards and treaty rights. After a week-long occupation, the Indian protesters left the BIA offices vandalized.
On February 27, 1973, members of AIM and the Oglala Sioux Tribe seized the town of Wounded Knee near the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Wounded Knee claimed historical significance as the site of a U.S. military massacre of Native Americans in 1890. The occupation of Wounded Knee by the Indian protesters lasted for seventy-one days while U.S. government forces laid siege to the town. The module also includes FBI records on the this event.
Beyond topics pertaining to Indian protest, other topics covered in the NCIO collection include the national conference on urban Indian problems, sponsored by the NCIO in December 1970; Indian health and medical care, including discussion of Indian alcoholism; the need for an American Indian national bank to promote economic independence, the NCIO’s interest in arts and crafts, both for the employment opportunities and as a means to bring tourism to Indian reservations; and documents pertaining to the Navajo Nation, which is the largest Native American population in the United States and inhabits a wide area of reservation land in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. The NCIO files on the Navajo Nation cover the opening of the Navajo Community College, legal services of Dinebeiina Nahiilna be Agaditahe, Inc., development of the Navajo Indian Irrigation Project, tourism in Navajoland, and Navajo participation in vocational education and training and the Head Start program.
Overall, the files of the NCIO that are included in History Vault provide a fascinating look at the state of American Indians in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Librarians: learn more and sign up for free trials of ProQuest History Vault modules. Plus, learn about complementary resources including The Indian Rights Association Papers, 1864-1973, ProQuest Executive Branch Documents, new ProQuest Executive Orders and Presidential Proclamations 1789-2014 releasing soon, and ProQuest Digital U.S. Bills and Resolutions, 1789-Present.