The National Council on Indian Opportunity: Quiet Champion of Self-Determination

Feb 21st, 2016 | By | Category: 27-3: The Trials of Teacher Education, Media Reviews

The National Council on Indian Opportunity: Quiet Champion of Self-Determination By Thomas A. BrittenBy Thomas A. Britten
University of New Mexico Press (2014)
337 pages

Review by Paul McKenzie-Jones

In recent years, historians have sought to expand our knowledge of Red Power activism to include discussions of the National Indian Youth Council, and the role of specific activist leaders such as Clyde Warrior, in leading the fight for American Indian self-determination. In The National Council on Indian Opportunity, Thomas A. Britten adds another layer of contextual knowledge of the era, as he reveals the advocacy of the federal government itself in deliberately creating an agency to help facilitate greater economic independence for America’s Indigenous peoples.

Created in 1968 by President Lyndon Johnson, the National Council on Indian Opportunity (NCIO) existed for a short but eventful six years until its untimely end in 1974. Initially planned to consist of a full staff of 18 individuals, with a working council of seven federal members and six American Indian members overseen by the Vice President of the United States, the council was intended to help both reservation and urban Indians. In this well-researched and compelling book, Britten charts how the NCIO found itself on opposite sides of both the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), as tribal leaders eschewed both organizations and turned to the NCIO in their search for greater federal funding for tribally led initiatives.

Initially backed by the NCAI until tribal leaders began to see it as a more influential advocate for tribal rights, the NCIO worked to establish over 500 avenues of federal funding and played a pivotal role in the return of tribal homelands for Taos Pueblo, the Yakama, and Alaska Natives. Council members did not fare so well in dealing with urban Indian activists, however, and became embroiled in cross Indian-government conflict during the Alcatraz occupation and the siege of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington, DC.

In addition to the successes and failures of the NCIO, Britten disentangles the complex web of interagency and intertribal grandstanding and territorialism, which ultimately undermined the influence of the organization. Despite its seat at the very top of the government agency tree, the NCIO was still dependent upon others for funding and support. This dependence became most evident in 1974, when federal budget officials, resentful at their own fading influence in Indian affairs, cut funding and forced the closure of the NCIO.

Britten expertly exposes the tumult of the government’s own efforts to push for tribal self-determination that in many ways reflects the turmoil of the Red Power movement with which readers may be more familiar. This discussion of the pivotal role of the NCIO in facilitating tribal self-determination is long overdue and a welcome addition to the growing historiography of a pivotal moment in American Indian history.

Paul McKenzie-Jones, Ph.D. is an assistant professor at Montana State University-Northern and the author of Clyde Warrior: Tradition, Community, and Red Power.

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