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Trimble: Indian country: The 51st state?

In an online article, Mark Charles proposed the concept for a 51st state representing Indian country in the U.S. Congress. It is an interesting concept that has been considered before, as far back as the late 1800s when the leaders of the Five Civilized Tribes in Oklahoma proposed that “Indian Territory” be named the state of Sequoia.

More recently, the concept of a 51st state arose in the studies of the congressional American Indian Policy Review Commission in 1975-76. The commission was directed to study and recommend various arrangements for more effective Indian representation in Washington, including the election of an American Indian Congressional delegation.

This study was the last task on the commission’s agenda, but was given only cursory review as time and funds ran out. It would have been interesting to see a serious study into the political and logistical nightmare that such a decentralized Indian state would have presented, not only in the administration of the state government, but in the simple act of getting elected to represent the state in Congress.

New ideas will continue to come up for the purposes of maximizing Indian country’s political profile and collective Indian voter influence both on the state and national levels.

More realistic, however, is the improvement of Federal-Indian consultation pursuant to the government-to-government relationship, which has been an ongoing goal of Indians leaders and some federal officials for many years. There have been several efforts to involve Indian leadership in national policy development, in the form of ad hoc commissions and task forces, and ongoing advisory councils such as the National Indian Education Council and the National Indian Health Board.

Tribal leaders have consistently sought the establishment of a White House Office of Indian Affairs, and even a Cabinet-level Office of Indian Affairs. However, with the exception of a brief period during the Nixon administration, Indian affairs in the White House have been generally relegated to liaison desks in such offices as the Carter administration’s Small Communities and Rural Development. The first Bush Administration elevated Indian affairs to the White House Office of Inter-governmental Affairs, but Indian organizations concluded the White House staff with these responsibilities was so low ranking as to make the office largely ceremonial.

It is always interesting and exciting to think about how to raise the national profile of Indian tribes commensurate with their sovereignty.

The closest entity Indians have had to a White House Office of Indian Affairs has been the National Council for Indian Opportunity, which was placed under the Office of the Vice President (Spiro Agnew, at the time). Not only was its office in the White House complex, but its board was comprised of the head of each department on the domestic side of the administration – a potentially powerful group. However, although Indian leadership at first welcomed the NCIO’s creation, the council died within five years without much regret on the part of Indians. Its demise was brought on by its political divisiveness in Indian affairs and abuse of power.

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Among the national Indian leadership, there has also been considerable thought and effort given to improving the tribal side of the consultation process. The National Tribal Chairmen’s Association, made up of principal executive officers of the federally-recognized Indian tribes, was established to improve consultation on national Indian policy. However, it arrogated to itself the role of sole voice of the tribes and set out to discredit and destroy the NCAI. Although it was federally funded and strongly supported by the BIA and other agencies, NTCA failed to get support from the tribes, and ceased to exist.

During the internecine conflict between NTCA and NCAI, Indian leaders seeing a need for greater unity and improved national representation proposed creation of a consortium of Indian organizations. Put forth by Navajo President Peter MacDonald, the concept of a Native American Treaty Rights Organization would have been a curious mix of two national tribal organizations (NCAI and NTCA), one tribe (Navajo), one special-interest organization (NIYC), a self-described non-organization (AIM), one regional intertribal organization (AFN), and a private non-profit organization (AIO).

New ideas will continue to come up for the purposes of maximizing Indian country’s political profile and collective Indian voter influence.

The Treaty Rights organization concept was rejected out of hand by the chairmen’s association, and after consideration was declined by NCAI as well. To the NCAI, the NATRO concept was for a national entity that would, in reality, supersede each of the organizations in the coalition.

Finally, although the proposal was never formally made, some Indian leaders had discussed the possibility of NTCA and NCAI coming together as a Congress of Indian America. The NCAI representing a wide constituency of federally-recognized tribes and non-federally recognized tribal groups would be like a House of Representatives. The NTCA, with its one-tribe-one-vote arrangement, would serve as a Senate. However, that concept was never formally proposed to either the NCAI or to the NTCA.

In the 1990s, the National Congress of American Indians proposed an Inter-Departmental Council on Indian Affairs (IDCIA) and a National Native American Advisory Commission (NNAAC), considerations of which were encouraged by Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI). At the request of the new American Indian Policy Center at GWU, I wrote a report on the history of Indian representation in matters of national Indian affairs from the time of the early Spanish up to modern times. That report, titled “Indian Representation in Washington: Considerations for Improved Federal-Indian Relations through Consultation,” was to provide a backdrop for assessing the concepts. The idea never quite caught on, apparently, although much work and study had gone into it.

The most enduring intertribal organization representing Native America nationally is the National Congress of American Indians. Although there are Indian organizations representing virtually every special interest and profession in Indian affairs, the only national organization with tribal constituency is the NCAI.

It is always interesting and exciting to think about how to raise the national profile of Indian tribes commensurate with their sovereignty, and to make their voices heard more equitably in the nation’s capital. But it is also good to look into the considerations of past generations of Indian leaders and see what their ideas were in the matter, and why the concepts were not pursued further.

Charles E. Trimble is Oglala Lakota from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association in 1970, and served as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1972-78. He may be reached at