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Building a strong, respected voice for indigenous peoples

By Jacqueline Pata - posted Friday, 24 June 2011


The National Congress of American Indians was founded in 1944 and is the oldest, largest and most representative Native organization in the United States. We are a membership organization that represents the broad interests of tribal governments throughout the country.

For 67 years, we have been working to inform the public and US Congress about the governmental rights of American Indians and Alaska Natives and the ability of tribes to exercise their sovereignty and engage in their own governmental policymaking.


Now I'm told the word "sovereignty" might be scary here in Australia. But when it comes down to it, sovereignty is really something we all aspire to each day – it's something we learn to exercise ourselves. We teach our kids to exercise sovereignty. We want them to grow up and to develop the capacity to responsibly, and effectively, make and enforce their own decisions. And for Indigenous nations, that's what sovereignty is – the ability of our communities to make and enforce our own decisions.

So I'll use the term "sovereignty" throughout my remarks today, but remember there are many paths to sovereignty. We have treaties in the United States, you don't. But that doesn't mean Indigenous communities can't make and enforce their own decisions. It is likely that many of you come from communities that are already exercising sovereignty, you just might not use that term to describe it.


From our founding in 1944, NCAI has stressed the need for unity and cooperation among tribal governments for the protection of their treaty and sovereign rights, and this national movement to halt termination succeeded.

The federal government was involved in starting NCAI but within two years the organization was led exclusively by tribal leaders. Our founders gave themselves the distance that was necessary to effectively advocate for tribes and work with our partners in the federal government.

Throughout our history there have been many who have doubted our ability to continue our important advocacy work, but generation after generation of Indian leaders have embraced the task of building a national, representative body to advance the priorities of Native people. Even when the tasks looked enormous, tribal leaders knew this work was too important. Failure has never been an option.



NCAI is guided by a national board of tribal leaders representing all regions of the country. NCAI's members – tribal governments – determine the policy agenda that the staff of NCAI work on each day. They provide this direction by formal resolutions and through informed, deliberative processes at three annual meetings and other events throughout the year.

Our three meetings serve as a gathering place for Indian Country. Our largest meeting each year, Annual Convention, is held at central locations within Indian Country on a rotating basis. As many as 3,000 tribal leaders join us at this meeting. It is our primary policymaking conference: tribal leaders meet in regional caucuses each day; they convene in 5 committees and 16 subcommittees to consider resolutions which are then debated and passed by the General Assembly of the conference. Every two years, we hold our elections at Annual Convention to determine our executive officers.

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This article is comprised of excerpts from a keynote address to the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples by Jacqueline Pata on June 7, 2011.

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About the Author

Jacqueline Johnson Pata is a member of the Raven/Sockeye Clan of the Tlingit Tribe and the Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the oldest and largest tribal representative organization in the US.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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