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Historic meeting in Bismarck 50 years ago
31 July 2013


BISMARCK (UTN) - Fifty years ago Bismarck was the destination for the nation's tribal leaders. In September 1963, delegates assembled here for the 20th annual convention of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI).

      Of concern to the nearly 1,000 attending were some of the same issues facing the nation, then in the midst of the Civil Rights movement.

      NCAI Executive Director Robert Burnette (Sicangu Lakota) opened with a report, citing chronic joblessness, state jurisdiction conflicts, Tribal land heirship, and racism. He challenged leaders to "unite to wipe out discrimination."

      Washington, DC attorney Marvin Sonosky reported on the pressing topic of the day: whether tribes should give over to states their criminal and civil jurisdiction in tribal areas.

      Other speakers offered their insights, including Indian Affairs Commissioner Philleo Nash, North Dakota Governor William L. Guy, and Gold Seal Co. founder Harold Schafer.

Social Agenda

      In the south, as Alabama Governor George Wallace was fighting school integration and National Guardsmen were lining up in the streets of Birmingham, a huge crowd of locals in Bismarck turned-out to see a tribal parade through downtown and traditional dances at the local ballpark. An estimated 3,000 Native and non-native gathered at the Mandan rodeo grounds for a buffalo feed, and were treated to an international bronc riding contest, organized by North Dakota rodeo great Joe Chase (Three Affiliated).


      Highlighting the week was an appearance by U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who was showered with gifts from tribal delegations. His keynote speech signaled the administration's readiness to help in Indian Country.

Robert Kennedy
Robert Kennedy was presented with two feathered headdresses at NCAI, this one upon arrival at Bismarck airport surrounded by women representing tribes at the conference.
North Dakota News Films Archive, courtesy SHSND

      "America today is moving forward more rapidly and in more ways than ever before, toward fulfillment of its destiny as the land of the free," he said in remarks to a packed downtown Bismarck hotel ballroom. "A nation in which neither Indians nor any other racial or religious minority will live in underprivilege."

      His remarks included John Kennedy's 10-point presidential campaign pledge to bring about change in Indian Country and overcome injustice.

Pursuing Justice

      "When you look at Bobby Kennedy's remarks at NCAI in 1963 you're seeing the emergence of his activism in Indian affairs as he advances the cause of civil rights," says David M. Gipp, United Tribes Technical College president. "Later as a U. S. Senator he continues, with legislation in Indian education. And then his brother Ted Kennedy picks up the work in the early 70s. Their outlook was to pursue justice for those who had been denied, including American Indians."

      Unfortunately, the vision never realized full potential from the Kennedy White House. Two months following the 1963 conference, President Kennedy was assassinated, leaving the work to subsequent administrations. A handful of years later, in 1968, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were gone too, victims of assassination.

Positive Outcome

      The theme of "unity" at the 1963 convention most certainly resonated with North Dakota's tribal leaders. They later addressed the issue of state jurisdiction by rejecting Public Law 280. Meeting together led them to form United Tribes of North Dakota in 1964. When the intertribal organization was formalized in 1968 the incorporators were: Aljoe Agaard, Fort Yates; Lewis Goodhouse, Fort Totten; Reginald Breien, Belcourt; August Little Soldier, Golden Valley; and Austin Engel, Bismarck. This parent organization worked to address joblessness, education and economic development by creating an employment training center that has since evolved into an accredited tribal college, United Tribes Technical College.

      To this day the college and the intertribal organization continue to pursue justice, civil rights and self determination for Native People with the same passion that tribal leaders and Robert Kennedy displayed 50 years ago in Bismarck.


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