Biography and History

The Association on American Indian Affairs traces its beginnings to 1922, when legislation inimical to the interests of New Mexico's Pueblo Indians was approved by the United States Senate. Sponsored by Senator Holm Bursum and endorsed by Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall, S. 3855 was designed to "ascertain and settle land claims of persons not Indian within Pueblo Indian land, land grants, and reservations." Its critics, however, charged that it did so in a manner which favored non-Indian claimants and, thus, promoted the disinheritance of Native Americans under an avowedly assimilationist Indian administration. Among the groups which coalesced to fight this bill was the Eastern Association on Indian Affairs, forerunner of the AAIA. The EAIA was initially composed of men and women residing in and around the city of New York who shared an interest in "the crafts and life and art of these Pueblo people" but, according to its spokesman, were not "exclusively artists, scientists, or members of women's clubs." These sectors of society were nevertheless well-represented in the campaign to defeat S. 3855, a campaign which achieved success but led to a bitter falling out among reformers. The EAIA, soon strengthened by an energetic branch in Massachusetts, and the New Mexico Association on Indian Affairs, with which it enjoyed close ties, took a moderate stand in this and other matters, preferring cooperation to confrontation. In contrast, the American Indian Defense Association, led by John Collier, future Commissioner of Indian Affairs, aggressively assailed the entire system of Indian administration, which it equated with a "dungeon."

The EAIA, which was incorporated in 1924, did not consider its work accomplished with the passage in that year of new legislation regulating Pueblo lands. It widened its focus to embrace seven areas of concern to Native Americans: education, industry, health and sanitation, land tenure, irrigation, religion, and autonomy. In elaborating on these topics, the EAIA asserted that "the best education of our Indian wards would be achieved by developing instead of destroying their pride of race and by calling into active service, instead of suppressing, their group loyalties and communal responsibilities." Positions such as this marked a seminal change in non-Indian thinking and were destined to find juridical expression in the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, the centerpiece of a sweeping reformation in Indian affairs effected during the Roosevelt administration. Two major preoccupations of the EAIA during the tenure of its first and second presidents -- chemist Ellwood Hendrick and, beginning in 1927, anthropologist Herbert Spinden -- were the health and the arts and crafts of Native Americans, particularly those of the Southwest. In conjunction with the New Mexico Association on Indian Affairs, the EAIA placed sorely needed nurses among the Pueblo and Navajo and, through diligent investigation, instruction, and promotion, helped to revive the artistic expression and, conjointly, the economic activity of these and other Indians.

Notwithstanding its achievements, the EAIA was on the verge of collapse when, in 1933, Oliver La Farge, an anthropologist who had won acclaim as a writer, became its president. As he reported in 1934, "A year ago, it looked as if we might have to dissolve and go out of business for lack of funds and support. Last spring that seemed almost certain…. We had laid off our Field Nurses, and had no means of paying the Field Representatives without whom our existence would be sterile." The EAIA was fearful, too, that the newly elected Roosevelt administration, with its ties to the American Indian Defense Association, would prove uncooperative, further hamstringing its activities. Under La Farge's energetic leadership, however, the EAIA, renamed the National Association on Indian Affairs in 1933, revived, forming a cordial, though not uncritical, working relationship with Collier's Bureau of Indian Affairs. In La Farge's words, "The new Commissioner met us better than half-way, and indeed, in the atmosphere of the New Deal we are enjoying as much authority in Indian Affairs as we have ever had, perhaps more."

It was against this cooperative backdrop that the NAIA and the American Indian Defense Association, which had itself fallen on hard times, amalgamated, giving birth, in 1937, to the American Association on Indian Affairs, headquartered in New York. Its mission was defined in the following terms: "to promote the welfare of the American Indian in the United States by creating an enlightened public opinion, by assisting and protecting him against encroachment of his constitutional rights, and by promoting suitable legislation and enforcement of law; by aiding in the improvement of health and educational conditions and in preserving and fostering his arts and crafts; and in furtherance of this object it shall gather and disseminate facts bearing on the welfare of the Indians and shall assist in formulating and making effective a constructive national policy on Indian affairs."

Even before this union, the NAIA had expanded its reach. Its field representatives, Moris Burge and Margaret McKittrick, had visited Colorado and Oklahoma in 1935, and while the Southwest would continue to be a primary locus of activity, the Association was destined to turn its attention to Native American communities as far afield as North Carolina and Alaska in the years preceding the United States' entry into the Second World War.

The war saw an adjustment in but not a cessation of the AAIA's activities as national attention shifted overseas and key players in the Association entered their country's service -- La Farge joining the United States Army and Burge, who had assumed the role of a part-time executive director, the War Relocation Authority. Haven Emerson, a physician who had presided over the American Indian Defense Association at the time of its merger with the NAIA, headed the Association from 1943 to 1948. A major project undertaken during his presidency was the formation of "Program Study Committees" in the spheres of education, health, law, and social and economic organization: forums in which authorities in these fields could develop solutions to the fundamental problems confronting Native Americans. Noteworthy, too, was the appointment in 1947 of a full-time executive director, Alexander Lesser, in the face of what La Farge described as "the greatest possible need for restoring the Association on American Indian Affairs [so renamed in 1946] to the fullest possible effectiveness, and increasing that effectiveness."

In this, La Farge, who reassumed the presidency of the AAIA in 1948, though he was himself now permanently based in Santa Fe, anticipated the punishing battles of the 1950s, when the federal government sought to end its involvement in the lives of Native Americans by abruptly relinquishing its responsibilities towards both tribes and individuals. Termination, as this phenomenon was known, drew the Association's fire, for, if fully implemented, it threatened to do incalculable harm to the material well-being and cultural identity of Indians throughout the United States. As La Farge declared in 1958, "Our federal policy does not actually aim to destroy the bodies of living Indians -- although, as recent U.S. Public Health Service reports show, that is one of its by-products -- but to disintegrate their communities, their hopes, their very souls, and to create as the end result broken creatures who will not be white men, obviously, but who will no longer be recognizably Indians and hence will be from the point of view of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, as good as dead." In 1956, rather than serving simply as a critic, the Association presented an alternative to these policies in the form of an "American Indian Point IV Program" aimed at developing the social and economic potential of Native American communities, thereby eliminating the grave disparities between Indians and non-Indians, without destroying the former's uniqueness. The 1950s were significant, too, in that they marked the birth of an Indian presence within the councils of the AAIA itself, beginning with the election to its Board of Directors of Edward Dozier of the Pueblo of Santa Clara in 1955.

This year also witnessed the appointment of La Verne Madigan as the AAIA's Executive Director. During her productive tenure, La Farge reflected on her untimely death in 1962, "she led us to entirely new levels of effectiveness, often in regions that had been hitherto little known to us." Three areas of the country which commanded much of her attention and that of the Association as a whole in these years were the Great Plains, where a program known as We Shake Hands sought to lessen the isolation and empower the inhabitants of Indian communities; Florida, where a campaign was waged to win federal recognition, territorial security, and developmental assistance for the Miccosukee; and Alaska, where far-reaching organizational work was undertaken to safeguard aboriginal rights, including all-important land rights, a process highlighted by historic gatherings of Alaskan natives in 1961 and 1962. Madigan's death in a riding accident was widely mourned, as was La Farge's passing in 1963.

Madigan's successor, William Byler, who served the Association from 1962 to 1980, operated in a significantly different world from the one in which Madigan had found herself in the 1950s. Within the AAIA itself, La Farge's death created a void which subsequent presidents, despite their varied contributions, were unequipped to fill. The tenures of La Farge's immediate successors were relatively brief. Alden Stevens, a writer, headed the Association from 1964 to 1968, and Roger Ernst, a former Assistant Secretary of the Interior, held its reins from 1968 to 1973. While Princeton University and, later, University of New Mexico anthropologist Alfonso Ortiz of the Pueblo of San Juan, the first Native American to serve as president, presided over the AAIA far longer, from 1973 to 1988, the resources he could commit to its work were limited. (Ortiz's successor, to complete this roster, was Navajo educator Joy Hanley. Her tenure is the last to fall within the ambit of these Records.) Had Byler been a less masterful executive director, greater responsibility would undoubtedly have devolved upon La Farge's successors, but, as it was, Ortiz could say of Byler's tenure that "The Association you left is, in all important respects, the house that Byler built. We would not be fair to your legacy if we thought of it in any other sense."

If Byler faced a new internal dynamic in La Farge's absence, he also confronted new political realities in the country at large. While the interests of Native Americans still required stalwart advocates, the 1960s and 1970s saw the abandonment of termination, in any immediate sense, as a governmental objective, though not until 1988 was the Congressional resolution sanctioning it repealed. These decades witnessed the formulation of legislative and administrative policies designed to foster tribal self-determination through such means as economic development, enhancements in health and education, and the involvement of Indians in the formation and implementation of programs affecting them. By 1980, more than three-quarters of the staff of the Bureau of Indian Affairs was Native American. For their part, Indians grew increasingly assertive -- and, in some cases, militant -- in this period, taking action on their own behalf through tribal bodies and a proliferation of articulate organizations with an interest in fields in which the AAIA had hitherto few partners.

Under Byler's leadership, the AAIA took many steps to promote the self-sufficiency of Indian communities: some in the interests of particular tribes, others on behalf of Native Americans as a whole. As Ortiz expressed it in 1973, "The Association has set as its major and immediate goal the comprehensive implementation of Indian self-determination in all its aspects…. American Indian people today are at a crossroads in their destiny; the Association stands ready to help insure that Indian people themselves ultimately determine that future." Among the spheres in which the AAIA was active were health, education, and welfare; economic life; arts and crafts; and land and water rights. Its contributions in these areas included its designation of 1964 as "Indian Health Year" (a means of focusing attention on the deplorable state of Native American health and such environmental factors as sanitation); its persistent promotion of day schools over boarding schools; its influential role in the enactment of the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (bolstered by its legal activities on behalf of fractured Indian families); its creation of the Alaska Native Business Credit Fund with the aim of stimulating small-scale economic enterprise; its establishment of the American Indian Arts Center in New York (a showcase for Native American arts and crafts); and its involvement, albeit beset by controversy, in the Pueblo of Taos' campaign to recover its sacred Blue Lake. The Association's vigorous advocacy of the land claims of Alaskan Natives, its defense of Paiute interests regarding Pyramid Lake and Havasupai interests regarding the Grand Canyon, and its promotion of central Arizona tribal water rights also reflected its commitment to the bases of Native American self-determination.

Byler's successors, Executive Directors Steven Unger (1980-1985), Idrian Resnick (1985-1989), and Gary Kimble, the first Native American to serve in this capacity (1989-1994), continued to pursue a multifaceted agenda, though the issues on which they focused varied. The inadequacy of Indian educational funding, programs, and facilities was one of Unger's major concerns, and during his time in office these shortcomings were highlighted, new instructional models and organizational networks were promoted, and practical assistance was extended to educational authorities in locations ranging from the Native Village of Goodnews Bay in Alaska to the Navajo community of Black Mesa in Arizona. Resnick's tenure saw such undertakings as the revision of tribal codes and constitutions, the facilitation of federal acknowledgement of unrecognized tribes, and the formulation of tribal-state agreements relating to child welfare. The latter half of the 1980s also marked the onset of a critical self-examination by the AAIA, a process spurred, in part, by the multiplicity of organizations in the field of Indian affairs. Indeed, in 1986, the Association committed itself "to work closely with other organizations, especially those directly representing American Indians and/or Alaskan Natives, taking care not to duplicate efforts nor to undermine their work." Under Kimble, the AAIA became deeply involved in issues relating to Native American religiocultural freedom, including the protection of sacred sites, the preservation of ceremonial practices, and the repatriation of Indian remains and artifacts. The Association offered assistance to organizations dedicated to the furtherance of these objectives and, together with the National Congress of American Indians and the Native American Rights Fund, founded the American Indian Religious Freedom Coalition to secure the passage of favorable federal legislation in this sphere.

Kimble's successor was Jerry Flute, a onetime chairman of South Dakota's Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux who had represented the AAIA in the field before his appointment as executive director. He inherited an active but financially troubled organization and, in 1995, was faced with calls to disband the Association rather than suffer bankruptcy. Flute and like-minded individuals on the Board of Directors, which became a wholly Indian body in this year in an unsuccessful attempt to qualify for federal funding, avoided this expedient by moving the AAIA's headquarters to Sisseton, South Dakota and narrowing the scope of its activities. While the Association faces an uncertain future, it continues to meet a variety of needs -- from the defense of sacred sites to the granting of scholarships -- and serves as a voice for marginalized communities. This new and as yet unfinished chapter lies outside the time span of these Records. There can be little doubt, however, that La Farge and other architects of the Association would be gratified to know that their Indian heirs have maintained their faith in the AAIA and its ability to play a constructive role in the lives of America's first peoples.

Source: From the finding aid for MC147

  • Taos Blue Lake Collection. 1947 - 1972 (inclusive), 1954-1970 (bulk).

    Call Number: MC106

    Taos Pueblo lost thousands of acres of land as well as Taos Lake, a sacred Pueblo shrine, when Carson National Forest was created in 1906. After a sixty-four year fight, the government returned the land to the Pueblo. This collection brings together four discrete collections: the papers of Barbara Greene Kilberg, a White House Presidential Fellow at the time of the dispute; the papers of Corinne Locker, secretary to Association on American Indian Affairs (AAIA) president Oliver LaFarge (1901-1963) and later AAIA Southwest Field Secretary; the papers of Rufus G. Poole, regional attorney for the AAIA in New Mexico, and the papers of William G. Schaab, an Albuquerque attorney who became involved in the fight in 1967.

  • Association on American Indian Affairs Records. 1851-2013 (inclusive), 1922-1995 (bulk).

    Call Number: MC147

    The Records of the Association on American Indian Affairs document the corporate life of an influential and resilient player in the history of twentieth-century Native American advocacy. From its formation by non-Indians in New York in 1922 to its re-establishment in South Dakota in 1995 under a wholly Indian administration, the AAIA has defended the rights and promoted the welfare of Native Americans and, in this process, has shaped the views of their fellow citizens. The AAIA has waged innumerable battles over the years, touching on the material and spiritual well-being of Indians in every state of the Union: from the right of Native Americans to control their resources to their right to worship freely; from their right to federal trusteeship to their right to self-determination. The evolving nature of this struggle, in terms of conception and execution; the environment in which it was waged, both within and without the AAIA; the parade of men and women who figured in it; and the relationships among them can all be found in the abundant and insightful records which constitute these Records. The correspondence, minutes, reports, articles, clippings, and other documents in the collection, augmented by photographic and audiovisual material, represent a window not only on the AAIA but on the entities and personalities with which it interacted. While its vision has co-existed with others, and while it has been far from alone in its contribution to Indian life, no consideration of twentieth-century Native American affairs can disregard its arduous and, for the most part, fruitful work.

  • Alfonso Ortiz Papers. 1926-1993 (inclusive), 1960s-1980s (bulk).

    Call Number: WC126

    Consists of personal, professional, and academic papers of the Pueblo anthropologist Alfonso Ortiz (1939-1997), including correspondence, working files, and materials related to the Association on American Indian Affairs (AAIA).