Native American Organizing

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #7 in December 2008]

The Indian Relocation Act of 1956 facilitated the movement of Native Americans from rural areas to cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis.  In 1953, The American Indian Center of Chicago (AIC) at 1630 W. Wilson was founded to provide a social and cultural space to the more than fifty different tribes who were relocated to Chicago.  AIC aimed to serve the pan-Indian community and “to promote the fellowship among Indian people of all Tribes living in metropolitan Chicago, and to create bonds of understanding and communication between Indians and non-Indians in this city.” In addition, AIC aimed “to advance the general welfare of American Indians into the metropolitan community life; to foster the economic and educational advancement of Indian people; to sustain cultural, artistic and vocational pursuits; and to perpetuate Indian cultural values.”

Monthly powwows at AIC were attended by hundreds of people and fostered a pan-tribal community.  However, AIC also sponsored tribal clubs to connect Native Americans with members of their own tribe.  In 1966, AIC found a permanent home in Uptown and fostered more opportunities for Native youth. For example, The Youth Tribal Organization was formed by Native vocational students who began organizing non-Indian residents of Uptown around the lack of affordable housing.

In addition to the activities at AIC, Native Americans in Chicago formed political groups and hosted national conferences. In 1961, anthropologist Sol Tax and the National Congress of American Indians organized the American Indian Chicago Conference which was held at the University of Chicago. This historic event brought together more than 65 tribes (totaling more than 500 attendees) who drafted a series of guiding principles:

We, the Indian people, must be governed by high principles and laws in a democratic manner,  with a right to choose our own way of life. Since our Indian culture is slowly being absorbed by  the American society, we believe we have the responsibility of preserving our precious heritage;  recognizing that certain changes are inevitable.  We believe that the Indians should provide the  adjustment . . .

The National Congress of American Indians believed reforms were possible within the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs and most tribes stood by this position during the American Indian Chicago Conference.  However, there was internal disagreement that initiated the formation of a more militant group—the National Indian Youth Conference.  The National Indian Youth Conference fundamentally distrusted the BIA to provide justice to the Native Americans and advocated change based on direct action.

By the early 1970s, militant groups comprised of Native Americans were seeking a tribal reservation based nationalism that was self-reliant and Native controlled.  The American Indian Movement (AIM), formed in Minneapolis, Minnesota, later occupied BIA offices, the island of Alcatraz, Fort Lewis in Washington state, and the village of Wounded Knee in South Dakota. This militancy and activism is still relevant and continuing today. ◊

Note: The author sees this as research-in-progress and wishes anyone who knows more about this history to contact her or to add it to the “comments” section of this article on the website.


  1. LaGrand, James B. Indian Metropolis: Native American in Chicago, 1945-1975.
  2. Simpson, George Eaton and John Milton Yinger, Racial and Cultural Minorities: An Analysis of Prejudice and Discrimination.
  3. Weston, Mary Ann. Native Americans in the News: Images of Indians in the Twentieth Century Press.
  4. American Indian Center of Chicago

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