The American Indian Chicago Conference, 1961: A Native response to government policy and the birth of Indian self-determination

Thomas A. Niermann
Dept. of History, University of Kansas
July, 2006


The American Indian Chicago Conference in June 1961 marked the emergence of self-determination as a policy objective for Native Americans. Coming on the heals of the disastrous termination and relocation policies of the 1950s, the American Indian Chicago Conference provided the opportunity for Native Americans from around the United States to gather and discuss common problems and possible solutions. The conference was initiated by Sol Tax and Nancy Lurie, anthropologists who embraced the idea of Action Anthropology; a method of community action that put community members rather than experts in charge of identifying their issues and creating solutions to remedy those issues. Also critical to the success of the conference was D'Arcy McNickle (Blackfoot) an activist and author who helped organize the conference and ensure that the conference was run for Indians, by Indians. At the end of the week-long conference, participants produced a document entitled "Declaration of Indian Purpose." The statement outlined the objective of self-determination and identified some of the most immediate issues facing Native people. The document was formally presented to President Kennedy at the White House. In the years following the conference, the ideology of self-determination expressed in the "Declaration of Indian Purpose" became the foundation of Native activism. This ideology was apparent in the legal battles and lobbying efforts of the 1960s, the Red Power movement in the 1970s, and it appears today in the efforts to expand economic development through Indian gaming. The American Indian Chicago Conference marked a new era in Native American history; an era dominated by the ideology of self-determination.