The National Indian Council on Aging (NICOA) is beginning its 47th year of advocating and fighting on behalf of this country’s American Indian and Alaskan Native elders. It was established as a nonprofit 501 (c)(3) organization in September 1976 in Phoenix, Arizona and incorporated in the District of Columbia with the creation of a Board of Directors. This action was taken at the conclusion of the 1976 National Indian Conference on Aging by a “National Task Force on American Indian Elders” composed of tribal leaders from across the across the country.
I know because I was present and subsequently elected as the first secretary of the Board. The establishment of NICOA, however, had its roots from the first Arizona Indian Aging Conference in 1975, when over 300 attendees requested a national Indian aging conference be held. Additionally, they requested an amendment to the Older Americans Act in juxtaposition to the recently passed “P.L. 93-638, Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act” which would provide funds directly to tribes rather than through the states.
The draft legislation was presented and supported by the attendees to the 1976 National Conference on Aging. In 1977, NICOA established a Washington, D.C. office that served as the “Indian Desk” in the Administration on Aging and served to advocate for the drafted amendment.
A year later, President Carter signed the amendments to the Older Americans Act, which included “Title VI – Grants to Indian Tribes.” It was the first social service program that utilized P.L. 93-638 as its philosophical mooring. A few months later, the Indian Child Welfare Act was passed and signed into law.
The history of NICOA is shared with our constituents because it’s important we remember where the idea for our organization originated: From Indian elders living in communities across the country. They were ordinary people who wanted change and a way to maintain their culture, their language and their way of life.
We hear the word “colonization” and “Indigenous” today in Indian Country. Words that were not part of our lexicon are now commonplace as we hunt for federal funds with words like “evidence-based programs”, “social impact models”, “person-centered trauma care”, and “lived experience.” If we really are concerned about the effects of colonization, the use of these colonization concepts need to be replaced by our own words, otherwise we as Indian people will disappear and melt into these foreign concepts.
Our elders warned us that there would come a time when our own people would become our enemies. It sometimes feels like this is happening today. The jargon changes constantly, dragging us further into the abyss. Our perspective and our vision as Indian people are devoid of these concepts, and it is our elders who still have those pure perspectives.
That is where NICOA believes our “Indian-ness” lies. In the next two years, important events are on the horizon: the 2025 reauthorization of the Older Americans Act, the possible 2035 White House Conference on Aging, the changing demographics of Indian Country and the effects of the social and health disparities among the Indian population. The latter issues will affect tribal infrastructure and economic decisions regarding tribal fiscal equity and educational structures.
In September 2023, NICOA will be holding its 24th American Indian Elders Conference in Cherokee, North Carolina, with an eye on the important events of the coming years. NICOA is looking forward to these challenges with optimism, strength and a willingness to go “once more into the fray.”
We thank you for your support and prayers. The gifts and donations to this cause are appreciated; it gives us strength to know that Indian Country still values their elders.
NICOA Executive Director