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January 16, 2013

Blazing New Frontiers: The National Congress of American Indians and the Inauguration of John F. Kennedy

Congress of American Indian records (NMAI.AC.010), box 593, Inaugural, 1961. P38067

We gather here not only mindful of heavy burdens but also full of hope. We want to believe there is a New Frontier, a New Trail. Our faith is renewed that with our renewed effort and cooperation of the Tribes, their friends, and the U.S. government working together, we will be able to find better solutions to the problems we face. 

 —Angus Wilson, Nez Perce Tribal Chairman
Conventions and Mid-Year Conferences: Speeches, 1961. 
National Congress of American Indian records, box 12.


One of the highlights of my job at the NMAI Archive Center is helping people find those bits of information hidden in folders that, when put together, contribute to a picture of the past. Since the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) records is one of NMAI’s largest archival collections, I recently decided to learn more about the history of the NCAI in order to better assist researchers and answer reference questions. For this reason, I picked up Thomas Cowger’s book The National Congress of American Indians : The Founding Years and enthusiastically dove in. I was particularly curious about the role of Helen Peterson (Oglala Lakota), whose papers NMAI also has available for research.

During Peterson’s tenure as Executive Director of NCAI, from 1953 to 1961, one of her tasks was to work with the Indian Organization Committee for the 1961 Presidential Inaugural Parade. The election of John F. Kennedy was seen as a step in a new and hopeful direction for U.S. Indian policy. Accordingly, NCAI thought it only fitting to name its float in the parade “First New Frontier.” Helen Peterson and the NCAI also helped enter four additional parade floats from different Indian communities and arranged for the participation of more than 200 representatives from 22 different tribes.

On the morning of January 20th, 1961, despite a storm the previous night that covered the city in snow, all of the parade participants lined up along the icy streets of Washington to celebrate the inauguration. Hailing from 13 different states, the “Indian Unit” stood out impressively with its five floats, six jeeps, and 64-piece Arizona Navajo Intertribal Band, whose membership had grown to include Zuni, Hopi, Pima, Hualapai, Mojave, and Maricopa musicians. (Interesting side note: The Arizona Navajo Intertribal Band is now called the Navajo Nation Band, and they will be participating in the 2013 Inaugural Parade.  You can see a full list of this year’s parade participants here.)

Determined to keep everyone organized and on schedule, Peterson had laid out in full detail who would be on which float and the order in which they would process down Pennsylvania Avenue. Below are the final float descriptions submitted to the Inaugural Parade Committee. (All descriptions are from the Helen Peterson papers [NMAI.AC.016], box 11, NCAI Subject File, Inaugural, 1961.) 

Float 1: Rosebud Sioux, South Dakota Centennial 1961

National Congress of American Indian records (NMAI.AC.010), box 593, Inaugural, 1961. P38058

 “Rosebud Sioux Indians, South Dakota, performing traditional and authentic Chief’s Dance honoring President Kennedy. Rosebud Sioux Tribe is joined by Oglala and Standing Rock Sioux Tribes, also with reservations in South Dakota. All performers on the float are 'Plains' Indian tribal members. This is the state of South Dakota float in observance of the state’s centennial.”


Float 2: The First New Frontier—1620 

National Congress of American Indian records (NMAI.AC.010), box 593, Inaugural, 1961. P38057

“This float (sponsored by the National Congress of American Indians) symbolizes the friendliness and generosity with which the Indians met the first new settlers and is intended to convey the richness of the continent that was the first new frontier. Squash, corn, potatoes, tomatoes, peanuts, tobacco were among the food products developed by the Indians that were unknown to the Old World. Contrary to popular belief, the Indians first met the white settlers with friendly curiosity. (The snowstorm ruined the display of vegetables and the real turkey that, were to have been a part of the float . . .)”


Float 3: Sacajawea and Lewis and Clark Blaze Montana’s New Frontier 

National Congress of American Indian records (NMAI.AC.010), box 593, Inaugural, 1961. P38064

“In the first few years of the 1800s, a Shoshone Indian woman who became the wife of Charbonneaux, a trader, led the Lewis and Clark expedition through the Northwest to open up that vast area. With a baby on her back, Sacajawea was a symbol of peace and cooperation. The small tepee is a symbol of the tepees used by the Plains Indians. The mural on the float was done by a Creek Indian artist in Washington who is employed by the U.S. Department of State. There are many dogs in Indian camps and the dog on this float was loaned by Metropolitan policemen. After the dog was selected from some thirty offers to the Montana committee, it turned out the dog’s name is NIXON.”


Float 4: White Mountain Apache Crown Dance 

National Congress of American Indian records (NMAI.AC.010), box 593, Inaugural, 1961. P38060

“This float is composed entirely of White Mountain Apache Crown Dancers, singers and Apache women from Arizona. The dancers are students from the high school in White River, Arizona. One of the singers is Chairman of the Tribe, elected by his people. This float indicates some of the differences among the Indian Tribes of which there are more than a hundred major tribes in the U.S. today with significant populations or land holding, the title to which is held in trust by the U.S. Government.”


Float 5: Contributions of the First Americans  

National Congress of American Indian records (NMAI.AC.010) Box 593, Inaugural, 1961. P38068

“Sponsored by the Navajo Tribe which spreads over almost sixteen million acres in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, this float calls attention to the many contributions the First Americans have made to the social, economic and political life of the United States. 'Miss Indian America' is a symbol of the rich resource of Indian youth. She is Vivian Arviso, member of the Navajo Tribe, 18 years old, and a student at Colorado College.”


Though many participants were undoubtedly cold and damp by the end of the parade, spirits must have been high: NCAI won runner-up for most creative float.

For more information on the NCAI records or the Helen Peterson papers, please feel free to contact the Archive Center at NMAIArchives@si.edu. The NMAI Archive Center also would like to welcome tribal community members to Washington, D.C., for the Native Nations Inaugural Ball and the “Out of Many Festival” which will be held January 18th through the 20th at the museum on the National Mall.

—Rachel Menyuk, archives technician, NMAI Archive Center


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It is so refreshing to see the history of the past in display realizing how it impacted the nation in the present generation.

This is so important, to help educate people about the history of the american indians in relation to the start of this country.

It is really important to share the history of the past and how it impacted the future of the country. People should learn way more about it.

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