The Wilson brothers. Courtesy photo

Dr. Jim Wilson: A man of his time

The story behind the story of tribal self-determination and the politics of Indian country’s remarkable journey towards self-rule cannot be told without Dr. Jim Wilson as a central figure.

I want to wish him a belated Happy 86th birthday as well as a veterans’ day shout out. Dr. Jim is the last remaining of the 6 Wilson brothers from the Pine Ridge Indian reservation, home of the Oglala Lakota. As with all in their twilight years, he represents a rapidly fading generation of Lakota who grew up in the formative years of agency life when self-reliance was synonymous with survival.

On the eve of his birthday we shared a special visit, one very different from the hundreds before. He quietly expressed that it is time to share the true story of his tenure directing the Indian efforts of President Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty”. Modestly titled Director of the “Indian Desk” in the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), Wilson was then (1960’s -70’s) and remains today the single most influential Indian leader of any Presidential administration.

As President Johnson’s unquestioned general in the Indian battlefront, Wilson was allowed to develop an arsenal of weaponry that President Johnson, OEO Director Sargent Shriver nor the National Council on Indian Opportunity could have predicted or imagined. Later President Nixon found his work so effective and impactful he retained Wilson making Wilson one of the only senior OEO officials to work in both administrations.

Bridging the world of ideas with the world of action, Wilson deliberately set out to fundamentally change the relationship of the federal government to Indian people. Armed with an unprecedented policy directive from President Johnson and complete autonomy provided by Sargent Shriver, Wilson’s forceful and deliberate visionary leadership helped usher in the idea of tribal self-determination, moving the concept from the periphery to the center.

A confluence of Wilson’s genius, the creation of a new federal agency (Office of Economic Opportunity) within the White House Executive Offices, a mandate of “unconditional war”, the freewheeling atmosphere, a very real budget and the unprecedented ability to access/leverage other internal budgets enabled OEO to impact Indian country immediately . The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 was the statutory vehicle that created OEO, within OEO it was the Community Action Programs that became the tip of the spear in leveraging change in Indian communities.

For the first time tribes were receiving “direct” funding from the federal government, permanently ending the stranglehold the Bureau of Indian Affairs had on Indian country. As their monopoly in Indian affairs evaporated overnight, the astute Interior Secretary Stewart Udall began the arduous process of abandoning past failed policies and dogmas of paternalism. Under these circumstances the dam began to break in so far as Indian Tribes having a meaningful say in the stewardship and prioritization of federal resources.

Wilson could have been content to fund the CAP agencies, Head Start Centers, and Indian participation in VISTA, Job Corps, and vocational training - all mandates of OEO. He however owned a far greater vision for Indian country and was determined to make the most out of the historic opportunity as the first Indian to lead a key national program. With breakneck speed he designed programs and a movement of lasting benefit to Indian country, specifically identifying the urgent need for professional leadership, development of infrastructure to create a pathway for Indian management of educational institutions, legal advocacy, the organization of new national and regional intertribal organizations, advocacy for landless and unrecognized tribes, and a general political apparatus to help tribes identify and lobby for their needs.

Wilson understood tribalism as a strength of Indian country, who during his time was reduced to enclaves of impoverished communities fully governed/administered by an agency superintendent beholden to the Bureau of Indian Affairs not tribes where the superintendent worked.

Wilson wanted Indians in law schools, business schools, schools of education and education administration, access to the nation’s finest undergraduate and graduate schools. He saw Indian inclusion in these educational venues as inextricably linked to self-rule, self-administration and yes self-determination. With laser precision Wilson established graduate programs at the University of Minnesota, Harvard, Penn State, and Arizona State, he funded the famed Indian Law Program at University of New Mexico and enlisted several other universities as field offices to provide technical assistance to tribes.

Most important he funded Indian students and assured access. Participants in these programs represent a prodigious list of who’s who in Indian country, they all shared the same mandate to improve the educational and hence economic opportunity of Indian country. These pioneering participants became the foot soldiers for Indian ownership of Indian education and Indian governance of Indian programs.


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Ryan Wilson is a grandson of the late George Wilson Sr. and great nephew of Dr. Jim Wilson.  He is a past president of the National Indian Education Association and served 4 terms on the NIEA board.  He is the founder and President of the National Alliance to Save Native Languages, a co-chair of the National Congress of American Indians Native Language Task Force and was instrumental in securing passage of the Esther Martinez Native Languages Preservation Act, Native American Code Talker Recognition Act, Native American Alaska Native Language Immersion School Provisions in the Every Student Succeeds Act, and Immersion School Special Appropriations for Tribal / BIE funded schools through the Interior Department. He can be reached at 701-421-4258 or emailed at

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