Contrary to popular belief, American Indians have lived in
cities for hundreds of years. Archaeology confirms that Native people of
the area now called the United States often lived in concentrated
populations, cities and urban centers long before the arrival of Europeans.
Remnants of these populated areas have been found in dwelling sites in
Alabama, Illinois and New Mexico. Evidence collected in Alabama reveals
that the Moundville site once maintained a population of 1,000 at its
center and 10,000 in its surrounding valley. Research also confirms that
the community of Cahokia in Illinois was home to more than 20,000 community
members. In New Mexico, Pueblo Bonita once contained hundreds of rooms,
three-story buildings and several ceremonial kivas, and supported a
population of some 1,200 people.
In addition to their own urban communities, Indians often lived within the
colonial cities built by European settlers. During the 17th century some
took advantage of trading opportunities and urban amenities, and enrolled
their children in mission schools.
Nineteenth-century U.S. expansionists, however, devised federal policies
that restricted Native populations to isolated reservations in order to
distance them from a rapidly growing white citizenry. As a result, by
century’s end, the Indian populace became increasingly concentrated in
However, starting in 1880, legislators began to urge Indians to discard
historic life-ways and assimilate into mainstream society. The 1887 Dawes
(or General Allotment) Act, used as a tool to break up tribal land
holdings, was ultimately responsible for the removal of two-thirds of all
Indian land holdings for white settlement – some 91 million acres.
For much of the 20th century – especially since 1945 – the number of
American Indians living in urban areas has been increasing. In 1930, fewer
than 10 percent of all Indians made their homes in cities. In 2000, 66
percent of Indians identified in the U.S. Census now reside
Urban Indians are a geographically dispersed population characterized by
cultural, linguistic, political and religious differences. Typically they
have settled in less affluent, transitional, blue-collar neighborhoods near
employment and conveniences where their usually large families are accepted
and absorbed into surrounding neighborhoods.
Some children lost many of their cultural skills through the assimilating
processes of boarding school, and felt out of place when they returned
home. As a result, a number returned to urban areas as they grew older.
These students learned cultural adaptation through the introduction of
unfamiliar concepts, industries and domestic skills. They also forged new,
previously unheard-of “Pan-Indian” bonds through fellowship with students
of other tribes.
In the 1940s, economic development on reservations came to a standstill
bolstered by a national push to terminate federal tribal responsibility.
Military enlistment and defense industry employment offered new chances for
achievement, surpassing the limited opportunities in most reservation
communities. During this period, many Indians left the reserve and as a
result, thousands were working away from their homelands by the mid-1950s.
The BIA-sponsored relocation program was one of the most important
influences on 20th century Indian urban migration. During the scope of the
program, which lasted from 1950 through 1970, approximately 100,000 Indians
were relocated from reservations into selected urban areas. The program
began in Arizona after BIA Commissioner Dillon Myer urged Congress to pass
the Navajo-Hopi Rehabilitation (Long Range) Act, authorizing $88.57 million
for health, education, construction and resource development in the Navajo
and Hopi nations.
In 1952, President Truman initiated “Operation Relocation” extending the
program to other tribes and encouraging their move into designated urban
Upon arriving at assigned destinations, BIA relocation officers offered
counseling, help in locating housing, job training and employment placement
assistance. Fifty-four percent of the relocatees arrived from South Dakota,
Montana and Minnesota. The other 46 percent came from Arizona, New Mexico
and Oklahoma. They turned up in buses, on trains and in dilapidated
vehicles in cities such as Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
The personal stories of relocatees and their children who were subsequently
raised in cities show that the migrants employed many innovative strategies
to contend with the daunting challenges of urban life.
The formation of Indian social centers was essential in the successful
transition from reservation to city. These civic organizations provided a
comfortable framework for introduction to the uncertain urban environment.
They helped minimize the stress of change and offered support in the
struggle to adapt to attitudes, values, and behaviors commonly associated
with city living. Offering additional support to individuals by allowing
them to confront problems, fears and new situations as a group, Indian
centers became an integral part of the community.
In cities during the 1950s and 1960s, expanded opportunities for education
played a critical role in the creation of a stronger Indian political
voice. Viewing the dissatisfaction of many Americans in those decades,
urban Indians came to realize the value and validity of tradition as well
as the wisdom of their elders.
Re-establishing connections to culture and homeland – vital connections
that had been dulled through years of forced acculturation – sparked a
resurgence of cultural pride and a return to time-honored values. Rather
than simply occupying a space within the melting pot of mainstream urban
society, they created their own unique position – as dual citizens of two
nations – fully able to function in the modern world through a belief and
reliance on traditional, tribal values. Where Indians had once been
reticent to speak forcefully about injustices, urban Indians became
increasingly verbal – creating national public awareness for tribal issues,
rejecting total assimilation and creating a new and powerful voice in
It is ironic that the 20th century drive toward urbanization that aimed at
eradicating tribalism and sovereignty and forcing assimilation, actually
served to help Indians strengthen tribal sovereignty and redefine modern
tribalism. Tribalism has generally been described as “morals, beliefs, and
identity with a tribe or socio-political organization, families, clans or
related groups that share a common ancestry.”
Modern tribalism however, has been expanded to include members of groups
other than familial relatives that share commonalities. In the urban
setting, this includes the association of “Pan-Indians” – citizens of many
different tribal nations – who also congregate as members of the urban
Indian community as a whole.
By carrying modern urban political methodologies back to the reservation to
bolster historic practices and values, city Indians have enhanced social
awareness and visibility both on and off the reservation. This has helped
improve the collective socio-political and legal standing of American
Indians and tribes across the nation.