Published on October 14, 2012 by Amy
Urban Indians are Native Americans in the United States who live in urban areas. Urban Indians represent a growing proportion of the Native population in the United States. The National Urban Indian Family Coalition (NUIFC) considers the term to apply to “individuals of American Indian and Alaska Native ancestry who may or may not have direct and/or active ties with a particular tribe, but who identify with and are at least somewhat active in the Native community in their urban area.”
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As defined by NUIFC, urban Indians may variously be permanent residents including long term residents, forced residents, or medium and short term visitors. Long term residents are those who have been in a city for multiple generations, some of them the descendants of the people who traditionally owned land that has now become an urban center. Forced residents were forced to relocate to urban centers by government policy or by the need to access specialized health or other services. Medium and short term visitors are in a city to visit family or friends, to pursue an education, etc. The term “forced residents” is a contested term and could be considered misleading by others.
A brief history of the urbanization of Native Americans
The number of Indians living in urban settings greatly accelerated in the 1950s and 1960s, due to the Indian termination policy of that era, which encouraged Indians to leave their reservations. During that time period, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) developed a “relocation” program which encouraged Indian people to move to urban areas. While Indian people were not “forced” to move, the BIA was frequently misleading regarding life in urban areas. Many Indian people were simply unprepared for the experience, and many returned to the reservations. The program was abolished in the 1970s and no longer exists. Since that era, however, many Indian people have moved to urban areas on their own without any assistance from the BIA. The 1990 US Census indicated that two thirds of Native Americans lived in urban areas. The 2010 US Census should reflect an even greater increase.
Much of the scholarly literature of the 1970s and 1980s focused upon the great hardships that Indian people were experiencing in urban areas and especially the failure and abuses of the Relocation Program of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. However, more recent scholarship has demonstrated how Indian people were able to be resourceful and adapt to the demands of urban living just as poor European emigrants had done in the 19th century. This scholarship is represented by James LaGrand’s INDIAN METROPOLIS, Joan Weibel-Orlando’s Indian Country, L.A., and Shawnee-Sac and Fox-Seminole-Muscogee Creek scholar Donald Fixico’s THE URBAN INDIAN EXPERIENCE IN AMERICA. Speaking about prior negative stereotypes regarding adjustment, Native scholar Fixico has stated, “This downtrodden image does not accurately portray urban Indians, particularly in the 1990s when at least three generations have survived the relocation years of the 1950s and 1960s. The early image misrepresents the urban Indian population to an unfortunate degree, since many Indian citizens in cities hold professional positions and are members of the middle class in America.”. Charles Wilkinson, a legal scholar and author of Blood Struggle, has stated: “Relocation fell into disfavor because of the coercion and ineffectiveness, but one bright light began to shine years later. Although relocation provided few benefits to the people it directly served, many of their children, having grown up in the cities, helped build the Indian professional middle class, which played a central role in revitalizing Indian life in the latter part of the twentieth century.”
Wilma Mankiller, former Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, is a good example of the Indian professional middle class raised in an urban area. Wilma relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area with her parents in the 1950s. She states in her autobiography, “We were not forced to do anything . . . our poverty had prompted the move. In 1955, my father first started talking to the Bureau of Indian Affairs officials about the various forms of assistance for Cherokees. Relocation was a possibility.” (p.68-69) Relocation was traumatic for the young Wilma, but she would later attend college at San Francisco State College and learn techniques of community organization in the political climate of the Bay Area in the 1970s. She would take these skills back to the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma and assist with revitalization there.
Anthropologist James Clifford has argued that while many Native Americans and other Indigenous peoples live in urban settings away from their ancestral homelands, this does not necessarily mean that their connection to those lands are severed. He points out that many Native Americans travel back and forth between cities and rural communities, and maintain active ties to their ancestral lands even while not occupying them full times. Clifford argues that this suggests that even for urban indigenous populations the relations to ancestral homelands may be highly significant, even though the relation may take on a different meaning for them than for the people who inhabit their homelands continually.
As a final note, Cherokee scholar Russell Thornton, a demographer and professor at UCLA, has pointed out that Native Americans tend to intermarry with non-Indians at an increasing rate. He attributes this, partially, to the increased urbanization of the Native American population. “Continued urbanization is likely not only to result in increased intermarriage as more and more Native Americans come in contact with non-Native peoples, but also to diminish further the identity of Native Americans as distinctive tribal peoples tied to specific geographical areas.”