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date: 25 March 2017

Native Americans and Cities

Summary and Keywords

An important relationship has existed between Native Americans and cities from pre-Columbian times to the early 21st century. Long before Europeans arrived in the Americas, indigenous peoples developed societies characterized by dense populations, large-scale agriculture, monumental architecture, and complex social hierarchies. Following European and American conquest and colonization, Native Americans played a crucial role in the development of towns and cities throughout North America, often on the site of former indigenous settlements.

Beginning in the early 20th century, Native Americans began migrating from reservations to U.S. cities in large numbers and formed new intertribal communities. By 1970, the majority of the Native American population lived in cities and the numbers of urban American Indians have been growing ever since. Indian Country in the early 21st century continues to be influenced by the complex and evolving ties between Native Americans and cities.

Keywords: Native American, Indian, cities, urban, pre-Columbian, migrant labor, ethnic community, activism, casinos

An important relationship has existed between Native Americans and cities from pre-Columbian times to the present day. Long before Europeans arrived in the Americas, indigenous peoples developed societies characterized by dense populations, large-scale agriculture, monumental architecture, and complex social hierarchies. Following European and American conquest and colonization, Native Americans played a crucial role in the development of towns and cities throughout North America, often on the site of indigenous settlements. Beginning in the early 20th century, Native Americans began migrating from reservations to U.S. cities in large numbers and formed new intertribal communities. By 1970, the majority of the Native American population lived in cities and the numbers of urban American Indians have been growing ever since. Indian Country today continues to be influenced by the complex and evolving ties between Native Americans and Cities.

Pre-Columbian North American Cities

Highly complex and sophisticated societies existed in the Americas for thousands of years before Europeans arrived in the late 15th century, including dense population centers that we can refer to as cities. These civilizations indigenous to the Americas developed social hierarchies, irrigated agriculture, specialized tools, arts and crafts, religion, public works projects, and monumental architecture, among many other characteristics of urban areas.

Mesoamerica, for example, saw the rise of the city of Teotihuacán between 200 and 900 CE. During its height the city was the largest in the world and home to as many as 250,000 people. It was a multiethnic city, ruled at times by various groups that included the Zapotec, Mixtec, Mayan, and Nahuat cultures, who maintained political and economic control over the region. Much of the great architecture associated with Mesoamerica and that remains a major tourist attraction today (often referred to popularly as “Mayan”) comes from Teotihuacán. Travelers to and residents of the city followed the broadly built and linear Avenue of the Dead for three miles from the outskirts to the heart of the city, passing courtyards, temples, staircases, and large platforms capped by tall towers, until reaching the massive Pyramid of the Moon, situated in a dramatic setting with the looming mountain and extinct volcano, Cerro Gordo, in the background. Teotihuacán went into decline after 900 and by 1300 another city, Tenochtitlan, rose. Located farther to the south, it served as the center of empire for the Mexica, a group commonly known as the Aztecs. The population of 200,000 lived in an urban space characterized by a complex system of streets, canals, aqueducts, and sanitation such that one scholar has called Tenochtitlan “perhaps the greatest planned city ever created by human beings.” Hernán Cortés, who led the Spanish conquest of Tenochtitlan in 1521, described the Templo Mayor (one of the main temples in the city) as having “as many as forty towers, all of which are so high that in the case of the largest there are fifty steps leading up to the main part of it; and the most important of these towers is higher than that of the cathedral of Seville. They are so well constructed both their stone and woodwork that there can be none better in any place.” Seventy-eight additional buildings surrounded the Templo Mayor, including schools, jails, armories, and altars used for tens of thousands of human sacrifices. After the destruction of Tenochtitlan by the Spanish (which included the razing of the Templo Mayor), it was rebuilt and renamed Mexico City.

In the Eastern Woodlands region of North America, another major civilization developed during the pre-Columbian period. Sometimes referred to as the Mound Builders for their construction of massive earthworks, these groups thrived largely because of the advanced farming techniques that they developed in the fertile river valleys of the present-day northeastern, southeastern, and midwestern United States. The largest Eastern Woodlands population center was Cahokia, located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers just outside of what is now St. Louis, Missouri. Between 700 and 1250 CE, Cahokia covered about 400 acres and had a population of 10,000 to 16,000 people, making it larger than London, England. It included defined neighborhoods representing a class-based social organization, roads linking the city center to suburbs and other nearby towns, water reservoirs, recreational courts, and temple complexes. Cahokia also maintained eighty-five massive earthwork mounds that were used for burial, astronomical, and religious and ceremonial purposes. The largest of these, Monk’s Mound, covered sixteen acres and was 1,037 feet long and approximately 100 feet high. Items found in the mounds, such as jewelry and weapons made from obsidian, copper, and mica, showed that the Woodland cultures were involved in long-distance trading networks that ranged a thousand miles from Cahokia. Pottery was also widely used and potters forged carefully carved and etched pieces for special occasions, in addition to making jars, bowls, beakers, plates, and cups for everyday purposes.

Farther west, in the region that became the southwestern United States, another major population center was built by the Anasazi people around 850 ce. Twelve planned towns and up to 350 villages, housed a population of about 15,000 people dispersed over a twelve-mile stretch of Chaco Canyon, which, in turn, was connected by roads to an extensive network of settlements up to sixty miles away. Chaco Canyon relied on an extensive irrigation system that supported agriculture and provided drinking water in the arid environment. Intricately constructed stone buildings of aboveground living quarters and underground kivas (ceremonial chambers) ranged in size from rather small in the villages to a complex of more than 800 rooms at Pueblo Bonito, the largest town. One scholar has calculated that at the town of Chetro Ketl the walls were built from 50 million stones, all individually cut and shaped. The Anasazi’s skill in stonework extended to tools and jewelry, made from both local materials and those obtained through trade. Turquoise, for example, was used for ornaments, beads, and jewelry, all of which were exchanged with other groups. The soft sandstone that lined the walls of Chaco Canyon also became a medium for the Anasazi to communicate, to record important events, and to express their cultural and spiritual beliefs through petroglyphs. Carved directly into the stone, Anasazi rock art included clan symbols, depictions of ceremonies, records of migrations, human and animal motifs, and commemorative displays of annual solstices and equinoxes. Chaco Canyon was occupied until about 1150, when the Anasazi moved to nearby cliff dwellings, probably for protection from other groups.

Hundreds of additional cities existed throughout the Americas in this period. The decline of the great pre-Columbian cultures—and the cities that they built and inhabited—was once considered a mystery, but scholars now point to such explanatory factors as warfare and the vulnerability of large population centers, political instability, climatic changes, overpopulation, disease, and the straining of environmental resources. Contrary to earlier beliefs, the people of these civilizations did not simply disappear; rather they had a profound impact on the shaping of the new societies and population centers that developed in North America after the arrival of Europeans. The Mexica were the people who first met the Spanish in Mesoamerica and remained a vital part of Mexico City through the period of colonization. The Pueblo peoples, who the Spanish encountered in present-day New Mexico, were the direct descendants of the Anasazi. Up and down the Atlantic seaboard, the tribes that met Spanish, British, Dutch, and French colonizers were descended from the Eastern Woodlands peoples. All of these groups bore social and cultural characteristics developed over thousands of years in North America, including the experiences of living in cities. They continued to influence the population centers of North America well into the post-contact period.

Native Americans and the Growth of North American Towns and Cities

Many towns and cities in North America were founded on the site of indigenous settlements. This meant that the massive dispossession of Native American land and resources stretched from the first days of colonization to the growth of modern cities in the late 19th to early 20th centuries. Nonetheless, Native peoples maintained a significant presence and played important roles as these places were transformed into towns and cities controlled, first, by European arrivals and, later, by succeeding generations of European Americans.

One example of the continuing presence of Native people through the period of European colonization can be found in southern New England. By the 1670s, as English settlers seized Indians lands throughout the region, Native peoples found it difficult to sustain their traditional economy of agriculture, fishing, hunting, and gathering. Small towns founded by missionaries, known as “praying towns,” attracted Native peoples looking for refuge. In places such as Natick, Massachusetts, Native residents converted to Christianity, adopted English-style farming and livestock raising, engaged in wage labor, entered the whaling industry, served in the military, sold baskets and brooms, and became indentured servants. They also traveled to bigger towns, such as Cambridge and Boston, where they bought and sold items in the marketplace, had access to the courts and other workings of the legal system, and participated in the expanding labor market. Over time, by the mid-18th century, the pressures on these newly titled lands grew more intense and English colonists made increasing efforts to displace the region’s Indian residents. Nonetheless, Native people survived and maintained a presence in the towns and cities of southern New England through the period of the American Revolution and American statehood, if not as landowners, then as wage laborers, domestic servants, and seafarers.

Such a pattern is illustrated in the nearby British colony, and later U.S. state, of Rhode Island, where between 1750 and 1800, Narragansett people survived both on their reservation and in nearby towns. After more than a century of colonial encounter, Narragansett residents tended to live on the margins of town life in Rhode Island, rarely holding property, struggling with debt and forced bondage, and grouped among the poor of society. Narragansett children, in particular, were subject to indentured servitude and educated in town schools. Despite efforts by town officials to classify them in ways that erased their legal status as Indians (perhaps to eliminate future land claims), Narragansett town-dwellers nonetheless maintained a strong sense of Indian identity. They continued to refer to themselves in official records as Indians, lived in extended families, took in and cared for other Native people, and persisted in traditional patterns of hunting and gathering on a seasonal basis.

Towns and cities that were founded and developed later as part of the United States also maintained and even relied upon a Native American presence. After the establishment of Seattle, Washington, in 1851, Native people traded for goods, forged political alliances, and participated in the labor market, in addition to partaking in many of the new city’s opportunities for leisure and entertainment. Indeed, Seattle would hardly have survived through its first decades without Native people to work in the mills, provide food for sale, haul mail and goods by canoe, clear the land, build houses, and work in the city’s brothels. Native people also resettled in small enclaves around the city, working as domestic servants, living as members of mixed-race families, and residing in tribal communities alongside the expanding suburbs. These close connections between Indian and non-Indian residents of the city are illustrated by an anecdote from the 1870s, in which a municipal judge required a Chinese American man who appeared before him to prove his residency by answering a query in Chinook jargon (a local Indian dialect; he did so, successfully). From 1880 to the 1930s Seattle emerged as a major metropolitan area. During this period of explosive growth, Native people suffered massive losses of land as the city carried out major engineering projects and private developers constructed new housing divisions. Nonetheless, Native people remained in the city, living in working-class neighborhoods and on Skid Row, in addition to making regular trips from nearby reservations to experience urban life, sell goods, and work.

While the Native American population of, first, European and, then, U.S. towns and cities throughout North America remained relatively small in relation to the increasing numbers of non-Indians, Native people did not simply vanish quietly into the past, as many popular accounts would have us believe. On the contrary, despite suffering terrible hardships and the massive loss of lands and resources, Indian people continued to maintain a presence in the territories that had come under the control of Euro-American settlers, but they did so often on very different terms. This movement of Indians back to the growing cities and towns of North America set the stage for a more dramatic rise in urban Indian populations as the United States itself came to be defined as a predominantly urban nation in the 20th century.

Native Americans and Cities in the First Half of the 20th Century

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the Native American population of urban areas throughout the United States steadily increased as American Indians traveled to cities and their surrounding areas for thousands of new jobs in the agricultural, industrial, and service sectors. This migration was often regional, since Native people were most likely to take advantage of economic opportunities in the towns and cities closest to their established communities, but significant American Indian migration also took place to cities farther away from tribal homelands. During World War II, even larger numbers of Indian people traveled to urban areas for defense work and military service.

Many Native Americans first experienced towns and cities through migratory labor. This work could provide Indian people with crucial sources of income and also presented possibilities for integrating wage labor into social, cultural, and economic strategies rooted in tribal lands and communities. Tohono O’odham Indians in southern Arizona, for instance, engaged in cotton-picking, mining, domestic service, and railroad work to complement their seasonal subsistence patterns. Navajos in the Four Corners area of the Southwest similarly absorbed wage labor on and near the reservation into a diverse, household-centered economy that included domestic production and sheepherding. During the 1920s, in Needles, California, on the Arizona border, about three hundred Mojave Indians from nearby Fort Mojave Reservation found jobs as casual laborers for the Santa Fe Railway, alongside European Americans, African Americans, and immigrants from Mexico and Japan. Mojave Indians also worked paving streets, building roads, constructing houses, and working on area farms. Apache Indians from the San Carlos Reservation in Arizona spent part of the year in the nearby towns of Globe and Miami employed in mining, road construction, railroad work, domestic service, and the production of Native crafts. Members of the Hualapai tribe similarly worked for wages in Kingman, Arizona, just outside the reservation’s western boundary. Throughout British Columbia and Alaska, Indians served as loggers, longshoremen, teamsters, cowboys, miners, fishermen, and cannery workers. In the Northern Plains and Upper Midwest regions, Menominee Indians were employed in the forests and sawmills, while Ho-Chunk Indians picked strawberries, cranberries, cherries, corn, peas, and potatoes. Outside the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, the town of Rapid City maintained a population of about 3,000 Sioux Indians who worked largely in cutting timber. In northern Maine, Mi’kmaw, Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, and Maliseet Indians were recruited as migratory laborers in the 1920s on the region’s growing potato farms. During the same period, Indians from reservations throughout Southern California could be found seasonally in the vicinity of Riverside, outside Los Angeles, where the orange groves provided months of steady work. These patterns of migratory work were replicated by Native Americans in many other parts of the United States.

Indian people also sought better jobs and living conditions in the burgeoning cities of the United States, even if it meant moving farther away from tribal communities. Urban areas around the country experienced a period of tremendous expansion at the turn of the 20th century, and Native Americans were among the groups who traveled to these locales to fill hundreds of thousands of new jobs. Railroads and commercial ships hired Indians as traveling laborers, so that places such as Chicago, the San Francisco Bay area, and other regional transportation centers became familiar places to Native people. Indians took a variety of mill, construction, and factory jobs in expanding industrial areas that included Minneapolis–St. Paul, Milwaukee, Detroit, Phoenix, Seattle-Tacoma, and Los Angeles. Mohawk Indians from reservations in New York State and Canada worked in New York City’s steel industry beginning in the 1920s, constructing many of the high-rise office buildings that came to dominate the city’s skyline, while shuttling between reservations and an Indian neighborhood in Brooklyn. Laguna Pueblo people worked for the Santa Fe Railway building and maintaining the tracks all the way from their lands in New Mexico through the American Southwest to the East San Francisco Bay area city of Richmond, where they established an enclave. Some cities were home to small communities or populations of Native people who were alumni of nearby Office of Indian Affairs boarding schools. A 1928 government survey in Phoenix, Arizona, for instance, found about forty Indian families and thirty single Indian women who were either graduates of or current students in a work program from Phoenix Indian School. More broadly, Indian women who attended federal boarding schools found jobs as domestic servants in non-Indian homes throughout the cities of the American West.

Drawn to the city by new jobs, many Native people settle into the multiethnic, working-class neighborhoods that could be found there. In Los Angeles, for example, Native people moved through the industrial, commercial, and residential spaces developing in the central city and South Bay areas. A few examples from the 1920s can illustrate larger patterns. Joseph and Ethel Mills, two Indians born in Oklahoma, lived with their nine-year old son in a predominantly white, middle-class neighborhood while Joseph worked as an auto mechanic. Several streets over in a white and Latino working-class neighborhood, two families of California Indians worked as railroad machinists and shared a house with their children, their landlady, a second-generation Russian street laborer, and a Russian immigrant couple. Etta Sarracino, a single, forty-two year old Indian born in New Mexico, shared a house with three other single women while working as a nurse in a local hospital. Carlos McPherson, a veteran of World War I and a driller for Standard Oil Company, headed a home in a neighborhood populated by white, working-class, and middle-class residents.

While small, a growing middle-class American Indian community could also be found in some American cities. Graduates of Indian boarding schools and missionary colleges moved to urban areas and viewed the city as a place from which they could improve conditions for Native peoples both in the city and across the country, often while working as professionals. Chicago, for instance, due to its place as a transportation hub with ready access to both the eastern and western United States, drew an especially large number of Indians who became local and national leaders. They advocated for the rights of their relatives back in their reservation and rural homelands, participated in national policy discussions, and established social networks throughout the city. These efforts in activism and community organization became the foundation for the support structure and urban Indian community that developed in a later period of increasing Indian migration to the cities.

Thousands of American Indians also traveled to cities throughout the United States and Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for careers as entertainers and performers, taking advantage of nostalgia for the nation’s western past and a fascination with the “disappearing” cultures of American Indians. Touring “Wild West” shows, first organized by William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, gave Native people the chance to earn relatively good wages, travel around the world, and engage in the singing, dancing, and other cultural activities that were discouraged on federally administered reservations. American Indians also took jobs as performers for international expositions, such as the Kwakwaka’wakw from Vancouver Island, British Columbia, who lived in a reconstructed Northwest Coast village during the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where they engaged in dancing and exhibiting Native skills that included wood carving and basket weaving. Smaller entertainment venues also featured American Indian performers. Miccosukee Indians worked in “Indian villages” alongside state highways that catered to Florida’s increasing tourist trade and Seminole Indians marketed Native culture through tourist villages in Ft. Lauderdale that combined demonstrations of older cultural practices with new tourist-oriented activities such as alligator wrestling. By the 1910s and 1920s, the Hollywood film industry became another source of employment for Indian performers and hundreds participated in the first decades of the film industry as actors, stunt persons, and technical advisers. Many Indian entertainers also built careers that combined different displays and performances of Indian culture. Molly Spotted Elk, for example, from the Penobscot Indian Reserve in Maine, played an Indian character for vaudeville shows, worked as an “Indian dancer” at cabarets and nightclubs, acted in Hollywood films, and toured Europe as a member of an Indian jazz band. Similarly, Richard Davis Thunderbird, a Cheyenne Indian born in 1867, worked as an anthropological informant, traveled with Wild West shows, appeared in vaudeville, led a troupe of Cheyenne dancers, lectured on Indian history and lore, wrote a manuscript on Cheyenne religion, and worked steadily as an actor and technical adviser in Hollywood until his death in 1946.

During World War II, urban populations throughout the United States again experienced an upsurge as individuals of all backgrounds migrated from rural areas to urban locales in support of the war effort through military service and work in the defense industries. American Indians were no exception, with about 25,000 Indians entering the armed forces and approximately 40,000 working in plants producing armaments. Practically all Native people involved in the war effort experienced life in an urban area, whether laboring in a factory, training for the military, or deploying oversees. Indian migration was particularly acute in places with war industries and military installations, such as Portland, Oregon, where a relatively small prewar Indian population expanded following the arrival of newcomers to work in the shipyards. A few individual cases help to illustrate the wider patterns at work. Helen and George Reifel were Indians from Oklahoma who were teaching on the Navajo Reservation when the United States entered World War II. So many of their students left to join the armed forces that they decided to take their two sons to Portland, where Helen found work as a welder and George became a shipwright. Lewis Tomahkera, a Comanche Indian, arrived from Lawton, Oklahoma, to work at the Kaiser Shipyards. Inspired by a contest for new recruits, he convinced seven tribal members, six of them women, to come to Portland as welder trainees. Ernest Peters, aged sixty-three years, found work as a swing shift worker at Kaiser’s Swan Island shipyards and settled down in southeast Portland, where he lived in a five-room house with ten family members. Joe Bergie came to Kaiser via the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania and Stanford University, where he was a football star, to work at the Vancouver yards across the Columbia River from Portland. Similar patterns of Indian urbanization occurred at other centers of wartime mobilization, such as Seattle, the San Francisco Bay area, Los Angeles, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Chicago.

A substantial portion of Indian migrants to U.S. cities and servicewomen and men went back to their reservations and rural communities after the war, especially as the troops returned home and defense plants reverted to peacetime production. Yet World War II changed Indians who traveled to cities in the United States and to places overseas in profound ways that would continue to resonate in the postwar years. Purcell Rainwater, a Sioux Indian living on the Rosebud Reservation, recalled what happened when his daughter came home after serving in the U.S. military for three years: “She went, come back and stayed for, I don’t know, a week or two. Then she says, Dad, there’s nothing around for me. Well, I said, that’s all right, I said, I know it’s hard for you. And so we helped her get ready and she left.” After stints in Indiana and Chicago, Rainwater’s daughter settled in Los Angeles, where she worked and started a family. While wartime experiences influenced these subsequent migrations, American Indian postwar urbanization was also predicated upon decades of earlier experiences in the urban areas of the United States. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, cities throughout the country were places where Indian people participated in the expansion and development of urban America.

Native Americans and Cities in the Second Half of the 20th Century

American Indians continued to move to cities in increasing numbers during the decades that followed World War II many reasons. Native people served in the military, the federal government promoted Indian urbanization through the “relocation program,” better roads connected reservations and urban areas, and the Civil Rights movement led to greater opportunities for American Indians to attend college. Most importantly, vibrant urban American Indian communities welcomed newcomers and nurtured generations of Native people born and raised in the city. Indeed, a majority of American Indians resided in cities by 1970 and urban Indian populations have continued to rise ever since.

Shortly following World War II, the federal government became an active promoter of American Indian migration to cities through the Relocation Program. Primarily, relocation worked as a corollary to the “termination” policy, or an effort by the federal government to absolve itself of responsibility for managing American Indian affairs. With relocation, federal officials hoped to move Native peoples to cities where they would become self-sufficient and assimilate into American society. By the mid-1950s, the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs had set up relocation field offices in Chicago, Denver, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, Portland (Oregon), Dallas, Oklahoma City, Tulsa, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Joliet and Waukegan, Illinois. Indians “on relocation” arrived in their destination city, either by themselves or with their families, and were provided help in finding employment and housing, along with limited aid that included subsistence funds, counseling, and basic health care. After intense criticism that the federal government was simply “dumping” Indians in the cities, the program was expanded to include tuition and living stipends for two-year vocational courses. About 155,000 Indians participated in relocation until it was discontinued in the 1970s.

Despite the intentions of the federal government, American Indian identity did not disappear in the city; rather, it developed in complex ways that combined elements of tribal culture, a broader sense of “being Indian,” and the experiences of urban life. “Indian Centers,” Indian churches, powwow groups, and other tribal and intertribal organizations were formed by Indians in cities to address a wide range of social and cultural needs. Bars, parks, individual homes, churches, and city streets also served as places where Native people met more informally. The most inclusive urban Indian activity was the powwow, an intertribal gathering where Native people could express tribal culture and learn about other groups through tribal dances, dress, and songs, while reinforcing the idea that they were all to some extent “urban Indians.” In Los Angeles, the city with the largest American Indian population, known as the “urban Indian capital of the United States,” a powwow was held every Sunday for nine months of the year. Urban Indian organizations also sponsored all-Indian sports leagues and holiday parties, held classes in Indian language and culture, collected clothing and food for the Indian poor, and maintained youth and elder groups, among many other activities. Most importantly perhaps, they simply provided an open and comfortable place for Indian people of all backgrounds to get together—Jack Forbes (Powhatan/Delaware) was attending college and graduate school in Los Angeles during the 1950s, and he remembered the city’s Indian Center as a place to meet other Indians and listen to records.

Indeed, the need for such organizations stemmed from the considerable challenges that many Native people faced in making the transition from reservations to cities throughout the postwar period. Urban American Indians often struggled to find solid ground in the city after arriving with few job skills, little education, and limited experiences with urban life. The city could be an alienating place for American Indians, full of unfamiliar bureaucracies and multiple pressures to assimilate into the dominant society. Consequently, urban Indians, who concentrated in the poorest and most dilapidated neighborhoods, faced high rates of unemployment, drug and alcohol abuse, suicide, domestic violence, incarceration, and preventable disease. Yet many other Indians established more comfortable and secure places in the urban working and middle classes by finding good jobs in the urban industrial economy, starting their own businesses, buying homes in suburban neighborhoods, and raising families in the city. By the 1970s, minority recruitment programs at some colleges and universities and the growth of tribal colleges meant that a small but significant number of American Indians were able to earn degrees that qualified them for work in government, business, law, social services, and other professions. The Tafoya family, for example, moved to Los Angeles from Santa Clara Pueblo through the relocation program in the 1950s, and they eventually settled in the coastal community of Hermosa Beach. Joseph, the family patriarch and a veteran of World War II, worked in the aerospace industry while playing a leading role in the city’s Indian organizations with his wife, Trudy. The couple’s five children grew up working with their father as “Indian dancers” at Disneyland and for civic groups, public events, and private parties, in addition to dancing on the city’s intertribal powwow circuit. Dennis, who was five years old when the family moved to the city, remembered growing up in several overlapping communities that nurtured his tribal background and broader identity as an American Indian, citizen of the United States, and member of the larger world. He attended the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), did graduate work at California State University, Long Beach, and went to work for city government, eventually becoming the director of Affirmative Action Compliance for the City and County of Los Angeles, the highest rank achieved by an American Indian employee in the history of Los Angeles.

The transformation of the Indian Centers and other urban Indian organizations from self-help organizations supported by charitable fundraising into more institutionalized social service providers operating on multimillion dollar grants constituted one factor in this type of social mobility. By the early 1970s, new sources of state and federal funding flooded into urban Indian communities to be used to finance job training, health care, education, drug and alcohol counseling, cultural forums, and a host of additional services targeting the specific needs of American Indians in the city. In large part, this effort marked an extension of the federal government’s “War on Poverty” to urban American Indian populations, but the issue was brought to the forefront by the “Red Power” movement, or the rise of American Indian activism. High-profile, public protests, such as the occupation of Alcatraz Island and the activities of the American Indian Movement, popularized Indian causes, leading to enhanced support for urban American Indian populations. Activists on the local level, already working through urban American Indian organizations, harnessed these new funds with renewed energy. Often younger and college-educated, this generation of Indian activists proclaimed that previous efforts to address Indian issues had woefully neglected Indian culture and identity, and they were forceful in keeping the pressure on public officials to support their activities. Raymond Sprang, for example, a Northern Cheyenne Indian from Montana, served on the council of the American Indian Student Association at UCLA. In response to a reporter’s question about the rising numbers of American Indian students enrolled in higher education and their role at the university, he stated: “[Native American students are] bucking the administration for more recognition and we want an Indian studies department. We’re also working for changes in our [American Indian recruit program], we want more student input of ideas and dynamics.”

Education, in fact, was one long-neglected area that garnered sustained attention from urban Indian activists in the early 1970s. Studies during the period found that urban American Indians consistently ranked at the bottom of performance testing and maintained some of the highest dropout rates of any racial or ethnic group in American cities. A rise in Indian advocacy and increased funding led to a rethinking of the ways that Indians in cities experienced the educational system from preschool through higher education, specifically placing importance on the foregrounding of Indian identity and culture. State and federal grants led to the establishment of new schools for Indian students in cities such as Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Chicago, where Native instructors were hired who taught Indian history, language, arts and crafts, dancing, storytelling and music, in addition to other aspects of Indian culture and heritage. These “Indian community” schools were supplemented by commissions of American Indian educators and parents who advised public school districts on a variety of issues, such as defending the rights of Indian students, representing Indian parents in school disputes, assisting Indian teachers in personnel matters, and training non-Indian school personnel on how to work with Indian students and respect Indian culture and values in the classroom. While local school districts sometimes undervalued these collaborations, they did provide Indian input in urban pubic school curriculums and decision making. Major colleges and universities throughout the country increased funding for recruiting and retaining American Indian students and for the development of American Indian Studies programs. At UCLA, for example, American Indian enrollment reached 195 students by fall 1973 and included thirty-two graduate students, while the American Indian Student Association provided peer counseling, sponsored Indian speakers and musicians, and organized an annual Indian Culture Week. The American Indian Cultural Center (later renamed the American Indian Studies Center) offered fourteen courses in American Indian Studies and maintained a library of 6,000 volumes. Such programs helped Native students “be Indian” socially, culturally, and intellectually while earning their degrees, a substantial shift from their past educational experiences. James Monroe, a Blackfeet and Yakama Indian, noted: “[When I enrolled as a student at UCLA, it was] the first time that I really can remember relating to Indians, as something that, I don’t know how you would say it . . . as an identity.”

Funding for urban Indian organizations and activities and other efforts to serve American Indian populations declined dramatically during the 1980s, but cities remained vital centers of Indian activity and home to the majority of the Indian population. Social service networks for urban Indians persevered, as Native professionals who came of age in the 1970s regrouped to find new ways of funding services. Cultural groups continued to hold urban powwows and Native American student groups at colleges and universities remained particularly active. At the same time, Native people in cities maintained and further developed links to reservations through regular visits, intermarriage with Indians of other tribes, and careers that required travel between reservations and cities. Beginning in the 1990s, the boom in Indian gaming further blurred the boundaries between urban and reservation Indians, as some tribes took advantage of their newfound wealth and influence to play a more active role in the political, cultural, and social life of the urban areas in their states and regions. The Seminole tribe of Florida, for example, by 2014 employed over 2,000 non-Indians and purchased more than $24 million in goods and service annually through its various enterprises, including the iconic Hard Rock Café chain, which the tribe bought for $965 million. Other gaming tribes, from the Mississippi Choctaw to the Mashantucket Pequots in Connecticut to the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin have contributed billions of dollars to dozens of local, state, and national elections and political campaigns while also sponsoring numerous events and annual festivals, donating to major universities, and advertising on television and billboards. Thus, by the end of the 20th century, it was becoming increasingly clear that “Indian Country” included not just the reservations and rural areas of the American West, but also the cities of the United States. For American Indians, this was something that was already well understood—their urban traditions stretch back hundreds of years and remain a major feature of Native America today.

Discussion of the Literature

Although it constitutes one of the most defining trends in Native American history, scholars have paid relatively little attention to the relationships between Native Americans and cities. Recently, however, interest has grown in the topic and studies are now emerging to help define both the broad parameters and the particularities of American Indian urban experience. Many questions remain open and urbanization promises to be a vibrant subfield of Native American studies well into the future.

The first wave of scholarship on Native Americans and cities occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, when anthropologists and sociologists noticed the swelling of urban Indian populations and saw an opportunity to examine the process by which people they understood as culturally differentiated functioned within the urban milieu. These studies often reinforced popular notions of Indians as perpetually marginalized from the mainstreams of American life, arguing that the persistence of “traditional culture” in the city explained the “failure” of Indians to “adjust,” resulting in high rates of unemployment, alcoholism, and other social problems. Nonetheless, this work identified populations of urban American Indians and occasionally revealed Native American voices and perspectives. Over time, anthropologists emerging from this school developed more complex and less deterministic modes of analysis that allowed for cultural adaptation. Studies of Native people in Los Angeles published in the 1990s, for example, examined how tribal practices and beliefs influenced new forms of ethnicity and cultural identity, and the relationships between urban American Indian organizations and community. More recently, innovative work on California’s Silicon Valley highlighted the complex networks that have developed throughout Native America by showing how indigenous peoples of various backgrounds come together in cities while remaining connected to tribal homelands.

Since the 1990s historians have also begun to seriously investigate urban American Indian experiences. Place-based studies of urban Indian populations in cities such as Albuquerque, Chicago, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Seattle have addressed a variety of topics (many of which are mentioned previously in this article), including reasons for migration, employment patterns, civil rights activism, urban Indian organizations, shifting notions of identity, and other aspects of Indian life in the city, while other scholars have attempted to synthesize past scholarly literature on American Indians and cities into broader and more generalized studies of the “urban Indian experience.” This recent period has also seen disciplines such as sociology, literature, and communications address the topic of Native Americans and cities, often within the frameworks and institutions provided by American Indian studies. By keeping track of the field’s conferences, top journals, and major university press lists, scholars can see the slow but steady development of urban studies as an important subfield.

Much work remains to be done so that the relationships between Native Americans and cities can be better understood by scholars, policymakers, and the general public. Scores of cities and urban regions that existed in the Americas before European contact have yet to be studied. Very limited attention has been given to the presence of indigenous peoples in the towns and developing cities during the period of European colonization and American settlement. Much of the work on American Indian and cities in the 20th century begins with World War II, thus neglecting the patterns by which Native people took part in the massive urbanization of the United States during the first half of the 20th century. Studies of developments in the 20th century have also focused on the largest cities and urban regions in the country, neglecting smaller cities and towns, especially those close to Indian reservations. Even so, the last seventy-five years of urban American Indian experiences have only begun to be addressed, with much room still for additional studies of particular cities and research that compares multiple urban populations. More broadly, scholars need to grapple with the patterns that link the different places throughout Native America, so that a more complex portrait might emerge of an Indian Country that has long been composed of reservations and rural areas, towns, and cities, with American Indians regularly traveling the networks that connect them. American Indians have long been involved in the process of “reimagining Indian Country” as they have adapted to changing circumstances and conditions—it is long past time for others to adopt this inclusive vision of Native Americans and cities.

Primary Sources

Primary sources related to Native Americans and cities are located in the following archives and special collections: the Richard Davis Thunderbird Collection (MS 641) at the Southwest Museum of the American Indian, Autry National Center, Los Angeles, California; the Indian Urbanization Project, Center for Oral and Public History, Pollak Library, Cal State University Fullerton; the Chicago American Indian Oral History Project, Newberry Library, Chicago; and Record Group 75, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Branch of Relocation Services, at various regional branches of the National Archives and Records Administration.

Susan Lobo, ed., Urban Voices: The Bay Area American Indian Community (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2002)L. Lawney Reyes, Bernie Whitebear: An Urban Indian’s Quest for Justice (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2006)

Relevant books and printed materials include ; ; and Talking Leaf, a publication of the Los Angeles Indian Center (1951–1978).

Articles on Native Americans and cities can also be found in various searchable newspaper databases and online news archives (e.g., New York Times, Los Angeles Times).

Further Reading

Amerman, Stephen Kent. Urban Indians in Phoenix Schools, 1940–2000. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Carpio, Myla Vicenti. Indigenous Albuquerque. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Calloway, Colin, ed. After King Philip’s War: Presence and Persistence in Indian New England. Hanover: University Press of New England, 1997.Find this resource:

Fixico, Donald L. The Urban Indian Experience in America. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000.Find this resource:

Forbes, Jack D. “The Urban Tradition among Native Americans.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 22 (1998): 15–42.Find this resource:

Herndon, Ruth Wallis, and Ella Wilcox Sekatau. “The Right to a Name: The Narragansett People and Rhode Island Officials in the Revolutionary Era.” In After King Philip’s War: Presence and Persistence in Indian New England. Edited by Colin Calloway, 114–143. Hanover: University Press of New England, 1997.Find this resource:

Hosmer, Brian, and Colleen O’Neill, eds. Native Pathways: American Indian Culture and Economic Development in the Twentieth Century. Boulder: University of Colorado Press, 2004.Find this resource:

LaGrand, James B. Indian Metropolis: Native Americans in Chicago, 1945–1975. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002.Find this resource:

LaPier, Rosalyn R., and David R. M. Beck. City Indian: Native American Activism in Chicago, 1893–1934. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Lobo, Susan, and Kurt Peters, eds. American Indians and the Urban Experience. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira, 2001.Find this resource:

O’Brien, Jean. Dispossession by Degrees: Indian Land and Identity in Natick, Massachusetts, 1650–1790. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.Find this resource:

Ramirez, Renya K. Native Hubs: Culture, Community, and Belonging in Silicon Valley and Beyond. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Rosenthal, Nicolas G. Reimagining Indian Country: Native American Migration and Identity in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Shoemaker, Nancy. “Urban Indians and Ethnic Choices: American Indian Organizations in Minneapolis, 1920–1950.” Western Historical Quarterly 19 (1988): 431–448.Find this resource:

Thrush, Coll-Peter. Native Seattle: Histories from the Crossing-Over Place. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Weibel-Orlando, Joan. Indian Country L.A.: Maintaining Ethnic Community in Complex Society. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991.Find this resource: