The majority of Native Americans are now urbanites. Mary Annette Pember looks back at the federal Relocation Program that moved Indians off their tribal lands and two cultural centers where native traditions have rooted in Chicago.">
Neal Warrington, Menominee, participates in an exercise program at the Chicago Indian Center. He rode a bus to Chicago from the reservation in Wisconsin in the 1960's, arriving with no contacts, money or information. "It was very exciting," Warrington recalls.
Photo: Mary Annette Pember
When most people in the U.S. think of Native Americans, they envision people living in rural settings, on remote reservations. In reality, 66 percent of Native Americans in this country live in cities. Behind this surprise is one of many misguided policies the United States has taken towards its native peoples.
The U.S. federal government, determined to sever treaty responsibilities with tribes and gain access to their lands, devised a bloodless method to end the “Indian problem.” In the 1940s the federal government created the polices of Termination and Relocation with the express purpose of terminating tribal rights to reservation lands and assimilating the native population into mainstream America. The well-intentioned premise of these policies was that “old Indian ways” had hindered the social and economic advancement of Indian people. Relocation, proponents said, offered Indians an escape from poverty-stricken reservations and a chance to live the American dream. Critics of these policies maintain that those “old ways” are actually priceless culture, language and heritage, essential to self- esteem and identity; these treasures were very nearly lost.
From 1950 to the 1970’s, the federal Relocation Program recruited native peoples from reservations to move to cities. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, which oversaw the plan, offered participants modest transportation and initial living expenses as well as leads on jobs. For some Indian people, the difficult transition from reservation to city was successful. But many Indians simply exchanged rural poverty for urban poverty in city ghettos. Without the traditional cultural support of their communities, life in the city was often alienating and lonely. For many, it was a demoralizing experience.
Marilyn Miller and her family in 1957 when they relocated to Chicago from the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe reservation in Wisconsin.
Photo: Courtesy of Marilyn Miller
Marilyn Miller, Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe, recalls her first night in Chicago after leaving the reservation in northern Wisconsin in 1967. She and her family — two parents and 10 children — took the long train ride into the city.
“Our apartment was not in the shining skyscraper I had in mind when we moved to the city," Miller says. "We didn’t have a doorman like Buffy and Jody in the TV show Family Affair. Everything was dirty, so dirty that on that first night my mother covered everything with sheets before she even let us lie on the floor. Our first apartment was a third floor walk-up. Everything was noisy and dirty. What a disappointment!”
Chicago was one of the main relocation cities and still has an Indian neighborhood in the Uptown area on the city’s north side. The Chicago Indian Center in Uptown is the oldest continuously running American Indian community center in the country. The annual powwow continues to draw hundreds of people. Today, the Center offers job training, health care, children’s programs and social services.
Native peoples began moving to Chicago, however, before the Relocation Program. Returning World War II veterans, who had been exposed to the outside world and its economic opportunities, found little in the way of jobs and housing when they returned to their reservations. Instead, many vets chose to move to cities where they secured jobs. As they returned to their reservations for visits, dressed in new clothes with money in their pockets, they inspired many to follow in their paths. The Relocation Program took advantage of this trend, sending BIA agents to reservations to recruit participants for the program. The agents carried recruiting materials showing chamber of commerce style photographs of parks, schools and affordable homes. The pamphlets also showed pictures of successful relocatees in their new city homes seated in living rooms with television sets, their children wearing clean clothes and new shoes.
It’s estimated that around 60,000 Indians moved to cities between 1950-1980, many as part of the Relocation Program. Overwhelmingly, people were driven by a desire for “better.” In those days on the reservation, “better” translates to what would be defined today as “decent.”
Irene Big Eagle gets an acupunture treatment at the Chicago Indian Center for help with diabetes. The center provides health, education, employment assistance and food to the Chicago Indian Community.
Photo: Mary Annette Pember
Some of those who moved to Chicago before the Relocation program, helped establish the Chicago Indian Center, an independent organization, free of BIA oversight. The Center offered a place for diverse tribes to come together and "be Indian,” contrary to the Relocation goal of keeping urban Indians dispersed to speed assimilation. The realities of city life for Indians fell far short of the glossy BIA pamphlets. Many became victims of crime or succumbed to alcoholism and other misfortunes and fell through the cracks. In the end, they simply joined the sea of other low-income brown folks struggling to survive in an unfamiliar big city.
Marilyn Big Bear, Odawa, remembers the old days when the Uptown “Indian bars” served as the unofficial community centers.
“Let’s see, there was Dago Mary’s’, the B-29, Club Erin, Dead Man’s Bar, the Wooden Nickel, My Place and others. They were all on Clark St. (in Uptown),” Big Bear recalls. “You could cash your checks there. Of course, a lot of people ended up spending a lot of money in the bars. Those bars owed a lot to Indians.”
After losing the often- seasonal jobs secured by the BIA, many relocatees sought work at daily pay services. After cashing their checks at Indian bars each day, some fell prey to an awful cycle and never gained more than a bare subsistence life. Many people returned to their reservations, overwhelmed and demoralized by the city’s challenges. Some tried the adventure of relocation several times, often choosing different cities. The desire for community and culture, so tied to place in native tradition, ultimately brought many people back to their reservations.
Christine Red Cloud, White Earth Ojibwe, recalls that her parents always considered their home in Chicago as temporary, despite living there for over 40 years.
“Their intention was always to go home to the reservation in Minnesota,” she says. Although she was born and raised in Chicago, the thought of moving to the reservation is always in the back of her head.
Ancestral land is home for native peoples, deeply tied to culture, tradition and language. Because of this strong tie many native people make concerted efforts to maintain their culture even though they are far from home. The Anawim Center in Chicago offers a place for native peoples to gather for traditional ceremonies and prayer. Founded by Dominican nuns, the center “maintains a vision of integrating the Christian and native traditional way of prayer and life.” The name Anawim is a Hebrew word deliberately chosen so that it would not be allied with one tribe alone. It refers to “people who are humble, have suffered loss, have been taken from their land and are close to the creator," according to the Center.
For executive director, Georgina Roy, M’Chigeeng Ojibwe, from Ontario, the Center offers a way to stay in touch with her culture and traditional spirituality. Born and raised on the reserve, her first language is Ojibwe. “The Center offers me a place to sing and pray in my language,” she says. Roy moved to the city in 1973 and now considers it her home.
Georgina Roy, M'Chigeeng Ojibway tribe from Ontario, is the matriarch of the Anawim Center. She prepares meals for the twice weekly prayer circle meetings.
Photo: Mary Annette Pember
“I’ve had my fill of the woods, cutting firewood and hauling water,” she laughs. She wistfully recalls, however, the tears in her father’s eyes when she told him she would remain in the “fast life” of the city.
Although she admits that it is a challenge to maintain language and culture, she is not worried. “Native spirituality is strong; Anawim will always be here.”
Marilyn Miller and her daughters describe their current life as often being caught between two worlds. Miller’s family moved back to the reservation for a time in the 1970s, and she recalls missing the freedom of the city. She also found herself impatient with the racial intolerance of rural whites and increasingly aware of a “glass ceiling” on the reservation for Indians.
She moved back to Chicago where she raised her two daughters and earned her B.A. and Masters degrees. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in education.
Ultimately, she feels that the Relocation Program was a failure. Forty percent of urban Native Americans currently live in very low-income households; their unemployment rate is 2.4 times greater than the rate for urban whites, according to the Center for Urban Research and Learning at Loyola University. The gentrification of the Uptown neighborhood has pushed many native people to cheaper, less safe areas of the city. Miller lives with her two daughters and granddaughter in a three-bedroom apartment outside of Uptown. Daughter Alicia, who has a B.A., was downsized from her teaching job with Chicago Public Schools and is looking for work.
“Like many Native Americans in the city, we are just a smidge above poverty line. Despite all our efforts, our children are only a tiny bit better off than we were,” Miller says.
She adds, “Relocation proved that the American myth of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is just that, a myth.”
Ethnically her family is a classic example of the Relocation experience; her daughters are half Hispanic and half Ojibwe. Alicia’s daughter, Anjeni, 9, has heritage from the Ojibwe, Blackfeet and Santee Sioux tribes in addition to her Hispanic background. In a perverse trend among the recent generation of native peoples, Anjeni is not eligible for enrollment in any of these tribes because she doesn’t meet their blood quantum requirements. “We feel like outsiders when we go back to the reservation. It makes us feel a bit sad, but Chicago is our home,” says Alicia.
Marilyn Miller has worked hard, though, to ensure that her daughters have knowledge of their Ojibwe heritage, frequently traveling to powwows and sewing dance regalia.
“They know the culture; they know who they are,” Miller says proudly. For Miller, culture is identity and closely tied to self-esteem.
“Our culture makes us feel rich. It is a beauty that can’t be sullied. They took everything from us, but when we get together we can still celebrate our existence and survival.”