A new public television documentary views the Voluntary Relocation Program through the eyes of American Indians who joined the government-sponsored urban migration initiative. While distinctly Native American, the documentary will resonate with other rural cultures that have made their own long journeys in search of economic opportunity.
“Urban Rez” (57 minutes)
Producer, Writer, Editor: Lisa D. Olken
Director: Larry Pourier
Major Funding: Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vision Maker Media
No single ethnic group in the United States is more identified with rural areas than Native Americans. Yet two out of every three American Indians live and work in urban areas.
Filmmakers Lisa D. Olken and Larry T. Pourier explore the complex experiences of urban Indians in a new public television documentary, “Urban Rez.” The hour-long video is scheduled for national broadcast via American Public Television on October 27.
As with many developments in American Indian history, urban migration is a complex topic and fraught with overtones – and overt expressions – of racism and paternalism.
From 1952 to 1973, the Bureau of Indian Affairs sponsored the Voluntary Relocation Program, which encouraged Indians to move from tribal lands to cities. In return, participants received short-term assistance with housing and job training. About 100,000 people participated in the program. Many, many more migrated to cities in the years following World War II, in response to economic pressures, individual desires and changes in other Indian-affairs policies in the federal government.
The documentary includes diverse perspectives on the efficacy of the relocation program. Some who participated in the program describe the government’s disregard for individual choice and self-determination. “Who ever asked the people on the reservation if some of these programs would work for them?” said Marilyn Pourier (Cheyenne River Sioux/Oglala Lakota). “They were not asked. These things were just thrown out there [by] people from D.C. or wherever they make all these laws.”
Others saw the program as one of personal choice and opportunity. “Relocation got a bad rap. … [but] nobody was sent out here against their will,” said Bill Marin ((Washo).
While the documentary begins with the relocation program, it quickly expands to explore the larger history of Native Americans’ experience of the urban environment: the preservation of tradition in a vastly different cultural and physical setting, the emergence of Native American cultural centers in major cities, the complicated self-identities some urban Indians experience in living between two worlds, the role of Indians in the civil rights movement.
The documentary contains limited narration, relying instead on the multiple perspectives of American Indian interviewees to explore the urban rez from diverse angles. Viewers looking for clear-cut answers will be disappointed. (There isn’t even agreement on terminology like “Native American” versus “American Indian,” for example.) But we emerge from the documentary with the right questions to consider as we think about the topic of Indian urbanization.
Ultimately, these questions are useful for all who care about rural America. That’s because most rural populations are familiar with the issue of out-migration to urban areas. And countless urban residents trace their roots to rural places like the Mississippi Delta, Appalachia, the Dust Bowl and beyond. The experiences of American Indians are unique. But they illuminate the strong and complex feelings other American populations have for rural places and rural heritage.
“Urban Rez” is an important and overlooked chapter in this American saga.