Urban Natives

Sarah is Shoshone and Arapaho from the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. For the past several years, she has made Denver, Colorado her home and has integrated herself in the community as an “urban Native”. Denver was once the original homelands of her people before they were forced to relocate North. Sarah is an advocate for health and fitness for Native American people as obesity and diabetes are major health concerns.

By the 1950’s, the U.S. government was beginning to realize the financial burden that the reservation system had left and continued to find ways to push assimilation of American In­dians into mainstream society. They were also discovering rich minerals in places like the Black Hills of South Dakota and the oil reserves in North Dakota. The reservation land they once deemed as useless was now being realized of its value and they wanted to reclaim these lands by getting Indians off.

In 1956, the Indian Relocation Act painted the ideal picture of housing promises and jobs in major metropolitan cities.  The government bundled up package deals to offer relocation assistance and the life of the “American dream”. Simultaneously, the Indian termination era,  which revoked tribal status of several Native American tribes, was also happening. Because the government would no longer recognize many Native American tribes, these Indians no longer had tribal land to live on or funding from the government-run programs through the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). This led to an influx of many Natives assimilating into urban areas to find jobs and housing.

Children in the street in Uptown Chicago, 1977. Source: Library of Congress, photographer Jonas Dovydenas

During the 1960’s and ’70’s, hundreds of thousands of Native Americans were living off the reservations and in urban areas due to both the relocation program and the Indian termination policy. However, this left yet another layer of lasting, detrimental effects on Native people. The relocation funding assistance that was promised by the government quickly ran out. The jobs that they were promised were low-paying and had little advancement opportunities making it very difficult to make ends meet in expensive metropolitan cities. Homelessness was becoming an issue and many Indians felt displaced and isolated from lack of family and community support. Natives were often faced with discrimination and segregation in these cities and al­cohol addiction, drug abuse and incarceration were beco­ming a problem among urban Natives. Urban areas during the 1960’s rapidly grew which created a housing demand and drove up the cost of living. Many Native peo­ple were left stranded in these cities with no adequate jobs or money to re­turn home to the reservations.

It was during this time that urban Indians began to ban together and form pan-Indian groups such as the American In­dian Movement (AIM) and Assembly of First Na­tions of Canada. These united, multi-tri­bal, groups got together to stand up and fight for civil rights, sovereignty, and put political pressure on the governments to gain awareness of the devastation that was left on their people over centuries of oppression. Urban Indians today represent a growing proportion of the Native American population in the U.S. with an estimate of about 78% of Native Americans living off the reservation.


Andy at home in Hollywood: Andy left his small reservation, Tohono O’odham in Arizona, and moved to Hollywood, California as a young man, taking advantage of the Indian Relocation Act of 1959. Like many other Natives that relocated during this time, Andy fell into a depression after times became very difficult to survive and he found his way to alcohol as a coping mechanism. He managed to overcome his addiction and today he works at a support center for “urban Indians” where he leads the senior group. He is also a traditional percussionist and member of a drum circle in Venice Beach.

Ishi on the roof of his studio in Los Angeles: Primarily a self-taught artist originally from the Tohono O’odham Nation, Ishi’s artwork often illustrates traditional techniques of his tribe’s ancestral artisans but with a contemporary twist. He stands next to one of his copper wire baskets that he sculpted which pays tribute to intricate basketry that his ancestors used to make using various grasses.

Christina in Reno:  Christina resides in Reno, Nevada near the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation.  She is a Paiute language and cultural instructor to urban Indian children.

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