Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Indians in the city. Fifty-four percent of American Indians live in urban areas. Many have successfully made the transition from reservation to city by drawing on tribal traditions of sharing and looking after each other. Some regularly return to the reservations for spiritual renewal. Now urban and rural Indians are beginning to cooperate on business ventures to their mutual benefit.

PHIL Tingley's hometown in rural Oklahoma is a long way from his San Francisco office in the shadow of the city's towering financial district. A member of the Kiowa Tribe, he first came to the Bay Area 15 years ago, but his initial feelings of disappointment and disorientation are vivid memories.

Finding his way around the bustling city was a ``tremendous task,'' Mr. Tingley remembers, but finding a place to live was even harder. He was temporarily housed in a run-down hotel in the seediest part of town, where he daily encountered drug addicts and prostitutes. Now Tingley manages the human resources division of the Corporation for American Indian Development (CAID).

About these ads

The promise of a better life has long attracted all types of people to America's cities, including native Americans. But beginning in the mid-1950s, under the new United States policy of relocation, Indians began to move en masse from the reservations to selected cities in anticipation of receiving education, job training, and a new place to live.

``More often than not, the people who signed up were moved to the city, put in dilapidated Army barracks, and given no training,'' Tingley says. ``The BIA [US Bureau of Indian Affairs] paid their rent for a month and left them there. Many didn't even speak English.''

No one should be surprised that problems of the reservations -- poverty, poor health, suicide, and alcoholism -- followed Indian people to the cities, say social-service professionals. Squalor and hopelessness still beset Indian communities in the original relocation destinations, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and Minneapolis.

Kathy Youngbear, a caseworker with CAID, says most new arrivals from the reservation get a strong jolt of culture shock. But after they've been in the city a few years the greatest difficulty is resisting the pressure to assimilate, she says.

Ms. Youngbear, a Sioux, came to San Francisco during the relocation era. By most standards, she was a success story. She had a well-paying job, a decent place to live, a car, a television set. A total commitment

But Youngbear says she sensed that she was not walking ``the spiritual path.'' Seven years ago, during a visit home to the Standing Rock Reservation in the Dakotas, she talked with a medicine man and made ``a total commitment to the people and to the red road.'' Now she lives simply, sharing her paycheck with her family, her tribe back home, and her clients in San Francisco. She tells her clients that the goal of Indian people ``is not just to live, but to live in a spiritual way.''

The policy of relocation and the broader goal of terminating the federal government's special relationship with Indian tribes have since been abandoned as failures. Termination ``failed in its attempt to come to grips with the problems facing American Indians,'' states a 1984 BIA publication.

About these ads

About 54 percent of all native Americans live in metropolitan areas, according to the 1980 census. Some moved voluntarily, but many are the legacy of the termination era.

``During termination you had a lot of families broken up, and I mean a lot of families,'' says Raymond Rayes, a member of the American Indian Community Center in Spokane, Wash. The Indian way is to live in extended families whose members take care of one another, he explains. Removed from that network, Indians in cities have substituted an ``institutional family called the Department of Social Services.''

Urban Indian centers like the one in Spokane can be found in most major cities. Almost all of them channel people to health-care programs, register them for welfare, provide family counseling, help with job training, and serve as hosts for cultural events such as powwows.

Like other social-service agencies, some are better than others. But in today's era of fiscal constraint, they are all likely to be the first Indian programs on the budget chopping block, because they have no federal treaty protection, as do the tribes.

The directors at Spokane's American Indian Community Center have a vision of a new social order among the city's 5,000 Indian people. That picture does not include ``perpetual dependency on food stamps and welfare,'' says executive director Leonard Hendrickx. ``Traditional values of the Indian community are in decline, and the delivery of social services contributes to that decline,'' Mr. Hendrickx says. ``The values of sharing, of cooperating, of being responsible for each other, are eroded.'' Revolutionary plan

His vision is daring, but Hendrickx says that he ``sees no reason why Indian tribes in the Northwest can't join together and control markets to a larger extent than we do.''

While his plan is revolutionary in Indian country, it isn't likely to raise many eyebrows among Fortune 500 executives. The corporation created to implement the plan is nonprofit. Its goal is to put money in the pockets of Indian laborers in hopes of restoring the vitality of Indian families, Hendrickx and Rayes say.

``A lot of the problems [of urban Indians] boil down to economics,'' Hendrickx says. They find that if they can't read, they can't get a job. If they can't get a job, they can't feed their families. When they can't feed their families, the Indian center sees the results in alcoholism, child-neglect cases, and family abuse.

The center's plan is to start small and to focus on a traditional skill of Indian people -- foraging.

Foraging will once again become a means of survival for some Northwest Indians, if Hendrickx and Rayes have their way. They've identified a number of plants which grow in the wild around Spokane and are used by the cosmetic, pharmaceutical, and clothing industries. Saint Johnswort, for example, is used to make burgundy-colored dye. Aspen leaves are used in medicinal products. Others could participate

Organized as a farm cooperative, six Indian members will harvest, process, package, and ship the plant products to a marketing agent in Oregon. The co-op should clear $205,000 by 1989, say Hendrickx and Rayes.

Tribes in eastern Washington could also become involved. Eventually, the co-op could buy plants harvested by reservation Indians who now are currently unemployed, Hendrickx says. ``By carving out a niche in the market for a long time to come, we can create our own labor market in the region.''

Increasingly, there is talk of forming a vast marketing network in Indian country. The reservations have the resources -- timber, water, fish, and handicrafts; the urban centers have better access to markets.

Plans are under way to sell scrub oak felled on California's Tule River Reservation in upscale neighborhoods of San Francisco, where ``yuppies'' buy their firewood at the supermarket. The Daybreak Star Center in Seattle will buy processed salmon from Indian and non-Indian fishermen, smoke and can it, and sell it in France and West Germany.

Indian people must ``acquire the tools of the business community'' if they are going to progress, Hendrickx says. ``But rather than building corporate profits, we're trying to build community benefits.''

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.