Finding one's place in the urban scene
IT was 1960, and Helen Williams had just stepped off the bus that brought her from the red-rock expanse of the Navajo reservation in New Mexico to the concrete-lined streets of San Francisco. ``I was so scared, I didn't want to leave the terminal,'' she recalls. ``I didn't know where to go, how to get a job, how to get into school. I didn't know anything.''
Like thousands of other Indians, 16-year-old Helen had come to San Francisco as the result of an official government policy that encouraged her to leave the reservation in search of better economic conditions. Although this failed policy of tribal ``termination'' was discontinued by 1970, its legacy remains. More than half of the 1.5 million American Indians today live in urban areas.
Fortunately, Helen had a few things going for her. She had a high school diploma, she spoke English, and she came from a strong Navajo family that emphasized hard work.
``We were all taught that as long as you have your strength, you don't expect a handout,'' Mrs. Williams recalls. ``But Dad always told us to be sure to help people that need help.''
She was recently recognized by a local television station for her years of volunteer work, linking needy Indians with services available in the Christian community.
Much more help is available to Indians who move to cities today than there was in 1960, she says. There are urban centers and extensive social-service networks.
Now tribes are beginning to pitch in, too. Helen's own Navajo nation recently dispensed $40,000 to 11 urban centers for emergency needs of city-dwelling tribal members.
Williams believes Indian people must to be able to function in two societies. They can get job training in the Indian world on the reservation, but they often have to go outside the reservation to find jobs. It is essential to learn to communicate with white people on their terms, she says.
``There's a lot of competition, especially for jobs,'' Williams warns. ``You can't show up and expect people to take care of you.'' The stress of city life only adds to problems like drinking, she adds.
Although Williams says she's never had the desire to drink, her job as financial officer of an alcohol-recovery program here brings her into daily contact with people who have succumbed to it. Many do so, she says, because they lack self-esteem. ``They think that because they can't live up to the image of the Indian as strong and brave, then they must be no good. They think they must be one of those drunk and lazy Indians everyone talks about,'' she says.
For Williams, being Indian in a largely white world is simply a matter of being herself. ``I'm Indian, no matter what I do. That will never change. I'm Navajo, but I don't have to prove it to anyone or wear a feather or anything else.''
Williams says she teaches her own children many of the same values she was taught, but finds it to be a difficult task in the city. ``There are a lot of things I see in my own tradition that are missing here'' -- respect for elders, respect for other people's feelings, a spirit of sharing rather than of acquisition. ``Because we all lead such a busy life, things like that are not always picked up and practiced,'' she says.
Williams's parents left her some of their land, on the reservation near Crown Point, N.M. She goes back to visit almost every year and expects one day she'll go back for good. But that day is not yet here. Her job, her family, and her work for others keep her in the metropolitan area.
``There's so much help that's needed. It was hard just to convince San Francisco officials of the numbers of Indian people who live here,'' Williams says. The city administration is ``helping a bit with [program] funding now, but not as much as we would like.''