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Bittersweet experiences foster cultural renaissance

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NEW YORK - Stereotypes of Indians as hunters on the Plains and in the
forests don't leave room for those who dwell in cities and suburbs, but far
more American Indians live in urban areas than on reservations.

The experience has not been altogether a happy one. Many urban Indians were
forced to move by government relocation programs, and suffered sudden
disruption of their culture and the social ills that followed. But this too
is a stereotype.

The range of Indian experience in the city is as broad and diverse as
Indian country itself. There might be drunken derelicts on Skid Row, but
there are also family - and clan-centered ironworkers, proud of the
skylines they helped erect. For the coerced relocation of past generations,
there is now an eager migration of talented youth looking for the
opportunities that rural people have long sought in the city.

This population has its own problems, often overlooked in the emphasis on
tribal sovereignty. Many are denied tribal services and even membership. In
response, community centers have grown up in many cities, struggling to
provide health care and social life and to preserve Native culture. They
have done noble work, often in the face of constant financial pressure and
even threats of eviction.

This issue will give a sample of the urban experience across the country,
the least visible side of a world that is itself so often invisible to the
dominant culture.

To start with some figures, compiled by the National Urban Indian Family
Coalition in a report to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 66 percent of all
American Indians and Alaska Natives now live in metropolitan areas. This
excellent report, entitled "Urban Indian America," was written by Monica
Tsethlikai, Ph.D.

This "sea change" started just 15 years ago, when the 1990 Census reported
that a bare majority of Natives no longer lived on reservations and trust
lands. The migration has accelerated ever since.

(The 2000 Census figures also reflect a change in counting. For the first
time, respondents were allowed to self-identify as Native and another race,
boosting Indian numbers past 4.3 million. A large number of urban Indians
have mixed heritage, said the Family Coalition report.)

According to 2000 Census figures, New York City is now home to the largest
Native population: 87,241, far surpassing Los Angeles, with 53,092. But the
tables reverse when counting percentages. Smaller cities like Anchorage (10
percent), Tulsa (7.7 percent), Oklahoma City (5.7 percent), Albuquerque
(4.9 percent) and Green Bay, Wis. (4.1 percent) have higher percentages of
Natives.

Urban Indians have more serious health problems than the general
population. Accidental deaths run 38 percent higher, cirrhosis and other
liver diseases 126 percent higher, diabetes 54 percent higher and
alcohol-related deaths 176 percent higher. Their poverty rate is 3.9 times,
unemployment rate 2.4 times and homelessness rate three times that of urban
whites. Pregnant, urban, Native women had less prenatal care and a higher
rate of infant mortality than reservation counterparts in the same state.

Yet federal Indian services historically have ignored the urban population
and have even pitted reservation governments against the expatriates in a
struggle for scarce resources. This issue is sure to be featured in the
current debate on restructuring the IHS.

Urban Indians have responded by creating their own services, supported by a
trickle of state and federal grants. The first urban Indian center opened
in Phoenix in 19437, followed in 1953 by centers in Chicago and Oakland,
Calif. In 1970, the federal government provided funding for a total of 58
around the country, and their numbers and range of services have grown. But
their existence has been peril-laden.

The handsome brick building in Boston run by the North American Indian
Center of Boston includes a large lawn that was the scene of one of the
Native highlights of last summer's Democratic National Convention, a
clambake hosted jointly by NAICPOB and the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe of Gay
Head. But the prime real estate has been too tempting to state and local
authorities, who have been trying to repossess it. At last report, NAICOB
has managed to negotiate a compromise, ceding the lawn for a condo
development while retaining and upgrading its building.

The American Indian Community House in New York City faces relocation from
its current lower East Side home across from the New York Public Theater
and near Cooper Union and New York University. The new owner of the
building wants to convert it to residential units.

The Baltimore American Indian Center, serving many Lumbee immigrants from
North Carolina, fell on hard times several years ago, losing grants in a
financial crisis and sharply curtailing its services.

But crises have historically seemed to generate fresh energy. When the
Oakland community center burned down in 1970, the ferment led to the
occupation of Alcatraz and an historic wave of nationwide activism.

Many of these centers have now joined in the National Urban Indian Family
Coalition, which is bidding to be a rising voice in Indian affairs. Its
aim, concludes its report, is "to build positive and mutually supportive
relationships with tribes and tribal governments for the betterment of
American Indian/Alaska Native children and families who live in urban
communities" and "to create, through dialogue, a shared understanding of
the barriers, issues and unique opportunities facing urban Indian
organizations and families."