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'Invisible' Urban Indians

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Urban Indians are not new to the urban scene, as New York Times reporter Timothy Williams suggested in his article, "Quietly, Indians Reshape Cities and Reservations," published online Saturday, April 13.

Nor is their ongoing struggle against invisibility new, as Williams accurately depicts.

In 2007, the Urban Indian Health Institute at the Seattle Indian Health Board published a report titled, Invisible Tribes: Urban Indians and Their Health In the 21st Century.

The report was based on work done by a two-year Urban Indian Health Commission funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation looking at health disparities for urban Indians living with diabetes, heart disease and depression. In the same study we also chronicled the decades-long movement of Indians to cities, a movement that was accelerated in the 1950s by now-discredited federal policies of terminating tribes and relocating Indians to cities

William’s article focuses on Minneapolis, and a single neighborhood where Indians settled in the 1950s, and which remains a hub of Indian organizations and community. This is not the norm for the urban Indian migration experience. Seattle is more typical because Indians live everywhere, though especially in the outer neighborhoods and suburbs where rents are more affordable. Poverty and unemployment rates are high, and school success rates are lower than that of other communities. As we see at the Seattle Indian Health Board, health problems are acerbated by the social conditions many urban Indians face.

Many of the social conditions, such as homelessness and rental instability, contribute to the sense of invisibility. And often invisibility is one of the barriers that prevent social service providers from recognizing the needs of this urban community.

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The Seattle Indian Health Board was established in 1970, at a time when the United States was trying to rectify some of the damage the country had created by relocating large numbers of Indians to cities.

But in the last 40 years two presidents sought to eliminate funding for urban Indian health. President Reagan did not ask for money for urban Indians in the first six budgets he sent to Congress. President George W. Bush zeroed out the urban Indian health program on his last three budgets. Fortunately, Congress added the funding back.

Still, the funding for urban Indian health remains a scant 1 percent of the Indian Health Service budget, even while the percentage of Indians living in cities has reached 71 percent. Regardless of whether they live on reservation or in an urban area, the health crisis among Indians continues at shocking rates for an industrialized country.

Congress grants very few dollars to aid urban Indians, and runs the risk in this era of budget cutting of eliminating some urban Indians from receiving the health care promised in federal law and treaties.

The Constitution, Laws, Supreme Court decisions, executive orders and treaties have not been effective instruments for protecting the promises the federal government made to Indians. This is even more the case for the growing majority of Indians who live in cities where they are too often overlooked and forgotten.

Ralph Forquera is executive director of the Seattle Indian Health Board. Polly Olsen, Yakama, is President of the Seattle Indian Health Board’s of Board of Directors.