PORTLAND, Ore. - It might not be cool, but it's a reality. For the first
time in history, more than half the population of American Indians and
Alaska Natives reside off-reservation in urban and suburban areas.
According to "Native American at the New Millenium," a report by the
Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, "despite the
federal government's promises for improved livelihoods, the urbanization of
American Indians has not been easy."
Between 1952 and 1972 over 100,000 reservation residents went through the
BIA's relocation program and resettled in metropolitan areas. Because of
the pitfalls many encountered in making this cultural leap and the rise of
self-determination within reservation communities since 1975, the federal
government has not actively encourage relocation since that era.
One third-generation urban American Indian said: "my grandmother's and
mother's dream was to always move back. They consider the reservation home.
As I get older I think about it in the same way my parents do. It's hard to
give up the convenience of this place. But I don't want to die here."
Throughout history, movement from the country to the city has been sparked
by the lure of economic opportunity. American Indian and Alaska Native
migration since the post-World War II era has been no different. While the
promise of wealth has been illusive for some, the brightest who've gone on
to become attorneys, entrepreneurs, and work in high-tech industries among
other careers, have indeed found respite from impoverished reservation
conditions. Census data shows that urban Indians endure a poverty rate of
17 percent. Their counterparts on reservations, on the other hand,
experience poverty nearly 35 percent of the time.
In the meantime, urban Indians must contend with difficulties accessing
health care. "Though a majority of Indians live off-reservation," noted the
Harvard study, "Indian Health Service funding to service this population
accounts for only 1 percent of the annual IHS budget." That leaves children
suffering from adolescent substance abuse, for example, without adequate
resources and support. More, various eligibility requirements prevent many
adults and children from taking advantage of what services do exist.
Housing is another area with which many urban Indians struggle. Families
find urban rents to be so high that they are forced to live in questionable
neighborhoods. And although more are becoming first-time homeowners, most
find the costs of buying a house well beyond their budget. San Francisco,
for example, which has the most expensive housing in the nation, is home to
the fourth largest urban Indian population.
Although some observers expect that many urban residents will return to
their ancestral homelands as the tribes advance economically through gaming
and other businesses, others note the rise of multigenerational urban
Indian families that consider the city their home and don't think of the
reservation as a place to return to. This stable, increasingly affluent
population has done what minority groups in cities have always done:
Today, urban America is marked by Indian centers. From Chicago to Portland,
urban Indian community centers are forming as gathering places where people
can take care of their own. Sponsored by universities, coalitions,
foundations and businesses, these centers make a statement. They also serve
as resources for members of the community trying to navigate education,
employment, health and housing problems. And perhaps most of all, the
centers serve as cultural beacons - places where high-profile Indian
leaders help elders, youths and adults unify around common purpose.
In this way, urban Indian country is not as invisible as it once was. Even
as American Indians and Alaska Natives back home on the reservations are
experiencing a renaissance, so too are their counterparts in the big
cities. Clearly much work remains ahead. But that it has started and is
proceeding apace is not escaping notice.