SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Since the late 19th century, American Indians have
been migrating to urban areas. Some were lured by the false promises of the
federal urban relocation programs while others went on their own, seeking
economic opportunities away from their tribal bases.
Though education is a problem facing Indian country generally, urban
Indians have often faced special challenges in regard to education over the
last century. The loss of culture affected urban Indians in a way that was
at least as profound as the now-discredited boarding schools.
Federal programs to help American Indians are often tribally based and are
therefore disbursed to tribal governments. In a state like California, for
example, this can have particularly disproportionate effects. Most Indians
living in California are urban and the majority of them, by an
approximately 6 - 1 ratio, are from out-of-state tribes.
According to the 2000 U.S. Census, the largest tribal population in
California by a large margin is Cherokee, followed by Navajo; while the
various Sioux tribes come in third and outnumber the Yurok, the largest
rural California-based tribe, by over 2,000 people.
The tale of how urban Indians came to this particular place mirrors federal
policies and their effects on American Indians. Increased awareness in
recent years has led to some innovative solutions to these problems and
perhaps offer hope for the future.
Education in traditional societies was done by most of the adults within
the framework of a given community; later, when the first vestiges of
European-style education appeared, it was the missionaries who came to the
various Indian communities.
However, by the time of the reformers in the late 19th century, owing in
large part to conquered Indian lands as well as technological innovations
such as relatively easy long-distance transport, that center of gravity
changed. The education of Indian children was for the first time taken out
of their local communities. For the first time, Indian education was in the
world of the conquerors.
Nightmarish tales abound of how cultures were systematically destroyed.
Many middle-aged American Indians can recall their parents' and
grandparents' horrific stories of how they were sometimes savagely punished
for speaking their own languages and forced to cut their hair and don
Western clothes. Early 20th century pictures of these boarding schools show
obviously stiff and uncomfortable American Indian children - boys in suits
and ties and girls in white dresses - staring row upon row into the camera.
The results of the boarding schools were nothing short of a disaster.
Children were ripped from their homes and local communities and isolated at
Indian schools with other children in a very foreign environment.
Eventually, a report issued by the Institute for Government Research in
1928 showed that American Indians who attended boarding schools were not
likely to go on to college. Congressional legislation soon followed in the
form of the 1934 Johnson-O'Malley Act, which essentially allowed American
Indians on reservations to go to public schools. According to a Journal of
American Indian Education report from 1979, most American Indians have gone
to public schools since the passage of Johnson-O'Malley and attendance at
boarding schools began to wane.
The second wave of reform in the mid-20th century brought about
urbanization. By that time it had become increasingly clear that rural
reforms were not working. Although vestiges of the allotment and
termination policies survived in California into the Kennedy
administration, the main thrust was to integrate American Indians into
mainstream society by forcing them to relocate to urban areas, the idea
being that they would find jobs and fall into the prevailing model of
society at that time: the melting pot.
Taking their cue from the various Iroquois peoples of upstate New York who
left their rural areas beginning in the late 19th century and found small
degrees of success - primarily in the construction field in New York City,
such as the fabled "sky walkers" - the new generation reformers helped
institute urban relocation policies for rural American Indians.
Similar conditions greeted American Indians, who were later relocated to
other urban areas. Tens of thousands of American Indians poured into cities
across the nation. Some of the biggest destinations included Chicago, Los
Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento, Seattle and Minneapolis, as well as smaller
migrations into various other urban areas.
In the urban areas, conditions did not much improve and, like the boarding
schools, produced negative effects in regard to American Indian views of
education. Newly minted urban Indians had trouble finding jobs and often
felt isolated in such an unfamiliar environment. Because their economic
standing did not much improve with the move to the city, American Indians
often found themselves relegated to the poorer areas of town such as
Chicago's historically poverty-stricken Hyde Park and other nearby areas
that represent the focal point of that city's estimated 30,000 American
Also, the social politics of racism can not be ignored. Since the age of
the first generation of reformers over a century ago, social limits have
been placed even on those American Indians who braved the adversarial
nature of the school systems.
THE PROBLEM TODAY
Former NIEA president Cindy La Marr said that urban Indian centers such as
the one in Chicago usually are the main sources of educational outreach to
the urban Indian communities. However, after a spate of these began in the
1960s and '70s, many faced funding challenges and had to be discontinued.
Though the programs in some larger cities - Chicago and Los Angeles
included - have managed to survive, others, such as the Ya-Ka-Ama Indian
Education and Development Center near Santa Rosa, Calif., have lapsed into
disuse because of funding issues.
Though La Marr said some funding exists for urban Indians' education
through the Johnson-O'Malley Act, this presents its own set of challenges.
Urban Indian students seeking Johnson-O'Malley funding have to go through
the tribe in which the student is an enrolled member. La Marr contended
that the problem with this is that oftentimes tribes with funding problems
of their own do not want to take the time and effort required.
"For example, if you have a Navajo kid in L.A., it's not very likely that
the tribe would help [funnel the funding]," said La Marr.
Also problematic for dealing with urban Indian issues is that their
concentrations can vary widely. La Marr cited the cities of Oakland and
Sacramento, which have comparable populations and are home to large numbers
of Indians. The main difference is that Oakland has a geographically
centered urban Indian population that is easy to identify, whereas the
urban Indian population in Sacramento is spread much thinner and over a
This makes identifying the needs of urban Indians more difficult in a city
like Sacramento, whose San Juan School District, with a mere 600 or so
Indian students, has the largest concentration of Indian students in a city
in which over 20,000 American Indians and Alaska Natives reside.
La Marr said that these kinds of demographic issues may require a varied
approach to find and identify needs for students.
RAYS OF HOPE
Brenda Peltier is the principal of the American Indian Magnet School in St.
Paul, Minn. and is in the Penn State Indian Education Department. Peltier
recounted personal experiences in which she said she was discouraged from
going on to college, but she went anyway.
"I'm sure that many of you have similar stories," said Peltier.
The American Indian Magnet School is an example of a diverse urban school.
The largest ethnic group at the school is American Indian. Thirty-four
percent of the school's students are American Indian, 22 percent are black,
21 percent Asian, 15 percent Caucasian and 8 percent Hispanic.
After her school and others in the district were placed on academic
probation a few years ago, the magnet school came up with a creative model
that brought about improvements in the school to meet state standards.
"Data is a powerful tool for the schools, and you need to use it well,"
Team-based approaches are also an important element of bringing teachers
together, and she strictly organizes her staff and tries to communicate
with teachers to prevent surprises throughout the semester.
Another idea is to have a "book of the month" which is, Peltier said, in
turn tied to all aspects of curriculum and often to the Ojibwe and Lakota
cultures. This ties in cultural aspects and is tied to meeting standards.
New NIEA President David Beaulieu pointed to some encouraging developments
regarding educational opportunities for urban Indians. These developments
largely include creating special schools for Indians living in an urban
environment that seek to form a sense of their own identity in the urban
sea of ethnicities.
Among these specialized institutions are "focus schools" in Denver that
address the Indian population. In St. Paul, where Peltier is principal, and
in Milwaukee, there is an Indian school for students that goes up to the
"The goal is to end the [urban] isolation of [American] Indian students,"