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The seamless Indian community: Reservation to city and back again

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The reservation/urban Indian split, based on mutual antagonism, once seemed
destined to become a fact of life for tribal America. Dysfunction rather
than the seeking of common goals and identities seemed to divide urban
Indian leaders from those on the reservations. As always, resources clearly
designated for Indian programs were limited, while the easy approach was to
fight over the diminishing pie.

Good news! A more comprehensive and socially responsible approach is at
hand. It was in evidence in Phoenix last week, as tribal governments and
leaders took the initiative in seeking solutions to the social problems and
aspirations of urban Indian families and communities.

As reported in Indian Country Today, "American Indians and Alaska Natives
are organizing assistance to fellow urban Indians, who now constitute more
than half of all Indians in the United States" ("Urban Indian summit
mirrors population shift," by Brenda Norrell, Vol. 24, Iss. 36).

The story covered the National Urban Indian Family Coalition Summit at the
Heard Museum in Phoenix, a gathering that "challenged Indian leaders and
community members to develop new strategies to deal with the challenges of
Indian child welfare, employment and housing while developing financial
literacy and maintaining culture and identity."

We celebrate this historic occasion, organized by an energetic network of
social service providers and its excellent supportive cadre of executive
directors, key policymakers and decision makers who have taken up the
mandate "To begin developing a national agenda for urban Indians," as
stated by the coalition's coordinator, Janeen Comenote, from Seattle.

Urban centers and organizations from 14 cities represented well over
750,000 Indians nationwide at the gathering. The presentations recounted
the era of the "relocation and termination" policies to disband the tribes
during the 1950s and how these exploded the Indian migration to urban
areas. Jobs and education opportunities and out-marriage continue to
attract Natives to urban areas and away from tribal lands; "nevertheless,"
Comenote stressed to ICT, "most Indian families have members both in the
cities and on the reservations." "About 60 percent of self-identified
American Indians and Alaska Natives reside off-reservation, and almost 50
percent [620,000] of the total non-reservation Native population lives in
urban areas," according to the National Urban Indian Family Coalition.

Several generations of Indian families are now part and parcel of their
cities of residence. Interestingly, often many of these same families
continue to point to their tribe and reservation of family origin as the
place "they are from." These linkages are obvious in the reservation-bound
migration any time jobs become more available. American Indian individuals
or urban programs are secondary to tribal political entities in federal
policy. Federal assistance programs are slow to seek out the Native urban

The coalition has documented the pressing needs of urban American Indian
populations, which too often fall on the edges of society. It is developing
strategies based on the opportunities inherent in tribes and their urban
diasporas to interact and assist one another. New York, Los Angeles,
Chicago, Phoenix, Anchorage and Tulsa have the largest American Indian and
Alaska Native populations, according to U.S. Census 2000.

Among the coordinator's goals is to support how family networks overlap
both realities: to establish how they are always the same people, whether
on the reservation or in the city, facing the same challenges and problems
and seeking mutual solutions. A second major goal: to build the network of
urban American Indian organizations that can give better voice to this
growing network to strengthen Indian families.

The needs are great. Citing the Harvard Project on American Indian
Development, the conference states, "The poverty rate of urban AI/AN is 3.9
times that of urban whites; the unemployment rate of urban AI/AN is 2.4
times that of urban whites; urban AI/AN are 3 times more likely to be
homeless than urban whites." It intends to be the "sister urban
organization to the National Congress of American Indians" by forming an
alliance of "organizations and leaders which would act in harmony with NCAI
to reinforce Indian cultural identity within the urban setting and,
ideally, create policy which would serve to inform and expand opportunities
and resources available to Indian families regardless of where they are

This is strong language expressing a clear purpose. We encourage it
greatly. It always makes sense for Indian people and communities to
recognize each other as relatives. All indications point to a sizable
number of urban Indians living dispersed throughout cities, often living on
the edges of society - in cheap housing, mobile units, cars and even under
bridges. The population is often undercounted and out of reach, even to
their own tribes.

One shining example of intelligent nation-building is the Menominee
approach, which saw a spirited and consistent effort by "Menominee members
of the Chicago community to [reconnect] to families and relatives on the
reservation. The Chicago Menominee members have built and changed
relationships with the Tribal Council to change tribal legislation to
include members living in Chicago as an extension of the Menominee
reservation. The American Indian Center of Chicago hosts an annual meeting
of the Menominee Tribal Council in Chicago."

In Phoenix itself, with 47 percent of all Navajo Nation tribal members now
residing in off-reservation border towns, the Phoenix Dine Inc. is another
example of collaboration between an urban center and a tribe. The coalition
recognized this urban project: "The Phoenix Dine collaborates closely with
the Navajo Nation to address the needs of Dine people living in the Phoenix

In family defense programs empowered by the Indian Child Welfare Act, the
"Tribal Liaison Program" in Minneapolis, Minn. assists out-of-state tribes
on behalf of their members or eligible tribal members and the courts in
developing a realistic case plan for Indian families involved with the
Child Protection system in Hennepin County. Since 2000, the Denver Indian
Family Resource Center in Denver, Colo. has served as a liaison to tribal
programs, advocated for culturally responsive practice in ICWA cases, and
been "effective" in serving Indian families from 48 different tribes.

Uniquely positioned in New York City, the American Indian Community House
is a beacon of hope to many of the nearly 60,000 American Indians living in
that urban area. The many programs and extensions of the AICH are
substantial, ranging from HIV and legal services to international
assistance for indigenous peoples' delegates attending the annual United
Nations Forum on Indigenous Issues.

Several generations of Indian families are now part and parcel of their
cities of residence. Interestingly, however, they remain connected by
relations and cultural identification to their tribal homelands. These
linkages are obvious in the reservation-bound migration unleashed any time
jobs and services become more available in the home territories. It may
also suggest that tribes not limit themselves to "on-territory" economic
developments. Tribal enterprises built in urban Indian areas would also
contribute greatly to improving the financial and social conditions of all
our people - again, more than half of whom reside "off-reservation."

On the other hand, in federal policy, American Indian individuals or urban
programs are secondary to tribal political entities. Federal assistance
programs are slow to seek out Native urban populations. This is an
important issue, as is the issue of fluidity of identity and unity by
Native peoples, whether residents of tribal territories or urban or
suburban communities.

Congratulations to the organizers of this important event. You are
providing a much-needed service and forum for Indian country.