Urban American Indian Populations Age As Unelected Leadership Walks On

Cleveland, Ohio was a prominent destination during the urban American Indian Movement; now those elder voices of that era are still fighting as they fade.
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In the Midwestern city of Cleveland, Ohio, the professional sports teams are better known than the ethnic struggles of its rank and file citizens. But one distinctive group that stands out there was formed in the mid-twentieth century through federal programs marketing a better way of life. The urban American Indian Movement formed from these relocated Native community members paralleled the migrations from across Indian country to big-city America. Many of these unelected social leaders are now walking on as an entire generation of American Indians finds itself born off the reservation in greater numbers than those born on it. Cleveland is one such setting.

Robert “Bob” Roche is a Chiricahua Apache who was born in Cleveland, traveled the Red Road as a younger man to witness Turtle Island for himself, and came back here to raise a family. Major League Baseball’s opening day 2017 played out to the sounds of protests downtown, but later that night, Roche heard that MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred had commented on the baseball team logo and said that he wanted to hear from those that were affected by it. “I reached out to that office to let them know that it is an important topic to me as well as my family, and others I know. We’ve always been here for as long as I have been alive. At age 70, that’s saying something,” said Roche. “All we had for a long time was each other, so to make it to this age and see many others still here; we must have done something right.”

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Cleveland was still booming when he was born. “The U.S. government advertised their Urban Relocation programs in a pamphlet I still own by showing a white picket fence life and living off the fat of the land,” Roche said. “That image moved a lot of people to get on buses, leave their reservations and end up getting dumped all over this part of Ohio haphazardly. Russell Means, the future AIM leader, was living here and got people to start coming together. He worked in accounting and was sometimes employed as a clothing model for the Higbee Department Store that was based in Cleveland. His work with the American Indian Center here was the bedrock for all of the community organizing that took place after that. He convinced people to move into one area (near West Side neighborhood), so their needs could be better represented. There were some that could not be helped, and they were carried away by alcoholism or violence. Some just disappeared. But those that came together became stronger for the effort.”

The Occupation of Wounded Knee woke White America up to the realization that North American Indians had a national political will and were willing to work together despite dissimilar backgrounds to achieve common goals while facing overwhelming odds. Roche points to the Standing Rock protest camps events in 2016 as a link to the feelings of those earliest years of national activism. “It was hard to come home as an individual after being with such a gathering,” he said. “I will admit to that sense of connection that I felt every day I was there in North Dakota.”

Back in Cleveland, the urban American Indian population was swept along with a faltering American economy starting in the 1970s. The years that Ronald Reagan occupied the White House were backbreaking ones for the American factory worker. At a time the Chrysler Corporation launched the economy “K-car” model to resounding success, its chairman, Lee Iacocca, led a public fundraising effort to refurbish the Statue of Liberty, which had literally gone dark with surface discoloration. Native America had no such resurgence until tribal gaming brought a few tribes to the forefront of the economic reset that took place during the Clinton presidency in the 1990s. Still, urban American Indians were mostly left behind.

Those were the years that the Indian mascot controversy heated up on professional sports teams. Bob Roche recalled taking part in bringing the original lawsuits against the Cleveland MLB team as a member of the “People Not Mascots” group formed to correct the injustice. “Very few of those original signatories are still around, and many people cannot even remember those filed in 1972. The media cycles you hear in 2017 make it seem that nothing had been done until Commissioner Manfred made a public statement committing MLB to a path of change. Unless it’s on the Internet, we live in an era of short memories as silent people evidently,” Roche said.

Even so, it is time to celebrate the accomplishments of leaders who were transplants to the big cities. Minneapolis may be the most famous, but significant urban American Indian populations can still be found in cities the BIA promoted, including Oklahoma City, Los Angeles, and St. Louis. “These communities succeeded because the people pulled together and not because the federal program was sound in its execution,” Roche said. “In fact, the BIA set us up to fail. The promised jobs were not here, the housing was substandard, the opportunities few. Now that agency tries to internally forget that this ever took place.”

As his life slows and his grandchildren keep him on his toes, Roche thinks about the future. He said he’s hopeful that he will live to see all of the professional sports abandon their quest for blood money at the expense of lowered social equity, starting with Cleveland’s MLB team.

In an iconic 21st century photograph, a Cleveland baseball fan had disfigured himself with face paint and written slogans in red ink on a jersey he wore that celebrated the mascot symbol. “I was pretty mad when I walked up to the man, but quickly I could see that no one had educated him on what he was perpetuating. Fast forward a few years and that man took off the makeup. He still attends the baseball games, but he is very much a changed person. He came up to me at this last opening day game and again said that he was sorry for how he came across. I was proud to see the growth in the man that I thought had gone off the deep end,” Roche said.

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Poverty and crime will continue to affect many reservations whether the sports mascots remain or not. And through the sands of time, other stories will soon grow silent from those who led the way in the cities with no formal tribes to provide leadership. Instead, the people who stuck it out in American municipalities during the hardest years in recent memory went from becoming a symbol of historical obscurity to shining lights of fortitude deserving every bit of credit for their existence.

If the status of urban American Indians is discounted for the fictional nobility of their reservation-bound relatives, it is because a historical caste system has been put in place as successfully as the one that anoints “full-blooded” Natives over any other genetic variation. In my opinion, we all remain the same and suffer for it as a race if that grandiose perception holds true, for the sake and comfort of romanticized mindsets more comfortable in their ignorance than our reality. In my opinion, espoused by my personal role model and fellow tribal member Richard Oakes, we remained one people, no matter where we ended up or rested our heads. The survivors in the land of melted pots turned high-rise apartment canyons.

Charles Kader (Turtle Clan) was born in Erie, Pennsylvania to a World War II veteran. He attended Clarion University of Pennsylvania, earning degrees in Communication and Library Science, as well as Mercyhurst College where he earned a graduate degree in the Administration of Justice. He has worked across Indian country, from the Blackfeet Community College in Browning, Montana (where he married his wife) to the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe, and now resides in Kanienkeh.