ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - The fact that 63 percent of Native Americans live in urban areas but more than 99 percent of Indian Health Service funds go to tribes is frightening to some urban leaders.
Dean Bridges of the American Indian Chamber of Commerce of Texas is one of a growing number of Urban Indians throughout the nation calling for their share of treaty rights, health care and sovereignty.
"What we need to do is combine the efforts of the 63 percent and the 47 percent (of Native Americans living on reservations) and work toward getting more funding for the purposes that are needed," Bridges said. "It is one more example of divide and conquer. The Urban Indians aren't going away."
Statistics provided by both the Albuquerque Native American Coalition and Bridges show 1.4 million Urban Indians live off reservation. Bridges said the large number of urban Indians is just now becoming known. "It isn't a secret, the numbers are out there. I don't want to have anyone think that my being an advocate for urban Indians to mean that I am anti-tribe."
He and other tribal leaders fear the federal government may use the statistics on urban Indians against tribes when it comes time for appropriations to be funded.
Tribes receive more than 99 percent of funding while urban counterparts are being left out in the cold. Bridges and other urban Indian advocates want federal funding to be increased to include urban Indians, rather dividing current funding. The numbers of urban Indians numbers is increasing as tribal members leave reservations in search of jobs. Many live in cities as a result of the 1957 Relocation Act; the 1950 Armed Forces Project 100,000; the 1960-70 Air Force Special Recruitment for Navajos, and the 1990s Welfare to Work Act, all of which were created to assimilate Native Americans in to mainstream society, he said.
"All Native Americans are still Native Americans, no matter where they may live.A Hopi living in Dallas/Fort Worth, in my opinion is just as important as a Hopi living on the reservation.
"All of those people are just as Cherokee, Choctaw as those living on the reservation. I just don't understand why a tribal leader wouldn't have that same feeling," Bridges said.
Urban Indian coalitions used the Tribal Leaders Summit in Albuquerque to make their point with tribal counterparts. Many of those tribal leaders said they were stunned by the number of urban Indians and committed themselves to work to give tribal members living off the reservation the same rights as those living on reservations.
"There is a whole different kind of environment, particularly that the Indian youth are having to deal with that is unique to urban Indians. I see crime and drug abuse, and school dropouts as a major concern. I think there is a tremendous identity concern. Who is this kid who is half Native American? He has no support group. In urban areas there isn't really a concentration of Urban Indians, they are spread out," Bridges said.
Urban Indians have the lowest rate of business and economic development among Native Americans and have the highest school dropout rates of any ethnic group, he said. Urban Indians also have the highest rates of diabetes, poverty and unemployment in the United States and the lowest rate of private health insurance and are totally excluded from receiving Department of Agriculture surplus food commodities.
Keith Franklin of the coalition takes a strong stand on urban Native American Health issues. Vocal, Franklin is considered by some to be radical in his fight to bring treaty rights to Urban Indians.
"What part of sovereignty do we have? We are invisible, we become transparent," he said. "I am still a Sac and Fox. I didn't drain my blood. I'm still an Indian. I still feel my forefathers lay their lives down for me. We have a lot of issues with sovereignty. If the government doesn't come through, the only place we have left to go is the World Court."