March 15, 2010
In 1952 the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a subsidiary of the U. S. Department of the Interior, initiated a program for Indians living on reservations that sounded a heck of a lot like a pogrom used in Nazi Germany during World War II. America’s “pogrom” was called the “Urban Indian Relocation Program.”
Looking back from the pinnacle of 2010, many Native American elders still scratch their heads and wonder why the BIA would even consider such a stupid and costly program.
The object of Relocation was to ship Indians from the reservations to seven cities; Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Dallas. The new “pogrom” caused the largest movement of American Indians in the history of America.
Relocation was designed to encourage and entice Native Americans living on the reservations to relocate to the seven cities of gold where jobs were supposed to be plentiful. Unemployment on the Indian reservations was (and still is) catastrophic with figures ranging as high as 90 percent.
Relocatees were supposed to receive temporary housing, counseling and guidance in finding a job and then finally get permanent housing and ready access to community and social resources. The newcomers were given money to tide them over on a sliding scale based on the number of children in the family. A man and wife with four children got $80 a week for four weeks.
Many of the relocatees had never met African Americans and they soon found themselves living in decrepit, multi-racial neighborhoods. Some of the younger Indians experienced the use of drugs and alcohol for the first time. Over the next 30 years it is estimated that as many as 750,000 Indians moved from the reservations to the cities.
Some found that the heady promises made by the BIA amounted to a hill of beans. The promise of jobs and money never materialized and then the BIA cut off the meager funds they were promised. Many failed to find jobs and those that did, found themselves at the bottom of the economic ladder. Many were sent to vocational schools or workshops and taught the welding trade. After thousands got homesick and returned to the reservations the joke went around that there were more unemployed welders living on Indian reservations than any place in America.
As the relocation program gained momentum some Indians found themselves in cities outside of the original seven. Omaha became another destination for the relocatees. Although it was a large city, it was closer to the many Indian reservations of the Northern Plains, but perhaps because of its proximity the relocatees found Omaha to be a racially biased city. Many of the newcomers developed a dislike for Omaha and when they eventually returned to the reservations and met up and talked to Indians that had relocated to other cities, especially Chicago which seemed to be very popular place, a saying that can be heard to this day developed: “Waste’ (pronounced wash-tay and meaning “good”) Chicago; Omaha no good.
“Waste` Chicago, Omaha no good,” seems to sum up the aftermath of the horrendous experiment known as “Relocation.” The consequences of relocation are evident even today. Thousands of Native Americans still live in what they now call “Urban Centers.” In fact, they are even called “Urban Indians.”
It is said that Los Angeles has the highest Indian population in America, even higher than the State of Oklahoma. If you go to any of the seven cities that were a destination of the relocatees you can still find a proportional Indian population. And if you are a Native American, you can always find a bar that is known as “The Indian bar,” where they go to meet some of their own.
And of course, there are the “Indian Centers” that sprang up in the cities and became an integral part of the urban community. Far from home, the urban Indians found ways to get together at the Centers, hold powwows, and even develop mini-health centers. The Indian Centers became the heart of the urban Indian society.
Far from causing the demise of the Indian reservations, as was probably the original intent of the Indian Relocation Program, many Natives returned home to the reservations street-wise and ready to fight for their land and their rights. Some had entered the community colleges in the cities and got the education that was not available on their homelands and brought this wisdom back to the reservations.
There are few families that were not touched by relocation. It cost the federal government millions of dollars, dollars that would have been better spent keeping the Indians at home and putting that wasted money into rebuilding the infrastructure, building schools, hospitals, and homes, and creating the jobs at home. The Great White Father failed again. Waste’ Chicago, Omaha no good.
(Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the publisher of Native Sun News. He founded Indian Country Today weekly newspaper in South Dakota in 1981. His book Children Left Behind was awarded the Bronze Medal by Independent Book Publishers. Giago was the first Native American ever inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame. He can be reached at email@example.com)