Assimilation, Relocation, Genocide
Young Indian men boarding a train as part of the Urban Indian Relocation ProgramYoung Indian men boarding a train as part of the
Urban Indian Relocation Program.

The Urban Relocation Program

In the last half of the 20th Century, a government program that was little known at the time and is largely forgotten today created the largest movement of Indians in American history. The final scope and meaning of this massive social experiment is still impacting native peoples today.

World War II changed American society and profoundly affected the lives of Native Americans. The U.S. was becoming much more urban:

  • In the 1940 Census, a little over half of all Americans (56.5 percent) were living in cities.
  • In 1940, only around 8 percent of Indians were living in cities.

The Relocation Program did provide some Indians better jobs, at the price of being cut off from tribal roots.

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Government policy all through the 1700s and 1800s had been designed to make Indians into "yeomen farmers." The lawmakers who wrote these policies were forgetting that the first European settlers would have starved without the benevolent help of native farmers. They also were forgetting that indigenous plant breeders gave the world corn, beans, squash, pumpkins, tomatoes, potatoes, peanuts, avocadoes, artichokes, chocolate, vanilla, tobacco and many other indigenous crops. In return, native tribes were given the worst land primarily in the semi-arid plains. Now, the 20th Century rush to the city was bypassing Indians, and reservation tribes suffered huge levels of unemployment and poverty.

In 1950, the average Native American on a reservation earned $950. The average black person earned $2,000, and the average white person earned almost $4,000 — over four times more than Indians.

So, in 1952, the federal government initiated the Urban Indian Relocation Program. It was designed to entice reservation dwellers to seven major urban cities where the jobs supposedly were plentiful.

Relocation offices were set up in Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Dallas. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) employees were supposed to orient new arrivals and manage financial and job training programs for them. Other BIA officials recruited prospective "Relocatees" from many of the reservations around the country.

See where Urban Relocation Programs were set up on our Interactive Map.

Randy Edmonds — now a pow wow announcer in LA and featured in A Seat at the Drum — grew up in Anadarko, Oklahoma, and is Caddo and Kiowa. He remembers how the BIA agent recruited him.

"I was kind of hanging around the corners and, you know, drinking with the boys. And my aunt, my Kiowa aunt, she said she wasn't too pleased with that. And her husband was the BIA Relocation Project Officer, so he put out an APB on me. And when I got there he scolded me, of course, and said, you know, 'You're better than this. You shouldn't be hanging around with all those winos you know. You need to go somewhere and change your lifestyle.' He said, 'I have these seven cities that you have a choice to go to.' "

Randy and his wife chose Los Angeles and boarded the train with their infant daughter and a basket of fried chicken. When they arrived, Randy had to catch a cab to the BIA office.

Relocatees were supposed to receive temporary housing, counseling and guidance in finding a job, permanent housing, community and social resources. The new migrants also were given money to tide them over on a sliding scale based on the number of children in the family. A man, his wife and four children got $80 a week for four weeks.

That's what they were promised. Some found that the promises were not kept. Not every relocatee found a job, and those that did were generally at the lower end of the economic ladder. Others succumbed to alcohol and those who were accustomed to drinking in public on their home reservations got into trouble with the law when they drank on city streets. Many more were simply homesick so far away from their families and familiar landscapes.

Still more decided to return to their reservation. But over the years, it's estimated that as many as 750,000 Native Americans migrated to the cities between 1950 and 1980. Some came through the Relocation Program. Others came on their own.

Those who stayed eventually found other Indians although they usually were members of another tribe. By now inter-tribal marriages created a new generation of Indians who's identity was split between two or more tribes. But still more came.

  • In the 2000 Census, 79 percent of all Americans were living in cities.
  • For American Indians, the urban population had risen to 64 percent — a huge increase over the 1940 urban population of 8 percent.

While Indians still lagged behind non-Indians in economic power, in the 1960s urban Indians found a new political activism. They developed a sense of identity that was less tied to the reservation or tribe and more connected to the vast array of tribes in the cities. Their orientation was pan-Indian and urban, and this often translated into a strong commitment to the cause of self-determination for Indian people.

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