Reimagining Indian Country:
Native American Migration & Identity in Twentieth Century Los Angeles
By Nicolas G. Rosenthal
The University of North Carolina Press | 239 pp | $32.15
Levi Rickert, editor-in-chief in Entertainment. Discussion »
Figures released by the US Bureau of the Census in January indicated some 78 percent of American Indians live off of tribal lands. This past Thursday, the Census Bureau released a report that indicates since 1950 the number of cities with 500,000 people has almost doubled. There were 33 cities with 500,000 or more people in 2010, nearly double the number of 18 in 1950.
While there has been a migration to cities by the general population of all Americans, including American Indians, it should be noted that the reason why American Indians migrated to cities is significantly different from non-Indians.
During the 1950s, the federal government implemented the Urban Indian Relocation Program that moved American Indians from reservations to cities, such as Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and San Francisco.
The relocation of American Indians to Los Angeles is the topic of "Reimagining Indian Country: Native American Migration & Identity in Twentieth Century Los Angeles" by Nicolas G. Rosenthal.
By 1970, Los Angeles had the largest concentration of American Indians than other place than the Navajo Nation Indian Reservation, which remains true today where there are some 200,000 American Indians in the Los Angeles metropolitan area.
With the focus on Los Angeles, Rosenthal presents a history of tribes that were in the area prior to the colonization of the area, many of which are still present in the area today.
Graduates of the BIA's Intermountain Boarding School prepare to
leave for jobs in Los Angeles, March 1956
With the history of American Indians of Los Angeles comes the added dimension of Hollywood. Rosenthal writes about how American Indians came to Los Angeles and ended up in movies portraying American Indians. Many of whom were part of the motion picture industry decades prior to the federal relocation period. One humorous part of "Reimagining Indian Country" comes when Rosenthal quotes Chief Red Fox, a Sioux Indian who arrived in Hollywood during the 1910s as Indian movies were helping to shape a distorted history of American Indians.
“I was pictured in dances that a script writer must have dreamed up while in a nightmare,”
commented Chief Red Fox.
Many of the American Indians who appeared in film did so to avoid poverty that was so prevalent among Indians coming to the city.
During the relocation period that began in the 1950s, American Indians came to Los Angeles from many reservations throughout Indian Country. The relocation program was run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs field offices. Many of those who arrived were steered to "cheap hotels" near skid row where living conditions were very poor. Many Indians who arrived in Los Angeles ended up as alcoholics living and dying in skid row.
Many of the relocated Indians survived and adapted to urban living. They were able to get educations, become employed and buy houses for their families.
While "Reimagining Indian Country" concentrates mainly on the migration from tribal lands to Los Angeles, Rosenthal provides an overview of how American Indians ended up in other cities.
One senses the American Indians quoted in the book or written about tried to maintain a true sense of their "Indianness", even in the urban metropolis far from tribal lands. Being far from their tribal lands was like being in a foreign land for many of the American Indians who came to Los Angeles. A remedy to being far from home to begin new lives was the creation of urban American Indian centers, which served as a place where Indians could go to be with other Indians. In the Indian centers, they found solidarity as American Indians. In the Indian centers, they could share stories of the successes and failures they encountered.
Sadly, many policy makers never quite recognized the importance of urban Indian centers throughout the United States. Even today, most are severely underfunded and struggle to keep the lights and heat on.
"Reinventing Indian Country" is one of the best researched and written books on urban Indians.
It is a book that should be read by policy makers who are interested in truly helping American Indians beyond mere lip service. They may gain an insight into struggles today of American Indians living in Los Angeles and other urban centers throughout the United States.
updated 12:20 pm edt; posted June 16, 2012 7:00 am edt
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