Marie was just 8 years old in 1954 when her family made the arduous 1,200-mile journey from the Colville Indian Reservation in the state of Washington to the unfamiliar surroundings of Southern California. The city of Los Angeles was big and hot and not particularly friendly to the Native American family that had been enticed into moving there as part of the federal government’s Indian relocation program. What happened in the years that followed was devastating as poverty, alcoholism and toxic relationships consumed the family’s daily lives, and connections to their culture were irreparably damaged. Marie’s experience was shared by many of the 100,000 or more Native Americans who were relocated to big cities in America from 1952 to 1972 when the program was finally scrapped. The impact, however, lives on in so many tragic ways.

The dawn of the Termination Era

It was the era of President Dwight Eisenhower, and the time was ripe for Congress to embrace ‘termination,’ a new policy that sought to eliminate the ‘burdens’ of the ‘Indian problem’ in America. The goal was to assimilate Indians into mainstream society and rid the government of the financial obligations that had been pledged in treaties signed a century before. Termination was aimed at ending the trust relationship while scrapping the notion of Indian land altogether. The government wanted the land to be taxed and sold off for development. In response to this new policy, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) developed a voluntary relocation program to encourage Indian people to move to metropolitan areas where they could blend into the larger society. No more reservations. No more government support. No more Indians. Problem solved.

For 20 years the BIA sold Indian people a dream with promises of an exciting and prosperous new life in big cities like Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Cleveland and Seattle. The Bureau promised to help people find housing and employment, easing the transition to their new environment and paving the way for a brighter future. 

Image: National Archives and Records Administration

The lure of a better life

The U.S. government had plenty of experience with selling the American public a bill of goods. Fresh from their successful campaigns to promote the war effort, the well-oiled government propaganda machine went to work pitching Indians on the benefits of relocation. The promotional films they produced made it all seem so exciting as young Indian couples – the men in suits and ties, the women in dresses and pearls – were seen moving into their lovely new homes. “When the people have chosen a suitable apartment that they want,” the narrator says in all sincerity, “friendly Bureau staff will help them get settled.” Children were shown frolicking at public pools, playing games at the YMCA, making new friends at school. The narrator spoke glowingly of the many recreational opportunities available, and how there were special times reserved at recreation facilities exclusively for Indians. Adults were shown at their new places of employment and enjoying the fruits of their labor. Chicago looked so exciting. St. Louis seemed to be filled with endless possibilities. The future was bright!

The deception worked well – so well that the BIA was inundated with Indian families ready to make the move, more than the Bureau had funding for. Those not selected could not have known how lucky they were.

Image: National Archives and Records Administration

The realities of relocation

It was all so different. Back home, most folks had lived a decidedly rural existence. Many had never seen a light switch before or experienced the benefits of electricity or indoor plumbing. Most had never eaten in a restaurant. On their first day in the big city they encountered more people than they had seen in their entire lives.

As for the lovely apartments they had viewed in the films? They didn’t exist. The exciting new careers and job training? The opportunities were few. The BIA gave the people just enough money to survive for two or three weeks, and then they were on their own. Most found only menial jobs or seasonal work. Back home there had been community, and people shared what they had with those around them. In the city the Natives mostly lived in poverty, stuffed into overcrowded apartments, frequently in unsanitary conditions. Most often they were confined to crime-ridden neighborhoods where parents were afraid to let their children outside to play amid the ever-present violence. They encountered unfriendly neighbors, predatory landlords, and rampant discrimination.

“’No Indians or dogs allowed’ read the signs in store windows.”

The BIA must have known how the Natives would be treated, even publishing a helpful pamphlet to prepare white people for the influx of new neighbors. Titled, “The Indians Are Coming,” the booklet featured illustrations of stick figures in headdresses and wearing war paint. Recognizing the program’s early failures, the BIA eventually began offering vocational training programs in 1958, but urban Indians remained at the bottom of the social ladder. The pressure to assimilate was constant, yet everything in their daily lives prevented it. The lure of returning home to the reservation was always there but the funds to make it happen were not.

The legacy of a failed program

Not surprisingly, the program was an unmitigated disaster. The BIA had a quota system, and individuals had to remain in the city for at least a year in order for their transition to be considered a success. It was not. The Natives were homesick, suffering in intense poverty, and dealing with social pressures they were ill-equipped to navigate. There were language barriers, health issues resulting from a change of diet, and few economic opportunities. The BIA acknowledged that about 25 percent of the people returned home; in reality it was probably three times that number.

During the policy’s first wave in the 1950s, about 30,000 Natives were relocated from remote reservations to big cities. By the time the program ended in the 1970s, the number had surpassed 100,000. Today more than two-thirds of American Indians live in urban areas – Los Angeles County alone has 160,000 – and the impact of this shift has been tragic.

Targeted by police violence, mired in intense poverty, subject to the devastation caused by drugs and alcohol and the disintegration of family life, urban Indians were in crisis by the 1970s. The post-war boom experienced by whites heading for the suburbs in shiny new Chevrolets had left the Natives to fend for themselves.