Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Urban Indian communities are mainly the products of the federal relocation program for Native Americans following World War II, which was associated with the "termination" movement. The relocation impetus derived from the harsh winter of 1947-48 on the Navajo Reservation, where freezing conditions resulted in starvation for both the Navajos and their livestock. The government responded by airdropping hay to sheep and horses and by moving many Navajo families to Denver, Salt Lake City, and Los Angeles. Convinced that this drastic action had been a success, the government sponsored a wider relocation through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. From 1952 to 1973 an estimated 100,000 Native Americans relocated to urban areas such as Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, Dallas, and, in the Great Plains, Wichita, Denver, Oklahoma City, and Tulsa. The relocation program promised Native Americans jobs and housing in the cities, but it actually began a new era of federal efforts to assimilate Native peoples into the mainstream culture of America.

The first Indian relocatees were so-called gatekeepers who helped each other in this urban frontier experience. In the 1950s and 1960s urban Indians lacked su.cient education and needed job skills to compete successfully in the cities. Many did not make this adjustment, and becoming frustrated, they returned to their reservation or resorted to drink. A second generation of Native Americans migrated to the cities in the 1960s and 1970s, often settling near relatives who were already living there. By the 1980s this generation had grown up in the cities and felt closer to Indian friends and relatives there than to those on reservations. They did not know the reservation culture like their parents and grandparents, although they did visit on a regular basis. They developed an urban Indian culture quite unlike the way of life on the reservation. Urban Indian centers, which had been established in the early 1970s with government funding, became stronger, with more independent funding and community support. They provided counseling and sponsored bowling leagues, softball teams, and other outings for their Indian communities. Such centers–in the Great Plains at Fort Worth, Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Wichita, Lincoln, Denver, Rapid City, and Sioux Falls, for example–brought together Native Americans from different tribes, creating a new overall Indian identity.

Los Angeles became the largest urban Indian community, drawing Native Americans from all over the United States but mainly from the Southwest and Oklahoma. About 113,000 Native Americans lived in the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area by 1997. In the Great Plains in the late 1990s, about 25,000 Native Americans, mostly Navajos and Lakotas, called Denver their home; 22,000 to 25,000 Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks, and Seminoles, and various Southern and Northern Plains tribes lived in Dallas–Fort Worth; 48,196 Native Americans, drawn mainly from the Five Civilized Tribes and eastern Oklahoma tribes, resided in Tulsa; and 45,720 of the Five Civilized Tribes and western Oklahoma tribes lived in Oklahoma City. Smaller, but significant, Native American populations also lived in Rapid City (10,000 to 12,000, mainly Lakotas) and Sioux Falls (12,000 to 15,000, also mainly Lakotas) in South Dakota and in Omaha and Lincoln, Nebraska (with 10,000 and 1,150 Poncas, Lakotas, and Omahas, respectively).

Donald L. Fixico

University of Kansas

Danziger, Edmund, Jr. Survival and Regeneration: Detroit's American Indian Community. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991.

Fixico, Donald L. The Urban Indian Experience in America. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000.

Weibel-Orlando, Joan. Indian Country, L.A.: Maintaining Ethnic Community in Complex Society. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991.

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