How America's Past Shapes Native Americans’ Present

A Minneapolis community seeks to counteract centuries of federal policies that have put its people at a disadvantage.

A mural outside of Minneapolis's Little Earth of the United Tribes, the only federally-subsidized housing project for Native Americans. (Alexia Fernández Campbell)

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn.—Native American poverty doesn’t fit the image many may have of life on secluded, depleted reservations. Most Native Americans now live in cities, where many are still trying to adjust to urban life; as a group, Native Americans face a 27 percent poverty rate and are still trying to reverse some of the lasting effects of federal policies that have put them at a disadvantage for hundreds of years.

The Indian Relocation Act of 1956 was the impetus for the relocation of the large number of Native Americans now living in urban areas. Though the act didn’t force people to leave their reservations, it made it hard for families to stay by dissolving federal recognition of most tribes, and ending federal funding for reservations’ schools, hospitals, and basic services—along with the jobs they created. Though the federal government paid for relocation expenses to the cities, and provided some vocational training, urban Native Americans faced high levels of job discrimination, and few opportunities for job advancement.

Minneapolis was one of the first cities chosen for the federal relocation program. Here, the Native American community has taken some bold steps to aid integration, such as opening public schools tailored to Native American students’ needs and maintaining the country’s only federally subsidized housing project for Native Americans. In the 1970s, Minneapolis became the headquarters of the national American Indian Movement, a civil-rights group. Among other achievements, it pressured the federal government to restore tribal recognition and sovereignty.

The group was working to undo hundreds of years of federal policy that has played a role in producing modern-day Native American poverty. Two early such policies were the forced relocation of Native Americans to reservations and the creation, in 1824, of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Later that century, there was a movement to “civilize,” or assimilate, Native Americans, and the Bureau created federal boarding schools, where Native American children were separated from their parents and only allowed to speak English and play sports that had European origins. According to Carolyn J. Marr, an anthropologist and a librarian at Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry, the schools sought to “eradicate all vestiges of their tribal cultures.”

In the 1930s, these boarding schools began closing after an independent evaluation revealed that students were malnourished and living in poor, overcrowded conditions. Eventually, Congress decided that assimilation would work better, and encouraged Native Americans to leave reservations and move to cities—hence the Indian Relocation Act of 1956, which ended federal recognition of most tribes. Though civil-rights movements in the 1960s would eventually pressure the government to restore the recognition of dozens of tribes, the impact of earlier policies remained; the Bureau of Indian Affairs remains the legal steward of most tribal lands, making it extremely difficult for Native Americans to own property and build wealth in the way other Americans can.

As a result of the Indian Relocation Act, Minneapolis also became home to a tight-knit Native American community, with a majority from Minnesota’s large Ojibwe and Lakota tribes. Native Americans now make up 7 percent of residents in the Phillips neighborhood in the southern part of Minneapolis, which is also the city’s poorest neighborhood—about 48 percent of people there live in poverty. It’s home to the Minneapolis American Indian Center, the Native American Community Clinic, the Native American Community Development Institute, and the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center. At the edge of the neighborhood is Little Earth of the United Tribes, the country’s only HUD-subsidized housing project that gives preference to Native Americans. More than a thousand people live in the sprawling complex, which was founded in 1973 with the help of the American Indian Movement. The purpose was to create a sense of community, and affordable housing, for Native Americans who were migrating to the city.

When I visited the Phillips neighborhood, I understood why Little Earth was the heart of city’s Native American community. Spray-painted murals of tribal chiefs brightened walkways and a pedestrian bridge. I met with Frank Downwind, the director of youth services at Little Earth. Downwind is a Red Lake Chippewa, and though he was born in South Minneapolis, he spent part of his childhood on the reservation, about a five-hour drive away. “There is not a lot of opportunity on the reservation if you’re not into hunting or fishing,” he said. “It’s easy to fall into unhealthy lifestyles.”

While Little Earth has become a magnet for crime and drugs, Downwind says it also provides residents with strong support through a myriad of social services. Little Earth recently renovated several houses in the neighborhood for families who wanted to become homeowners but didn’t want to leave the area. Downwind recently bought himself a house in the suburbs, but says he feels a bit isolated and out of place. “Sometimes I regret leaving,” he told me. “For all the bad stuff that goes on here, to live in a community where people know you and kids run up to you, that’s something hard to find.”

One of the teenagers who goes to Little Earth’s youth center after school is Chavanna Rodriguez, who is 17 years old and half Lakota. She says a lot of kids go to the center to find a haven from the neighborhood’s endemic drug culture. She thinks a lot of the pain-pill addictions she sees are directly related to poverty. “A lot of people are struggling and hurt, and it lets them escape,” she told me. Rodriguez wants to go to college, but doesn’t know anyone who has ever done that. “It may take me five years to graduate [high school], but I will.”

Low high-school graduation rates among Native American teens are a key factor in keeping them trapped in poverty, says Anna Ross, the director of the Indian Education Department for the Minneapolis Public School District. I met Ross at the Anishinabe Academy, just a few blocks from Little Earth. It’s one of half a dozen public schools focused on teaching students with Native American backgrounds. There are no posters with blonde, blue-eyed children at this elementary school. Instead, most of the children depicted in teaching materials have dark skin and long, black hair. In one of the halls, Ross points to laminated banners on the wall with seven words: humility, bravery, love, truth, respect, honesty, wisdom. These are the seven “grandfather teachings” that the Ojibwe, or Chippewa, live by, she explained, and they are reflected in the curriculum.

Ross leads me to one of the preschool classes for 4-year-old children. One is an immersion class taught in Ojibwe, which is spoken by tribes from Minnesota to Canada. Another class is taught in the Lakota language. In the Ojibwe classroom, children sit in a circle around their teacher, who holds up different-colored cards. “How do you say ‘brown’ in Ojibwe?” she asks. They answer, tentatively. Part of the point of teaching youth from a Native American perspective is to give them confidence in themselves and pride in their history and culture. “For science class, we might talk about wild ricing and the impact on the environment,” Ross says, referring to a common farming practice in the Native American prairie tribes.

For Native Americans to break the cycle of poverty, Ross says, they need to see the value of education, and to see themselves positively portrayed in their school curriculum. Her department provides two-day trainings for teachers who want to learn more about how to incorporate a Native American view into their classes and field trips.

On-time graduation rates for Native American students have gone up from 24 percent in 2011 to 36 percent in 2015, but that’s still quite low. In the Twin Cities, they are the racial group least likely to graduate on time. Ross says Native Americans associate public education with a degree of trauma, since to many of them, decades-long efforts to force them to enroll in federally-arranged boarding schools seemed intent on erasing their culture. Ross, who is a Turtle Mountain Ojibwe, says her grandmother was taken to one of those boarding schools as a child. “There’s a lot of anxiety still, so it’s no wonder why some Natives might not be so engaged in their children’s education,” says Ross. “People say, ‘It’s history’ and ‘get over it,’ but it wasn’t that long ago.”

While Minneapolis has made great strides in addressing the needs of America’s poorest race, it seems that the country, as a whole, has forgotten about the first Americans. So many people in the Phillips neighborhood spoke to me about feeling invisible, as they’re so often left out of conversations related to blacks, Latinos, Asians and other minority groups. Even so, they dismiss the depictions of Native Americans as a “vanishing race”—after all, decades of federal policies aimed at assimilating Native Americans have failed to make them disappear.