Uprooting the Indians

RUTH MULVEY HARMER worked as a reporter for the Hartford Courant for two years before going on to the Washington Times-Herald, for which she covered the District government. In 1947, while on a two weeks vacation in Mexico, she started an English language newspaper and ended by staving there for four years, editing a magazine, writing articles foi various American and Canadian publications, and doing a book on Mexican food. After marrying the editor of the rival newspaper, she went with him to California, where she has continued her writing and has been teaching at the University of Southern California and U.C.L.A.



Two months ago Little Light, her husband Leonard Hear, and their live children were persons of standing in a Creek Indian community in Oklahoma. They had only eighty acres of poor land and a modest cabin, but except for the hungry seasons they understood their way of life; they were at peace.

Today they are slum dwellers in Los Angeles, without land or home or culture or peace. Leonard Hear and his family have become part of that vast army of displaced persons which has been created by the government’s policy of accelerating the “integration” of the Indian. Uprooted from their native soil, many without even the weapon of comprehensible language with which to defend themselves, the 400,000 indigenous Americans still living in reservations and small communities are being turned loose upon the asphalt jungles of metropolitan centers in one of the most extraordinary forced migrations in history.

The Relocation Program being carried out by the bureau of Indian Affairs was established in 1951 to help the Indians become part of the national economy and part of the national life. However, it did not really become important until August 15, 1953, when President Eisenhower signed Public Law 280. That law, which he branded as “most un-Christian,” authorizes any state to substitute its own law for federal Indian law and its own codes for Indian tribal codes. It was enthusiastically hailed in the Western states by persons who had long been seeking legal sanction to move in on Indian lands, superficially poor but rich in subsurface oil and minerals. Fort her strength was given to the program to dislodge the Indians under the terms of the Watkins Bill (Senate 2670), providing that the 177 pure-blood Paiutes who own 45,000 acres of potentially valuable land in Nevada should no longer receive federal aid protection. Another precedent to weaken the Indians hold on their whittled-down grants was set by Senate Bill 2745, which forcibly removed from trusteeship status all individually owned Klamath lands in Oregon and which authorized any enrolled Klamath to force the tribe to sell its corporate holdings in order to buy him out.

Other bills now pending promise to end all federal services to Indians, to liquidate all tribal organizations, and to dispose of their holdings.

However, the Bureau of Indian Affairs is accomplishing that end so rapidly through the Relocation Program that additional laws may be simply ex post facto legislative items. A remarkably effective sales campaign is prompting thousands of Indians to abandon their lands and interests for the “promised lands” of the relocation centers.

In defense of the program, an officer of the Bureau of Indian Affairs points out that some of the new immigrants to the urban centers have become model citizens and are “enjoying the fruits of Twentieth Century civilization . . . up to and including television sets.” That is true. But the Bureau is curiously vague about the number of maladjustments and even the number of returnees, which well-informed welfare and social workers in several of the centers set at 60 per cent.

For every success story, there are a hundred failures. For every former trapper-farmer now adjusted to assembly-line work and city life, there are ninety-nine adrift in a new and hostile environment. Against the optimistic pronouncement of government agents that “with a little proper guidance, Indians have no trouble making the major adjustment from reservation to city life” is the bitter cry of Little Light: “So this is the land of sunshine they promised us!”

A damning summary of the program was spoken by a woman in the chairless kitchen-dining-living room of a small shanty on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Five children, black eyes round with wonder in their apricot faces, sheltered against her skirt. The walls were unpainted, the floor a patchwork of linoleum. Through an archway, another room was visible where three beds crowded together. A two-burner gas stove stood on a box, and on the only other piece of furniturc in the room — a battered table — rested the remains of dinner: some white, grease-soaked bags which had contained hamburgers and fried potatoes prepared by the restaurant a few blocks away.

She answered our questions in an Indian dialect which the woman beside me interpreted. “No, my husband is not here. He went out with some other men. He does every night. They are drinking.

“Yes, he is working. He makes lots of money. One dollar and sixty cents an hour in the airplane factory.

“Yes, the children are in school. All but Zena.” She indicated one of the girls, about ten years old. “Zena is sick. I don’t know what sickness. There is no doctor.

“Yes, the food came from that place. I don’t go to the store often. Everybody laughs at me.

“Yes, I want to go back. There is not money. We pay seventy-five dollars a month for this house. We pay for food. We pay for lights. We don’t have the money to go back.”

Then the patient planes of her face became distorted. “They did not tell us it would be like this.”

What had “they” told Little Light and her husband?

A good indication may be found in an article entitled “Relocation News” written by George vShubert for the Fort Berthold Agency and News Bulletin of Newtown, North Dakota, for May 12, 1955. Following a glowing account of jobs for young men and women with a large company in Chicago—“skilled, life time jobs . . . with paid vacation, sick benefits, paid pension plan, union membership, protection, etc.” — the Indian Affairs officer wrote: —

This office is presently equipped to offer financial assistance to a large number of qualified persons who have an earnest desire to improve their standard of living, by accepting permanent employment and relocation to one of four large urban areas in the United States; namely Chicago, Illinois, Denver, Colorado, Oakland, California (including the entire Bay Area) and Los Angeles, California,

Our offices in those areas are presently able to place on jobs and render any assistances necessary to practically an unlimited number of families. They also state that there is a good selection of employment opportunities and housing facilities available at the present time.

The rapidly rising waters in the bottom lands of the reservation should remind us of the fact that the Fort Berthold people have lost forever over onehalf of the natural resources and practically all of their Class 1 and 2 agricultural lands, comprising one-quarter of the area of the entire reservation and one-half of the agricultural resources, thereby rendering the remaining portions of the reservation inadequate to provide subsistence for the remaining members of the tribes, at a standard comparable to the people adjacent to the reservation.

We feel that a workable solution to the above problem would be to avail yourselves of the opportunities offered by the Relocation Branch of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It must be at least worthy of serious consideration for persons who have ambitions to advance economically and socially and to provide better opportunity for their children.

Undeniably, the pitch is effective. The prospect is given a choice between the nothing of life in Fort Berthold and the glittering something of security and prosperity elsewhere; aid and friendship will be given to those who make the “right ” choice. And even if the prospect is reluctant to send in the boxtop for himself, he should think of his children.

For those who cannot be reached by words, there is the poster recently concocted in the Los Angeles Relocation Center picturing a number of pleasant, comfortable houses owned by Indians who are shown demonstrating the wonders of garbage disposals in the assorted kitchens and of television sets in the assorted living rooms.

The salesmanship rates an A plus, but what about the product?


FIRST of all, the government’s financial assistance in connection with relocation is limited specifically to one-way travel costs and a weekly allowance until the first pay check comes in. Those monetary aids are made only to persons without any funds; partial grants are given to those who have some reserves. But that even the maximum grant is sufficient is highly debatable; transportation costs and a living allowance for a few weeks might be all that a bright young man moving from San Francisco to New York would need to tide him over the transitional period; it is not enough to cover the period of adjustment needed by a family moving from a pre-Columbian culture into the mechanized twentieth century.

“Accepting permanent employment” is another rather meaningless phrase since absolute job security is almost nonexistent. Moreover, many of the Indians find it impossible to work in foundries or at assembly-line jobs after a history of outdoor experience. The Bureau of Indian Affairs accepts no responsibility for those who wish to transfer from the jobs they took blind when they first arrived.

That the Relocation Offices in the four areas are presently able to “render any assistances necessary to practically an unlimited number of families” is an absurdity. In Los Angeles, where between 150 and 200 new arrivals are pouring in each month under government sponsorship (another 100 are coming on their own), the Relocation Office has a staff of fourteen persons, including clerks, receptionist, secretaries, and others who play no active role in the “integration. Those who do, necessarily confine themselves to receiving the Indians who show up at 1 he office, making job contacts for them, giving them a living allowance and the address of a vacant dwelling.

This sketchy reception is obviously a prologue to disaster for persons whose acquaintance with the American language is painfully new if it exists at all, who are not accustomed to handling money — most of them have lived in an agricultural environment where barter is the approved method of exchange— who are generally more ignorant of urban ways than a six-year-old child reared in a city, and who become unutterably lonely removed from the security of tribal identity.

Their first glimpse of city life is rarely happy. In Los Angeles, where there has been an acute housing shortage since the beginning of World War II, the Indians have been hard pressed to find decent accommodations. Many of them are sent to antiquated rooming houses and apartments in the Bunker Hill area, which is now being razed with federal and municipal funds. Others are sent to trailer courts and dreary buildings in the southern part of the city near the aircraft plants.

For many, a few days is enough; others leave in a few weeks; some stay, and for most the going is rough. A number of the men — particularly the GIs and those who have taken the five-year training course at Sherman Institute or other government schools — fare rather well. They know English, they have learned a trade, they have had an extended relationship with white men and white men’s ways. But most are hopeless and dangerous misfits.

The Indians in Los Angeles— and there are now 10,000 of them, representing 86 tribes—have had a relatively good police record: a one per cent arrest, mostly on charges of drunken driving and “plain drunk.” That figure soared in 1955. During the Memorial Day lost weekend, an estimated one out of every four of the men haled into court was an Indian. Not long ago, for the first time in the history of Los Angeles an Indian was picked up by the police for child beating — a crime unheard of among them, Recently, and for the first time, a number have been arrested for sex offenses. Women and children have been getting into trouble, too.


WHEN a 21-year-old Sioux was brought before a municipal court judge to defend himself on a charge of drunken driving, he apologized: “If I go into a bar and have a couple of drinks, everyone is nice to me. Friendly. I feel good then.”

At that point, a small, slim Indian woman rose to intercede. “This boy is not delinquent,” she told the judge. “We are.”

By “we,” Stevie Whiteflower Standingbear meant the Los Angeles Indian Center which she heads and which is doing heroic work to make relocation easier for its victims. The Center began in 1935 when Myra Bartlett, an Indian and a singer on the Orpheum Circuit, decided to establish a meeting place for the Indian women working as housemaids whom she encountered each Thursday afternoon gathered at the streetcar terminal for a “weekly visit.” It was a refugee center during the depression and was reorganized under the American Friends Service Committee in 1948 and supported by that group until last October. Now on its own, with a $20,000 yearly budget and a staff of two persons— Mrs, Standingbear and Mary Buck the Center has become an island of security for the Indians in Los Angeles.

One of its main functions is to make available to newly arrived and needy Indians the help of those established in the city. More than 200 volunteers render all kinds of services from baby-sitting and practical nursing to loaning or giving money, finding decent living quarters, obtaining medical treatment, and just visiting.

Aside from this emergency work, the Center provides a familiar environment for the 10,000 Indians in Los Angelos. Its dances, dinners, classes, clubs, and activities for all age groups have an average weekly attendance of more than 600. The Center’s chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous has rescued scores of men and women. Although the Center itself has little money, it is often able to scrape up a bit to tide destitute persons over a period of immediate want. This is particularly valuable since municipal and state services are not available to persons who have not fulfilled residence requirements. “We can get medical care for some people by taking them— including pregnant women — through the emergency entrance,” Stevie; Standingbear reports. Hut those who arc not specifically emergency cases must either find a creditor or wait until their sickness becomes acute. A small number obtain some help from one of the professional men and women who aid the Center “as a charity.” The courts parole to the Center some of the newer arrivals who have been picked up for drunkenness. “If we can only get to them during the first few weeks they are here, we can save a lot of suffering,” Mrs. Standingbear feels.

Occasionally the Center makes demands on some of the municipal agencies; several months ago a committee headed by Mrs. Regina Johnson persuaded the Health Department to close and condemn a group of dwellings to which Indian arrivals were being referred by the Relocation Center. She had found the place while calling on a list of recent arrivals to Invite them to a party at the Indian Center.

“You don’t need to see them. They don’t need to go to no parties.” The landlady had tried to block her way. “They have all the parties they want right here.”

In a sense, she was right. Mrs. Johnson found the shanties where they were staying crammed with mops and floor wax thanks to the “Stanley Parties” given by neighboring women to which the Indians had been threateningly invited and instructed to “ buy or else.” But the parties were the least of the troubles of the twenty families unfortunate enough to land at the governmentapproved address. The original building was in fair shape, but not the twenty flimsy “coops” built around it by the enterprising owner. Rent for the two-room shacks ranged between sixty and eighty dollars a month. Conveniences were minimal. The outdoor toilets were not functioning and the occupants of the twenty “apartments” had to depend upon the hospitality of one woman in the main building who had plumbing in working order and who was willing to permit them to use it. Bad cases of impetigo bred by filth afflicted most of the children, and young and old were generally suffering colds and bronchial disorders.

Why didn’t they move? According to one young woman, the landlady announced that “anyone who made any trouble would be handed over to the police.”

“It was one of the worst things I have ever seen,” Mrs. Johnson says. She and her husband (a white man), parents of a young soldier son, have been working full time for years to help Indians adjust to Los Angeles. So have a number of other immigrants, like Myron Denetdale, who has been with North American Aviation for ten years, and his wife Virginia; Pakali and Alex Reifel, a Sioux couple who spend their evenings and weekends visiting the jails trying to aid men and women there; Frank Peshlakai, a Navajo who has been working in a Los Angeles plant for sixteen years and who now has his own business.

The dedication of the stafl and the volunteers has enabled the Center to perform almost incredible tasks. To a large degree, it has permitted the successful integration of hundreds of Indians, and it has minimized the problem of relocation in Los Angeles. Many cities have fared worse. In Minneapolis, Indians, who comprise less than one per cent of the city’s general population, make up more than 10 per cent of the inmates at the men’s workhouse and almost 70 per cent at the women’s workhouse. Judge Luther Sletten of that city’s municipal court calls it “one of our gravest social problems.”

Obviously, something must be done with Indian lands inadequate to support the present and fastgrowing population. One solution would be a kind of domestic Point Four program w hich would enable the Indians to make the most of the rich potential of reservation lands. Instead of being hindered, they should be encouraged to start businesses on reservations and in their communities. Young men with trade and technical training have had to leave home in order to utilize their newly acquired skills. One of the recent applicants for help in finding a job at the Los Angeles Indian Center was a former GI who had attended a barbers’ school after his discharge. He returned to his reservation with an enthusiastic plan to open a barbershop, but government agents said no. Schools and extension classes should be instituted to help the Indians exploit their resources. If necessary, tribal funds which have been impounded could pay the costs of running them.

If, however, the program to dislodge the Indians is to be an all-out one, some educational program must be established to prevent the creation of another acute minority problem. It is imperative to slow down the relocation until the Indians have been prepared for integration.

The first step would be to institute a comprehensive orientation program in the relocation centers and on the reservations, providing some education and vocational training for the Indians who are to be sent into a mechanized, urban environment.

Secondly, there should be a thorough screening process to make sure that those who are participating in the program are able to make the adjustment physically and mentally. Obviously, a knowledge of the English language is a prerequisite. So is at least fair health. Many of the new arrivals have been women in advanced pregnancy; many have been men with tuberculosis scars and other defects which make them unacceptable to industries.

Instead of being given the rosy picture of the promised land, the Indians who are leaving the security of their old life should have a more realistic picture of what lies before them. Most of them, Mrs. Standingbear says, are “woefully prepared.” Few bring changes of clothing, bedding, or even cooking utensils — apparently under the delusion that the centers will “take care of everything.”

Courses in household management are a must for women who have never seen electric lights and know nothing about shopping and little about cooking anything but the foods they have always eaten, which are rarely available. One woman was severely burned when her little tot tried to light the unfamiliar gas stove in their city dwelling.

A health insurance program is a must since the limited budgets of unskilled workers settling down in a new environment rarely stretch to cover medical and hospital bills. And the municipalities charged with their integration should make exceptions to residence requirements in order to permit the new arrivals to avail themselves of necessary services. The American Indians, that long-suffering and inarticulate minority, have a great contribution to make to our culture. Unless they are permitted to do that, they will become a social and economic burden of magnitude — a shadow on the national conscience.