U.S. Government Encourages American Indians to Settle in Cities

The United States government actively encouraged American Indians to leave reservations and to settle in cities, contributing to a rapid increase in the number of urban indigenous peoples and in the problems attendant on the difficulties in adjusting to urban life.

Summary of Event

From the end of the eighteenth century until the 1930’s, the U.S. government pursued a variety of policies in carrying out its constitutional responsibility for the conduct of American Indian relations. A succession of programs had as their goal the ultimate assimilation of American Indians into the mainstream of life in the United States. Such policies generally showed little respect for indigenous culture and viewed tribes as barriers to successful assimilation. Native Americans;relocation
Urbanization;Native Americans
Native Americans;assimilation
[kw]U.S. Government Encourages American Indians to Settle in Cities (1950)
[kw]American Indians to Settle in Cities, U.S. Government Encourages (1950)
[kw]Indians to Settle in Cities, U.S. Government Encourages American (1950)
[kw]Cities, U.S. Government Encourages American Indians to Settle in (1950)
Native Americans;relocation
Urbanization;Native Americans
Native Americans;assimilation
[g]North America;1950: U.S. Government Encourages American Indians to Settle in Cities[03140]
[g]United States;1950: U.S. Government Encourages American Indians to Settle in Cities[03140]
[c]Immigration, emigration, and relocation;1950: U.S. Government Encourages American Indians to Settle in Cities[03140]
[c]Indigenous peoples’ rights;1950: U.S. Government Encourages American Indians to Settle in Cities[03140]
[c]Government and politics;1950: U.S. Government Encourages American Indians to Settle in Cities[03140]
Myer, Dillon S.
Emmons, Glenn L.
Nash, Philleo

During the Franklin D. Roosevelt Roosevelt, Franklin D.
[p]Roosevelt, Franklin D.;and Native Americans[Native Americans] administration, the direction of federal policy shifted dramatically with the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act Indian Reorganization Act (1934) of 1934. Tribes were again recognized as legal and important aspects of Native American life. Under the leadership of Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier Collier, John , the Bureau of Indian Affairs Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S. (BIA) showed a new sensitivity to Native American culture, and the pressure for assimilation lessened. This so-called “Indian New Deal” seemed to indicate that a new era of Native American policy was under way, one that would respect and sustain the distinctive character of indigenous cultures. This policy direction, however, proved short-lived.

In the late 1940’s, Congress and public opinion began to press for a return to assimilationist policies. By 1950, it was clear that major changes in federal policy were coming. Two of the most notable new initiatives were the policies of termination and relocation. The former aimed at “freeing” Native Americans from dependence on the federal government by terminating tribes as legal entities and ending the trust relationship the federal government held toward them; the latter aimed at bringing Native Americans into the mainstream of urban industrial society by encouraging them to relocate to cities.

Although termination and relocation were often seen as related policies, especially by Native Americans, they were in fact distinct. Termination may have effected the more dramatic changes, such as the formal dissolution of several tribes and reservations, but the policy of relocation proved more long-lasting and had a greater impact on Native American life in general. A number of developments paved the way for the relocation program.

Urban Native Americans were already a reality, and their numbers increased markedly during World War II. During the war, some twenty-five thousand Native Americans served in the Armed Forces, and almost twice that number left reservations for war-related work. Many members of both groups settled in urban areas after the war. There was also concern that some reservations were becoming overpopulated. In 1947, the BIA set up a modest program designed to find off-reservation employment for Hopi and Navajos. In the following year, the Hoover Commission Hoover Commission , then investigating ways to improve the efficiency of the executive branch, recommended that a large-scale program of job training and placement be established to meet the threat of overpopulated reservations. It was in this context that, in 1950, Dillon S. Myer became commissioner of Indian affairs.

A conscientious and strong-minded administrator, Myer had been head of the War Relocation Authority War Relocation Authority, U.S. during World War II. In that capacity, he had overseen the camps in which Japanese Americans had been interned. He came to view reservations as similar to the internment camps that had isolated Japanese Americans from American society. At the end of the war, he had tried to foster the reentry of Japanese Americans into American life as individuals, rather than have them remain a group apart. A similar solution seemed desirable for Native Americans, especially because Myer genuinely believed that they could never enjoy an acceptable standard of living as long as they remained on reservations. He supported both relocation and termination as means of assimilation.

In 1950, the BIA began its first general relocation program. Placement offices were opened in Aberdeen, Washington; Billings, Montana; Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Portland, Oregon. In 1952, Myer began to plan for a nationwide “Operation Relocation.” Congressional funding was increased, and financial assistance was provided to Native Americans willing to relocate. Congress, however, rejected Myer’s request that it also fund a vocational education program for Native Americans.

Glenn L. Emmons, a New Mexico banker, succeeded Myer at the BIA. He was an enthusiastic supporter of the relocation policy, and during his tenure (1953-1961) the program expanded and became the responsibility of a new relocation division within the BIA. Relocation offices were established on most reservations as well as in Oklahoma, to serve the nonreservation tribes there. In the early years of the program, there was a tendency toward a hard-sell approach, as Native Americans were propagandized and pressured by officials working to meet quotas assigned to them by the relocation division. Native Americans applying for the program were typically allowed one month to prepare for the transition to urban life. They were given $50 apiece to cover moving expenses, one-way train or bus tickets to relocation cities, and small sums for subsistence. (Originally, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Denver were designated as relocation cities, but the list was subsequently expanded to include Cincinnati, Oakland, San Jose, San Francisco, Cleveland, St. Louis, and Dallas.)

Once at their destinations, the new urban Native Americans received help from local relocation offices in obtaining housing and employment, including a month’s financial assistance ($40 per week for an individual or couple, more for larger families). The BIA reported that the program was successful, and Congress increased appropriations during the late 1950’s.

Relocation, however, also attracted a large number of critics. To many Native Americans, relocation seemed simply another face of the hated policy of termination, an association that caused much distrust toward the program and one that caused many urban migrants to move on their own. In 1956, the Association on American Indian Affairs Association on American Indian Affairs , a group largely made up of sympathetic non-Native Americans, issued a report that listed some forty-eight specific criticisms of the program. Many of these centered on the problems experienced by the newly arrived urban Native Americans. Indeed, the experiences of many of those who left the reservation were too often characterized by frustration and failure.

One of the basic problems of the program was that many Native Americans were simply not prepared for life in the metropolitan United States. Coming from cultures that were often communal and cooperative, many migrants found it difficult to adjust to the impersonal and competitive character of urban life. In many cases, the BIA provided inadequate counseling and insufficient economic support for the transition. Many relocatees received minimal job training, and the employment they obtained often proved to be poorly paid or temporary. Many missed medical and other programs that had been available to them on the reservations. Program participants, in short, often found themselves becoming discouraged slum dwellers beset by a host of social problems. Particularly noticeable was the problem of alcoholism.

The BIA admitted in 1959 that about one-third of those participating in the relocation program had returned to reservations. Although proclaiming the program a success, the BIA did attempt to respond to criticisms. After 1957, the relocation officers on the reservations modified their sales pitches and employed a less-aggressive approach. Greater attention was paid to preparing those willing to relocate (including family members), and more of an effort was made to determine individual aptitudes for particular occupations. Medical examinations were required, and extended social support services were offered for the first year of urban residence. The effectiveness of such changes, however, became a topic for debate.

While the number of urban Native Americans continued to increase—with many migrants not participants in the program—there was little evidence that Native Americans were being assimilated into the mainstream of American society. Commissioner Emmons did try to complement the relocation program by attempting to increase employment opportunities on reservations through private industrial development. There were many legal complications, however, and investors often proved reluctant to get involved. In the end, fewer than one thousand industrial jobs were created for reservation Native Americans.

Controversy over relocation was often overshadowed by the debate engendered by the policy of termination. BIA support for the latter lessened during the late 1950’s, and the policy was effectively ended during the early 1960’s, a decade that saw federal policy increasingly focused on the concept of Native American self-determination. The early program was faulted for being imposed from above without consultation with the Native Americans involved.


The BIA’s relocation program was intended to promote the assimilation of Native Americans into American society. It was not noticeably successful in achieving its aim. It did, however, have several important effects on Native American life.

Perhaps the most obvious effect of the relocation program was that it encouraged what became one of the most important post-World War II demographic trends in Native American life: urbanization. In 1940, urban Native Americans numbered a mere twenty-four thousand (or about 13 percent of the total). By 1980, more than 740,000 Native Americans, almost half the total, lived in urban areas. Los Angeles, with more than sixty thousand Native Americans, had the largest Native American community in the country, although the vast majority of such residents came from outside California. This was a development without precedent.

Although the majority of urban Native Americans did not relocate under BIA auspices, the relocation program provided an important impetus. Overall, from 1950 to 1972 more than 100,000 American Indians moved to cities under the program, and those cities with relocation offices became the main centers of Native American urbanization. The development of a large urban population had important consequences for Native American life. Although statistical measures of housing and income showed that urban Native Americans enjoyed a higher material standard of living than did those still on reservations, alcoholism and other social ills continued to trouble them. Urban Native Americans, however, tended to be less tolerant of substandard conditions and more critical of government policies.

It is noteworthy that many of the leaders of the more radical Native American rights movements that appeared in the 1960’s and 1970’s, such as the American Indian Movement (AIM), were urban Native Americans. The growth of Native American radicalism was typified by a spirit of pan-Indianism, and this was at least partially a result of urbanization. By bringing together in metropolitan areas Native Americans of diverse tribal backgrounds, the relocation program encouraged interaction among many different Native American groups. Finding that they were subject to the same treatment and faced similar problems, many became more willing to assume a common front. It may be the crowning irony of relocation that a policy intended to bring Native Americans into the mainstream of American society instead fostered a greater sense of Native American separateness and encouraged a more active and confrontational approach to dealing with the federal government. Native Americans;relocation
Urbanization;Native Americans
Native Americans;assimilation

Further Reading

  • DeRozier, Arthur. “The Past Continues: Indian Relocation in the 1950’s.” In Forked Tongues and Broken Treaties, edited by Donald E. Worcester. Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton, 1975. Considers relocation as part of the termination policy and a contributing factor to the radicalism of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Also provides a good sense of what the process was like for those who participated in the program.
  • Fixico, Donald L. Termination and Relocation: Federal Indian Policy, 1945-1966. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1986. An in-depth survey of federal policy toward Native Americans over two decades. Argues that termination and relocation were failed policies. Fixico believes that the BIA and Congress assumed a willingness on the part of Native Americans to assimilate into urban society that simply was not there. Endnotes, bibliography, index.
  • Gundlich, James H., and Alden E. Roberts. “Native American Indian Migration and Relocation: Success or Failure? Pacific Sociological Review 21 (January, 1978): 117-128. Attempts to evaluate the success of the relocation program by comparing the experiences of Native Americans who moved under its auspices with those who migrated to urban areas on their own. The evidence shows that those who were part of the relocation program tended to be more successful in their adjustment.
  • Jackson, Deborah Davis. Our Elders Lived It: American Indian Identity in the City. De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2002. An anthropological study based on extensive fieldwork in a city in the Upper Great Lakes region. Explores the shaping of self-identity for American Indians living in urban areas. Includes personal interviews with indigenous peoples of a midsize city in Michigan.
  • LaGrand, James B. Indian Metropolis: Native Americans in Chicago, 1945-1975. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002. A scholarly, balanced work that focuses on the relocation of American Indians into Chicago in the decades after World War II.
  • Lobo, Susan, and Kurt Peters, eds. American Indians and the Urban Experience. Walnut Creek, Calif.: Altimira Press, 2001. A collection of scholarship, poetry, and art documenting the urban experience of American Indians.
  • Olson, James S., and Raymond Wilson. Native Americans in the Twentieth Century. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1984. A sound overall survey of Native American life in the twentieth century, sympathetic to its subject. Useful for putting relocation and other federal policies in context. Suggested readings, index.
  • Prucha, Francis Paul. The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indian. 2 vols. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984. The definitive study of federal policy toward Native Americans. Considers relocation as complementing termination. Extensive bibliographic essay, index.
  • Sorkin, Alan L. The Urban American Indian. Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, 1978. An overview of urban social conditions as experienced by Native Americans. Argues for a single agency to manage urban programs for Native Americans and for greater federal assistance. Chapter notes, index.
  • Waddell, Jack O., and Michael O. Watson, eds. The American Indian in Urban Society. 1971. Reprint. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1984. A useful collection of essays that cover various urban aspects of Native American experience. Particularly useful is James E. Officer’s summary of federal policies. Officer, a former BIA official, argues that relocation and termination had quite different roots. Chapter bibliographies, index.

Native Americans Lose Government Special Status

Indian Civil Rights Act Is Passed

American Indians Occupy Alcatraz Island

Congress Ratifies the National Council on Indian Opportunity

New Mexico’s Blue Lake Region Is Returned to the Taos Pueblo