In the 1950s, the United States came up with a plan to solve what it called the "Indian Problem." It would assimilate Native Americans by moving them to cities and eliminating reservations. The 20-year campaign failed to erase Native Americans, but its effects on Indian Country are still felt today.
November 1, 2019
In the summer of 1964, Charlotte and Clyde Day and six of their children boarded a train in northern Minnesota bound for Cleveland. Except for Clyde, none of them had been on a train before. They'd never been to a big city, either.
They wore their nicest clothes, and carried everything they owned in a few suitcases. They might have looked like they were going on vacation, but they were moving for good, leaving behind the place their family had lived for generations.
Sharon Day was 12, the oldest of the kids going along. She remembers the trip being a luxurious and grand adventure. Not all the kids were so excited. Her sister Cheryl was terrified.
When they changed trains in Chicago, the station was the busiest place they had ever been. "It was huge," Sharon said. "And there were so many people and bustling and going and the lights and the food. We'd never eaten dinner in a restaurant. And my dad was very clear with us, 'Do not go out of our sight.'"
The idea to move had come from a Bureau of Indian Affairs officer, who told Clyde that a better life awaited him and his family in Cleveland. There were good jobs, good schools, and even many people from his own tribe, the Bois Forte Band of Ojibwe, living there. Clyde took the offer home to his family. "And so when it was posed to all of us that way, of course we all said yes, that we wanted to go," Sharon said.
The Days were among around 100,000 Native Americans to experience one of the most recent and little-known traumas inflicted on Native peoples by the U.S. government, what the BIA called the Voluntary Relocation Program. Between 1952 and 1972, it provided one-way transportation and a couple hundred dollars to Native Americans willing to move to a city.
One BIA commissioner would later call the program "an underfunded, ill-conceived program ... essentially a one-way ticket from rural to urban poverty."
The goal was to move Native Americans to cities, where they would disappear through assimilation into the white, American mainstream. Then, the government would make tribal land taxable and available for purchase and development. The vision was that eventually there would be no more BIA, no more tribal governments, no more reservations, and no more Native Americans.
This campaign failed to wipe out tribes, but it did fuel a massive migration that fundamentally changed Indian Country. Today, more than two-thirds of Native Americans live in cities, not on reservations. Economic and psychological wounds are visible today too. On nearly every measure of education, employment, and health, Native people rank near or at the bottom.
The Days were moving from a small cabin near the Nett Lake Reservation, one of three land-holdings of their tribe.
The family often didn't have what the rest of the country considered modern necessities: running water, electricity, a car. "[My mom] hauled wood. She hauled water," remembers Dorene Day, the youngest. "She hauled clothes down to the rapids to wash them and then hauled them back home to hang them up. We picked berries and she made pies and she sold them on the side of the road."
Clyde was a hunter-trapper, renowned in the area for his skills. He also earned money as a hunting guide for white people. He taught the kids how to fish and set snare lines, and how he built birch bark canoes, toboggans, and snowshoes.
The biggest event of the year came in the fall. Just about every Anishinaabe would climb into a canoe to harvest wild rice from the lakes and streams. "If you're old enough to rice, you riced," Sharon said. Native kids weren't expected to start school again until the end of September, after the harvest was done.
Their parents raised them Midewiwin, the spiritual way of life traditionally practiced by the Anishinaabeg (Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi). Charlotte and Clyde didn't call it that though, Sharon said. Practicing Indigenous religions was largely against the law, and people had to hide their sacred objects lest they be confiscated by church or government officials and destroyed, or put in a museum.
They didn't risk having sweat lodges or large ceremonies, but Clyde did teach his children their history. Sharon remembers that he would take them outside under a tree to tell them about their migration story, tracing in the ground the path the Ojibwe people traveled hundreds of years before from the Atlantic coast westward, following a prophecy to travel until they found the place where food grows on the water. "And he could sing Indian music all day and all night for four days probably, or more, and never sing the same song twice," Dorene said.
"He never had a drum. I don't know why," Sharon said, "but he would turn over the coffee can — Arco coffee. And he would sing and then we would dance."
Charlotte and Clyde could speak and write fluently in Anishinaabemowin (or Ojibwe), but they mostly spoke English to their 17 children because they wanted the kids to succeed in school and in the wider world.
When the Day family arrived in Cleveland, they moved into a hotel. That was a typical landing place for new arrivals, along with the YMCA. After two weeks, all eight of them were living in a two-bedroom apartment in the poorest part of the city.
Cleveland was a shock, not just the size of the place, but everything about it. They had never met black people before.
"And as soon as we got to our new home, we had neighborhood children coming up onto our porch area to kind of look in because they probably hadn't seen people like us, either," Charlene, the third youngest, remembers. "And we were terrified as children. I remember my sister Cheryl saying, 'What happened to these people? These people are all burnt.'"
It was summer, so the kids didn't have school. Back in northern Minnesota, they had been free to go wherever they wanted. In the city, their mom was too afraid to let them go anywhere. They felt isolated. There was no one from Nett Lake living near them, despite what the BIA had promised.
During the day, their dad went out looking for work. The BIA had promised Clyde a good-paying job. He could operate heavy machinery. But all he could find was a job as a dishwasher, which didn't pay enough to support his family.
After about a month, Clyde and Charlotte decided they wanted to leave.
But the BIA wouldn't pay for people to return to their reservations. Relocation was a one-way trip.
The 'Indian problem'
In the late 1940s, a group of venerable white men selected by President Harry Truman began working in Washington, D.C., to come up with a solution to the so-called "Indian problem." Among them were congressmen, cabinet officials and pundits.
This group was the Hoover Commission, named after its chairman, former president Herbert Hoover. Their job was to figure out how to cut federal spending and streamline the executive branch. They released those findings in an 80-page report in 1949. In addition to examining welfare, social security, and education, the commission looked closely at Native Americans and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
"Their standard of living is low, and there is a serious problem in maintaining their health. Educating them properly has proved extremely difficult," reads the report. "Given the apparent inability of the Federal Government — over a period of more than 100 years — to free itself from responsibilities for their activities, the problems loom large indeed."
The solution they proposed was to assimilate Native Americans into white America and eliminate the BIA. And they recommended the government eliminate tribal governments and reservations, too.
Discussion of assimilating Native Americans was often dripping with eugenic overtones. The Hoover Commission reported, matter-of-factly, "The Indian population is no longer a pure ethnic group. Rather it represents a melange of 'full bloods' and people of mixed ancestry."
Another government-sponsored report, on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, spent several pages detailing the marriage trends between "full bloods," "half bloods" and "quarter bloods."
"The well adjusted and self sufficient mixed blood family that is occasionally seen has tempted some observers to conclude that intermarriage between Indians and whites will solve many of the cultural problems of the Indian group," the author begins the report's chapter called "The Families."
However, there wasn't enough intermarriage between whites and Native people, the author lamented. "It is thus evident that the 'Indian problem' is not going to be solved through the disappearance of Indians by intermarriage with non Indians." This was published in 1955.
At the time, "blackness" was defined according to the "one-drop rule," but white America believed "Indianness" could be washed away in just a few generations through intermarriage with whites. This contradictory logic was self-serving for white Americans. More black Americans meant more workers to exploit. Fewer Native Americans meant more land to take.
And, in line with that self-serving logic, federal politicians and bureaucrats believed Native Americans wanted to melt away into the mainstream. And they had earned it because of their efforts in the war.
"Federal policymakers interpret Native Americans' significant patriotism in World War II as a sign that maybe they don't want to be Indian anymore. Why would they if they're out fighting for the United States in the Pacific and in the European and African theaters?" said Douglas Miller, a historian at Oklahoma State University and author of "Indians on the Move." "And this is in the context of the emerging Cold War. This is in the context of United States people wanting to rally around sort of one consensus cultural identity."
Native Americans enlisted to serve with an enthusiasm paradoxical to the hardships they had been subjected to. In World War II, Native Americans enlisted at the highest rate of any group. Among some tribes, as many as 70 percent of eligible men served. All told, around 70,000 Native Americans left their reservations, often for the very first time, to serve overseas or work in war industries in big cities. One U.S. Senator, D. Worth Clark of Idaho, described Native Americans as "an inspiration to patriotic Americans everywhere."
But when the war ended in 1945, Native Americans returned home to find their reservations had become poorer in their absence. Many moved away again to find jobs in cities, and conditions on reservations became even more desperate.
The post-war boom never reached Indian Country. Most Native people living on or near reservations didn't have electricity or running water. The roads and schools and hospitals were in disrepair, if the reservations had them at all.
Native people were much more likely to die from the flu or pneumonia. Infant mortality was several times higher than elsewhere in the nation. There'd been a tuberculosis epidemic for at least 50 years (Dorene's grandparents died from it). The life expectancy of American Indians in the 1950s was 44 years. For white Americans, it was 70 years.
Reservations had been poor since they were created in the mid-1800s. With each successive federal policy, they seemed to become only smaller and poorer.
The Dawes Act of 1887, for example, did irreparable damage. It chopped up reservations into homesteads and opened up millions of acres of "surplus land" to white settlers. Individual land ownership was supposed to "civilize" Native people. But little thought was given to how the land was divvied up, so people ended up with parcels too small or dry to do anything with. Those who wanted to farm and knew how often couldn't get loans to get started. Many had to sell their land to survive or pay the taxes.
Then, the government forced Native children into boarding schools to be assimilated into the white, Christian mainstream. The founder of the first school summed up his educational philosophy as "Kill the Indian, Save the Man." Conditions were deplorable; abuse was rampant. Many children died and were buried in mass graves or unmarked cemeteries.
The BIA, which had near-absolute control over Native people's lives, was also underfunded, incompetent, and sometimes corrupt. Even the federal government's own assessment of Indian Country — detailed in the 847-page Meriam Report of 1928 — laid the blame for its problems squarely at the feet of the federal officials, whose policies "would tend to pauperize any race."
One way the Hoover Commission recommended the government help Native people was to encourage "young employable Indians and the better cultured families" to leave reservations for cities. Congress soon piloted the idea with two tribes.
The Navajo and Hopi reservations had been devastated by blizzards in winter 1947-48. The U.S. government had to airlift in food just to prevent mass starvation. Pressured by public outcry over the poor conditions — the Navajo and Hopi Code Talkers had helped beat the Japanese, after all — Congress passed the Navajo-Hopi Rehabilitation Act in 1950 that was intended to prevent a similar catastrophe in the future.
It appropriated tens of millions of dollars in funding to improve conditions on those two reservations. But Congress didn't believe the Navajo reservation, about the size of West Virginia, could support the 55,000 people living there. Where in 1887 the government was getting rid of "surplus land," in 1950 it was concerned about "surplus people."
So, they set aside some of the new money to move Navajo and Hopi to cities. The government considered it a success. And then, the BIA got a new commissioner who decided to turn urban relocation into a national program.
His name was Dillon S. Myer. He had just finished leading another massive, government-run relocation program: the forced relocation of more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans to what the government called internment camps and then on to cities scattered across the country.
Myer brought with him the same strategy and many of the same officials, including one Charles Miller, who had earned the moniker "the great mover of people" for his work on Japanese-American imprisonment and on a program that moved impoverished Jamaicans to the United States.
Myer viewed reservations as prison camps for Native Americans. He thought they were overpopulated wastelands that could never provide a decent living for people. Anything that might encourage Native people to stay on reservations, like improving schools and hospitals, would be unfairly keeping people in what he described in an oral history as similar to "old time poor houses."
In 1951, Myer ordered BIA officers to fan out into tribal communities across the country to recruit Native Americans to move to cities. The BIA's new relocation officers were tasked with finding healthy, working-age men, preferably those who could speak English and had some job training, and signing them up to relocate to one of a few cities: Los Angeles, Denver, or Chicago. Other cities like Cleveland, Salt Lake City, Dallas, Oakland, Cleveland, and Minneapolis would later be added in an ever-changing line-up of relocation cities.
For a man and his wife, the package included one-way fare, either by bus or train, and $40 a week for about a month. Families with children received another $10 a week per child (up to eight children). It wasn't much, but according to the BIA, it would be enough to sustain a family until the father got his first paycheck.
Many BIA officials believed Native Americans could only succeed by relocating to cities. Here's how a white BIA official working on the Navajo reservation expressed it to an anthropologist named Ruth Underhill for her educational radio series called "Indian Country" in 1957:
The BIA promised Native Americans that they would have wonderful lives in cities: good-paying jobs, good schools and good housing. In one promotional BIA video that advertised Chicago, Native men are shown welding, cutting hair, and even preparing lobsters in white chef's outfits. "Some Indian people, as this man from Wisconsin, do so well that they become foreman," the narrator says.
The video shows kids watching television and women pushing strollers through leafy neighborhoods with white mothers. The narrator warns that city life may be disorienting at first, but "soon you'll be riding the 'L' train with ease."
Not all BIA promotional material was so highly produced. One flier simply had a poorly drawn caricature of a Native man — long hair, aquiline nose — wrapped in a blanket labeled "hunger & cold." "Stuck in your tepee?" the flier asks in big handwritten letters. "A way out through Relocation Services for a heap-a-lot of living."
The first relocatees, numbering in the hundreds, arrived in their destination cities in early 1952. That modest number doesn't reflect the amount of interest there was in the program. The BIA had received more applications than they had funds available. The same thing happened the next year, and the year after.
Relocation officers were given quotas, but it doesn't seem like they had any trouble meeting them. Even as the government poured more money into the program year after year, demand always outstripped supply. Relocation officers took to advising people to relocate without any financial assistance at all.
"When you have that kind of propaganda, it begins to convince Native people [that] if you want to do better for yourself and certainly to do better for your children, then you really don't have a choice but to go to the cities and to take your chance," said Donald Fixico, a historian at Arizona State University and author of "Termination and Relocation."
At that same time, white veterans used government-subsidized, low-interest loans to move into new homes in the suburbs.
But the tens of thousands of Native Americans who served in the military were largely unable to access the education and mortgage benefits guaranteed by the GI Bill. "Employees of [Veterans Affairs] quite frequently directed American Indian veterans to the Bureau of Indian Affairs to access relocation rather than provide American Indian veterans with the GI Bill benefits," says Kasey Keeler, a historian at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Native people also couldn't get loans to build homes on reservations because they couldn't put the land up for collateral. In the city, Native veterans, like black veterans, were often shut out of the market through racially restrictive covenants and redlining.
"Relocation worked to move Indian people into the urban core [while] white folks moved into suburban communities," Keeler said. "Relocation is about assimilation, but it's also very much about racism and who was entitled to what sort of housing and where."
Clyde Day struggled to feed his family of eight on his wages as a dishwasher. At least back in northern Minnesota, they could fish, trap, and gather wild rice and blueberries. Without any BIA support to get back, they were left to hope Clyde could save enough money to get them home before they went hungry or homeless.
The Day family story fits a pattern that was being repeated all across the country with tens of thousands of Native families. First, the promise. Then, shock. And then, disappointment and hardship.
A woman named Clovia Malatre told me about being sent off on a train with her sister when she was 10 or 11 years old to live with their stepfather on relocation in Chicago. Both their parents had died and their grandmother was struggling in her old age to care for them in her small cabin on the Pine Ridge reservation.
"And I hated it here," says Malatre, who still lives in Chicago. "I did not like being here at all. It was so different from being on the reservation where you are primarily living with Indian people, speaking Indian. We didn't have electricity on the reservation, so just using a light switch, that was ... I was just scared of electricity. I wouldn't go on elevators."
School was a challenge. "Like today, if you speak another language, they've got somebody there to help you and guide you," Malatre said. "But back then, it was sink or swim. I remember being in the classroom and deathly afraid of the teacher calling on me because I could not pronounce any of the words."
And sometimes they were homeless, when her stepdad was drinking and couldn't find work.
"During the summertime, we would actually live in the park," she said. "It wasn't just us. There was quite a few families. Now you go down there and you just see all these tents, but we didn't have them then. We just went under the bushes, and it worked out fine."
She never met anyone from the BIA, which was supposed to help people adjust to the city. Eventually, Malatre ended up in foster care, where she lost all contact with her family. "I was a little kid. There was no way for me to get back to South Dakota. So I was stuck here."
Others said they couldn't find good jobs after relocating to a city:
"[There were] signs in the window that said, 'No Indians or Dogs Allowed,'" said Ed Strong, who relocated from Red Lake in Minnesota to Los Angeles.
And they couldn't find housing: "There was not enough housing for anybody, much less Indian people," said Sandy King, who relocated from Red Lake to Oakland as a child (twice) and then to Los Angeles as an adult.
And wanting to leave: "It seemed like everybody got disenchanted with the city life," Ed Strong said.
In 1956, in response to criticism of the relocation program, Congress passed the Indian Relocation Act, or Public Law 959. It added vocational training options for Native people to improve their employment prospects. But the criticism continued.