The contemporary urban American Indian exists in a kind of plastic limbo, effectively suspended in a nonworld between two very different cultures.
While it may seem fashionable to be an Indian today, there are still traditional barriers extremely difficult to hurdle. In most white communities adjacent to concentrations of Indian people, a foundation of prejudice remains that is a formidable restriction to Indian intercourse with the outside world. While the Indian feels he is a prisoner behind invisible bars, he knows that to escape prison can be his very death. He can move to a large city and there join the Indian ghetto, a place where he becomes a nonentity in a society alien to his every experience. For the Indian of any blood lineage, this becomes a form of genocide, or, put in the word spoken as a hiss by Indians, assimilation.
I’ve been assimilated. It is a thousand years from the tar paper shacks in remote Oklahoma hills to the concrete maze of Los Angeles, and I made the trip in a few swift strokes. I’m one of the sixty thousand or so American Indians living in the immediate Los Angeles area, a sea of humanity often described as the second largest reservation in the country. I’m also one of the many thousands of metis (mixed blood) whose combination ancestry serves to bridge those thousand years between white man and red. I can have the best, and the worst, of two significantly dissimilar worlds.
I am luckier than most mixed bloods, including direct cousins. I look like a white man and thus am automatically exempt from the immediate visual tag of half-breed. My tribe, the Tsa-la-gi, first had contact with the European when de Soto penetrated their country in northern Georgia and the Carolinas during the early 1500s. From that time, the Cherokee made rapid change from a war-oriented society to positions of affluence in an infant United States. Mixing with the white man has long been common until only a small percentage of Cherokee now remain full blood. For me, this has made a genealogy possible through several generations, something seldom possible with Indian tribes.
Today my people are concentrated in two areas: the Qualla Boundary in North Carolina and portions of eastern Oklahoma. It is a bitter memory of every Cherokee that a rapidly advancing, highly organized Indian community was literally thrown from its treaty-guaranteed lands in the middle South. Thousands died in the infamous Trail of Tears to Indian Territory, but some Cherokee ran away into the hills rather than leave their beloved country. Because my aunt had some white blood, she could claim to be white. (This confusion over lineage continued through the Dawes roll; thus many mixed blood Indians find official records completely erroneous. In a society where being an Indian meant terrific struggle for survival, no wonder full bloods claimed to be part white.)
Through my aunt those Indians who had escaped the army pooled enough money to purchase unwanted acreage in the Smoky Mountains. This land was eventually set aside for “guidance” by the United States, the only Indians had to buy land they ready owned to give to the government for a reservation.
Those Cherokee who had come west to Oklahoma soon had another strong community going, with schools and a rapidly growing economy. A mixed blood named Sequoyah had created a workable Cherokee alphabet while the tribe was still in the East (where the Cherokee language newspaper Phoenix had flourished), and education was strongly emphasized in the relocated nation. At first there was a reservation in Oklahoma, but the famous land rush and subsequent government policy have left today’s western Cherokee with no land base (reservation) and little privately owned land. Still, the Cherokee exist, mixed through the hill country of eastern Oklahoma and settled in remote valleys seldom visited by outsiders—a reservation without identification.
It was from this background that I moved into the mainstream of white America. Denied an advanced education, my mother determined that I would be given the chance, an attitude shared by a white stepfather. In the white world I took my stepfather’s name, Smith, and set aside the Cherokee name of Oogama, which translates roughly to mean food like water, such as soup or gravy. Other family names are perhaps more romantic, but they are confusing to the white reader. Now I use the old name only in tribal matters.
We Indians of today, particularly those of us who live in an urban surrounding, do not consider ourselves much different from our white neighbors, but we cling tenaciously to our Indianness. It is as though we are holding fast to a rope while the floodwaters tear at our grip. We are a defeated people, but we will not disappear. While the reservation Indian struggles primarily to exist, the urban Indian fights to remain Indian—though this isn’t exactly the way a typical immigrant reacts after immigration to the United States.
Some Indians seem to think the government owes everything to the Indian just because he is an Indian, but that feeling isn’t true of most Indian leaders. They realize there is no way to turn back time. Instead, they argue, pay the Indian his due, as spelled out in treaties, and then leave him alone.
There isn’t a way to really separate the urban Indian from his reservation counterpart. What happens, or has happened, on the reservation will have an effect on the urban Indian, and what the city Indian learns will be transferred back to the reservation. There is no faster means of communication than moccasin telegraph.
The contemporary Indian is faced with problems in five specific areas: education, religion, social structure, economy, and goals. How he reacts to any or all will vary, so there isn’t a “typical” Indian at all (at least, I’ve never met one). This is a very important point. I am a writer, my cousin is a fireman, another cousin is a machinist. None of us sit around in front of a tepee and fashion arrows, the conception of Indians held by so many white people. We are a people with a rich heritage that we don’t want to lose, but we’re not frozen in a hundred-year-old image.
The essential difference between the European and the Indian is concept of property. After years in white America, I still cannot conceive of anyone owning the land. Land is free, like wind and water and fire. Earth is the mother of all things living, given to us by God. We may borrow from her, but only what we need to live. So how can I mix this basic reality with the white people huddle in middle class ticky-tacky, mortgage payments, massive insurance plans, for-sale signs plastered on vast reaches of empty timberland? I can’t really understand how the white man justifies this ownership philosophy, but I must live with it to survive. I am a successful writer and have many things, but when Indians visit, most are not impressed by my things. Only the white man is impressed.
At my home, anything I have is yours for the using if you want it, and I consider anything you have as being available to me. That’s the way it is with most Indians, but try something like that in an urban Western nation and you end up doing time, unless it’s the lawnmower you borrowed seven months ago. Since my needs are only those for living this day, today, it is very difficult for me to maintain a savings account or shore up against the coming flood. As a Church member, the one-year’s food supply presents me with a problem. I do it because the prophet says so, but it is not my tradition. Through my eyes, the white man is forced into these situations because he does not trust the earth or his ability to live with the earth.
While I’ve learned to some extent how to cope with the white world’s conception of personal property, I will never overcome the clock. Even during military service, I fought constantly with the requirement to be somewhere at this or that time. I am there when I get there, which seems perfectly obvious to me, but this isn’t the way things get done in the outside business community.
I find the Church emphasis on family a great similarity to Indian tradition. Among the Cherokee, all children are considered a great wealth to the tribe, for they are the tribe in coming years. To the white man, an Indian child seems perhaps spoiled and undisciplined, but to me he is experiencing early the opportunity of making his own decisions.
No Indian friend comes to me and says, “You will do this or that.” Instead, he will say, “I am going to do this—won’t you come along with me?” If I refuse, my decision is honored without stigma. Persuasion then becomes the mark of a fine Indian leader. Living in the white community seems to be dominated by the word no. There are very few no signs on reservations. The white man’s world seems to be ruled by restrictions rather than by consent.
I seriously doubt that any Indian would ever move away from the reservation, or home territory, if the local economy were strong. Mexicans flock to Southern California and Texas cities in search of greater earning power. Tribesmen in South Africa walk hundreds of miles in search of work in mines. And the white man from Utah moves from his farming community to the city because he can make a better living there. Yet, he yearns to return to the “good life.”
On the reservation, everything is geared to what the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) says can or can’t be done, and the economy struggles along on a subwelfare level. Last year, a sign scribbled on an Arizona reservation wall caught my eye, “I sure wish I could find a job.” Any reader who lived during the depression knows this feeling of despair. As a part of the hated assimilation/termination policy started during the Eisenhower administration, the BIA now promises the reservation Indian a chance to go to the city and get a job. Inference is that the BIA will train and place the Indian, but in reality he is bused to the city, shown where the training takes place, and forgotten. The ghetto grows.
In the city, the Indian finds himself ill-equipped to even be trained. The white man’s world is highly competitive, and the Indian finds advancement hard or even impossible. He can easily become low man on the economic totem pole with no hope for advancement. Education is his salvation.
Education is the great dilemma of the Indian people. Without it, we can never survive the white man; with it we may destroy ourselves. In the 1700s an eastern chief wrote his white correspondents, “No longer do we send our young men to you for an education. You teach them how to read and write, but they come home soft and cannot.” Today the Indian sends his child to the white school to learn values and trades that do not necessarily relate to the Indian world. The average reservation doesn’t have the economy to support advanced education. It is fine to train a young boy to be a dentist, but when he must choose between going home to reservation conditions or staying in town and making money, the choice is obvious.
The question, then, is one of educational needs for the Indian future, both reservation and urban. I received a solid education because I moved away from the Indian community and concentrated on making it through college. Many colleges and universities are just now moving to include the Indian in their program, recognizing the potential of a person with poor preparation. But these institutions are reaching a very small percentage of the Indian students because an alarming number of Indians drop out of school long before the question of college arises. It doesn’t really make much difference whether the Indian lives on a reservation or goes to a city school; he finds it extremely hard to identify with the system. He is always the bad guy in history or is overlooked entirely.
Last year there were an estimated three thousand Indians enrolled in colleges and universities, with five hundred of this number at Brigham Young University. The parents are really quite concerned about their children away at college, since mores are much stricter in traditional Indian surroundings than is commonly thought. Tribal leaders are also concerned, because the persuasion of the outside-directed red militant is working on young Indian students just beginning to realize their importance to the Indian community.
Education for the Indian sometimes takes strange turns. An oil company currently advertises on television about how it helped members of a native Alaskan village learn trades when the company was drilling for oil. The commentary concludes: “We didn’t find any oil … ,” which translates to mean “We didn’t make a big strike, so we split.” Fade commercial, and everything is super keen in Alaska. Except where are the cars for that mechanic to fix? What can the surveyor survey? When can the welder weld something? Education isn’t worth a milkweed vision if the Indian has no place to use it.
So it is just one big vicious circle, and it reaches from the sorry situation of BIA reservation schools to urban school systems geared not at all to the few Indians in the back row.
In the final analysis, I’m forced to consider exactly what my education can do for my own Cherokee people. Too little. Publicity, perhaps, or maybe advanced techniques of public relations and advertising. The lesson came home hard a few years back when I was at Whiteriver, Arizona, gathering material to do a series of magazine articles for the White Mountain Apaches. Their recreational program has been successful, but as one observer put it, “Go ahead and write all you want to bring in more people, but we still can’t get enough trash cans for those campgrounds.” The Indian, reservation or urban, is trying desperately to shift into high gear before the motor is running.
About religion. This has to be one of the very great sore points in the American Indian history. Chief Joseph long ago gave a summary of Indian views of the European religion when questioned about schools for the Nez Perce reservation.
“Do you want schools or schoolhouses on the Wallowa Reservation?”
“No, we do not.”
“Why do you not want schools?”
“They will teach us to have churches.”
“Do you not want churches?”
“No, we do not.”
“Why do you not want churches?”
“They will teach us to quarrel about God, as the Catholics and Protestants do on the Nez Perce Reservation. We do not want to learn that. We may quarrel with men sometimes about things on this earth, but we never quarrel about God. We do not want to learn that.”
Nevertheless, missionaries bent on saving the red man’s soul have poured through Indian villages for hundreds of years. If there has ever been a Christian religion practiced by man, it has been preached to the Indian.
For those of us who have been introduced to the restored gospel, it rings a long silent cry—one of the reasons The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is well received in Indian circles. Some representatives of religious groups have promised more and done less than the U.S. Government, with little visible results other than Indian skepticism. If ever there is to be a really solid Indian religious movement, it will center around the quiet efforts of Mormons honestly concerned about the needs of Lamanites.
San Carlos, Arizona, has a chapel but no basketball floor. Basketball ranks second only to rodeo as the favorite sport of the Apache. In Southern California the Indian Welcome Center begs for basketball courts and softball fields for Indian teams but has little success against the more influential and better-organized industrial leagues. Surely a few wards somewhere could extend a helping hand to San Carlos, and LDS businessmen in Southern California might be ideal support for a Los Angeles Indian Community Center.
I don’t have to say much about Mormon philosophy to my Indian acquaintances when action is put where the words are. The moccasin telegraph is also efficient here. The Native American Church, with its peyote overtones, is being promoted to disillusioned urban and reservation Indians as the original Indian church. How poor that claim stands against the record of Lehi’s descendants. And because of the tremendous potential of the Mormon Church in the Lamanite cultures, red militants are attacking it and its Indian program as none other.
It must be realized that religion has always been the very essence of Indian life. Mormons can understand that, knowing the history of our people. It is a sincere, deep-rooted desire to please God that keeps driving the Indian to maintain his identity, for we feel we are a chosen people of the Great Spirit. The spark of the restored gospel has taken hold in the Indian world, and it will spread like wildfire in the next few decades. The urban Indian communities should not be overlooked.