The mid 20th Century ushered in new federal Native American policy. In the 1950’s, in an attempt to move Indians off reservations and into cities, the federal government initiated a policy of removal and termination. Under this policy, Native Americans would no longer be government wards on reservations. They would be removed and made, according to the resolution: “subject to the same laws and entitled to the same privileges and responsibilities as are applicable to other citizens of the United States.” Their status as government wards would be terminated as would their cultural identities.
From the perspective of many Native Americans, the federal government’s relationship with them has been mostly one-sided. Treaties, acts and policies made by the federal government have consistently represented European American values; thus, giving little or no consideration to Native cultural values. From the government’s perspective in the early fifties, its relocation program, part of Congress’s House Concurrent Resolution 108, was to get out of the reservation business and to assimilate Native Americans into mainstream culture. The American economy was creating jobs in urban areas, and conditions on reservations were dismal. The government believed the time was right to initiate a new policy. Advocates for policy change pointed out the fact that between 1917 and 1945, nearly 100,000 Native Americans had left reservations to find new ways to support their families. From the Native American perspective however, this relocation policy was yet another attempt to remove Native Americans from their reservations and small allotments in order for the government to exploit the land for development and resources extraction. Ultimately, for Native Americans, removal and assimilation were both policies designed to give the federal government the power to decide who was or was not a member of a Native American tribe.
According the 1953 legislation, tribes would relinquish their sovereignty by leaving the reservations and assuming rights and responsibilities as American citizens. Of the 35,000 participants, about 30% returned to their reservations. Many who remained in the program lived in urban poverty, poor health, with substance abuse, emotional suffering, and a terrible loss of tribal connection and cultural identity. Their common heritage of small community and rural culture values, and dependence of the BIA did not prepare them for the strains of urban living.
Nonetheless, over time, Indian communities in relocation centers around the nation became multi-tribal, made up of relocated families and their descendents. So many came to California because they believed that it was the land of new beginnings. Los Angeles and the Bay Area Indian communities both grew way beyond the California indigenous populations. Many intertribal marriages produced descendants identified as urban Indians by non Native Americans rather than by specific tribal identification. They established Native American cultural centers, held powwows, and provided what community support they could. Tribal identity, although not lost, was certainly weakened and no longer the overriding recognition point for non Native Americans. For Native Americans living in California cities, however, identity continued to be a central issue in their lives. Gatherings of different tribe members in cities like San Francisco, Oakland, and Los Angeles promoted a pan-Indian consciousness that produced a new activism. Moving beyond celebrations of culture and identity found in gatherings at powwows, a group of Bay Area urban Indians activist students led by Richard Oakes occupied Alcatraz, beginning on November 9, 1969 and lasted for 19 months.
With the founding of the American Indian Movement in 1968 and the occupation of Alcatraz beginning in 1969, Native Americans living in urban areas and on reservations gained new recognition in Washington DC and California. Tribal membership roles, once used by the federal government to determine who received government annuities (supplies to live on), were turned back to tribes who, partially because of casino monies, adopted blood quantum as a way of keeping out or weeding out tribal members with questionable ancestry. There was no longer the issue between the federal government and Native Americans of is or is not a Native American. That issue now resides within the tribal cultures.
Many California tribes, seeking formal recognition from the federal government and thus sovereign status, are also trying to not only maintain traditions and relearn, or in some instances, reinvent “lost” languages. They are also being challenged to preserve their own identity under pressure from a pan-Indian urban culture whose numbers are overwhelming. In 1900, Native Americans in California numbered in the low 16,000s. Today the number is around 200,000. Challenges remain for all Native Americans. Many tribal decisions, however, are now made from both urban pan-Indian populations and tribal populations working together, not always harmoniously, but without the destructiveness of government policy.