The Urban Relocation Program

In the last half of the 20th Century, a government program that was little known at the time and is largely forgotten today created the largest movement of Indians in American history. The final scope and meaning of this massive social experiment is still impacting native peoples today.

World War II changed American society and profoundly affected the lives of Native Americans. The U.S. was becoming much more urban:

  • In the 1940 Census, a little over half of all Americans (56.5%) were living in cities.
  • In 1940, only around 8% of Indians were living in cities.

The Relocation Program did provide some Indians better jobs, at the price of being cut off from tribal roots.

Government policy all through the 1700s and 1800s had been designed to make Indians into “yeomen farmers.” The lawmakers who wrote these policies were forgetting that the first European settlers would have starved without the benevolent help of native farmers. They also were forgetting that indigenous plant breeders gave the world corn, beans, squash, pumpkins, tomatoes, potatoes, peanuts, avocadoes, artichokes, chocolate, vanilla, tobacco and many other indigenous crops. In return, native tribes were given the worst land primarily in the semi-arid plains. Now, the 20th Century rush to the city was bypassing Indians, and reservation tribes suffered huge levels of unemployment and poverty.

In 1950, the average Native American on a reservation earned $950. The average black person earned $2,000, and the average white person earned almost $4,000 — over four times more than Indians.

So, in 1952, the federal government initiated the Urban Indian Relocation Program. It was designed to entice reservation dwellers to seven major urban cities where the jobs supposedly were plentiful.

Relocation offices were set up in Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Dallas. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) employees were supposed to orient new arrivals and manage financial and job training programs for them. Other BIA officials recruited prospective “Relocatees” from many of the reservations around the country.

Acknowledgement: Country Diaries

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