Uprooted: The 1950s plan to erase Indian Country
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.'"
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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 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 internment and on a program that moved impoverished Jamaicans to the United States.
Myer viewed reservations as internment 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 sign 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:
Well, I've always felt that the only real solution for the Navajo was to cease to be a Navajo — to get off the reservation and become a citizen just like everybody else, and make his living in the same way as other people. Forget that he is a Navajo, in other words.
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 flyer 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:
"Signs in the window that said, 'No Indians or Dogs Allowed,'" said Ed Strong, who relocated from Red Lake in Minnesota to Los Angeles.
Not being able to 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.
Later that year, the Association on American Indian Affairs, an Indigenous advocacy group, published a scathing report on the program. The group created an inventory of the criticisms it had heard about the program. Among the most common complaints were that the BIA workers "place Indian families in slum housing," that "Indian men and women are driven to alcoholism by the pressure of city life," and that there was "inadequate screening of applicants," so that people were sent on relocation who were suffering with mental illnesses, couldn't speak English, or didn't have any education or work skills.
But the relocation program's success wasn't measured by how well people did in cities. It was measured by how many people stayed for a year. The BIA ensured a higher success rate, in part, by deliberately choosing relocation cities far away from reservations, making it more difficult for people to return, Miller said.
Lots of people did figure out how to get back to the reservation. The BIA reported the return rate being around 25 percent, although Native groups believed the rate to be as high as 90 percent.
In his book "Custer Died for Your Sins," Vine Deloria Jr. writes that people used to tell a joke about the relocation program: "When the space program began, there was a great deal of talk about sending men to the moon. Discussion often centered on the difficulty of returning the men from the moon to earth ... One Indian suggested that they send an Indian to the moon on relocation. He'll figure out some way to get back."
It took Clyde Day a month working as a dishwasher to save enough money to get his family out of Cleveland.
"The trip out there was like this grand adventure, and then you know we came back on the Greyhound bus," Sharon said. "And coming back to who knows what.... We didn't have much when we left. But now we had nothing."
They wouldn't stay long, though. Like a lot of Native families returning from relocation, they turned around and relocated again and took their chances in another city.
'The most serious attack'
In 1953, a year after the relocation program began, the United States took assimilating Native Americans a step further.
Congress decided to begin dissolving treaties, dismantling tribal governments, and eliminating reservations. It was called termination.
"When you compare termination and relocation to all of the policies of the past, in my mind, it's probably the most dangerous," historian Donald Fixico says.
Congress's decision to terminate Native tribes came in the form of House Concurrent Resolution 108. It's only a few paragraphs long, and Congress barely discussed it before approving it.
Its benign language actually reads like it might be a good thing. It says Native Americans are to become "subject to the same laws and entitled to the same privileges and responsibilities as are applicable to other citizens of the United States."
What it did was establish the Congress's intent to eliminate all Native tribes. The president and Congress would have to approve the termination of hundreds of tribal communities, one by one. They'd also have to convince each tribe to agree.
The government expected this to take years, but eventually the expectation was that relocation and termination would wipe away reservations and Native Americans.
"We've heard from over 70 tribes to date and the voice has been absolutely unanimous. We have never heard so much resistance on the part of the Indians to any move," Oliver La Farge said on CBS in 1954. He was a white anthropologist and president of the Association on American Indian Affairs.
He went on to call it "the most serious attack on the rights of the Indians that has occurred literally since the founding of the Republic."
"If the Indians don't want it then what's behind it?" the interviewer asks.
"Well," La Farge replies, "a lot of people are impatient with the failure we have made. And think that perhaps we could do better if we merely cut these people loose."
That was certainly the view of U.S. Senator Arthur Watkins, a Republican from Utah, who pioneered the termination legislation. He compared it to the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed millions of enslaved African Americans.
Watkins also saw reservations as wastelands that kept people in poverty. He believed government aid nurtured dependence and a sense of entitlement. "They want all the benefits of the things we have, highways, schools, hospitals, everything that civilization furnished, but they don't want to help pay their share of it," Watkins said in one joint hearing on Indian affairs.
It's true that the government was paying for schools and hospitals and roads in Indian Country, albeit not very well by the government's own admission. It was doing so because it had signed some 374 treaties saying it would. In exchange for land and peace, the U.S. government had promised Native people protection for eternity, or, to use the government's words "as long as water flows, or grass grows upon the earth." The U.S. government's so-called "trust responsibility" for Native Americans is a legal obligation that has been upheld by the Supreme Court numerous times.
Some tribes were largely funding these services themselves. For example, the Menominee in Wisconsin and the Klamaths in Oregon both had a lot of timber, and the federal government took the revenue from their mills and doled the money back out in the form of inadequate BIA services. Many Native people wanted to get rid of the BIA because of this kind of paternalism — but not at the price of losing their sovereignty.
Speaking on CBS, La Farge gave another explanation for what was behind termination: greed.
"On a lot of Indian land today there is oil. On a lot of Indian land that used to be thought to be desert, there is uranium. The Indians own a lot of very valuable timber. ... There are a lot of reasons why it'd be very convenient to liberate these people so that they had no protection and nobody to defend their rights."
Watkins had another motive for terminating tribal sovereignty. He believed it was God's will. Watkins was Mormon, and in a letter to the leaders of the Church of Latter Day Saints in 1954 he wrote, "It seems to me that the time has come for us to ... help the Indians stand on their own two feet and become a white and delightsome people as the Book of Mormon prophesied they would become."
What he's referencing — the white and delightsome people — is a prophecy that at least some Mormons took literally. They believed if Native Americans joined the Church of Latter Day Saints they would physically become whiter.
The Menominee in Wisconsin were among the first tribes to be terminated. They were chosen, in part, because of their profitable lumber mill. They were said to be "ready" to survive after their tribal government turned into a corporation, and their reservation turned into private property.
Those Menominee who had not left the reservation on relocation resisted. And then, Watkins paid them a visit.
The United States government owed the Menominee $8.5 million for mismanaging their timber resources. That worked out to about $1,500 per person — more money than most Menominee had ever seen.
"Watkins personally went out to Wisconsin and met with Menominee leaders and told them if you don't accept termination, then you're not getting the money," said historian Douglas Miller, who has researched the period.
Ada Deer was in high school when termination was passed. (She later became the first Native American woman to lead the BIA.) She told me the Menominee approved it without many members fully understanding what they agreed to. "It was an uninformed vote," Deer said. "They didn't understand. It wasn't explained to them what termination meant."
Once they did begin learning what termination involved, it was too late.
A pair of sociologists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison visited the tribe after they had agreed to termination but before it went into effect. They reported that what they heard from tribal members "overwhelmingly reflect[s] a considerable amount of anxiety."
One person told them, "I hope I'm dead before termination comes. I have thought of giving my daughters and granddaughters sleeping pills."
"I don't know how we'll make it — I lay awake at night worrying about it," said another.
"What the old people said about Spirit Rock is proving true. This is the end! The white man won't be satisfied until he makes beggars out of all of us."
Spirit Rock refers to a prophecy about a boulder on the Menominee lands — when it crumbles into nothing, so will the Menominee people.
If the U.S. Congress had wondered what Native people thought would improve conditions on their own lands, they got at least one detailed proposal. The National Congress of American Indians, an Indigenous rights group, put forward an alternative to termination and relocation. The idea was marketed as a kind of Marshall Plan for Indian Country, like the United States had done for Europe after World War II. That plan didn't go anywhere.
Termination went into effect on the Menominee Reservation in 1961, and it became the newest and poorest county in the state.
"People suffered greatly here from termination," Deer told me. "An early thing that happened was a white guy come in and he was the superintendent of the tribal lumber mill. He fired about 150 Menominee men. Well, that was a catastrophe for those families."
Then the only hospital closed. The schools became worse. People began selling their land just to pay the property taxes or feed their families. It was purchased by white people who built private beach clubs and lakeshore homes.
The $1,500 each Menominee received didn't go very far. Deer used it to help with her graduate education. Her sister used hers to go to Juilliard for a year but couldn't afford to graduate. Her brother bought a car, which ended up crashed after not too long. Termination was a catalyst for many Menominee to accept the offer from the BIA to relocate to a city.
"Termination and relocation really kind of go hand in hand," Fixico said. "And so if Native people are relocated to urban areas, and ideally if you relocated an entire reservation, then there would be no need for tribal government, there would be no need for a hospital, and then you would have an open land area that could be used for different things."
Relocation helped termination. As reservations emptied out, including some of the best and brightest, there were fewer people left to help the tribe. And termination helped relocation: As tribes fought termination, they had fewer resources to help their members, and life became more desperate.
Historians estimate just as many people "self-relocated" to cities without any BIA assistance as those who went through the program.
By 1960, a quarter of Native Americans were urban residents. By 1970, nearly half were.
A movement takes shape
In the mid-1960s, the Day family was living in a homestead in the woods near the Nett Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota with no running water, no electricity, no car.
It had been a few years since they had returned from Cleveland, and they had stayed with relatives on the reservation until they found their own place. One day, their mom told the kids they were going to move again, to St. Paul, Minnesota.
Dorene remembers her mom told each of the kids to pick one thing to bring. Dorene picked a doll her dad had found in the dump and wired back together. "My parents always repurposed, reused," she said. "We were like the first environmentalists, I think, because we always went to the dump."
But when a social worker arrived in a big van to pick them up, she only let them bring one suitcase. The kids had to leave their toys behind. "Right away I started to cry," Dorene said. "And my mom looks at me like, you really need to tough this out, and so I did. I got in the van, and we all sat so quiet. Like for four hours, nobody says nothing."
They weren't moving through the BIA's relocation program this time. Instead, they'd gotten help from a local government program. Dorene's dad didn't come with them. He couldn't live in a city again and was struggling with alcoholism. Sharon didn't go with them, either. She went to Seattle to live with her older brother who was relocated there.
Lots of families were split up through relocation. That was, in part, by design. The BIA saw families more as a barrier than a benefit to the objective they were trying to achieve: assimilation into white America.
A white businessman, speaking to anthropologist Ruth Underhill, described the problem that family posed to Native people this way: "They never get ahead because they always have the leeches that will hang on."
"The Indians, however, don't think of the family as leeches," Underhill clarifies, and then cuts to a soundbite from a Lakota man: "It's [the] nature of the Indian to feed every member of his family as long as he's alive. It's nature. He'll do it without a bit of resentment."
When Charlotte Day arrived in St. Paul with five of her children, she found them a small apartment and took the first job she got: cleaning houses on millionaire's row.
She was expected to enter through the back door, and the pay was terrible. But it kept the family going until she took the civil service test and got a job as a cook at the YMCA downtown.
"She could cook anything and it was good," Dorene said. "And so all of my sisters can cook [and] I can cook like that ... except for I'm the only one that makes fry bread like her."
While the federal government's grand plan was that Native people would assimilate and disappear into the American mainstream, the white American mainstream by and large wasn't looking to absorb them.
The BIA, as if in anticipation of the racism Native people would face, actually published a booklet aimed at white people titled, "The Indians Are Coming."
It's about a dozen pages long and illustrated with stick figures and tipis. The artist, presumably the white BIA worker who wrote the pamphlet, made sure to distinguish these stick figures as Native American by drawing them in loincloths and with feathers sticking up from the back of their heads.
On page two, it explains, "Fairness and Justice require that we help American Indian improve their standard of living through their own individual efforts." It goes on to explain that the government is helping Native Americans move from reservations to cities. It concludes, "Treat them and accept them as individuals the same as you and I would like to be treated and accepted."
That's not what happened. Not for Dorene and her family; not for anyone I talked to. People told me about being called every slur you can think of. They told me about being denied jobs and even union membership because they were Native. They told me about entire neighborhoods who signed petitions saying they didn't want a Native family to move in.
The mood in Washington, however, was beginning to change. By the time the Day family moved to St. Paul, the architects of relocation and termination had retired, and the next generation of politicians and bureaucrats was assessing the damage these policies had caused.
With President John F. Kennedy in the White House, the Congress stopped terminating tribes. But the government didn't restore sovereignty to more than 100 tribal communities that had already been terminated. It also didn't restore more than a million acres that had been taken from tribes.
In March 1968, President Lyndon Johnson sent a letter to Congress detailing what he called Native Americans' "tragic plight" — 40 percent unemployment, 50 percent high school drop-out rates, and a life expectancy of 44.
Johnson called for an end to termination and for Native people to have control over their own resources and governments: to have "self-determination." That's what Native Americans had long sought, since before the government came up with relocation and termination.
In his letter, Johnson said Native Americans should have "freedom of choice: An opportunity to remain in their homelands, if they choose, without surrendering their dignity; an opportunity to move to the towns and cities of America, if they choose, equipped with the skills to live in equality and dignity."
But these proposals stalled in Congress.
The Red School House
Shortly after Johnson sent his letter to Congress, a group of Native activists founded the American Indian Movement, or AIM, in Minneapolis to respond to the hardships Native people faced as a result of relocation.
"The relocation program was in full effect at the time," one of AIM's co-founders, Clyde Bellecourt, told me. "And absolutely nothing was being done to upgrade conditions that Native people were forced to live under here in America."
AIM's first order of business was policing the police. The AIM Patrol, as they called themselves, roamed the streets with cameras to document police brutality against Native people.
And then, their focus quickly broadened to fighting employment discrimination and defending treaty rights on reservations in northern Minnesota.
Minneapolis and St. Paul had become a magnet for Native people. They were never intended to be BIA relocation cities, but the agency did set up a relocation office in Minneapolis by popular demand. Native people chose the Twin Cities because they were close enough to many reservations to allow people to go back and forth. As the Native community grew, so did their political power. Dorene's mom, Charlotte, got involved with AIM.
"Protesting the rat-infested dilapidated housing that Indian people were living in," Dorene said. "Any time there was a situation where the community was being called together to stand up for our rights, she was there."
AIM joined the takeover of Alcatraz Island off the coast of California in 1969 organized by a group called Indians of All Tribes.
Activists on the island cited a provision of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie that stated all out-of-use federal land should return to Native people. Alcatraz had been vacant since the prison closed in 1963, and they were there to collect.
In the middle of this occupation, President Richard Nixon sent a special message to Congress reiterating what his predecessor had called for two years prior, and he offered a sharp rebuke to termination.
He wrote that Native Americans surrendered claims to vast tracts of land in exchange for services like health care, education and public safety (which, Nixon admitted, the government never did a good job of providing). He wrote that these agreements, spelled out in treaties, continued to carry "immense moral and legal force."
"To terminate this relationship would be no more appropriate than to terminate the citizenship rights of any other American," he wrote.
But his message didn't carry any legal force. So AIM kept protesting.
In 1971, the group occupied Mount Rushmore. They took over the Bureau of Indians Affairs offices in Denver in 1970 and in Washington, D.C., in 1972.
"We're sick and tired of sitting back and turning the other cheek and bend over get those other two kicked," one activist told a TV reporter at Mount Rushmore. "You're going to see some wide awake educated Indians. We got some new Indians coming up, new warriors."
What came to be called the Red Power movement was going full steam. Marlon Brando sent Sacheen Little Feather to the Academy Awards in his place in 1973. She rejected his Oscar for him over boos from the crowd because of the United States' treatment of Native Americans.
Most famously, AIM took over the town of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1973. For 71 days group members exchanged gunfire with federal officers. Two people died.
AIM members got the most media attention for their protests and armed occupations, but they also ran programs that directly served Native people. AIM started a health clinic in Minneapolis, the first of its kind in the country. They managed the first and only American Indian-preference Section 8 housing project in the country. It's called Little Earth and includes more than 200 units on nearly 10 acres in Minneapolis. Though AIM doesn't run it anymore, Little Earth still exists.
AIM even had lawyers on staff to help Native families caught up in the legal system. They went to court with Dorene's mom when she asked them to — Dorene's older siblings were getting into fights at school, or, more often, just not going.
"And the social worker took it upon herself to go and file to take my mother's children away," Dorene said. "Never once communicating to her, never coming to our house, never knowing if she even had a job. Nothing.
"The social worker assumed that because these kids were starting to speak up for themselves, that meant they were trouble," Dorene said. "That meant that they came from a broken home. That meant that their parents were drinking. That meant all of the things that were like, you know, the stereotypical ways of thinking about who we are as Indigenous people."
Native children at this time, both on reservations and in cities, were being put in foster care at a disproportionately high rate. In the 1970s, as many as a third of Native children were forcibly removed from their homes and placed with non-Native families. A common reason was truancy.
Because their mom worked so much, Dorene's siblings could pretend they were going to school and then turn around and go right back home. "It's hard sitting in the classroom when you are constantly hearing about Columbus and you're hearing, you know, not your history," Dorene's sister Charlene told me. "And so we just didn't participate that much in school."
AIM helped Charlotte win in court. Her kids didn't have to go into foster care.
But Dorene's mom also didn't want to put them back into public school, so she walked back into the AIM office in St. Paul to talk to one of its leaders, Eddie Benton-Banai.
"And she said, 'You've been talking about starting a school. Well, I need you to do that today,'" Dorene remembers.
They named it the Red School House. It opened in 1972 with an AIM-run sister school in Minneapolis called Heart of the Earth. They were among the first Indigenous-controlled schools in the country.
The first classes were held in a church basement. Then they moved to a community center. Dorene's mom, Charlotte, collected food stamps from all the families and prepared lunch for the students. Eventually, they got a two-story brick building in a working-class neighborhood of St. Paul. It served 150 students in kindergarten through 12th grade until it ran into financial troubles in the 1990s and closed.
Dorene says the school was transformative. "To have an Indian person that sang to you ... or that was just, you know, sitting in ceremony with you or told you about tobacco or told you about dancing or helped you make your regalia. Anything like that was so empowering. And not only was it empowering, it was like this special, special feeling," Dorene said.
It was often a refuge for the parents as well as the children.
"I sent my children to the Red School House, so they could learn what I didn't know to teach them," Sandy King told me. She grew up on the Red Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota and relocated three times. She eventually wound up in St. Paul and worked as a grant writer for the Red School House. "Ceremony every morning. Drum every afternoon. Kids hugged each other. It was really an ideal place."
King and Dorene Day both remember the day Social Services came to take a child into foster care. "Everybody said, 'No they're not. Not while we're here,'" Dorene said. Everyone locked arms and wouldn't let them in. "Nobody could come take any child from that place," King said.
Native activism had an effect, and throughout the 1970s, oppressive federal policies began to unravel. President Richard Nixon appointed a Native American BIA commissioner who in 1972 ordered an end to relocation.
In 1973, Menominee activist Ada Deer led a group that successfully pushed for Congress to restore their tribal sovereignty. Other tribes soon did the same, though not all terminated tribes were restored.
"So the rock legend has proved to be wrong," Deer told me, referring to Spirit Rock, which has continued to erode over the years.
Termination officially came to an end in 1975, when Congress passed the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act. It explicitly stated that tribes have the right to manage their own affairs, including running their own schools. In 1978, Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act, meant to prevent Native children from being taken from their parents and given to non-Native families.
While relocation and termination ended, the damage remains: Native Americans still endure disproportionally high rates of unemployment, homelessness, violence, mental illness and addiction.
When Dorene was 16, her father was found dead in a pond in northern Minnesota. He'd never moved to St. Paul and never really quit drinking, either. But he would visit once a month bringing fresh rabbit and deer meat and sometimes some extra money.
Sharon was 23 when it happened. She's the one who drove her mom up to Virginia, Minnesota, to collect his remains.
When they got to his house, they saw blood and a smashed bottle. She says the police hadn't been there.
"And so then I went down to the police station in Virginia, and I said, 'Why have you not gone to the house where he lived and gathered that as evidence?'" Sharon remembers. "They were like, 'He fell.' Then my mother got upset, you know, and said to them, 'When an Indian dies, you don't care. You've never arrested anybody for killing an Indian.'"
When the autopsy came back, they didn't find any water in his lungs. The cause of death was a brain hemorrhage, likely from a fight. The crime has never been solved.
More than four out of five Native Americans have been victims of violence, according to a 2010 survey. Native women are particularly vulnerable, which has given rise to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women's movement. Most of the violence is perpetrated by people of other races.
The night after Sharon's family buried their father, she relapsed and started drinking again.
"Today they call it, like, adverse childhood experiences. I had all of them, right?" Sharon said. She had already gone to treatment for alcoholism and had been sober for two years when her father died. She drank for six months after her relapse and then got sober again. She's been in recovery ever since.
Shortly after that, Sharon and Dorene drove deep into the woods in Wisconsin — "somewhere in the bush" — to go into a Midewiwin lodge, where the traditional religion is practiced by the Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatomi. They hadn't been in a Midewiwin ceremony before, but Sharon said it was so familiar.
"I saw the person drawing and telling a story, and I knew that. Because that's what my dad would do with us under the pine tree," Sharon said. "And then when [Dad] got done, he would sing, and we would dance. That's what we did in the lodge."
Dorene stayed on that spiritual path. Today, she's a fourth-degree Midewiwin, which is like having a theology degree; it means she lives according to a set of Midewiwin principles and values. She's also a midwife.
She visits tribal communities across the upper Midwest and parts of Canada to teach the ceremonies and traditions that even when she was a teenager were against the law (Congress passed the Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978, which states Native people have the right to practice their own Indigenous religions).
Dorene says it's this spiritual path that will help Indigenous people heal. "And I say that because I myself have been healing my entire life," Dorene said. "And I didn't get there by myself. I had an entire community that revolved around my well-being in order for me to become a person that now will look toward the well-being of my community."
A growing body of research on what's called historical trauma shows how traumatic events can affect later generations. One longitudinal study of more than a thousand Native people living on or near reservations found higher rates of depression, substance use, and delinquent behaviors like stealing among the children and grandchildren of those who were relocated.
"Relocation is like ripping you from everything you know," Dorene said. "And it's ripping you from that bond you have with the wild rice, with the lakes, with the strawberries and blueberries ... the place you know."
Other studies have shown how Indian boarding schools and foster care also inflicted trauma that affected later generations.
"Nobody is going to heal us but ourselves," Dorene says. "We have the stories. We have the medicines. We have the tools. Those are our gifts. Those are the things that our ancestors died for, that we need to pick up and bring back into the breath of the community. And it's happening. It's happening all over Indian Country."
The Wall of Forgotten Natives
Early in the summer of 2018, a handful of tents appeared on a strip of grass in between an eight-lane highway and a concrete barrier in Minneapolis.
It's not the type of place you would notice, unless you saw a bunch of tents there. It's an urban no-man's land, which for half the year is covered in snow and debris pushed off the highway.
In the following weeks, more and more people moved in and set up their own tents. There were people with toddlers and babies. Working people. People deep in their addictions to alcohol and opioids.
By August, the recently sworn-in mayor of Minneapolis, Jacob Frey, visited the encampment with his even more recently appointed police chief, Medaria Arradondo. Unlike in other cities that have cleared out homeless encampments, they decided no one would have to move and no one would be arrested. Instead, they handed out food and water.
"Everyone deserves a home," Frey told a media scrum at the encampment. "Everyone should have a safe place where they can head to for the night and rejuvenate for the next day." The city brought in portable toilets and sinks. They set up portable street lights and police cameras for safety.
And then, the encampment really took off, swelling to the largest anyone can remember in Minnesota. A tipi went up, and then another one. You could see them from the highway, smoke rising from the tops. Eventually, there were more than 200 tents, pitched cheek-by-jowl, right next to a highway called "Hiawatha Avenue."
Most everyone living in the encampment was Native American, which inspired its name: the Wall of Forgotten Natives.
The city had set a goal of getting everyone off the street by the end of September. But the end of September came and went. There were just too many people and not enough housing or shelter beds. Instead, the encampment continued to grow.
There was a constant stream of donated clothes and camping supplies. Hot meals were served every day, sometimes cooked over a large fire as cars whizzed by. Outreach workers brought around clean needles and the drug Narcan, which can reverse an opioid overdose. Dealers went tent by tent, too.
People also came for community. Angela Senogles-Bowen, a member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and a descendant of the Red Lake Nation, was one of the first people to set up a tent.
"I love it. I love that all the Natives, all the homeless Natives, come together as one," she told me. "It kinda feels like way back when. When the tribes were a big tribe. And we're living outside. And we're surviving."
The encampment forced city and state officials to confront two facts that had been reported in research papers year after year: Native Americans are among the most likely to be homeless, and they've been particularly hard hit by the opioid epidemic.
"The encampment really is the end result of all of these failed government policies towards American Indians for the last, you know, 500 years," Sharon said.
Native-led nonprofits reached into their operating budgets to help. They set up portable showers, a warming tent and a phone-charging station. They provided food and camping gear. They sent in social workers to sign people up for drug and alcohol treatment.
But it wasn't enough. And, as Minnesota winter approached, everyone knew it wasn't a safe place for people to stay.
The city decided to build a new, temporary shelter. But they didn't have anywhere to put it, until the Red Lake Nation stepped forward. The Ojibwe tribe, with a reservation in northern Minnesota, offered the city land it owns, not on the reservation, but just on the other side of the highway from the encampment. Red Lake also provided health care inside the encampment and used its tribal authority to sign people up for a state housing subsidy.
Freezing temperatures and snow arrived in Minneapolis before the city could open the shelter. People covered their nylon tents with several tarps and huddled around campfires right there on the sidewalk next to the highway.
When the shelter did open, more than 150 people from the encampment moved in.
One day, after the shelter opened, I drove north five hours from the Twin Cities to the Red Lake reservation to see tribal secretary Sam Strong to find out why the tribe was so involved in the encampment.
Strong is 36 years old. He wears his hair in a long braid down his back. Strong didn't grow up on the reservation. His dad went on relocation to Los Angeles in the 1960s, and then moved to Minneapolis where Strong was born. Shortly after, they moved to North Carolina, where Strong grew up.
"Red Lake is so large that it's actually represented on most maps, which is awesome. As a little kid you always look for it. You know, I always thought, 'Hey, that's where I'm from,'" Strong says.
His path back to the reservation started when he was 16 and entered treatment for drug and alcohol addiction in North Carolina. It was a culturally specific facility run by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. And an elder there said he should go to Minnesota and work for his own tribe.
"He said, 'I want you to be a planner. I want you to go back to your people, and plan out your community in a way that is respectful of our traditions. And I know you can do it because I see that you have respect for our people and our way of life, but you also understand how to work in today's world and you can combine those two.' So I became a planner.
"Crazy, right?" Strong said. "And then I did it. That's even the crazier part."
After treatment, Strong finished high school then got accepted to Cornell University. The first summer after going off to school he came back to the reservation to work as a planner in the tribal roads and engineering department. He told me he helped plan out $20 million in roads and worked with the community to get its approval. The tribe is still working off some of those plans.
Strong moved back to the reservation with his dad about 17 years ago. He eventually got a job as the director of economic development. It's only recently, in 2018, that he was elected tribal secretary, one of three full-time council positions.
It's a challenging job. Of the 5,000 tribal members living on the reservation, 90 percent live below the poverty level. Most people live in small, manufactured homes spread far apart, which means if you can't afford a car, and many can't, it's hard to get around the reservation and even harder to get to a job. The reservation's remote location also means its casino isn't very profitable. But to see the reservation through Strong's eyes is to see its possibilities.
"We want to be fully independent. You know one of our goals here is to be a sovereign nation, totally independent. And by that I mean energy, food, culture, education, and our economy," Strong says. And he wants to do it in the next 20 years.
It's an ambitious goal. But in just about every facet of self-sustainability, the tribe is making progress.
Strong helped start a food sovereignty program with the goal of growing enough produce to feed the tribe and then some. A couple years in and they have a few productive acres. But they recently ran into a familiar roadblock: finding a bank to loan them money for a tractor.
Energy-wise, they have some geothermal and are looking to build a solar garden. In education, Red Lake has expanded Ojibwe language instruction in school with the aim of having a full-immersion K-12 program one day.
On top of all this, they are expanding into Minneapolis, with plans for their first housing project off the reservation. It's a 110-unit affordable housing complex just on the other side of the highway from where the encampment, the Wall of Forgotten Natives, was.
"I think the important thing about being from Red Lake is that it's a way of life," Strong said. "And that way of life can be lived in Minneapolis. It can be lived in Red Lake, it can be lived wherever they are. And we want to maintain that identity. We want to maintain that culture, and in today's world, we've got to look at the reality of where our people are."
One of the lasting legacies of termination and relocation is that there are now two centers of gravity for Native people. Half of Red Lake band members live off the reservation, mostly in or near Minneapolis.
"You look at termination and relocation and what it has caused and it has actually [resulted in] two kinds of Indians and two kind of mindsets," historian Donald Fixico says. "And you would think that one would replace the other, but in fact with Native people being more inclusive, then it only expanded Indian Country in a very unusual way."
When the federal government changed course in the 1970s, it shifted funding from urban areas back to reservations even though, by then, most Native people lived in cities. This made it harder for the Native-led nonprofits which had sprung up to help people in cities.
It's still relatively rare for tribal governments to have a large presence in cities, which is partly a function of not being able to afford to.
Red Lake managed to find 18 organizations to help fund and finance the new housing development in Minneapolis, which was a jaw-dropping number to everyone involved. The building will also have a Red Lake embassy and a clinic.
"The cool part about it all is not only does it work, but it will benefit us in the long term," Strong said. "It creates sustainability. We're being a developer. We're creating assets. We're internalizing our health care functions, and providing better health care instead of someone else profiting off of people with substandard health care. So it's really an empowering thing."
The tribe broke ground on the site in September with song, prayer and gold shovels emblazoned with Ojibwe floral patterns.
Not too far away, tents here and there were visible, pitched next to the freeway. The city of Minneapolis decided it wouldn't let another large encampment form, so people have to camp scattered far apart and as out-of-sight as possible.
The Red Lake building won't come close to serving all the Native people who need housing. The nearby Little Earth housing project has a waiting list of hundreds of names. But it's a step forward.
"This is a place where our people can gather and carry on our way of life," Strong said at the groundbreaking. "Many of us were displaced here, and this trauma has hurt our people. This development is the start of a path towards healing [and] it's the start of a path toward bringing our people back together."
They've named the building Mino-Bimaadiziwin. It means, "Live the good life."