Scholarship on American Indian urbanization and the Bureau of Indian Affairs' mid-twentieth-century “voluntary relocation program” often characterizes native relocatees as hapless victims. The disastrous side of urban relocation is well documented: Indian Bureau promises lured native people away from their pastoral reservation existence and tossed them into the maelstrom of urban life, where they struggled to come to terms with modernity. Such accounts were true for many Indian migrants, but not all. Indeed, many native relocatees played an active and informed role in both accepting relocation's challenge and affecting the program's eventual outcome. By focusing attention on Indian appeals for urban industrial work opportunities both during and after World War II, this article contextualizes the relocation program within a larger trend of native people willingly embracing off-reservation employment as a necessary, if not always desirable, means toward supporting their families when reservation economies (and the Indian Bureau) failed them. Such a perspective challenges any notion that native people en masse were passive victims of what were at times nefarious schemes of federal policy makers. To be sure, thousands of Indians did suffer against the backdrop of an undeniably mismanaged program. Numerous relocatees, however, succeeded in using relocation not only as a means to improve their immediate economic prospects but also as an opportunity to clear a path for a generation of young Indians who used greater exposure to the off-reservation world as an avenue toward better education and economic opportunities. Drawing on handwritten letters from native people, relocation subject files, oral histories, and archival sources, this article is an attempt at a fresh analysis of both what was at stake for hopeful Indian relocatees and their attitudes toward the potential benefits and pitfalls of urban migration.
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Douglas K. Miller; Willing Workers: Urban Relocation and American Indian Initiative, 1940s–1960s. Ethnohistory 1 January 2013; 60 (1): 51–76. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00141801-1816175
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