The literature on urban Indians suggests that Indians do not form urban ghettos.

There Are No Urban Indian Ghettos

Duane Champagne

The literature on urban Indians suggests that Indians do not form urban ghettos. If a ghetto or Indian ghetto is defined as neighborhoods, say a square city block that is predominantly populated by individuals from the same tribe, like Navajo or Cherokee, let alone Indians from a variety of tribes, then there are no such social formations in any major urban area in the United States.

Most ethnic ghettos are places were members of a particular culture, religion or nationality are assigned by law or discrimination to live in certain sectors of a city. For example, before the 1960s, many ethnic groups like Poles, Jews, Italians, Irish and others, were restricted to live in certain sections of Chicago by law. During the 1960s anti-discrimination laws made the ethnic living patterns of old Chicago no longer legal, and the same for the rest of the United States, although there are still tendencies in certain historical ethnic neighborhoods that persist.

Some tribes live where urban environments have grown up around them. For federally recognized tribes with a reservation land base, the tribal community is clearly marked off. However, for non-federally recognized tribes, there are powerful real estate companies and interests that buy and sell land, and are not encumbered by Indian title. Non-recognized Indian nations whose traditional territory lay within the path of urban development are not able to control significant plots of land, their sale, or occupation.

There are two Indian Missions within Los Angels County. Many Indian villages formerly located there were populated by Chumash, Tongva, Tataviam, and other Indian language groups. Since the 1850s, Indian agents suggested that Indians traditionally living in present-day Los Angeles County should move to Indian reservations. A few did temporarily, but the non-ratification of the 18 treaties in California, including the Fort Tejon Treaty affecting Los Angeles County, ruled out sustainable legal claims to land for California Indians and led to the decline of an early reservation system in California.

The Office of Federal Acknowledgment suggests petitioning tribes show that they live in a community when located in an urban environment. By this they mean that the tribal members lived contiguously in a specific area, like in a homogenous village or ghetto. The OFA used this definition when handing the disposition of the petition from the Jauñeno, or the Indians of Mission San Juan Capistrano. Many Indians in Los Angeles County live on traditional territory, and sometimes near former villages, but do not Iive in ghettos, since they have little control over real estate.

Many Indians fought the loss of their traditional lands, but lost their houses and farms in local district courts and were subject to eviction. The most well known case is that of Rogerio Rocha, Captain of the Indians at San Fernando, who in 1885 was evicted from land his family had lived on for generations. There are many other cases. Nevertheless, many non-recognized Indians in southern California either still live on traditional land, often near their mission, or have been removed from living near traditional village locations.


The OFA standard of a village or ghetto community for urban tribal groups is not feasible, and should be modified to accommodate contemporary living styles of urban residents. Urban Indian people still make contact through family, lineage, Indian programs, community and tribal government meetings, phone, and other technologies. People maintain Indian, community, and the tribal identities, by living on traditional territory, and maintaining community organizational contacts, and tribal government participation and membership. Non-recognized Indian people living in urban areas should have the option to show their continued community and political commitment through organizations and contacts that reflect the urban environment and the history of local tribal community relations and membership rules.

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Mark Rogers
Mark Rogers
Submitted by Mark Rogers on
Very insightful column Duane. In NYC and Long Island, the local tribes make use of the American Indian Community House and functions in the area to maintain cultural continuity. Historically, we have blended into the surrounding communities out of necessity and you will not find any community that is specific to Natives. I think the standard should acknowledge the fact that we still reside within our traditional territories which consist of the boroughs of NYC and Long Island.

Sammy7's picture
Submitted by Sammy7 on
A great sadness rests over the urban cities where the genocidal policy of removing Indian Peoples from their Territories and Reservations for the purpose of assimilation is occurring. Now, Indians are not fully accepted by their Tribal Peoples and are often referred to as outlanders or thinbloods. Many of their islands of hope, the Indian Centers have disappeared, or are run by full bloods whose hostile or exclusionary behaviors have destroyed any sense of community. Now, Tribal Peoples are cooperating in the genocide of their own peoples. Blood quantum, not culture seems to be the measuring stick, yet it is a genocidal belief. The unity of the urban and rez is being destroyed. In some places it no longer exists at all. Urban Indians are now invisible to both their Tribes and the locals. There are no urban Indian ghetto's because Indians there are invisables.

Prof P's picture
Prof P
Submitted by Prof P on
There was a high concentration of Mohawk families in Boerum Hill in Brooklyn, NY, from the 1920s through the early 60s because of the high steel construction in NYC.

RJSalas12's picture
Submitted by RJSalas12 on
When mentioning the Band of Mission Indians in Los Angeles County, simply visit the Barrios/Ghettos of Boyle Heights, Highland Park, Glassell Park, Cypress Park, Whittier, East Los Angeles, all of these neighborhoods have generational links to the Mission Indians of the Gabrieleno Kizh (Not Tongva). Many of these "Mexican Barrios" have a delusional population of Native Peoples who don't even realize their connection (I was one of them). I am pleased that your article points out the non-ratification of the 18 treaties to include Fort Tejon. California's Indigenous history is different in so many ways with respect to the rest of the United States. Please contact Chairman Andy Salas http://www.gabrielenoindians.org/Site/WELCOME.html