'Invisible' Urban Indians

Ralph Forquera and Polly Olsen

Urban Indians are not new to the urban scene, as New York Times reporter Timothy Williams suggested in his article, "Quietly, Indians Reshape Cities and Reservations," published online Saturday, April 13.

Nor is their ongoing struggle against invisibility new, as Williams accurately depicts.

In 2007, the Urban Indian Health Institute at the Seattle Indian Health Board published a report titled, Invisible Tribes: Urban Indians and Their Health In the 21st Century.

The report was based on work done by a two-year Urban Indian Health Commission funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation looking at health disparities for urban Indians living with diabetes, heart disease and depression. In the same study we also chronicled the decades-long movement of Indians to cities, a movement that was accelerated in the 1950s by now-discredited federal policies of terminating tribes and relocating Indians to cities

William’s article focuses on Minneapolis, and a single neighborhood where Indians settled in the 1950s, and which remains a hub of Indian organizations and community. This is not the norm for the urban Indian migration experience. Seattle is more typical because Indians live everywhere, though especially in the outer neighborhoods and suburbs where rents are more affordable. Poverty and unemployment rates are high, and school success rates are lower than that of other communities. As we see at the Seattle Indian Health Board, health problems are acerbated by the social conditions many urban Indians face.

Many of the social conditions, such as homelessness and rental instability, contribute to the sense of invisibility. And often invisibility is one of the barriers that prevent social service providers from recognizing the needs of this urban community.

The Seattle Indian Health Board was established in 1970, at a time when the United States was trying to rectify some of the damage the country had created by relocating large numbers of Indians to cities.

But in the last 40 years two presidents sought to eliminate funding for urban Indian health. President Reagan did not ask for money for urban Indians in the first six budgets he sent to Congress. President George W. Bush zeroed out the urban Indian health program on his last three budgets. Fortunately, Congress added the funding back.

Still, the funding for urban Indian health remains a scant 1 percent of the Indian Health Service budget, even while the percentage of Indians living in cities has reached 71 percent. Regardless of whether they live on reservation or in an urban area, the health crisis among Indians continues at shocking rates for an industrialized country.

Congress grants very few dollars to aid urban Indians, and runs the risk in this era of budget cutting of eliminating some urban Indians from receiving the health care promised in federal law and treaties.

The Constitution, Laws, Supreme Court decisions, executive orders and treaties have not been effective instruments for protecting the promises the federal government made to Indians. This is even more the case for the growing majority of Indians who live in cities where they are too often overlooked and forgotten.

Ralph Forquera is executive director of the Seattle Indian Health Board. Polly Olsen, Yakama, is President of the Seattle Indian Health Board’s of Board of Directors.

You need to be logged in in order to post comments
Please use the log in option at the bottom of this page




Anonymous's picture
The preference obviously is to live at 'home'. Unless family has extensive poltical ties with the tribal govt, local community developments/projects, a thread to the social fabric of the community, then your family is on owns AGAINST this organized effort to remove or cut U out of the native community! There was a time when the older generation stood firm to cultural beliefs and traditions (but they are slowly dying out). Of course the instinct is to fight and make a stand against 'native' discrimination from within the community. However, when efforts start to impact YOUR children as collateral damage, where or how do U start to fight if now YOUR efforts are to DEFEND? Unfortunately 'organized crime' from legit tribal govts and local indian interests don't help to sustain family to Indian Tribe or Indian Nation. What is an 'urban' family left with but to seek opportunities and chance to improve the livlihood of family. This explains why SOME illegals from Central Americas and all parts of the world seek to do - a chance to improve their lives while their recognized govts look the other way.
Anonymous's picture
U.S; institutional. Oppression, Repressive Indian policies and International Indian laws, created out of violent terrorist white domination of Indigenous Red Life, only to kill, steal, rape and destroy. Only to covet our intrinsic indigenous ancient sovereign homeland's on this continent, that are enslave by an empire who exploits life, then kill's it, because of its lust for power and greed to enslave all human being's, created in the Image of God! The BIA and IRA Corporate Tribal Phony Governments don't care a less about Urban Indians as it does "ReZ Refugee Imprison, internment camp's", nor does the U.S. Indians a are already caged, to be slowly exterminated destroyed. This is the Truth of America and its illegitimacy nation that are tools and worshipers of Satan and his consumer driven lust to kill life and our sovereign intrinsic divine consecrated indigenous red homelands. US Indian Laws and Policies were created to slowly in the end exterminated any human and national Indigenous and sovereign claims, human right to our gifted red homeland's and resources ordained and appointed to us by God! The U.S. Taxpayers' are complicit to the crime of genocide, international destruction of red sovereign traditional governments and life itself, in general, with the help of the beast they worship, called the United States of America. America isn't free, powerful, comfortable and wealthy because God has blessed it, no, It's because for centuries on our divine red traditional homeland's, it exploit's the poor, land and human beings of earth for ill gains, and profit to dominate, posses and control, only to destroy more life only to commit international political sponsored Genocide of all First Nation's Peoples!
Anonymous's picture
I've worked in an inpatient treatment center for Native People in the city of Seattle for over 12 years, as well as through other urban agencies as well; what is shared is absolutely true. The disparities continue. One of the main contributing issues that underlies the alcoholism and drug addictions among Native People, that has not been well addressed as yet, is the effects of past trauma and abuse - both "historic trauma" as well as resulting domestic violence. To a great extent, we are yet addressing symptoms rather than the first-cause issues. Until we do, all these other manifestations of disparities will continue, hardly changed. Even cultural emphasis will not heal the wounds of past abuse and historic trauma.