Navajos reminisce about
the relocation years
By Cindy Yurth, Tséyi' Bureau,
Navajo Times, FEBRUARY 14, 2008
Chinle - If the two BIA agents had
caught James Tsosie on a better day, his life might
have been different.
As it was, he was plowing the cornfield
at his family's farm in Salina Springs, Ariz., with
his cheii's two recalcitrant horses.
One horse was pulling one way, the other
horse the other way, and neither was as the 12-year-old
wanted them to go.
"The BIA men got out of their car,
came up to me and asked me if I wanted to go to boarding
school in Brigham City, Utah," Tsosie, now almost
The youth thought about his life so
far. He was either out in the desert with the sheep,
living on goat's milk and corn mush, or here in the
field with his cheii's stubborn horses.
He didn't know where Utah was, and had
only the vaguest notion what boarding school was all
about, but it had to be better than this.
He got in the car.
"I just left the horses and wagon
sitting there," he recalled.
Tsosie's first year at Intermountain
Inter-Tribal School, "I thought I was going to
die of lonesome."
After that, he was OK.
"I missed our food, poor as it
was," but he liked indoor plumbing and the carpentry
classes he was taking.
By the time graduation rolled around,
the 18-year-old Tsosie was feeling pretty cosmopolitan.
After all, he had learned his way around a town of 20,000
people, and occasionally made it down to Salt Lake City,
which was bigger still.
Then the BIA men showed up again, offering
him a berth in the bureau's new Indian Relocation Program.
Would Tsosie like to go to California?
Why not? he thought.
Around that time, a junior at Gallup
High School named Glenn Avery had just learned his girlfriend
was pregnant. This was the mid-1950s and though neither
he nor the girl felt particularly committed to the relationship,
they got married.
"In those days, it was either that
or go into the service," Avery said.
When he learned of the relocation program,
he jumped on it.
"I had no diploma, no skills, no
job and I was about to have a family," he said.
"I had to do something."
For Richard Beyal, joining the program
was more of a lark. He had been all over the country
working for the railroad, so relocating to Los Angeles
was no big deal.
"In those days, if you had any
ambition at all, you had no choice but to get off the
reservation," said Beyal, who now lives in Phoenix.
"There was nothing on the
reservation. People say that now, but back then it was
literally true - there were no jobs."
The three Navajos were among 100,000
Native Americans relocated to urban areas by the BIA
between 1947 and 1973.
According to Azusa Ono, who is just
finishing a history of Denver's Native communities for
her doctoral dissertation at Arizona State University,
it was a painful yet pivotal chapter in Native American
Ono said the Indian Urban Relocation
Program started in 1947 among the Navajos and Hopis
as a response to a crisis on the two reservations.
"It had been a very bad winter,
with one blizzard after another," Ono recounted.
"People were starving. The veterans were coming
home and couldn't find jobs."
Meanwhile, in the large cities of the
West and Midwest, the post- World War II boom was dawning.
Construction companies couldn't build houses fast enough
to accommodate all the newly married returning servicemen
eager to put down roots.
The clang of swords being beaten into
plowshares rang off every hill as factories that once
churned out the machinery of war scrambled to make products
for a world at peace.
Someone at the Bureau of Indian Affairs
decided the best way to get Natives out of poverty would
be to get them off the reservations and into the cities
where they'd have a chance at some of those jobs.
By 1952, when Beyal joined, the program
had extended nationwide. Relocation offices had been
set up in Denver, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles and Chicago.
Later the program was expanded to Oakland
and San Jose, Calif., Dallas, Cleveland and St. Louis.
Most Navajos, like Tsosie, Avery and
Beyal, ended up in California.
Basically, "the government put
you on a bus and had someone meet you at the other end,"
Tsosie recalled. "I got on the bus. I didn't know
where I was going."
The bus traveled throughout the night
and Tsosie woke up in a bustling city. It was San Francisco.
"Salt Lake had a few tall buildings
then, but nothing like that," Tsosie said. "There
were buildings so tall you couldn't see the top."
The relocation agent met Tsosie at the
bus station and took him to a hotel.
"He told me, 'This is a hotel.
It's where you'll be staying while we find you a job.
Across the street is a diner. That's where you'll have
The first day, the agent advised Tsosie,
he shouldn't leave the hotel except to walk across the
street to the restaurant. The second day, he could walk
around the outside of the hotel and after that, he could
slowly expand his exploration.
"He told me, 'Don't go into the
city by yourself or you'll never find your way back
here,'" Tsosie recalled.
The young man who had spent so many
years navigating the desert with his sheep thought that
seemed silly, but he took the agent's advice, and was
glad he did.
"He was right," Tsosie said.
"It was easy to get lost in the city."
"It was a sea of strangers,"
recalled Avery, who also ended up in San Francisco with
his teenage bride. "It made you feel real lonely."
The program found Tsosie a job with
a cabinetmaker in San Jose, while Avery was put to work
in a steel rolling mill.
They both started at the bottom, Tsosie
stacking lumber and Avery stacking ingots.
Beyal, meanwhile, had been sent to Los
Angeles, where the agents found a job for him almost
immediately and settled him and his wife in a small
home near the L.A. Coliseum.
The young Navajos worked hard, and it
wasn't long before they started moving up the ranks.
Tsosie still remembers the stifling
summer day in the lumberyard when a boss noticed him,
shirtless and sweating but not slacking.
"He said, 'My God, kid, would you
like to work inside?'" Tsosie said. "After
that, life got a lot easier, building cabinets for rich
By this time, the relocation program
had expanded to provide training and recreational centers
for the displaced Natives, and it wasn't long before
the newly urbanized Navajos discovered them.
"The Indian centers helped a lot,"
said Beyal. "You could always go there when you
The centers sponsored dances, powwows
and classes - and they were, according to Ono, the petri
dishes where the American Indian Movement started to
"Before the centers were set up,
Indians thought of themselves in terms of tribe,"
Ono said. "These were the places where, for example,
Navajos got interested in powwows."
As tribes shared their cultures, intertribal
marriages, which were rare before relocation, became
commonplace. Tsosie, for example, ended up marrying
a Lummi girl he met while doing carpentry work in Bellingham,
"The children of these marriages
identified themselves as Indian rather than any certain
tribe," Ono said.
As Natives from across the country shared
their stories, they began to realize poverty and injustice
were endemic across Indian Country, and some of them
resolved to do something about it.
"You had people like Russell Means
hanging around," Avery said. "He was one of
It could be argued, says Ono, that if
not for relocation and the centers, Native Americans
might have missed the civil rights movement altogether.
"There were good things and bad
things about the tribes coming together," she said.
"People adopted each other's customs and some culture
On the other hand, "They could
join together and organize."
One bad thing about the relocation centers,
at least the San Francisco one, was the location.
"It was on 16th and Mission,"
recalled Avery, referring to a street corner in the
rough Mission District. "Every second door was
The relocated Natives would meet at
the center, but it wasn't long before the party would
move to one of the local hangouts.
"I developed a problem," Avery
admitted. "The usual problem that gets our people."
He wasn't alone - a 1965 study of the
78 Navajo relocatees in Denver at that time found that
half of them had had run-ins with the law, and 95 percent
of those were alcohol-related.
It wasn't just that the young men had
moved from dry reservations to cities where nightlife
and alcohol were readily available.
"They were under a lot of pressure,"
Ono said. "When they went home to visit their relatives
on the reservation, they could see people were suffering,
so they tried to give them as much money as they could.
But they were struggling themselves."
The stress wasn't just financial. The
men's families expected them to find their way home
for every Kinaaldá and Enemy Way, but it was
difficult to convince their Anglo bosses to give them
time off every time a ceremony cropped up.
"I think the government thought
that, once they moved the Indians to the cities, they
would just stay there," Ono said. "They didn't
understand the ties Native people have to their land
and their families."
Avery agreed. "The dominant culture
says, 'Home is where the heart is,' and maybe that's
true for them," he said. "For us, home is
where our umbilical cord is buried."
Beyal managed to make his way back to
Navajo land "every three-day weekend, every holiday,
every time I got a taste for mutton."
What the relocation program created
was a generation that moved freely between the city
and reservation, but felt at home at neither.
"When you came back, the culture
shock was almost as bad as when you left," Tsosie
Eventually, though, most of the relocated
Natives ended up returning to the reservation.
Road leads home
Tsosie got a job in Many Farms, Ariz.,
as a carpenter and later facilities manager for the
BIA. Now he runs his own construction company from his
home in Chinle.
Avery, whose wife had left him by then,
took a pay cut to come home to Gallup. He stayed with
relatives and sobered up out of sheer embarrassment.
"I couldn't stand for my people
to see me drunk," he said. He's now retired and
living in Kirtland, N.M.
Beyal was offered a job with the tribe
in Window Rock and eventually became a popular announcer
Was the relocation program a success?
Among the four people interviewed for this article,
opinions were split evenly.
"They sent us to the city, and
we came back as drunks," Avery said. "If you
call that success, then it was a success."
"If you look at the goals the government
set for the program - to assimilate the Native Americans
and get them out of poverty - it was a failure,"
Ono said. "They didn't assimilate, and most of
them remained poor. It's strange that it lasted 20 years."
But Beyal and Tsosie both say the program
changed their lives for the better.
"I remember those years in L.A.
as good years," Beyal said.
Added Tsosie, "I don't know where
I would be if not for the program. I look at the kids
now, dressed in black, leaning against walls, and I
don't know what life holds for them here.
"I wish the program was still going
on," Tsosie said, "so they could get out of
here and make something of themselves."