Urban exiles

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 70, recalled.

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."

Crisis response

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 history.

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 your meals.'"

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.

Growing awareness

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 people."

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 felt lonesome."

The centers sponsored dances, powwows and classes - and they were, according to Ono, the petri dishes where the American Indian Movement started to germinate.

"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, Wash.

"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 my compadres."

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 was lost."

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 a bar."

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 said.

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 on KGAK.

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."




Reprinted as an historical reference document under the Fair Use doctrine of international copyright law. http://www4.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.html