Now that President Trump has given the go-ahead for construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, protest organizers are calling on their supporters from around the country to return to the camps in North Dakota.
The protests at Standing Rock show the power of pan-tribal political organizing. But it’s not the first time members of different tribes have banded together to pursue a political win on the national stage.
You’ll find the first hint on the Facebook page of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe with inspirational photos of John Trudell, a nationally known Native American activist who first came to prominence as the spokesperson for the United Indians of All Tribes’ occupation of Alcatraz, here in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The story of how Trudell and tens of thousands of others got to California, and went on to develop a modern political consciousness, is covered in the exhibition Cement Prairie: The History and Legacy of the 1952 American Indian Urban Relocation Program. The show is currently on display at New Museum Los Gatos (NUMU).
Cement Prairie details how 750,000 Native Americans left their reservations for big cities between 1950 and 1980, the result of a federal policy known as “Urban Relocation.”
While the government helped transplants find schooling and jobs in urban centers, Cement Prairie‘s curator, Amy Long, says the promise of self-improvement came with a presumption. “The government was hoping with relocation that Indians would come here by bus or car and assimilate into the mainstream and the cities,” Long says. “And then they would just kind of disappear with the rest of us.”
The rooms at NUMU are filled with family photos, quilts, drums, and other artifacts that tell of a mass migration to California in the last century. The exhibition’s title, Cement Prairie, derives from the way cities like San Jose stood in concrete contrast to the wide, grassy plains of home. Arriving in California, many Native Americans felt dislocated, alienated and lonely.
The personal is political
Take the story of Al Cross, who left his tribal lands in North Dakota for San Jose in 1960. “A lot of the young people that left came out here, to the West Coast,” Cross says. “They knew where it was good! Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose.
“What saved me, I think, was meeting with other Indian people,” Cross says. At first, he worked in a soap factory. Eventually, he started going to night school and got a degree at the University of California Berkeley in social welfare. This launched his career as a social worker, working mostly with Native Americans.
At 82 years of age, Cross is one of several transplants, now elderly, featured in the exhibition’s oral testimony video, a collaboration between NUMU and San Jose State’s anthropology department.
Eventually, Native Americans living in California’s urban center found each other. Santa Clara Native American community member Arvine Pilcher says Native Americans gradually developed a sense of cross-tribal unity because of their shared experience out west. “We’ve all become one nation, living in California,” Pilcher says. “We’re not Navajos, Eskimos, Sioux, you know, Nez Perce. I really feel like we’re all one nation.”
Health centers, amateur basketball leagues, regional potlucks and pow wows — these were the building blocks of a new community. But during the political foment of the 1960s, talk turned to how best to protest federal policies and demand reparation.
There were several attempts to occupy Alcatraz, culminating in a 19-month effort led largely by a group of local college students called United Indians of All Tribes. Trudell was the group’s spokesman. “If we’re free, we want the right to make our own decisions,” he says in video footage from one of the many press conferences held on the island at that time. “We don’t want the ‘Great White Father’ making the decision for us.”
In the end, the occupiers didn’t win Alcatraz. But organizer Adam Fortunate Eagle, in the 2001 documentary Alcatraz Is Not an Island, says the protest had positive consequences. “We awoke Indian people individually. We awoke tribes. We awoke the media. We awoke the United States Government,” he says.
The Nixon Administration passed a series of reforms, and, among other things, returned large chunks of reservation lands across the country.
Long says Urban Relocation left a lasting legacy for Native Americans, one aspect of which is showing a united front when standing up for human and civil rights. “They wound up finding each other, and rediscovering their Indianness,” Long says. “Creating what we see today, like what we see at pow wows, and in the cities, and Standing Rock.”
‘Cement Prairie: The History and Legacy of the 1952 American Indian Urban Relocation Program’ is on view at New Museum Los Gatos (NUMU) through Sunday, Jun. 25. Details and information here.