The invisible urban Indian

In politics, urban Indians are invisible.

The 19th century removal from indigenous lands to reservations was followed by a 20th century diaspora to cities. Everett, Tacoma, Seattle, Spokane. Today, 71 percent of Indians live in urban areas with nearly 80 percent separated from reservation life.

Economic opportunity accelerated migration, along with the disastrous experiment of “termination” that liquidated ancestral land and dissolved the federal relationship with certain tribes. Termination began in 1953 with House concurrent resolution 108. It devastated Oregon’s Klamath tribes and Wisconsin’s Menominee.

Since the mid-1970s, one million American Indians and Alaska Natives have been uprooted to cities. They represent the vast majority of native peoples, yet their political clout is inversely proportional to their numbers.

That needs to change.

In the Pacific Northwest, urban Indians lost their most trenchant advocate with the 2000 death of Bernie Whitebear. Whitebear’s United Indians of All Tribes Foundation gave voice to a disparate population. No one — lawmaker or activist — has filled the void.

A 2009 report by the Seattle Indian Health Board’s Urban Indian Health Institute notes the absence of a comprehensive national policy on urban Indian health. This, at a time in Indian Country when rates of diabetes, depression, and heart disease have soared.

The UIHI report states, “Aside from the valiant, heroic efforts of our nation’s urban Indian health care programs, American health care and America’s leaders largely ignore these people.”

Today, the lack of a cohesive strategy finds expression in the Affordable Care Act. ACA benefits, intended for all Indians, may be curtailed for urbanites forced to prove their tribal bona fides. It’s the irony of a law intended to bridge disparities that the ACA could penalize urban Indians who can’t adequately document membership in a federally recognized tribe. (And no health insurance spells a $695 IRS fine.) What of the scores of tribes only recognized by states?

There is a structural obstacle. In a phrase immortalized by Washington Gov. Booth Gardner, federally recognized tribes have a “government-to-government” relationship with county, state and federal entities.What, then, is the political and administrative vehicle for urban Indians? The government-to-government model comes undone.

Congress claims plenary authority over Indian affairs. Veterans of the urban Indian health and social services world underscore the need for improved engagement with non-reservation and non-federally recognized Indians. In-the-field urban Indian health organizations are the best judge of Indian identity, not Washington functionaries.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, chair of the Indian Affairs Committee, is ideally positioned to elevate the visibility of non-reservation urban Indians. A committee hearing and review of this complicated question would be a first step. The politically voiceless need a voice. Sen. Cantwell could be the one.

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