Holly on Rosenthal, 'Reimagining Indian Country: Native American Migration and Identity in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles'

Nicolas G. Rosenthal. Reimagining Indian Country: Native American Migration and Identity in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012. xi + 239 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8078-3555-5.

Reviewed by Nathaniel Holly (College of William & Mary)
Published on H-Florida (July, 2016)
Commissioned by Jeanine A. Clark Bremer

In this splendid study of twentieth-century American Indians living in Los Angeles, Nicolas Rosenthal forces his readers to do what Natives have been doing for at least the past century: “reimagining Indian country to include the cities and towns of the United States” (p. 8). Yet this is not the newest of stories. Over the past few decades, historians have examined urban Indians in Detroit, Chicago, Phoenix, Minneapolis, and Seattle. What makes this treatment of Los Angeles different? Setting aside Rosenthal’s claim that Los Angeles can actually “stand as a model” for “larger, national patterns” and the significance of continuing to recognize the reality of Indians living—and, in many cases, thriving—in cities, Rosenthal’s analysis accomplishes something more (p. 3). In addition to extending the timeline of Indian migration to cities, Rosenthal forcefully argues for the centrality of Indian agency to this story while simultaneously highlighting the weight of the “very real constraints imposed by structures of power” (p. 6). Combined with a focus on mobility, identity, and race, Rosenthal’s nuanced approach to the experiences of urban Indians also allows for a recasting of twentieth-century America’s master narrative. These people were immigrants who struggled to maintain their identities in the face of racial discrimination, like so many other twentieth-century Americans.

These particular migrants, however, arrived in Los Angeles with an intimate knowledge of the federal government and its powerful reach. Indeed, the reservation plays an important part in Rosenthal’s story. While he insists that we need to get “beyond the reservations” in our effort to reimagine what counts as Indian country, Rosenthal demonstrates that reservations were places that simultaneously pushed Indians towards cities in search of a better life and constantly pulled them back as sites of Indian identity. Early on Rosenthal focuses on the powerful push of poverty, drought, sickness. Though this does not seem to be a groundbreaking assertion, Rosenthal begins his examination in 1900—nearly fifty years earlier than most of his colleagues. The implication of this chronological expansion is twofold. First, it demonstrates that urban Indians have been around for quite some time—though I would argue that there have been urban Indians for much longer than the past one hundred years. Second, and more importantly, the movement of Indians to urban places before the middle of the twentieth century helps Rosenthal highlight the (limited) agency of these migrants. Until recently, the refrain about urban Indians has centered on the post-World War II Urban Relocation Act and its attendant emphasis on the victimhood of the Indian participants. By focusing on the long history of migration, Rosenthal demonstrates that Indians had been moving to cities of their own accord for decades before the federal government decided it was a good idea. The irony here, of course, is that Indians moved to cities in order to escape the poverty that accompanied federal reservation policy. As Rosenthal emphasizes throughout the book, Indian agency is always circumscribed by particular structures of power.

Once in Los Angeles, these early migrants often settled in the same multiethnic, working-class neighborhoods as other migrants. They also worked the same sorts of jobs—women as domestic servants and men as laborers in agriculture and industry. Yet the Janus-faced federal programs also gave many Indians a leg up in their competition with African American and Latino/a migrants. A significant portion of those Indians who chose to migrate to Los Angeles had spent some time at the Sherman Institute in Riverside, California, where they learned the skills necessary to secure better-paying and higher-status occupations. This initial wave of migration, Rosenthal argues, helped to “build a foundation for the expansion of American Indian urbanism in the postwar period” (p. 30).

Before jumping to postwar Los Angeles, Rosenthal pauses to consider the experiences of American Indians in Hollywood. Rather than simply analyze how Indians were portrayed in traveling performances and film, Rosenthal asks questions of the performers themselves in order to figure out why Indians chose to participate in these problematic portrayals even if they had “little control over the content of these shows and the conditions of their work” (p. 33). By shifting his analytical emphasis just a bit, Rosenthal is able to illuminate how Indians who participated in these problematic cultural productions were more than simply victims through the concept of “infrapolitics” (p. 34). In other words, Indian performances “constituted active resistance to broader systems of power and racial discrimination” (p. 47). The fruits of that “resistance” took many forms. A group of Kwakwaka’wakw (from Vancouver Island, British Columbia), for example, chose to participate in an exposition in order to demonstrate their cultural persistence. Hollywood Indians, moreover, were instrumental in the creation of the Indian Actors Association, which was tasked with combating the “distortions of Indian life and culture,” advocating on behalf of its members when more routine labor issues (compensation) arose, and providing monetary help for out-of-work actors (p. 43). These same Indians also helped to establish the Los Angeles Indian Center, which became “the primary meeting place and welfare agency for Los Angeles Indians over the next five decades” (p. 45). And Rosenthal sees a causal relationship between participating in the creation and perpetuation of problematic Indian representations in film and the founding of organizations devoted to defending a more authentic “construction of Indian culture and identity” (p. 46). Again, we see Indians forcefully exercising their agency while simultaneously being limited by broader systems of power.

Rosenthal devotes the remaining four chapters to the postwar lives of Indians living in Los Angeles and uses those experiences to reveal the abundance of “new ways of being Indian” afforded by the postwar city (p. 101). Moreover, Rosenthal seeks to illuminate further connections between the Indian narrative of the twentieth-century and the broader American narrative. According to Rosenthal, the experiences of Indians in the relocation program closely mirror the histories of other immigrant populations. Rather than continue to have two separate conversations—one about assimilation and government paternalism and the other about Americanization—Rosenthal advocates that “the two conversations ought to be merged as one” (p. 51). In that vein, Rosenthal highlights the middle-class values that defined “successful” participants in the relocation program—at least for federal officials—and juxtaposes those with the decidedly different definition of success that many urban Indians had as they molded relocation policy to fit their own needs. In addition to crafting their own standards of success, federal officials also joined forces with local religious organizations to “promote middle-class, Christian values of temperance and propriety” (p. 60). Much of the “surveillance” conducted by relocation officials also depended on the resources of local churches.

In addition to the limitations imposed by relocation policy and its local enforcers, Indians living in Los Angeles also struggled against the oppression of racial discrimination. While federal officials made promises of economic opportunity to entice Indians to relocate, the reality of the postwar city meant that Indians and other minorities frequently faced crippling discrimination. Indians who had received training for specific skilled jobs often arrived in Los Angeles only to find that the only available work was in unskilled manufacturing and subject to frequent layoffs. Racial discrimination also prevented these migrants from joining the unions required to work as skilled labor. And as the country’s industrial economy began to shrink, Indians were forced to take work in the even lower-paying service sector. One Navajo moved to Los Angeles in the early 1960s hoping to find skilled work, but ended up delivering furniture. He earned so little there that he took a second job at a fast-food restaurant. After earning a promotion to night manager he was robbed twice, quit, and took a position as a window cleaner. Yet the irony here is that the vast majority of these urban Indians “found that they experienced less discrimination in postwar American cities than back on and around their reservations” (p. 84).

In order to combat the discrimination they faced in their new urban homes, Indians often turned to community organizations. The Los Angeles Indian Center, for example, passed a resolution in 1956 that recommended a series of changes in relocation policy. While such demands did not produce immediate change, they did force policymakers to address these critiques in a series of public forums. The Indian Center also demanded that migrants and their children “retain their rights as tribal peoples regardless of how long they remained in urban areas” (p. 70). And, as many historians have noted, these organizations helped to foster a sort of pan-Indian identity. What makes Rosenthal’s study different, however, is that he is quick to point out the ironies inherent in these organizations. One organization—the Voice of the American Indian Association—was based on two seemingly opposite emphases: middle-class Americanism and ethnic identification. “The result,” Rosenthal posits, was an organization “that worked to expand the boundaries of what it meant to be both American and Indian” (p. 113). Furthermore, the formation of a pan-Indian identity also depended upon their members continuing “to identify with the communities from which they came” (p. 107).

This nuanced approach to Indian Angelenos also pays dividends in Rosenthal’s treatment of the Red Power movement. Not only is he able to demonstrate how the national Red Power movement helped local activist groups like the Los Angeles Indian Center, but Rosenthal also reveals how similar local grassroots activism was to broader demands for self-determination. Even more interesting, however, is Rosenthal’s brief examination of inter-Indian factionalism. As one Comanche from Oklahoma said of the protesters at Alcatraz: “Personally, I don’t think that they are all real Indians” (p. 138). In response to such sentiments, Red Power participants argued “that Indians who were in opposition to the movement were ‘too middle class’ and had relinquished their Indian identity” (p. 138). This factionalism despite—or even because of—the pan-Indian communities forming in urban places like Los Angeles adds a welcome wrinkle to the history of American Indian identity and activism.

Yet it is this all too brief treatment of factionalism that is most frustrating about Reimagining Indian Country. As Rosenthal argues in his conclusion, “Cities, towns, rural areas, and Indian reservations altogether make up an Indian Country reimagined for the twenty-first century” (p. 157). Unfortunately, reservations all but disappear in this study as anything except poverty-stricken areas to be escaped. Sure, Rosenthal mentions that a man named Looking Glass “returned to Oklahoma to help the Apache Housing Authority set up a housing program” and that after earning a degree a young Edward Spelman “found work managing tribal resources on the Warm Springs Reservation” (pp. 98, 68). Some “frequently traveled back to visit their reservations” and many more “Indian people returned to the reservation after trying life out in the city” (pp. 105, 75). Still others reported how “scary” urban places were upon their return to their reservations (p. 69). If reservations were such terrible places, why did so many return? And when they did return, how were they viewed? As saviors? Traitors? Failures? If there was factionalism between advocates of Red Power and middle-class urban Indians, was there any factionalism between urban Indians and their reservation-dwelling counterparts? Instead of focusing on the entirety of Indian migration experiences, Rosenthal really only analyzes the movement of Indians to cities. The more holistic Indian Country that he mentions in his conclusion does not appear in this book. Even as Rosenthal dots his chapters with a few examples of reservation returnees, the connection between reservation and city remains largely unexamined.

In the end, however, Reimagining Indian Country is a spectacular study of the urban Indian experience in Los Angeles and a number of other cities—especially Portland. Rosenthal calls on details gleaned from a variety of interviews that humanize these migrants in important ways—namely their ability to embrace contradictions and exercise their agency despite the power of racial discrimination and the federal government. This is a deeply human story that should have profound consequences for historians—of Indians, immigrants, the long civil rights movement, and the twentieth century—and policymakers alike.

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Citation: Nathaniel Holly. Review of Rosenthal, Nicolas G., Reimagining Indian Country: Native American Migration and Identity in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles. H-Florida, H-Net Reviews. July, 2016.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=47132

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