Quintanilla on Miller, 'Indians on the Move: Native American Mobility and Urbanization in the Twentieth Century'

Douglas K. Miller
Alyssa Quintanilla

Douglas K. Miller. Indians on the Move: Native American Mobility and Urbanization in the Twentieth Century. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019. 266 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4696-5138-5.

Reviewed by Alyssa Quintanilla (Department of English, University of Pittsburgh) Published on H-Migration (October, 2020) Commissioned by Nicholas B. Miller (Flagler College)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54915

Quintilla on Miller, 'Indians on the Move' (2019)

In Indians on the Move: Native American Mobility and Urbanization in the Twentieth Century, Douglas Miller aims to increase the visibility of Native American agency within movement, relocation, and urban spaces. Rather than merely retracing previous histories about Native American movement as a consequence of settler-colonial forces, Miller stresses the community’s ingenuity and resilience. Miller expands histories of relocation chronologically to explore overlooked successes of relocation and to include Native American movement that predates many relocation programs. Basing his analysis of Native American agency around the Voluntary Relocation Act of 1956, Miller suggests importance of reading, upholding, and engaging with stories of the lived experience of movement. As Miller suggests, many histories and prevailing narratives of the relocation program have long reduced Native Americans to victims of the program as a continuation of the settler-colonial state. While this remains true, Miller broadens the story to privilege the lived reality faced by many Native Americans as they chose to move to urban centers and back again. In this Miller shows that paths to and from reservations were circular, fraught with desires for socioeconomic and spatial mobility. While Miller does not shy away from the incredibly damaging effects of the program (and others like it), the stories presented in the book show a much more complex picture of movement, mobility, and resilience.

Indians on the Move paints a much broader history of Native American movement, beginning in the late nineteenth century and ending in the mid-twentieth. The book fits nicely with more recent scholarship like Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s As We Have Always Done (2017), Lisa Charleyboy’s Urban Tribes: Native Americans in the City (2015), and even Tommy Orange’s fictional There, There (2018), as a means of reconsidering the importance of Native American agency and positionality in the United States. In crafting a history of movement, Miller does well to privilege the voices of the people in his books by drawing upon a wide array of opinions and experiences within the community. Miller’s methodological approach is a reconsideration of relocation history through Native American voices that informs our contemporary understandings about American history and how it is written. Miller articulates clearly at several points throughout the book that he is seeking to emphasize the human stories that have historically been erased by the statistics of failure or successes. Rather, for Miller, the reality of movement lies in the stories that are neither good nor bad, success nor failure, and entirely human.

In this, Miller succeeds in depicting Native American movement as something richer than displacement by the settler-colonial state. However, in telling such an expansive history, Miller acknowledges two of the book’s shortcomings in the introduction: the flattening of place and a lack of attention to racial hierarchies within urban centers. In an attempt to focus on “human beings and the human condition,” Miller is more interested in the stories that propel the book forward and retell stories of mobility (p. 11). While this acknowledgment of shortcomings is useful, it calls attention to Miller’s use of seemingly fixed labels and terms like “Native American,” “Indian,” and “indigeneity” as markers of what is a large and diverse community. Throughout the book Miller largely uses the term “Indian,” presumably because it was the official governmental designation at the time. But in doing so seemingly elides important differences that influenced the success or failure of mobility. Miller’s archival resources are excellent and allow individuals to speak to the lived experience of movement and urbanization. Yet little acknowledgment is given to how the difference in tribal and community backgrounds influenced the success or failure of relocation. Voices in the book are identified by their tribe and region, but Miller does not articulate cultural difference between tribes in terms of movement or even relationships to indigeneity.

While Miller positions movement as something that unified tribes and communities, the lack of specificity risks flattening Native American experience and history. Miller begins with the boarding school generation, or the generation of Native American youth who were forced into state-run schools with the intent of assimilating them into “mainstream America,” to show the impact of movement to and from reservations. As Miller stresses, these movements had a lasting effect that allowed many Native Americans to return to reservations with new skills and education. For Miller, the boarding school generation bound Native Americans across tribal lines, creating pathways for subsequent generations into “mainstream” America and challenging the structures of assimilation. Miller uses the boarding school generation to think critically “about where the urban relocation narrative begins” (p. 41). The challenge, however, is that reducing experience to bonds that unify tribes ultimately flattens tribal distinction—which was itself a key part of the settler-colonialist project. In emphasizing unity over difference, Miller risks similar flattening.

Nevertheless, Miller does well to reassert that movement was something that Native Americans desired and pursued in spite of state-sponsored programs. For example, chapters 2 and 3 of the book focuses on the importance of Native American labor and military service in World War II. Miller shows how Native American participation in the war effort was driven by desires for socioeconomic and spatial mobility, as well as patriotism. The chapters show the varied responses to movement and how quickly the American public fell back on racism and harmful stereotypes against the Native American community. Not only do these chapters illustrate the difficulties Native Americans faced in “mainstream America,” but as Miller clearly articulates, their war-era movement was the precursor to the Voluntary Relocation Program.

Miller’s archival approach to the book is most valuable in the chapters about the Voluntary Relocation Program. Chapters 4 and 5 focus on the stories of success and failure at the hands of an ill-conceived and shortsighted government program established to aid Native Americans in moving away from reservations and to urban centers. In these chapters Miller “deemphasizes statistical and program analyses in favor of more vibrant stories of Indian migrants’ experience” (p. 92). Told through letters, testimonials, photographs, and advertisements, these stories highlight the complexity of the Native American experience of “seeking social mobility through spatial mobility.” Miller uses advertisements from the government to show how relocation was positioned as a site of possibility for Native Americans, while simultaneously narrating the government’s hopes of assimilation and dismantling reservations. Conversely, the letters Miller uses show Native American resolve to survive despite the program’s failings and mainstream America’s racism. The approach weaves together a history of the Voluntary Relocation Program that emphasizes the humans directly affected by the program’s possibilities and shortcomings.

The chapter is the clearest distillation of Miller’s overarching methodology—his use of letters and other materials creates a narrative that demonstrates and upholds Native American resolve and resistance to victimhood. The following chapter takes this approach and shows the other side of the Voluntary Relocation Program and its lasting consequences on the Native American community as a whole. In contrast to the optimism of the previous chapter, the primary sources lay bare the underlying violence of the program. Miller lays out very clearly the poverty, joblessness, homelessness, and outright racism Native Americans faced when they reached urban centers to articulate how systems of disenfranchisement worked against the community regardless of tribe. As such, the chapter is focused on specific examples that tell of the Voluntary Relocation Programs faults, the government’s hopes of ridding itself of the “Indian” problem, and the program’s disastrous end.

The book ends by following Native Americans back to reservations, highlighting the effects of mobility and the lasting legacy of the Voluntary Relocation Program. Rather than just continuous crisis, Miller’s reading suggests that “urban and rural Indians constantly put cities and reservations in dialogue with each other,” allowing people to decide where and how they wanted to live (p. 161). The book ends with Miller reiterating the importance of Native American agency within mobility and socioeconomic decisions that affected tribal communities. As Miller asserts, mobility in the mid-twentieth century was a complicated choice for Native Americans, one that provided the possibility of socioeconomic opportunity and overwhelming uncertainty. Miller ends by stressing the importance of recognizing nuance in history, particularly one that is fraught with lasting legacies of violence and settler colonialism. As such, the book highlights how the inclusion of marginalized voices forces us to reconsider historical presumptions however well intentioned.

Indians on the Move is well situated to consider what migration looks like and means to a variety of populations. Miller balances the social, political, and cultural histories that made movement for Native Americans a difficult and complex choice. The ramifications and benefits of mobility are laid out very clearly in a way that privileges the human stories most affected by the settler-colonial state. Miller does well to follow through on his emphasis of the human at the center of this history and privileges both the good, the bad, and all manner of experiences in-between. The book adds to the contemporary discourses within indigenous studies in the United States by providing an illuminating history within a larger framework. Miller does not retell the history of the Voluntary Relocation Program, but rather expands it outward and inward to account for Native American agency as an important and driving force under settler colonialism. The book is a worthwhile contribution to indigenous studies, migration studies, and American studies because it reconsiders history through the experiences of the humans who lived it and not just the systems that created it.

Citation: Alyssa Quintanilla. Review of Miller, Douglas K., Indians on the Move: Native American Mobility and Urbanization in the Twentieth Century. H-Migration, H-Net Reviews. October, 2020. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54915

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