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Indigenous Cities: Urban Indian Fiction and the Histories of Relocation

Indigenous Cities: Urban Indian Fiction and the Histories of Relocation

by Laura M. Furlan


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In Indigenous Cities Laura M. Furlan demonstrates that stories of the urban experience are essential to an understanding of modern Indigeneity. She situates Native identity among theories of diaspora, cosmopolitanism, and transnationalism by examining urban narratives--such as those written by Sherman Alexie, Janet Campbell Hale, Louise Erdrich, and Susan Power--along with the work of filmmakers and artists. In these stories Native peoples navigate new surroundings, find and reformulate community, and maintain and redefine Indian identity in the postrelocation era. These narratives illuminate the changing relationship between urban Indigenous peoples and their tribal nations and territories and the ways in which new cosmopolitan bonds both reshape and are interpreted by tribal identities.

Though the majority of American Indigenous populations do not reside on reservations, these spaces regularly define discussions and literature about Native citizenship and identity. Meanwhile, conversations about the shift to urban settings often focus on elements of dispossession, subjectivity, and assimilation. Furlan takes a critical look at Indigenous fiction from the last three decades to present a new way of looking at urban experiences, one that explains mobility and relocation as a form of resistance. In these stories Indian bodies are not bound by state-imposed borders or confined to Indian Country as it is traditionally conceived. Furlan demonstrates that cities have always been Indian land and Indigenous peoples have always been cosmopolitan and urban.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803269330
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 11/01/2017
Pages: 354
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Laura M. Furlan is an associate professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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An Indigenous Awakening

We, the native Americans, re-claim the land known as Alcatraz Island in the name of all American Indians by right of discovery.

— "Alcatraz Proclamation," Movement (Indians of All Tribes newsletter), January 1970

Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie's (Muscogee/Diné) Metropolitan Indian Series #2, a photograph taken on Yerba Buena Island in the 1980s, features a young girl in what appears to be traditional Plains dress gazing out at a foggy San Francisco in the distance. In this image, Tsinhnahjinnie juxtaposes "city" and "Indian," which at first suggests an out-of-placeness, the "Indians in unexpected places" that Philip Deloria describes in his seminal book, but something else emerges from its composition. The Bay Bridge is located on the left edge of the photograph; the girl, leaning against a tree, provides the right edge. As art critic Whitney Chadwick and others have noted, Tsinhnahjinnie's project revises Edward Curtis's, particularly in the composition of Curtis photos such as The Mother and Hopi Woman, which place Indigenous women on the margins of the photograph. In this image, Tsinhnahjinnie plays with the margin and the center: if we imagine that the right is a mirror of the left, or at least that these images provide a parallel framing, Tsinhnahjinnie is suggesting that this girl is herself the bridge. The model, Carol Webb, a Colville, might as well be Janet Campbell Hale's Cecelia Capture in a scene from the novel, particularly in the way that the city gets described: as "a magic place ... rising up out of the bay." Tsinhnahjinnie's and Hale's projects mesh in another important way: as art critic Theresa Harlan has argued, Tsinhnahjinnie's Metropolitan Indian Series "acknowledges the persistent presence of Native people in urban cities and attests to the communities that they built." In other words, both assert that Indians belong in San Francisco, a city with an important and tumultuous Indigenous history.

In the 1980s, as Tsinhnahjinnie was taking the photographs for this series, a number of Native women writers took up urban life in their work: first, Paula Gunn Allen in The Woman Who Owned the Shadows (1983), followed by writers like Linda Hogan, Wendy Rose, Beth Brant, and Joy Harjo, in both poetry and short fiction. Rose, the Hopi/Miwok poet born in Oakland and raised in San Francisco, writes about the "spokes," like those in Renya Ramirez's hub, in her poem "To Some Few Hopi Ancestors," when she imagines that the voices of the ancestors "follow us down / to Winslow, to Sherman, / to Oakland, to all the spokes / that have left earth's middle." Important to this discussion of Hale's work is Rose's use of the word left: I read agency and self-determination in the migrations that Rose describes. While displacements and relocations may have been the impetus for these migrations, Rose's poem focuses on the movement. That those "that have left" are followed by the voices of the ancestors serves as evidence of the portability of Indigenous identity as well — that movement away from the homeland does not necessarily equal assimilation.

What is critical about Janet Campbell Hale's early urban novel, The Jailing of Cecelia Capture (1985), is that it suggests both thematically and allegorically that urbanization demanded a break from the reservation space. The story begins as protagonist Cecelia Capture has been arrested for drunk driving and welfare fraud on her thirtieth birthday. The remainder of the novel narrates Capture's memories of the events that led up to this moment — her childhood on the reservation and her decision to move to San Francisco — all from the perspective of her jail cell. With this lens, Hale calls specific attention to the condition of captivity. Her protagonist knows multiple geographies: her reservation homeland in Idaho, a second reservation in Wapato, Spokane (where her husband and two children live), and the Bay Area (to which she has returned for law school). She negotiates her Indigenous identity in a city that seems bent on erasure, but she seems reluctant to join any official urban Indian community — and she especially avoids what she calls the "Sidewalk Indians." What saves her from a tragic end is her memory of the takeover of Alcatraz in 1969, an event that symbolizes the possibility of Indian agency and self-determination and, as I will argue, a home in the city.

Hale's novel remains important for a number of reasons: the scant attention it has received (although nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, the book has fallen into relative obscurity); its decisive break with the reservation novel tradition; its articulation of the urban experience during a formative political period, namely, 1960s San Francisco; its consideration of the intersection of gender and race; and its redefinition of Indian identity in the spaces outside the reservation. Initial reviews of the novel were mixed, and few critics since have discussed the work. Though Louis Owens initially praised the novel, he later panned it, mainly for what he calls Hale's "professional victimage and romanticized self-destructiveness." In Mixed blood Messages, Owens names a number of signifiers that make Indian novels marketable, namely, a reservation setting, poverty, and alcoholism. Taking up Owens's argument that successful Indian novels need such signifiers, critic Ernest Stromberg argues that The Jailing of Cecelia Capture has not received much critical attention because it lacks "explicit signifiers of 'Indianness,'" or "traces of specific oral traditions, symbols from the Native culture, and articulations of an indigenous spirituality and worldview." Stromberg writes, "While the novel features an Indian protagonist, there is little else that is explicitly Indian, in ways we might identify as 'traditional,' about the novel." Critic Frederick Hale argues that Cecelia Capture is "detribalized" in the city, that she has "no tribal vision." Accordingly, one's physical proximity to "tribe," already a problematic word because of its primitivist connotations, determines how much "tribal vision" one might maintain. This is in direct conflict with contemporary theories of diaspora, which articulate the transportability of cultural identities, affiliations, objects, and ideas. What these comments demonstrate is the firm notion that "authentic" Indian writing must take place on a reservation.

Given the specific criticism of Hale's novel, it becomes apparent that urban Indian texts — especially an early one such as hers — pose a tangible challenge to the methodologies and expectations of theorists of American Indian literatures. In this chapter, I argue that Hale's novel is indeed "explicitly Indian," despite its urban setting and its aversion to the reservation, especially if, as Taiaiake Alfred posits, "Indian" is more than something that is attached inherently — it has more to do with actions and convictions. In other words, being Indian "implies doing." Cecelia Capture's perceived individualism and "detribalization" in the city do not preclude the novel from being identifiable as "Indian" — and in fact, Capture's activism, or "new tribal consciousness," to return to Gerald Vizenor, provides evidence of her "Indianness." The critical action at the heart of this book is about crossing borders — of place, of gender, of race. Hale's novel lacks the spatial fixity of most American Indian writing, and, to be sure, her protagonist challenges the established roles for Native women in fiction. Educated, fiercely independent, and decidedly conscious of Indigenous feminist concerns, Capture is a new kind of Native subject — one who must articulate an identity and navigate the world outside of the confining spaces of the reservation. Her relocation signals both liberation and self-determination. She must articulate a new home place in San Francisco — a city at once magical and historically deleterious for Indigenous peoples.

Like the other cities in this study, San Francisco and the entire Bay Area have a complicated settler colonial history, which I will briefly outline here. The Bay Area is Ohlone (a group of Costanoans) and Coastal Miwok territory, with the Miwoks in present-day Marin County to the north and east. Settler contact in California, of course, was first with the Spanish, who constructed a trail of missions up the coast and who, in 1776 under the charge of Juan Bautista de Anza, established El Presidio Real de San Francisco, a military garrison, and the Mission San Francisco de Asís (or Mission Dolores), now the oldest structure in San Francisco. The missions were intended to convert the Indigenous population but even more so to utilize their labor in the growth of the colony of Alta California. During his exploration of the Bay Area, Anza encountered "some sixty autonomous" tribal groups, writes historian Claudio Saunt, "each composed of a few hundred individuals occupying an area about ten miles in diameter." Archaeological digs in the Bay Area have revealed hundreds of shell mounds and evidence of multiple village sites. Seven Costanoan languages were spoken, along with seven other languages. Anza's group first camped twenty miles from San Jose, then at Mountain Lake, a mile and a half from the Golden Gate Bridge. The Spanish arrival intensified disagreements and competition for resources among the locals, and the Spanish brought with them a devastating number of diseases. It has been widely documented that the Spanish mistreated Indians in the missions, abuse that included violence (such as flogging and sexual assault) and forced labor. As historian Robert H. Jackson has argued, the San Francisco Bay missions were far deadlier than those in the south; he attributes this to overcrowding in adobe buildings, malnutrition, and the devastating effects of cultural loss, in addition to the introduction of foreign diseases. In the first thirty years of the colony, there were six hundred births and twenty-four hundred deaths at the mission.

In the nineteenth century, as the mission period ended, Mexican occupation, a short-lived Russian colony, and then the gold rush continued to impact Indigenous people in the Bay Area. North of San Francisco, the Russians established Fort Ross Colony in 1812, using captive Indian labor. Beginning in the 1830s, the Mexican land grant system forced populations to disperse, while documented epidemics of smallpox, malaria, and syphilis ravaged those who stayed behind. Like their Spanish predecessors, Mexicans in California enforced a racial hierarchy and relied upon a system of forced and semifeudal labor, both of which would be passed on to the United States after it claimed California in 1846. The Indigenous population of California declined by 80 percent between 1846 and 1873 under American rule, as the increase of gold seekers and other settlers continued what historian Benjamin Madley has called "an American genocide." Brendan Lindsay similarly argues that this new democracy was, in fact, "a culture organized around the dispossession and murder of California Indians." As the gold rush began, there was talk of removing and "exterminating" California Indians altogether. San Francisco grew exponentially during the gold rush, from a small town of two hundred to one with thirty-five thousand residents in a matter of six years. In 1864 an executive order established the federal reservation system in California, establishing as Indian lands one-tenth of the acreage promised in a series of eighteen unratified treaties negotiated in 1851–52. Forty-one of those reservations, or rancherías, were terminated in the 1950s under the California Rancheria Termination Act, part of US termination policy, with an additional seven losing status in 1964. A number of terminated tribes have regained federal status since then, and several have ongoing claims.

Through this long genocidal history of dispersal, relocation, forced labor, and targeted physical and legislative violence against California Indians, violence against both land and body, they have continued to declare their existence and their humanity. For example, despite the long-held belief that the Ohlones had become extinct (an idea attributed to anthropologist Karl Kroeber, who in 1925 declared them so), Ohlone people have asserted themselves politically throughout the twentieth century. In coalition with Indians of California (extant 1928–64), Ohlones sued the US government for land reparations. In the 1960s, Ohlones participated in the San Francisco–based activist group the American Indian Historical Society, which fought to save a mission cemetery from a freeway project in Freemont. Ohlones to a large extent protested the Alcatraz occupation because it took place on their land and because protesters came from outside the region. In the 1970s Ohlones again joined with local tribes to preserve a burial ground in Watsonville threatened by the construction of a warehouse. The Muwekma Ohlones (enrollment four hundred), who lost federal acknowledgment status in 1927, have been working since 1989 to regain recognition — a difficult process, to be sure, one complicated by resettlement practices in California that precipitated interaction and intermarriage among tribal groups. In 1989 the Muwekma group was finally successful in retrieving ancestral remains from Stanford University, which, along with San Jose State University, had excavated Ohlone sites between 1948 and 1984. The Muwekma Ohlone claim for federal recognition was unsuccessful: in 2002 the Bureau of Indian Affairs denied their petition, largely because the group has not continuously lived together as a "village," an impossible criterion for tribes without land bases that have been scattered through the settler colonial process. Recently, another Ohlone group, numbering two thousand, the Costanoan Rumsen Carmel tribe, located in Pomona, has demanded that a cultural center be built in San Francisco's Hunters Point.

Indigenous immigrants to the Bay Area have of course included people from other California tribes and then, at the beginning of the twentieth century, from farther away. For example, students from Sherman Institute in Riverside, California (to which Rose's poem refers), Intermountain Indian School in Brigham City, Utah, and Stewart's Institute in Carson City, Nevada, were sent to the Bay Area from the 1920s to 1938 as part of the Outing Program, which sent residential school students out into the community to work. Some came to attend the Oakland Central Trade School or Merritt School of Business. Natives found work in California during the world wars, sometimes in the shipyards in Richmond, and those serving in the military passed through Camp Pendleton in Southern California or Camp Roberts in the Central Valley. Beginning in 1922, Lagunas and Acomas came to work for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway and lived in Santa Fe Indian Village in an unincorporated area of Richmond. In exchange for the ability to build the railroad through tribal lands, Santa Fe promised jobs to Laguna and Acoma men. In Susan Lobo's Urban Voices: The Bay Area Indian Community, Ruth Sarracino Hopper describes life in the Indian Village, where people from the pueblos established their own government, built their outdoor ovens, and grew traditional crops. Though studies published in the 1960s noted that tribal groups kept to themselves in the city, the San Francisco Indian community began to coalesce during this period.

The first intertribal groups in the Bay Area were the Outing Club and the Yurok Club until the YWCA sponsored the Four Winds Club in Oakland, the sole organization for Bay Area Natives until the Intertribal Friendship House opened in Oakland in 1956, the same year the American Indian Center opened in San Francisco. In her autobiography, former chief of the Cherokee Nation Wilma Mankiller tells the story of her family's relocation from Oklahoma to San Francisco in 1956: their weeks in a hotel in the Tenderloin district (where there is still a substantial Indian population); their home in Daly City and later in Hunters Point; and the "overt discrimination," which Mankiller links to the violent history of missions in California. Mankiller chronicles her family's relationship with the San Francisco American Indian Center and later activism during Alcatraz, both crucial to her Indian identity and her commitment to help other Indigenous peoples. She describes this time as her "period of awakening." San Francisco by the late 1960s was the epicenter of the counterculture. It had a burgeoning music scene, and it had become notorious for its political activism, including the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley and Bay Area protests against the Vietnam War, both precursors to Alcatraz. Though many Native people were drawn to San Francisco both during and after the occupation, the city was also, along with Oakland, an official BIA relocation center. Today the Indigenous population of the Bay Area numbers approximately eighty thousand, according to the census: the Intertribal Friendship House says that it serves sixty thousand urban Natives in the seven-county Bay Area.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
1. An Indigenous Awakening
2. The Urban Ghost Dance
3. Roots and Routes of the Hub
4. The City as Confluence
Source Acknowledgments

Customer Reviews