Native Americans are often described as people from rural places. But, many migrated to big cities like Chicago at the the turn of the 20th century. The "City Indian" is the subject of a recent book by Rosalyn LaPier and David Beck.
Rosalyn LaPier is a historian and member of the Blackfeet Tribe. David Beck is a professor of Native American Studies at the University of Montana Missoula. In April, they spoke at Northeastern Illinois University about their book City Indian: Native American Activism in Chicago, 1893-1934. Here are excerpts:
We would like to recognize that we’re on traditional Indian territory here in Chicago. You could say that if you were anywhere in the Americas. We think it’s important that people recognize that. Here the Pottawatomie Tribe lived for several centuries before the Americans.
We stopped making treaties with Indians in the 1870s and established reservations. The Indian agent who oversaw the lives of Indians on reservations had almost complete control. Indians didn’t even control their own money. The United States put individuals’ money into the federal treasury. When they wanted their money, they had to go to the Indian agent. So grandma would go and say “I need 25 cents to buy flour,” and the Indian agent would say “well, I think you need about 13 cents, so let me give you 13 cents.”
Sometimes children would be kidnapped by Indian agents to be sent to boarding schools. In other cases, the families knew because they were living in utter poverty they couldn’t feed their children so they would send them to a boarding school so that they would have something to eat.
A lot of native people who moved to Chicago were graduates of the boarding schools. The expectation from the U.S. government was that they would blend in, disappear. So there would be no more “Indian problem” if there’s no more people who identify as “Indian.”
Almost the opposite happened. Instead of disappearing into the melting pot of America, they really stood out.
They were interested in representation. What was the image of native people?
In 1833, it was Simon Pokagon’s father who very tearfully sold the land that became Chicago. And he was there as a child.
Sixty years later he came back during the World’s Fair. He was disturbed with the way Indians were presented as peoples of the past. This was a very conscious effort made by the fair organizers. The places where people were most likely to see American Indians at the fair were at an Indian village that an anthropologist had established; he requested that they dress as they had before Columbus. So portraying them as people of the past. Then Buffalo Bill, who wasn’t permitted to come to the fair, set up his Wild West show right across the street.
Charles Albert Bender was recognized as the best money pitcher in baseball in the early 1900s. He’s in the Hall of Fame. He was a White Sox pitching coach in the 1920s. He always wanted to be known for his profession, part of the modern world—a baseball player.
Every article we ever could find about him referred to him as the “Indian,” “Big Indian,” or “Chief Bender.” He would come to the ballpark and people would yell racist comments at him. His response would be to look up to the stands and yell “FOREIGNER!”
By the 1950s, there were two distinct American Indian communities in Chicago. One was on the Southside near the University of Chicago. That was superseded by Uptown because when the federal government had a relocation policy, they had a federal office in Chicago finding people housing. The great big buildings in Uptown had been subdivided into tiny apartments; they were very inexpensive, so they moved a lot of Indian people into Uptown. By the 1970s, Uptown was the center of the American Indian community.
“American Indian” and “Native American” are problematic terms. Indian is used because Columbus thought he had found the route to India. America is named after Americo Vespucci who went down the South American coastline as an explorer. American Indian and Native American are really defined by outsiders.
There’s so much appropriation of American Indian cultures, either with sports teams or companies that rip-off Indian designs. Urban Outfitters just lost a lawsuit against the Navajo Nation for stealing Navajo designs and owes millions.
For most American Indian people the term “Redskin” is very negative. There are always a few who have a different view, so the Redskins team was able to find several American Indians who said: “Yeah, we like you to be called Washington Redskins!” But there are a massive amount of people who find it offensive and problematic about who Indians are—peoples of the past, people who aren’t here now. What does that mean for Indian children growing up?