During this period, the government also instituted a program that encouraged and facilitated the relocation of American Indian people from reservations to urban areas where employment was more plentiful. Faced with the high unemployment and widespread poverty within tribal communities, curious about city life, and with tribal councils often supportive of the program, numerous American Indians enrolled for relocation. By 1956, which was about the time of the program’s climax, the program had resulted in some 12,625 American Indians being relocated to urban areas (from an estimated total tribal-based population of 245,000) (Fixico, 1986).
But even though the program offered relocated American Indians help finding employment, as well as a limited degree of vocational training and financial aid, this assistance routinely proved inadequate to overcome the drastic social and cultural upheaval to which they were subjected (Fixico, 1986; Swinomish, 1991). Swinomish (1991) states that “language differences, social isolation and lack of familiarity with city life led to most relocated Indians returning to the reservation. Others remained in urban areas but developed serious and complex problems” (p.24). According to Fixico (1986),
Federal officials hoped that relocation would assimilate Indians into urban neighborhoods of the dominant society. Instead, Indian ghettos soon resulted.… Such areas fostered feelings of isolation, loneliness, and estrangement for Native Americans. Many resorted to alcohol to escape the competitive and social coldness of highly individualized urbanization. Marital and delinquency problems became acute; broken marriages, school dropouts, and increases in crime were so rampant that discouraged relocatees became severely depressed and sometimes committed suicide. Tragically, a people who traditionally cherished life were now broken in spirit. (Fixico, 1986, p.155)
Although some American Indian people did manage to merge into mainstream American society, relatively few were able to develop a fulfilling blend of American Indian and mainstream beliefs and lifestyles. Many continue to experience difficulties in substituting traditional values for those of the modern world: materialism and competition (Fixico, 1986; Swinomish, 1991). 55
In the presidential election campaign of 1960 “... candidates John Kennedy and Richard Nixon both pledged there would be no change in treaty or contractual agreement without tribal consent. They also declared there would be protection of the Indian land base, credit assistance, and encouragement of tribal planning for economic development” (Utter, 1993, p.256). This event marked the beginning of the self-determination era. Pevar (1992) notes that
since the late 1960’s, Congress has passed a number of statutes that foster Indian self-determination and economic development ... [repudiating] the termination policies of the 1950’s. As the Supreme Court noted in 1983, “both the tribes and the federal government are firmly committed to the goal of promoting tribal self-government, a goal embodied in numerous federal statutes.” (p.8)
The most important piece of such legislation is the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975. This act enabled American Indian tribes to begin divesting themselves of federal control through the strengthening of tribal government. The Self-Determination Act also granted tribes the authority to administer the federal programs operating on reservation land. The act “... reflects a fundamental philosophical change concerning the administration of Indian affairs: tribal programs should be funded by the federal government, but the programs should be planned and administered by the tribes themselves; federal ‘domination’ should end” (Getches and Wilkinson, 1986, p.154).
Three years later, in 1978, Congress passed two other significant acts that helped to strengthen tribal self-determination and sovereignty, both of which are discussed below. One act is the Indian Child Welfare Act. The other is the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.
The Indian Child Welfare Act
Prior to the passing of the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978, mainstream prejudice against American Indian lifestyles, as well as a lack of understanding of American Indian religious systems and family networks, had led to damaging American Indian child welfare practices by state caseworkers and the non-Indian court system (Kessel and Robbins, 1984; McShane, 1988; Miller, Hoffman, and Turner, 1980; Swinomish, 1991).
Poverty of Indian families was often interpreted as sufficient cause for the removal of Indian children. Removals were made frequently without sufficient cause and without prior attempts to provide remedial alternatives.… In fact, certain religious groups made it an explicit policy to attempt to remove and “save” as many Indian children as possible. (Swinomish, 1991, p.28)
By 1977, state child custody proceedings had taken 25 to 35 percent of all Indian children from their homes (Deloria, 1985). In Washington State, the adoption rate for American Indian children was 19 times that of non-Indian children (Byler, 1977). Significantly, these American Indian children were almost always placed with non-Indian foster or adoptive families (Myers, 1981).
In a discussion of the effects of this practice, Swinomish (1991) states,
The massive removal of Indian children from their families and tribes was devastating not only to the integrity of Indian families and to the psychological and cultural identity of these children, but also to the vitality of entire Indian tribes…. Far from providing these children with an improved chance for a “better life,” non-Indian foster care and adoption has generally produced frustrated, confused and angry young Indians without a clear sense of belonging to either Indian or to non-Indian culture. Many developed serious social and emotional difficulties. (p.28)
Designed to stem the flow of American Indian children out of American Indian homes and tribal communities, the Indian Child Welfare Act established
... standards for the placement of Indian children in foster or adoptive homes in order to prevent the breakup of Indian families. It establishes minimum federal standards for the removal of Indian children from their families and the placement of such children in foster or adopted homes that will reflect the unique values of Indian culture and provide for assistance to tribes in the operation of child and family service programs. It gives Indian tribes jurisdiction over Indian children, and takes jurisdiction away from states, transferring it to the tribes and tribal courts. (Miller, et al., 1980, p.470)