Indian Relocation Act Hits Close to Home

“Cape Flattery” by Hugo-90 is licensed under CC BY 2.0. Pictured in the northwestern most point of the continental U.S.

Working on a piece about the history and legacy of Native Americans on and near the Cuyahoga river led me to Native American activist Marie Toledo, and an interesting parallel of our family histories.

Toledo’s father moved to Cleveland from the western U.S. as a part of the Indian Relocation Act of 1956.

The act was a piece of federal legislation that sought to incentivize Native Americans to move from their tribal lands and reservations to join the urban workforce and assimilate into white, mainstream American culture. It was part of a larger national legislative policy, known as termination. Its aim was to eliminate reservations and tribal lands, and most traces of Native American culture.

Toledo said her father, who belonged to the Jemez Pueblo people of New Mexico, tried relocation to Californian cities, like Oakland and San Francisco before Cleveland. He got homesick and returned with ease to his reservation. This failure was often the case in the west, she said, because of the abundance of reservations.

But in eastern cities like Cleveland, returning to a reservation was next to impossible, because there were no federally recognized tribes in Ohio. Nearly all trace of American Indian cultures that were native to the Cuyahoga Valley and northeast Ohio had been eradicated by the ‘50s thanks to decades of disease, removals and conflicts. But beginning in the 1950s, the Native American population of Cleveland began to rise for the first time in decades. Toledo’s father was just one of many Native Americans relocated to Cleveland through the program.

Now Cleveland is home to a small but diverse population of Native Americans, who have formed new cultural links and support systems to retain and promote the traditions that termination sought to end.

My experiences illustrate a different, yet somewhat similar story. My father is a member of the Makah tribe of Washington state on the west coast. No one in my family was moved to the Northeast as part of the Indian Relocation Act, but I ended up here anyways. The move from a western home to an eastern destination may have had different motivations, but its consequences parallel each other. For Toledo, it can feel disconnecting to live so far from one’s native culture. She tries to take trips with her son to the reservation to maintain cultural ties to their heritage.

I’ve experienced similar issues. Growing up, my family would make an annual five hour drive to our reservation to participate in Makah Days, a celebration of Makah life. There are traditional dances, a fair and fireworks. My auntie Melissa, a master craftsperson and storyteller, would house us and welcome us.

But since coming to school in Cleveland, I’ve yet to return to the reservation. Like Toledo, I’ve felt a yearning to be connecting with a western, native home.

As we concluded our chat, Toledo invited me to two Native American cultural events happening in Cleveland soon. I had mentioned how scarce Native American culture seemed in Ohio, and she didn’t want me to feel disconnected. The invitation was the perfect illustrator of the modern state of Native American life and community in Cleveland: a tapestry of many different native cultures stitched together by both choice and necessity.

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