In the early 1950s the federal government, through its agency the Bureau of Indian Affairs, decided, in its infinite wisdom, to evacuate the Indian reservations.
They did it with a newly devised program they called “Relocation.” It was a clever euphemism for “Removal.” What followed was a program that cost the federal government, and the taxpayers, millions of dollars and in the end was a program that was an abysmal failure.
Entire families were relocated to Cleveland, Chicago, Denver, San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles and Dallas just to name a few. Dave Brewer loaded up his family and relocated to Dallas, Texas. Amanda Takes War Bonnet and family ended up in San Francisco as did Theresa Giago. Buddy White Eyes and his brother Teddy ended up in Redwood City in the San Francisco Bay Area. All of these families were relocated from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Enos Poor Bear and his family were moved to Chicago. Ironically when Enos arrived in Chicago he picked up the Chicago Tribune and the headline read, “Welcome to Chicago Enos.” He about fainted on the spot. Coincidentally and ironically, the Chicago Cubs had just traded for Enos “Country” Slaughter and it was this Enos that prompted the bold headline.
In the end thousands of Indian families were “Relocated” to the cities and placed in shoddy apartments that were mostly located in the ghettoes of the intended cities. Innocent fathers, mothers and children were for the first time exposed to an environment they didn’t know existed. Although they returned to the reservations by the thousands a terrible and lasting damage had been perpetrated on them. And in turn they brought all of that terrible baggage back to the reservations.
The experimental programs to eradicate the Indian population began much earlier. It began when the government began to “Remove” entire tribes from their homelands to the arid climates of states like Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and other places in order to take over the plush lands the Indians had cultivated for thousands of year. The infamous “Trail of Tears” happened when the Cherokee and other tribes of Georgia and North Carolina were herded like cattle from their traditional homelands to the Indian Territory of Oklahoma. Many of them died on this infamous march.
The U. S. Government witnessed the successful programs of assimilation as practiced by the Spaniards. They split up families, took the children from their parents, eradicated their Native language and forced them to learn Spanish, changed their surnames to Spanish names, and incorporated them into a new and different culture. They literally created a new race of people out of the indigenous people of South America, Central America and Mexico. Those who refused to abide by the new laws were slaughtered by the hundreds of thousands. Read “A Cross of Thorns” by Elias Castillo for a true and horrifying account of this genocide.
America was a bit more subtle about it. They took the Indian children from their parents and placed them in boarding schools where they were indoctrinated into a new religion, new culture, and efforts to eradicate their Native language were initiated.
Simultaneously, while the assimilation of the children was happening, the federal government was passing laws that stripped Indian tribes throughout the west of their homelands. The Great Sioux Reservation was sliced up like a piece of pie and millions of acres of land were opened to the white settlers while the indigenous people were pushed on to lands that even some of the settlers considered uninhabitable.
Beautiful acres upon acres of cultivated agricultural Indian lands along the Missouri River were flooded for the dams constructed there and ancient homes and burial grounds of the Indian people were lost forever. All of these things were accomplished with absolutely no input from the Indian people. Tribal people like the Crow Creek, Lower Brule, Yankton, and Standing Rock would see the caskets of their loved ones floating on the surface after their lands had been flooded. No monetary value could ever be placed on the suffering and the loss of these people.
And so we learned the language and the culture and lived through Removal, Relocation, and Re-education. Many took up the religious practices of the Catholics, Episcopalians, Methodists, Mormons and Lutherans surrendering their traditional spirituality in the process.
Christmas became a holiday widely accepted by the Lakota simply because it most resembled our own traditions of sharing, gift-giving and of course our traditional giveaways.
Perhaps there is no returning to what was because modern technology has managed to disrupt and intrude where the old ways of assimilation failed in some ways. Wicasa Wakan like Arvol Looking Horse and Rick Sunka Numpa are still holding the line that links us to our past, but our newest generation must figure out a way to stop the modern day flood that is inundating us.
The Indian people have been the experimental guinea pigs of America’s centuries old discolored past. This week there were rays of hope and a renewal of pride as thousands of Lakota, Dakota and Nakota children flooded the court of the Lakota Nation Invitational in Rapid City. The pride they showed in their people and culture could be felt throughout the arena.
If we put away the drugs, put away the alcohol and put away the hate, there can truly be a new beginning. But we first have to face ourselves and overcome the historic trauma I just outlined that has been dealt to us.
– Tim Giago is the founder of the Native American Journalists Association, a Nieman Fellow at Harvard and recipient of the 2017 NAJA/Medill Milestone Achievement Award in Journalism. Contact him at