Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

Student explores American Indian urbanization

Even though as many as 30,000 American Indians live in the Denver metro area, social work doctoral candidate Nancy Lucero has regularly confronted social workers telling her, “I don’t encounter Native people in my work.” At the same time, she says, many American Indians say they feel “invisible” in the multicultural urban environment.

Lucero — a Choctaw born and raised in Denver — has dedicated her career to serving the needs of American Indians in urban areas. After observing cultural misunderstandings between native people and non-Indian service providers in her capacity as a counselor and therapist, she decided to get her doctorate to better address the gap.

For her dissertation, Lucero is studying the ways in which urbanization and government relocation have affected urban Indians’ cultural identities.

The U.S. government began actively moving American Indians to cities in 1952 as part of the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Voluntary Relocation Program. The program, Lucero explains, resulted in 150,000–200,000 American Indians leaving reservations for cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles and Denver before it ended in the late 1970s. Today 67 percent of American Indians live in urban areas — a figure rooted in the Relocation Program, she says.

Lucero is interviewing relocated Indians and the generations of their families who remain in Denver. She is asking participants how they understand their American Indian identity, ways they maintain connections to their tribes and how living in an urban area has affected their families over three or four generations.

Several questions surround the identities of urban Indians. Of particular significance is whether urbanization constitutes assimilation and the loss of something authentically Indian. Lucero explains that in the dominant narrative, urbanization “has become linked to cultural destruction and individuals’ disconnection from their tribal foundations.”

Lucero sees the Relocation Program not as flatly destructive, but as an opening for development and adaptation. “The relocation process, and its subsequent manifestation as urbanization, has not been adequately studied as an element in a dynamic process of cultural growth, evolution and change,” she explains. Relocatees’ culture was not left on the reservation, she argues, but remains contemporary and significant regardless of geography.

Lucero says some scholars have found that, rather than losing their Indian identity, urban Indians blend “tribal practices and values with their own evolving traditions, cultural practices and histories.” She explains that urban Indians often hold two cultural identities—a strong tribal one alongside a generalized or “pan-Indian” awareness.

Understanding this multifaceted Indian identity, Lucero says, shows that American Indian culture is “alive” rather than a relic of the past—an attitude that younger generations of American Indians often face. The simultaneous adaptation to the present and preservation of tradition shows the continued strength of urban Indians’ cultural identity.

When social workers better understand urban American Indians, they will more effectively communicate and develop a better rapport with them as clients, she says. Without that necessary understanding of contemporary urban Indian issues, Lucero says, both sides of the partnership are often discouraged and the social work relationship becomes ineffective.

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