Broadening Our Policy Awareness to Include Urban Native Americans

Fog covers the Chicago skyline, April 2016.

Every now and then I discover something that restructures what I previously thought I knew. Like the first time I heard that the overwhelming majority of the nation’s 5.4 million Native Americans live in urban areas—not on struggling, hard-scrabble reservations.

Who knew? Not me. In all honesty, I rarely have thought much about where or how Native Americans live in the United States, and—I dare say it—I doubt most Americans have either.

But now, after speaking with Janeen Comenote, executive director of the National Urban Indian Family Coalition, or NUIFC, I can’t stop thinking about how many Native Americans live not in out-of-sight, out-of-mind locations—but rather hidden in plain view in the nation’s largest cities. This knowledge rewired my brain, and I now can’t abdicate concern or avoid speaking about their plight.

During a visit earlier this month with a group of my American Progress colleagues, Comenote told us that more than 7 in 10 Native Americans live in urban areas, while a distinct minority—22 percent—live on one of the approximately 326 land areas in the United States administered as federal Indian reservations. “This is a population that is invisible,” she said. “There’s a lack of identity [for Native Americans] in urban areas because they’re dispersed and people assume they’re not there and don’t face some of the same issues that impact Native peoples who live on reservations.”

Comenote, a member of the Quinault nation, helped create the NUIFC in 2005 after a group of Native American tribal leaders met a couple years earlier in Seattle, Washington, to discuss common concerns. At that 2003 meeting, representatives realized that most of the federal policy attention directed to Native Americans was focused on the well-documented challenges facing people who live on reservations. For example, limited and substandard housing; high unemployment and inadequate job training; and severe poverty are acute concerns on reservations. Comenote said she agreed to head the coalition of 24 urban Native American centers in 19 U.S. cities, representing some 1.6 million Native Americans.

Her work has been to shine a spotlight on the Native peoples who live in cities and lack the attention or support provided to those who remain on the reservation. “In the case of housing, urban Indians are confronted with a lack of access to affordable housing but also lack access to meaningful treaty rights promised to those on the reservation,” Comenote said.

To fully appreciate the breadth of Comenote’s job, a bit of history is needed. In the first century of the United States—roughly between 1778 and 1871—federal lawmakers agreed upon a set of treaties with individual Native American tribes. Among the promises made to Native peoples were protection against attacks on their land, health care, education, sovereignty, and religious rights, as well as other rights of self-governance and land ownership. While U.S. officials did not strictly follow many of those original treaties with American Indian tribes, they remain a part of the legal matrix of our nation. Since 1871, relations with Native tribal nations have been maintained through Congress and presidential orders.

But those federal rights—having been spottily enforced over the years—only apply to Native Americans who live on federally designated Indian lands. This wrinkle in the law poses myriad concerns, especially since negotiations for federal supports promised to Native Americans for housing, education, or job training cannot be enforced if someone lives in Minneapolis, Denver, or Chicago.

“Consultation [regarding tribal rights] is only between the federal government and the tribal leaders,” Comenote said. “We have literally hit a brick wall that we can’t get around in securing their rights.”

In an effort to raise public attention to the plight of urban Indians, Comenote and the NUIFC are planning a 2017 national meeting in Washington, D.C. The group outlined its developing agenda and policy objectives in a 2015 NUIFC report titled “Making the Invisible Visible: A Policy Blueprint from Urban Indian America.”

As a late-blooming advocate for this issue—thanks to Janeen Comenote and the NUIFC—I’m looking forward to that meeting and pray it casts much-needed attention on the concerns of urban Native Americans. Goodness knows it’s needed.

Much like I was, our national leaders need to have their policy awareness broadened and restructured: The leading parties and candidates in the ongoing presidential election have yet to share their positions on support for Native Americans. It is time for the plight of Native Americans in our cities to come out of the shadows and into the light.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.