Charles Trimble: Urban Indian relocation policy in context
Sometimes, in our need to justify our rage or our case for justice delayed, we often exaggerate or overstate conditions of our history as Indians, even very recent history. We are free with words like holocaust, genocide and other terminology of despair.

In a recent column for example, the Lakota writer Tim Giago used the term “pogrom” in describing the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ relocation program of the 1950s and 60s. The word pogrom is usually used to describe the riots and raids by Christian citizens on Jewish ghettos in Russia and in other European countries, in which many Jews were killed, and their property looted and burned.

The massacre and destruction of tribal villages at Sand Creek in Colorado in 1864, at the Washita River in Oklahoma in 1868, and at Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota in 1890, might be compared to a pogrom. What the columnist may have meant was Diaspora, which generally describes the scattering of any ethnic group (Jews, mainly), usually through expulsion or forced emigration. The Indian 19th Century removal policy of the US Government clearly resulted in Diaspora, for it was forced removal, often by the military.

But the use of the term pogrom to describe the BIA relocation program is hyperbole or overstatement. And it does none of us Native people any good to overstate and exaggerate facts about our past in order to make any point. We decry intergenerational trauma and its continuing effects on our youth, yet we feed the syndrome by exaggerating the history we tell them.

The Relocation experience needs to be told in context.

The US Government’s failure over the years to help develop reservation economies was most certainly part of its overall National Indian policy to force the Native peoples into assimilation. Anything that helped the people to remain among their own on the reservations encouraged them to remain “Indian,” and that was contrary to the policy of assimilation. Economic self-sufficiency in their Native homelands was not what the federal government wanted for the Indians, nor was it what white economic interests wanted. They wanted the Indian lands, and they wanted the Indians off those lands. In that context, perhaps, the BIA relocation program could be considered Diaspora, for the dearth of jobs or economic opportunity resulted in the choice of many to accept relocation.

During WWII, many Native American people, men and women, went to the cities to find work in the burgeoning defense industry. And some of them stayed in the cities following the war. Veterans coming home from the war had been exposed to the larger world, and some were impressed by it. Some may have not liked what they saw, but they were not awed by it or fearful of it. Whether they volunteered for service or were drafted, they felt that much of their youth was taken from them, and some were separated from their wives and young children. So, upon being discharged the veterans were anxious to catch up, to get jobs, and to raise families. But, with jobs at a premium on the reservations, many saw the answer in the BIA’s relocation program. Few of those who relocated, if any, could be described as having been coerced to do so.

And in their new urban environment, Indians tended to gather for pow-wows and traditional activities. They also gathered to form organizations to help each other, and to help new relocatees adapt and cope.

In Denver in the 1960s, I was a member of the White Buffalo Council of American Indians, which was formed there by Indian people in the earliest days of the relocation program. We had monthly pow-wows through the winter months, and an annual pow-wow in the summer (the grandfather of what is now the biggest annual pow-wow in the U.S.). We had arts and crafts and a music program for the youth, which was taught by a member of the Denver Symphony, and topped each year with a concert combining musicians from the city’s best high school bands with Indian children in our program.

In the White Buffalo Council I got to know some of the finest people I have ever met. Among them were Richard Tall Bull and his wife of the Southern Cheyenne, Noah Horse Chief of the Pawnee, Neva Garret and her family of Rosebud, Andrew Gray and his family from the Osage, and many more – all productive citizens, and most of them traditional people.

The White Buffalo Council also had a newspaper, the Indian Times, which I had the honor of editing – and from which was created the first national American Indian Press Association.

I would say that the vast majority of people who went on relocation succeeded in finding jobs, raising families, and keeping their traditions and commitment to the Indian cause. Many have returned to their reservation homes when opportunities came with new federal and tribal programs in the 1960s and 70s.

Leading in to his column on relocation, the writer told that the old saying, “Waste’ Chicago” came from Lakota men’s approval of Chicago as a BIA relocation destination. The term Waste’ is pronounced in the Lakota language as “washTay,” and means “good.”

Actually the saying “waste’ Chicago” dates back almost a decade earlier to the WWII years when the BIA central office itself was relocated to Chicago. The war effort required much office space in the District of Columbia (there was no Pentagon in those days), so lesser programs such as Indian affairs were relocated out of Washington for the duration of the war.

This move also made the BIA central office more accessible to Indian tribal delegations, and Chicago offered them more excitement than did Washington, DC, which was still under-developed, dingy, and dull in those days. When Lakota delegations returned home from their forays to the BIA offices, they’d say with a big grin, “Waste’ Chicago,” and one could only guess what kind of waste’ activity they had enjoyed.

That columnist also tells that the entire phrase was “Waste Chicago; Omaha no good.” Not defending my adopted hometown, but in all those years I had never heard anything but “waste’s Chicago,” which came to be used by the old men for agreement on just about anything.

In fairness, I must add here that, even as I smugly rebuke other journalists for exaggeration or inaccuracy, I find myself embarrassed by inaccuracy on my part. For my bro Sam Deloria just e-mailed me to point out an error in my latest column where I wrote that the Pima reverted to their traditional name of Tohono O’Odham. The fact is that the people previously known as the Papago are the Tohono O’Odham, not the Pima.

I apologize to Pima readers and especially the Tohono O’Odham people….my bad.

Charles “Chuck” Trimble, Oglala Lakota, was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association in 1970, and served as Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1972-78. He may be reached at His website is

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