Challenges of Urban Native Millennials:  Part 2


“You want to know the real difference between an urban and a reservation Indian? Stand in my moccasins. Our tribes are going to have to live in the real world. The visions of the old ones are fading fast into obscurity. We must become educated, to move in and take our rightful place in the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) and other government agencies. I get teased a lot still. ‘You’re all right, Jon,  you’re almost White’. Or they call me an ‘apple’. You know, some who’s red on the outside, but white on the inside. But that’s OK. I understand them. We are going to have to make the decisions that affect us—in the city and back home—and we must accept that there will be some risks involved. If we do make wrong calls, we’ll have to hold ourselves accountable. If we fail to promote education among our children, to make it an attractive and desirable thing, we will have only ourselves to blame. There are no good colleges on our rez. All we got are these little community colleges. We gotta come to where the bigger colleges are to really use our educational benefits wisely. It is not so hard to adapt once you make friends here.”
Rev. Jon Bluewaters, Winnebago
Omaha, Nebraska

“On the reservation, we practice anthropomorphism. That’s a word I learned here at Northern Arizona University. We practiced it, but I never knew the Anglo name for it. You know, the practice of ascribing human traits to that which isn’t human. It’s common among the Hopi, for all creation is sacred to us. But seems like the more time we spend away from our reservation, the less we practice this. Things in the city are seen as less animate. My cousin Bernie is in Glendale, (California) now. The first ten years of his life he was raised with us near Second Mesa, but he can’t speak Hopi now. When mom begins to speak of the blessing-way of our people, he just channel surfs. You know, tunes her out. After eight years in town, you couldn’t get him to move back home. I think he is embarrassed to say where he was even born. Who’s heard of Second Mesa anyway? What happened to him in the city happens to most of us. We don’t feel the change. That’s what scares me. I recommend that all the Hopis here go home about once a month. That way we don’t lose touch with reality.” 
Zeb,  Hopi

“I am of three different bloods, Creek, Pawnee and Pima. My people moved to Tucson and finally to Phoenix after the BIA’s Relocation Act*. This plan never really worked for Indians. When my folks moved to the city when I was ten, I remember my first day at school was awful! One of my teachers said that I must ‘look her in the eyes’ when she is speaking to me! I went home crying, sad that people in the city are so hard and unfeeling. In my home, it is a sign of respect to avoid making direct eye contact with the person you are talking with. ‘The eye is the window to the soul’, mom always said (she died last year of diabetes). Prolonged eye contact can be interpreted as a challenge or a defiance. For Pimas, whites are too probing with their eyes.
Especially Anglo men we work with on the job. They probe and undress girls with their eyes. They do this ‘eye adultery’ that Jesus talks about. We see this as a weakness; they don’t seem able to control themselves. My husband can flirt with me, but he is the only one. But I should have known, here in town, I’m a stranger, no matter how long I live here. Pima ways make us special to each other, but I guess, not to non-Indians.”
Loralane Brown, Pima
Mesa, Arizona

*Loralane’s remarks are echoed in Peter Nabokov’s “Native American Testimony: A Chronicle of Indian-White Relations from Prophecy to the Present – 1492-1992” (NY: Penguin Group, 1992. p. 336). “Relocation was the catchword for the Bureau’s plan to help Indians find apartments and jobs and schools for their children. In 1955, 3,400 Indians were already living in low-rent apartments or housing developments in Los Angeles, Seattle, St. Louis and Detroit…for many Indians, relocation meant anguished dislocation. Stories filtered back to the reservation of loneliness, alcoholism, depression, police harassment, unemployment and crime…soon the word ‘dislocation’ shot anxiety into the hearts of Indians, much as ‘removal’ had more than a century before.” 

“I grew up in Baptist schools and all my family did also. This was after Uncle Sam finally realized we were even a tribe*. They taught us about a world that was very attractive and it was a world off the reservation. For me, the attraction to the city is, in a word, technology. Our people need to understand what the conquering race has learned in their own struggle for freedom and survival. We must learn from their mistakes and their successes and apply that information to our urban environments. We grew up high tech. Many of my friends had satellite dishes, but the poorest dwelling had an (TV) antenna at least. The world was brought into our living rooms, but we couldn’t get at that world until we broke from home—flew from our nests, our cocoons, the traditions, and the rez. The wonders of technology had both a good and bad effect on us. At home, our second language was always English cause the TV was always on. There were no Lumbee stations really; they are all run by Anglos. When we moved to town, English became primary.  The effects of technology can have profound social and economic effects. The undermining of traditional Native values and life ways I’m sure is permanent.”
Aaron Parker,  Lumbee
North Carolina

*Aaron’s remark correspond to a passage in “The Native American Christian Community: A Directory of Indian, Aleut and Eskimo Churches.” (Monrovia, CA: World Vision International, 1979. p. 35) “This people (Lumbee) has only in very recent years been recognized by the Federal government. The Burnt Swamp Baptist Association has 57 ordained ministers and 52 licensed ministers, all Lumbees”. 

“The demands are greater upon ethnic teachers because we are in the minority; no pun intended. The campus climate is not one of overt racism, for the university prides itself on gender and ethnic inclusiveness. However, subtle and often even overt racial comments are made that are very hurtful and potentially emotionally damaging. But some remarks hinder us and some help us. A negative example came from an Anglo student who asked me concerning a test whether or not I ‘had a regular professor approve it’. A positive example would be the Hopi freshman who told me later that I was her inspiration…that when she came to class the first day and saw me, she said to herself, “If she can teach, I can teach. I can do this!” She tells me this many years later. This made me happy. She is now a mother of three and an associate prof herself at Grand Canyon University.

As a woman of color and a professor of color at this university, I have jumped through all the racial hoops to get tenured. I have lived through the initial experiences of being tokenized and demeaned. Even today, I feel like an insect in the biology lab, with faculty looking me over to see if I measure up. I’ve ‘been there, done that and got the T-shirt’, as the students say. An interesting site which will post the “Minority Faculty Development Report, 2001”  is  And,. sure, I fear for the newcomers to urban America. Who doesn’t? In this century, Natives are often unprepared to live in our increasingly culturally diverse campus and are at a disadvantage socially, economically and educationally. We have never been afraid of the White Man. That’s why we still make progress – anyplace we live.”
Arizona State University, Phoenix

“ We are third-generation city people. When my great-grandpa’s water rights were ripped off by the government about a century ago*, he felt he had to move north into Phoenix for the sake of our family. As a Pima, I really first began to adjust to this crazy campus when I participated in ASU’s Orme Dam Celebration. You should check out our American Indian Council here at ASU ( Many of these clubs are table dressing; you know, centerpieces created by the brain trust to show how ‘culturally diverse’ we are supposed to be. But the truth is, students just need the friendships these clubs help to create. We don’t need an excuse to get together and talk, but these clubs seem to draw students who are like-minded in their given callings. I belong to the American Indian Studies Student Organization ( and some other multiracial and biracial clubs. All of us have more than one blood, but we all have similar problems. We all need more time and pizza money. Yes!” 
Steven Betio, Pima
Gila River Reservation

* Steven’s point is ingeminated in a recent AIRJ article. “The Indian Services did not have the resources or expertise to initiate data collection to substantiate Pima claims. Consequently, Pima water rights were ignored.” (“Forced to Abandon Their Farms: Water Deprivation and Starvation Among the Gila River Pima” by David H. Dejong, American Indian Research Journal, Vol. 28, # 3, 2004, p. 445).

“When I was younger, I attended an all-white school, and since the leaders there all were White, I tended to see leadership as White. When I came to the city to go to college, it was a major adjustment for me. I realized that this was a White man’s world and that if I was gonna make it, I must sometimes be two different people. I thank God for my education and the sports program at American Indian Bible College because it helped me as I interacted with other people of color. I saw many people intermarry and my worldview changed as I became acquainted with different people groups. Dealing with different races in college helped me a lot. I realize as a Native pastor that a leader must be a reader, so I read a lot and continue to learn. Although Natives have been a conquered people, we must renew the warrior spirit for ourselves and for our children.”
Marvin Begay, Navajo
Pastor, Canyon Day Assembly of God
White Mountain Apache Reservation

Suggested web sites and links for this category:

Native/elementary –
Native/collegiate –
Native/teaching –
Native/literacy –



Having worked with other Natives most of my life, it seems evident that many of the First Nations have not only survived but are prospering. To understand the need for continual improvement in communicating the Gospel to Natives in the cities, let’s assume that Native Americans fall into one of three categories:

1.  Traditional      
2.  Matrix      
3.  Acculturated/Assimilated

1. Traditional Natives are difficult to find in America. This is a person who tries to live as did the ancestors. He/she would have little or no contact with the outside world. This individual would speak only his/her Native language and follow that religion and life-way as much as possible. This choice is called “a return to the blanket”. Modern conveniences of contemporary life, however, make this choice unappealing and significantly rare.

2. The matrix Native, to borrow a term from the film series, is one who lives in two worlds. One world was created for him by his tribal heritage—the other by the dominant culture. This individual has a foot in both worlds, and is bilingual, with English as a second language. Each individual Native must determine for his/herself which of these two worlds is the one hidden within the other. For this person, one or both worlds may become surreal.

3. The acculturated/assimilated Native is Anglo in his/her thinking, worldview and culture. The tribal language is unknown to this person and would have little or no interest in ancestry or heritage. When and if an acculturated Native returns to the reservation, it is usually only for a brief visit, and often feels like a stranger in a strange land—even among his/her own kin. The acculturated/assimilated category is where most Native Americans live today.

What constitutes effective communication must be determined by each tribe individually, not by the dominant society. The Anglo has ever sought to communicate the Gospel as if they had invented it, overlooking the fact that the Anglo was not the author of Christianity but was merely the messenger. It is unfortunate that most contact with the Gospel has been screened to the Native through an Anglo filter. Consequently, communication skills for the twenty-first century Native will be determined by educational high water marks—not by traditional values. Although it is too late to cry over the spilled milk, Anglo missionaries of the early contact period would have been wise to have presented the Gospel as Jewish, rather than White.


It was my determination from the outset of this project to allow Natives to tell their own stories generated from personal life experiences. We have let the Natives speak—we have heard their voices. But what is the upshot of all their words? What can we surmise and realistically recommend that will help young Native Americans as they struggle with urban transitioning? The bottom line is that we must listen to them—and listen carefully.

As was noted in the project, few interviewees knew their percentage of Indian blood. This loss of tribal identity is another cultural impact of Native urbanization. Elders are virtually absent and thus cannot give advice to the new generation. In increasingly impersonal urban environments, young Natives have learned to accept the fact that they must fend for themselves and discover the informational paths that will lead them to practical destinations. Those moving to the cities should check out sites interviewees have listed which they feel might be helpful. In the new century, these sites are the tools Native millennials must use to help to build strong homes and families.

Concerning moving to town, there were many and diverse personal and familial related reasons, financial opportunities and spiritual and educational concerns mentioned. All participants were asked to offer solutions to dilemmas they faced in order to assist other migrating Natives. Almost without exception, the reason why someone initially moved to the city concerned the betterment of the immediate and/or extended family.  The following is the summation of the thoughts of those interviewed in each of the four primary categories.

Personal and Familial

Under this category, participants were asked to comment on the major adjustment(s) in their personal lives due to moving from the rez to the city. The single greatest challenge in relocating in a metropolitan area was that of overcoming fear: fear of failure, fear of the increased pace of urban life and fear of urban adjustments in general. It is not unusual for entire families to move to town simply because of the fear of losing one another, by being swallowed alive by the city.
When asked what factors had the greatest impact, the most common response was the initial attempt to juggle the dual address, to make sense of how the move to the city could ever really be permanent. Interviewees over the age of forty tended to encourage younger people not to let go of their roots and to remember the family back on the rez. To say, as Lee Wilson did in her interview, that “we are changing, growing, surviving, despite the pressures of the dominant society in this crazy metro area, we remain uniquely Dineh” is a dream very quickly vaporized for most Natives amid the city smog.

It was evident was that the younger the interviewee, the less intimidated they were concerning the relocation process. When they were asked what impact their move made on those who were left back on the rez, the most common response was that they hoped that the family would move to the city one day, not that they themselves hoped to move back to the rez.

Communication skills among those under twenty seemed to improve dramatically soon after their move to town. It is assumed that this has stemmed more from necessity than from self-discipline. All college students who were interviewed understood that communication skills for the twenty-first century Native will be determined by educational achievements rather than by traditional values.

Those interviewed under this category did not seem to have “one eye on the past and the other on the future” as Waneta Lee mentioned in her interview. The impersonal world-view common among city dwellers impacts Natives very quickly, despite what ties they may have had to their families back home.  B.J. Hall’s comment stated this succinctly:  “I came from a place where everybody knew everybody else and everybody knew everything about everybody else to a place where no one cares who you are.” We discovered that the longer the Native lived in the city, the shorter and less frequent their visits to the rez became. This tends to validate that Natives who relocate in the cities can create for themselves a comfortable environment equal to or greater than the one left on the reservation. It seemed that the benefits of urban life had the tendency to outweigh kinship bonds in many cases.   


One monetary statistic which tended to resurface among many of the Southwestern interviewees was that the average per-capita income was about four thousand dollars a year. Even at unskilled labor, one could earn ten times that much in the city. A Navajo named Gloria perhaps stated it best when she said, “The difference in living in town is money: on the rez we never had any.”
Those seeking higher education also sought the potential financial gain associated with it. Those who moved for reasons related to the family also sought the necessary finances to improve family life. Of the four categories concerning city migration, money was by far the largest attraction.

But I discovered that family ties often worked against those seeking to improve their financial picture. Almost all interviewees said they were poor when they lived on the rez. Therefore, if they moved to town to earn money, when they returned to the rez there were always (immediate or extended) family members in need. Due to strong kinship ties, such relatives are rarely refused. The result was to return to a low poverty level again. In most cases, this cycle tends to repeat itself, until the move to the city becomes permanent, where needy relatives are less prevalent.

In contrast, teenagers who were interviewed seem to have swallowed the American Dream in its entirety. Their primary focus was cars for the guys, fashon for the gals and dating. There was almost no difference in the core values of 15-19 year olds with that of other ethnic teens. It seems clear that from about twenty years old and younger, Native millennials want what all American teens want. As this generation evolves into the cycle of parenting in the third decade of the new century, there is every indication that strong reservation ties will virtually cease to exist.

When asked what type of work interviewees were skilled at, most confessed to having none in particular. Most were willing to work, but lacked training. Collegiate students for the most part knew that they would face discrimination when seeking employment. Most accepted on-campus employment or work study programs rather than face the competitive job market which tends to favor Anglos. Furthermore, it was very clear that most Native college students would not have come to state universities if tribal educational funding had not been available. Most said they would not attempt to “pay as you go” – to work and pay their own tuition each semester. On the other hand, all students interviewed were appalled at the idea of amassing huge student loan debt. Although estranged from their families while in college, the potential disgrace of financial indebtedness tends to serve as a safeguard against overspending. In this particular regard, strong family ties were very evident. 


Collegiate-age interviewees inevitably moved to town for educational reasons. The favorite degree was elementary education. When asked if they would return to the rez to teach, most freshmen said yes, but most seniors were unsure. This validates the theory that the longer college-age students are exposed to city life, the less likely they are to return to the rez to live.  Most students interviewed said they were members of one or more biracial/multiracial campus clubs. In the absence of immediate family, the feeling of belonging to a particular culture could best be felt in this type of environment.

About two out of three of those interviewed in the “Educational” category said they had family members who held degrees and encouraged them to pursue higher education. It can be safely concluded that the desire to please kinfolk plays a large role in Native educational pursuits.

It should also be noted that an awareness of technology was a factor in bringing most students to town. Raised with computers, the feeling among the pro-education group is that they must get tuned into cyberspace in order to survive in the new century. All students interviewed said they have taken on-line courses, validating computer competency on a continuum. 

In conclusion, a strange enigma was noted. While many of the less-educated interviewees expressed negative comments relating to atrocities of the past, those who were educationally-oriented tended to be very optimistic about the future. Those who hold little hope in tomorrow tend to live in the disappointments of yesterday.

Each interviewee who participated in this category was asked to describe their spiritual worldview today as opposed to their reservation lifeway. The specific question was, “Have you found that attachments to tradition have loosened since your move to the city?” The answer was always “Yes.”

It was soon evident that our “Spiritual” category was the least mentioned of the four categories in prompting moves to the city. However, estrangement from Native religions as practiced on the rez seems to allow the freedom for Natives to check out for themselves what elders have traditionally labeled as “White man’s religion”. It was interesting that some twenty-year olds interviewed were totally unfamiliar with that phrase, serving to further strengthen the concept that Natives were not always indoctrinated in tradition simply because they lived on the rez. For example, among Navajo participants who had lived in and around Navajo Nation headquarters in Window Rock and Fort Defiance, most had almost no connection to Native religion. The exception to this general observation was token ceremonial participation to satisfy grandparents still steeped in tradition. Most felt that the Indian religions had been relegated to the archives and if they participated at all, it was usually with reluctance. Were it not for the frowns of close relatives, most interviewees said they would not dance or go into a sweat lodge at all. Fear of displeasing the elders was key; not displeasing the gods. Because there was fear of expressing such apprehensions on a public web site, strong comments were deleted from their summary statements.

Interestingly, very few spoke of the boarding schools their grandparents or great-grandparents may have attended. Now separated by two and even three generations, such horror stories are quickly fading into obscurity. Since boarding schools were usually operated by Catholics, any form of Christianity was opposed by the survivors of such unfair treatment. A few of the older interviewees did talk about the boarding schools, but the interviewer felt that few would believe the shocking brutality and sheer terror they described. Therefore, such graphic atrocities were not included in their remarks.

Under this category, the hot topic was Drum Religion. Our interview with Fred Colporter of Washington most clearly stated the case. In more than one interview session, open hostilities broke out among the participants. Whereas some felt that they should be able to worship God in any way they choose, others felt that doctrinal problems soon develop when drum worship becomes central in a given congregation. Add to this mix of opinion the interference of White missionaries (most of whom oppose it vehemently) and you have the sparks needed to set off the gunpowder of controversy. It is my conclusion that this debate needs to be settled by the Natives themselves. There is so much diversity in worship styles, it is doubtful whether there will ever be a cessation of hostilities concerning this topic. It would be pointless to have included such discussions for this project on for i,t would have bred ill-feelings and settled nothing. 

We surmised that Natives who attend Christian colleges and universities tend to be more excited about their faith than those struggling as Christians in secular schools. This support base was of utmost importance. When it was absent, confusion and lack of commitment was in evidence. For Native Americans who have found Christ, the consensus of interviews proved conclusively that the baptism in the Holy Spirit is the experience that keeps them true to God. Through praying in tongues, they discover a dimension totally lacking in any Indian religion. In cold ceremonialism, personal love and intimate spiritual fellowship tend to be nonexistent. 

In conclusion, interviewees who had a strong commitment to Jesus Christ always mentioned the personal element as being paramount in their walk with God.


Each participant was asked to provide suggestions, recommendations and web site domains that might be helpful to Natives transitioning from reservation to urban living. The majority of interviewees suggested websites through which others migrating to the city might find answers and assistance. Word of mouth is still valued in contemporary Native America. Urban millennials surfing cyberspace will check out websites recommended by other Natives that hold any hint of Native culture, such as ones that include terms like “Native”, “Red Man”, “Native American” or “American Indians”. As has proven true since these interviews took place, sites suggested by Natives have been very helpful to those who have accessed them. Calls and emails from those who have read this on-line project conclusively attest to this fact. Much gratitude has been expressed to our Native American Marriage Enhancement office by making these site domains known in Native communities. As the cumulative total number of their proposed web sites attests, Native millennials are increasingly turning to cyberspace to find financial, educational and spiritual opportunities.

Although the urbanization process has traditionally been slow, it has greatly accelerated in the past few years. Fears of urban living for contemporary Native Americans have been greatly diminished. Current trends prove that reservation Natives will continue to migrate to the cities. For many, the transition will be seamless. For others, it will be traumatic. As our people are on the move, informational paths such as the Internet can help them adapt to urban environments. Innovative evangelical methods must be pro-active to be effective. We must understand the needs of our People in the new century will be primarily in an urban environment. We must take the Gospel to where they choose to live—and in the new century that includes cyberspace. We who labor among our First Nations must develop increased sensitivity to the spiritual impact of these new urban life ways. Only as we understand the struggles of increasing numbers of Natives in their migration to the cities can we meet them on common ground, presenting the Gospel of Jesus Christ in ways that brings peace to them amid the turmoil of city life.

Maxim of the Moment

Success is getting up one more time than the number of times you fall down. - Julie Bowden