Identity Crisis & the Urban Indian Blues

We Are Urban Indians

As an Indian I sing this song for you

Who feel like you’re on your own

The Indians in cities may be very few

But I’m telling you, you’re not alone

There are those of us who’d like to be

With a lot of others of our kind

And if nothing else, we’d like to see

Other Indians, ’cause we’re hard to find!

We are Urban Indians

Far away from our tribal land

And as Urban Indians

We should form our very own intertribal band

Of urbanized Native Americans


Following the relocation period of the 1950s and 1960s, so many Indigenous people found themselves in urban centers away from their tribes and families, but settling into the life and building new families. We have forged an altogether new culture: the Urban Indian culture.

The Urban Indian culture is often looked at as “less than” or not real Indigenous culture. Pan-American Indian culture grew out of the urban culture, in which a mix of various tribes melded to create new expressions of Indian-ness. It is easy to scoff at the often inexact way that we have thrown together different traditions, but it is important to realize that it is an effect of colonization and a form of resistance. It is also an attempt at retaining whatever culture we can.

The urban Indigenous woman is faced with a city in which she may have few, if any, relatives and has to work in environments that may not be very diverse in which she may be the only Indigenous person coworkers have ever knowingly met.

If she has physical characteristics that mark her out as clearly Indigenous, she will deal with more racism and stigma, including the effects of the hyper-sexualizing of Indigenous women. If she is light-skinned or a Black Indigenous woman, her Indian-ness maybe be treated as invisible. A Black Indigenous woman will face the full effects of being a Black woman while having her Indian-ness denied. Even if she is outspoken about her full identity, many Indigenous people view her strictly as Black, and many Black people assume that she is claiming Indigenous background out of self-hatred of her Blackness or to try to seem more exotic.

Light-skinned Indigenous women benefit from many privileges afforded by the ability to “pass” as white or to at least not be recognized at all times as “other,” but the denial of their true identity and culture is also painful and if they are outspoken about their identity they may become tokenized and othered by white people, and may still not be accepted by other Indigenous people who are suspicious of their intent.

All of these factors contribute to the Urban Indian Blues, whereby urban Indigenous women feel distanced from the community that we need. We are aware of the fact that we have lost traditions and communal support. We are aware that going through pregnancy and childbirth alone is not the traditional way, and that raising children with little support goes against our traditional family structures. We are more likely to be in an interracial relationship where our culture is likely either ignored at best, or exoticized at worst. We work in white dominated jobs where we struggle to fit in, and probably live in more diverse but poor neighborhoods. We feel deeply that something is missing in us and in our lives.

Lack of connection to our source leaves us feeling isolated. Statistics that talk about rates of depression, teen pregnancy and alcohol/drug use amongst Indigenous people often focus on reservation or tribe-specific needs so it is not clear what the rates might be among urban Indigenous people, but it can be assumed to be a significant and serious issue.

Finding our people helps us to find our own selves. One of the easiest ways to make connections is through social media, which can connect us to people far and near. Finding out if there is a local Native American community center, health clinic or other services is another way to make connections. Through such connections, one is able to meet other Indigenous people, find out when and where pow wows occur and discover additional services and organizations that may exist. Many urban school districts receive federal funds to provide support to Indigenous students, which may include regalia making circles, language revitalization classes and other such programs. These programs often do not require proof of tribal enrollment and are often not specific to only one tribe. Reclaiming our identity and finding ways to connect to other Indigenous people and traditions can have a profound positive impact on our health.