Indian Cities: Histories of Indigenous Urbanism

Editor’s note: The Metropole theme for May is Urban Indigeniety. This is our first post of the month, an overview of the field. Additional posts in the series can be found at the conclusion of the article.

By Kent Blansett, Cathleen D. Cahill & Andrew Needham

Today, 70 percent of Indigenous peoples in the United States, a population of more than 3.7 million people, live in cities. In Canada, 867,415 First Nations people—roughly half of the Indigenous population in Canada—reside in metropolitan areas.[1] But, city life is not new to Indigenous peoples. Long before European settler colonists arrived in North America, Native peoples built Pueblo Bonito and Casa Rinconada, Cahokia and Tenochtitlán, and other urban areas, calling those cities home for generations. In the centuries since European invasion, cities have been frontlines in the struggle against colonization, oppression, and exploitation, yet they have also been spaces of Indigenous resistance, resilience, and creativity. Too often, however, scholars have tended to flatten this rich history into simplistic declension narratives that rely on tired tropes, such as the idea that Native peoples are caught “between two worlds.” Such treatments rely on binary racialized constructs of settlers versus Indians or Indians versus the settler city. Instead of those binaries, we urge scholars to think capaciously about the movement, resilience, and innovation of Indigenous city makers and residents.[2]   

These contentions—that Indigenous peoples have always been urban and that cities have always been shaped by Indigenous peoples—are the central assertions of our new edited volume, Indian Cities: Histories of Indigenous Urbanization, just published by the University of Oklahoma Press. We are thrilled to have the opportunity to share our ideas with The Metropole this month, which also includes three of the authors who contributed to the collection as well as a piece by Coll Thrush, whose work has influenced all  of our thinking. In this first post we would like to address some of the ways in which the tropes of urban history frequently erase Indigenous urban histories and to offer some suggestions that can build on recent scholarship—including this collection—to reinsert Native peoples into urban history, a move that requires a reassessment of many of the field’s assumptions.

Two of the biggest fallacies about Native peoples and cities the volume aims to unsettle are that Indigenous urban history begins in the middle of the twentieth century and, closely related, that Native peoples are incompatible with urban areas.

Indeed, “Indian cities” may seem like a contradiction in terms. More than a century of representations, both in popular culture and academic scholarship, have denied the existence of Indigenous urban pasts—and presents and futures. Such representations imply that urbanity and Indigeneity are antithetical. Even as Indigenous peoples continued to make Indian cities, their complex urban histories have remained largely hidden. Invariably cast as “communal,” “tribal,” “traditional,” and most of all, “rural,” Native peoples have long been portrayed as having no place in urban society. Indeed, a trope of what we might call “deurbanization” emerged, suggesting that as cities grew, Native peoples were either exiled from or overwhelmed by urban society and disappeared. As the historian Jean O’Brien (White Earth Ojibwe) argues, “historical narration implicitly argued that Indians can never be modern because they cannot be the subjects of change, only its victims.” Indigenous residents of cities became, as Philip Deloria (Dakota descendant) suggests, not unexpected urbanites that disrupted colonial understandings of Indigeneity but, rather, anomalies that reinforced reigning prejudices.[3] Indian Cities uncovers the dynamism of Indigenous place-making and polities that fostered a rich connection between traditional urban and reservation spaces—and offers a challenge to how contemporary scholarship defines and writes about the history of the urban Indian experience.

Members of the Native American Women Warriors—a Pueblo, Colorado-based association of active and retired American Indians in U.S. military service—at a Colorado Springs Native American Inter Tribal Powwow and festival in that central Colorado city. Left to right (all U.S. Army): Capt. Calley Cloud (a Crow, based at Fort Riley, Kansas); Spc. Krissy Quinones Cloud (Crow, Fort Carson, Colorado); Retired Sfc. Mitchelene BigMan (Crow, the group’s president and founder); and Sgt. Lisa Marshall (Cheyenne River Sioux, Fort Carson). The event was organized by the Palmer Lake, Colorado, Historical Society and One Nation Walking Together, a nonprofit organization addressing the needs of the estimated 1.5 million American Indians on reservations, as well as Indians living in urban areas. The women’s patch honors Pfc. Lori Ann Pestewa, the first Native American woman in U.S. service killed in combat (in 2003 during Operation Iraqi Freedom). Carol M. Highsmith, July 18, 2015, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Indigenous peoples have lived, worked, and made cities since pre-Columbian times. That history is visible in archeology and historical documentation. We tend to be familiar with the Spanish conquest of Tenochtitlán, but similar events played out in North America as well. As Hernando de Soto slashed his way through the river bottoms of the American southeast in the 1530s and 40s, for example, he reported large population settlements with grain storehouses in the shadows of massive temple mounds. He and his men left violence in their wake, along with microbes and invasive species like rats and pigs that tore through and further destabilized those communities.[4] In subsequent years European colonists built their own cities atop Indigenous settlements. But Native peoples remained and claimed areas of New Orleans, Charleston, Santa Fe, and Detroit as their own.[5] In the nineteenth century, they made spaces for themselves in Washington, DC, and Ottawa, as well as the lesser capitals of North America’s emergent settler colonial nation-states. And in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, even as both popular culture and scholarly discourse claimed that “Indians” and “cities” were incompatible, Indigenous peoples built the skylines of New York, Toronto, and Los Angeles, and made areas of Rapid City, Winnipeg, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Tulsa into centers of Indigenous power.[6] Native presence was visible within the urban landscape, in names, buildings, streets, lights, signs, alleyways, and sidewalks, while Native peoples also came together in intertribal gatherings of nations, collectively, building Indian cities.

We urge urban historians to broaden the temporal scale of North American urbanization to reflect this deep urban past. Current urban areas were Indigenous long before they became the cities we know today and cannot be detached from those histories. Studies of the Indigenous origins of major metropolises such as Los Angeles, Chicago, and Seattle have produced landmark scholarship in the field. Moreover, attention to the Indigenous urban past should also lead urban historians to take new notice of cities that have received relatively little scholarly attention. The location that eventually became Rapid City, South Dakota, for example, had long been a meeting place where Lakota, Arikara, Mandan, and other peoples of the northern Great Plains gathered in dense and recurring, if temporary settlements. The urbanness of “Rapid City” long predates both invasion and the city’s formal establishment. It remains an intensely important Indian city to this day, a location where Indigenous peoples claim rights to territory and belonging, even while some local white merchants attempt to exclude Native people from rights of urban citizenship.[7]

Essays in our collection emphasize that thinking about Indigenous people’s relationship with cities also requires that scholars address how cities have developed (and continue to be shaped) by the resources extracted from Indigenous lands and communities. For example, regional centers with large Indigenous populations—Buffalo, Rapid City, Winnipeg, Tulsa, and Phoenix—existed as deeply important sites of Indigenous city making as well as sites of plunder and predation. So too did reservation “border towns” such as Winslow, Arizona; Gallup, New Mexico; and White Clay, Nebraska. Such examinations integrate key insights from the past decade of urban histories with key insights from settler colonial studies, while foregrounding the lives and histories of urban Indigenous peoples. With dispossession conceived as not a singular event, but an ongoing structure of urban life, we urge scholars to ask how urban Indigenous peoples lived within and challenged colonial structures, both in terms of their “right to the city” as well as ownership of its land and resources.[8]

Tomas Thundershock Monroe of Pueblo, Colorado, who described his tribe as “Apache Choctaw Navajo mix,” was among the participants at a Colorado Springs Native American Inter-Tribal Powwow and festival in that central Colorado city. The event was organized by the Palmer Lake, Colorado, Historical Society and One Nation Walking Together, a nonprofit organization addressing, in the organization’s words, the “poverty, unemployment, homelessness, lack of medical care, and insufficient educational resources” faced by the estimated 1.5 million American Indians on reservations, as well as Indians living in urban areas. Carol M. Highsmith, July 18, 2015, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Indian Cities also destroys the mythology that cities are strictly settler spaces organized in opposition to Indigenous identity, politics, and life-ways by revealing how Indigenous peoples have constructed community in those cities. From contact times to the twenty-first century, Indian city residents challenged destructive policies designed to terminate individual and collective Indigenous rights and identity. Despite sometimes unambiguous efforts to use urban life to alienate Indigenous people from their social and political communities (also known as “detribalization”), the anthology reveals that Indigenous people in cities came together in order to advance Native rights and sovereignty. Sometimes resistance took the form of people refusing to leave their land, remaining in or returning to place as cities grew, and their presence shaped the subsequent urban fabric.[9] In other cases, individuals worked together with people from other tribes, a process known as “Intertribalism.” Intertribalism took shape as Native peoples from multiple nations moved to cities as part of a wider diaspora set in motion by settler colonialism. There they worked together to forge a collective politics by founding institutions, organizations, businesses, and ultimately constructing neighborhoods and building Indian Centers that served as the heart of what we call Indian cities: spaces of Indigenous creativity, resistance, and futurity.[10]

Indian Cities uncovers the dynamism of Indigenous place-making and polities that fostered a rich connection between traditional urban and reservation spaces—and offers a challenge to how contemporary scholarship defines and writes about the history of the urban Indian experience.

In addition to Coll Thrush, who explores Indigenous histories of Seattle, London, and Vancouver, three authors from our volume will be featured this month on The Metropole. Nate Holly, Maurice Crandall (Yavapi-Apache), and Sasha Suarez (White Earth Ojibwe) present Indigenous people as city makers and city dwellers, as agents and subjects of urbanization. Reflecting the broader inquiry of Indian Cities: Histories of Indigenous Urbanization, these essays highlight the work of Indigenous peoples in shaping urban places and the role that urban spaces play in making Indigenous communities and politics. In so doing, they suggest the new kinds of urban histories that emerge when “Indian” and “city” are no longer regarded as antithetical. We hope you enjoy them as much as we did.

Additional posts for Urban Indigeniety:


Cathleen D. Cahill received her PhD at the University of Chicago.  She taught at the University of New Mexico for thirteen years before moving to Penn State University where she is now an associate professor of History. She is the author of Recasting the Vote: How Women of Color Transformed the Suffrage Movement (2020). Her first book, Federal Fathers & Mothers: A Social History of the US Indian Service, 1869-1933 (2011) won the Labriola Center American Indian National Book Award and was a finalist for the David J. Weber and Bill Clements Book Prize. Her work has also appeared in American Indian QuarterlyAmerican Indian Culture and Research Journal, Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies, Journal of Women’s History, and the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.

Kent Blansett is a Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Shawnee, and Potawatomi descendant from the Blanket, Panther, and Smith family lines. He is Langston Hughes Associate Professor of Indigenous studies and History at the University of Kansas and the author of A Journey to Freedom: Richard Oakes, Alcatraz, and the Red Power Movement (2018). The first biography  of Akwesasne Mohawk leader Richard Oakes, his book weaves together the methodologies of Indigenous biography  and urban history to explore the rich histories of three modern Indian cities:  Brooklyn, San Francisco, and Seattle. Beyond Indian cities, his scholarship explores the histories of Native nationalism, intertribalism, Red Power, and global Indigenous experience. Blansett serves as the founder and executive director for the American Indian Digital History Project (www.aidhp.com), a digital history cooperative that strives to expand both free and open access to critical Indigenous research and archival materials.

Andrew Needham is Associate Professor of History at New York University, where he is the director of the Minor in Native American and Indigenous Studies. He is the author of Power Lines: Phoenix and the Modern Southwest (2014), which explores how resources from the Navajo and Hopi Nations underlay the development of Phoenix and other cities in the U.S. Southwest. Power Lines won awards from the Western History  Association, American Society  for Environmental History, and Border Regional Library Association. He is currently working on a book about Indigenous dispossession and the U.S. petroleum industry in the early twentieth century.

Featured image (at top): Cover art by Brent Learned, an award winning and collected Native American artist who was born and reared in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. He is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma. Brent graduated from the University of Kansas with a bachelor degree in Fine Arts. His work resides in museums such as the Smithsonian Institute-National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC, the Cheyenne/Arapaho Museum in Clinton, Oklahoma, the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, and the University  of Kansas Art Museum in Lawrence, Kansas.


[1] Urban Indian Health Commission, “U.S. Census Marks Increase in Urban American Indians and Alaska Natives,” Feb. 28, 2013, www.uihi.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Broadcast_Census-Number_FINAL_v2.pdf; and Statistics Canada, “Aboriginal Peoples in Canada: Key Results from the 2016 Census,” The Daily, October 25, 2017, www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/171025/dq171025a-eng.htm.

[2] Here we are indebted to scholars who came before us, including anthropologists and sociologists as well as historians. See, for example, Donald Fixico Termination and Relocation (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1986); Joan Weibel-Orlando, Indian County, L.A.: Maintaining Ethnic Community in Complex Society (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991); Troy R. Johnson, The Occupation of Alcatraz Island: Indian Self-Determination and the Rise of Indian Activism (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1996); Paul Chaat Smith and Robert Allen Warrior, Like a Hurricane: The American Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee (New York: The New Press, 1997); Kenneth Philp, Termination Revisited: American Indians on the Trail to Self Determination (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999); Susan Lobo, ed., Urban Voices: The Bay Area American Indian Community (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2002); James B. LeGrand, Indian Metropolis: Native Americans in Chicago, 1945-1975 (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2002); Reyna K. Ramirez, Native Hubs: Culture, Community, and Belonging in Silicon Valley and Beyond (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007); Coll Thrush, Native Seattle: Histories from the Crossing-Over Place (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008); Susan Applegate Krouse and Heather A. Howard-Bobiwash, eds., Keeping the Campfires Going: Native Women’s Activism in Urban Communities (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009); Myla Vicenti Carpio, Indigenous Albuquerque (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2011); Victoria K. Haskins, Matrons and Maids: Regulating Indian Domestic Service in Tucson, 1914-1934 (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2012); Nicolas G. Rosenthal, Reimagining Indian Country: Native American Migration and Identity in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014); Rosalyn R. LaPier and David R. Beck, City Indian: Native American Activism in Chicago, 1893-1934 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015); Coll Thrush, Indigenous London: Native Travelers at the Heart of Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016); and James Joseph Buss and Joe Genetin-Pilawa, eds., Beyond Two Worlds: Critical Conversations on Language and Power in Native North America (Albany: SUNY Press, 2014). Other influential studies appear throughout the notes.

[3] Jean M. O’Brien, Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians out of Existence in New England (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), 107 and Philip J. Deloria, Indians in Unexpected Places (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004). For a helpful guide on writing about Indigenous people, see Gregory Younging, Elements of Indigenous Style: A Guide for Writing By and About Indigenous People (Edmonton, Canada: Brush Education, 2018).

[4] David J. Weber, The Spanish Frontier in North America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 50-55. See also William N. Morgan, Ancient Architecture of the Southwest (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994).

[5] Daniel H. Usner, American Indians in Early New Orleans: From Calumet to Raquette (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2018); Chris Wilson, The Myth of Santa Fe: Creating a Modern Regional Tradition (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997); Tiya Miles, The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits (New York: The New Press, 2017); Andrew K. Frank, Before Pioneers: Indians, Settlers, Slaves and the Founding of Miami (Gainsville: University of Florida Press, 2017); Jacob Lee, Masters of the Middle Waters: Indian Nations and Colonial Ambitions Along the Mississippi (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2019); Colin Calloway, The Chiefs Now in This City: Indians and the Urban Frontier in Early America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021). See also Elizabeth Ellis, Power on the Margins: The Petites Nations and Lower Mississippi Valley, 1650-1800 (forthcoming, University of Pennsylvania Press).

[6] Kent Blansett, A Journey to Freedom: Richard Oakes, Alcatraz, and the Red Power Movement (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018); Frances Sanderson and Heather A. Howard, eds., The Meeting Place: Aboriginal Life in Toronto (Toronto: Native Canadian Center of Toronto, 1997); Douglas K. Miller, Indians on the Move: Native American Mobility and Urbanization in the Twentieth Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019); David Hugill, Settler Colonial City: Racism and Inequity in Postwar Minneapolis (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2021); Rosenthal, Reimagining Indian Country. See also Rotinonhsión:ni Ironworkers, a short animated film telling the history of the Haudenosaunee ironworkers in New York City directed by Carlee Kawinehta Loft and Allan Downey, https://www.aifisf.com/rotinonhsionni-ironworkers.

[7] See essays by Elaine Marie Nelson and Dana Powell in Indian Cities. See also Nick Estes, Our History is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance (New York: Verso, 2019) and Stephen Hausmann, Urban Indian Country: Race and Environment in Twentieth-Century Rapid City (forthcoming, University of Nebraska Press). For a recent example of a conflict over Native peoples’ right to access public accommodation in Rapid City, see Chris Aadland, “Lawsuit Filed against Hotel Wanting to Ban Native People,” Indian Country Today, March 23, 2022, https://indiancountrytoday.com/news/lawsuit-filed-against-hotel-wanting-to-ban-native-people.

[8] See essays by Mishuana R. Goeman, Jennifer Denetdale, and Ari Kelman in Indian Cities. See, for example, Nick Estes, “Anti-Indian Common Sense: Border Town Violence and Resistance in Mni Luzahan,” in Settler City Limits: Indigenous Resurgence and Colonial Violence in the Urban Prairie West, Ed. Heather Dorries, Robert Henry, David Hugill, Tyler McCreary, and Julie Tomiak (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2019). See also Andrew Needham, Power Lines: Phoenix and the Making of the Modern Southwest (Princeton University Press, 2014) and Kelly Lytle Hernández, City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771-1965 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).  

[9] The digital project Mapping Indigenous Los Angeles: Placemaking through Digital Storytelling is an excellent example of the layered Indigenous histories of cities that includes the descendants of original Tongva and Tataviam people as well as a diverse population of people from Indigenous diasporas. https://mila.ss.ucla.edu/.

[10] Intertribalism is preferred to the outdated terms like “pan-Indianism,” which was born out of the assimilation/acculturation era and centers on the racialization and detribalization of Indigenous peoples. For more, see Kent Blansett, Journey to Freedom. For some examples, see Hazel W. Hertzberg, The Search for an American Indian Identity: Modern Pan-Indian Movements (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1971); Lucy Maddox, Citizen Indians: Native American Intellectuals, Race, and Reform (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005); Daniel M. Cobb, Native Activism in Cold War America: The Struggle for Sovereignty (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2008); and Kiara M. Vigil, Indigenous Intellectuals: Sovereignty, Citizenship, and the American Imagination, 1880-1930 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

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