Review by Sharon Brunner, MSW
Kasey R. Keeler and her book American Indians and the American Dream: Policies, Place, and Property in Minnesota presented a revolutionary view behind the Native Americans’ inability to pursue home ownership in rural, urban and suburban areas in Minnesota as a result of white American colonialism and capitalism. Dispossession of tribal homelands caused many hardships for the racially challenged. Keeler referred to many areas in this country in which Native Americans resided with her main focus placed on the St. Paul and Minneapolis region. Minnesota had been the traditional homelands of Dakota and Ojibwe people which included 11 federally recognized tribal nations in the state. Keeler focused on the development and evolution of suburbs in relationship to American Indians from the second half of the nineteenth century with particular attention paid to the second half of the twentieth century. Federal Indian policies and federal housing policies shaped suburbanization and access (or lack of) to suburbs for American Indian people. Federal policies threatened their identity. Homeownership was an attainable goal before the arrival of the Euro-Americans.
The various themes I discovered as I read the book involved: loss; feelings of unworthiness; frustration; and life satisfaction. The Indian people must have felt feelings of unworthiness when granted substandard housing or when they were not permitted to live in certain areas. When a specific family struggled against the recession and loss of employment, they turned things around when the main breadwinner obtained vocational training. The family ended up living where they thought their children could attend a good school. The family probably experienced life satisfaction. Native Americans experienced loss when they were forced to vacate their homelands. Other themes that came to the forefront in the book were, but not limited to; capitalism; federal interference; American Indian mobility; self-determination; and right to homeownership.
In her introduction Keeler described struggles she faced when she worked for an Indian Education Program and how it was perceived as “an entitlement program.” Specific students qualified for services if they met the blood quantum or Native identity requirements. She explored why a disconnect existed between Indian and suburb. She referred to locations Indian people lived as their place. Keeler happened to be an enrolled member of the Tuolumne MeWuk Tribe from California but lived at an Ojibwe and Dakota place. The word place represented where American Indians resided, a sense of home, permanence, or homeland. Keeler sought to find answers to a variety of questions such as what role did Indian people play in their suburbanization. How many Indians actually live in suburbs? How are suburban Indians different from urban or those who live on reservations? She learned from over 150 suburban Indians in the Anoka-Hennepin School District Indian Education Program. Her experience in suburban Minneapolis paved the way for the scholarship that led to the book presented in this review.
Keeler mentioned the Johnson O’Malley Act of 1934. The same year the Indian Reorganization Act was implemented. I worked for a Johnson O’Malley Program from 1987 to 1995, a program managed by the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians of which I am an enrolled member. I provided cultural, educational and recreational services to students from kindergarten to high school age. There was a distinct separation between the have-nots and haves, between the reservation households and other households. St. Ignace, a small rural town where I lived and worked, did not have a suburb.
During Keeler’s research she discovered many circumstances and federal programs behind the suburbanization of American Indians. The first notable historical situations involved the Homestead Act and the Dakota War. The Homestead Act granted white Americans the right to settle in various areas in the U.S. and they were granted land allotments. The act pushed for the rapid arrival of non-Native people and the dispossession of Native land. As a result of the Indian Reorganization Act passed in 1934, the federal government extended the right to Native Americans to form businesses and other organizations, establish a credit system and established certain rights for home rule. The Indian Reorganization Act did help restore tribal nation sovereignty. The Federal Housing Administration, the first official intervention into the housing sector, and the Indian Reorganization Act resulted from Roosevelt’s New Deal. These acts of legislation changed the course of the housing policies predominantly for white Americans and altered Indian policy.
Substandard housing served as another problem Native Americans faced during the first half of the 20th Century. Many of the homes built on the reservations ended up being condemned. It took a while but eventually, the Department of Housing and Urban Development made great strides concerning the improvement of low-income housing. I interviewed a man for my master’s thesis project who would have been approximately ten years of age when he lived on the reservation. He told me their family’s home was drafty and leaked. He froze during the winter months and was more than happy to move to the Indian boarding school where he received three meals a day and he was warm.
The Indian Relocation Program during the 1950s led to many American Indians moving to suburbs while they were under strict supervision. The supervision reminded me of what it was like to be on parole. The spontaneous home visits to check to see if they did not break any laws. The people who supervised the American Indians wanted to ensure they bought into the ideals of capitalism. Inspections involved checking to see what items they purchased such as vehicles. Often, they lost their tribal status once they moved to the suburb.
I liked how Keeler used real life situations which involved Native Americans to prove her point regarding suburbs. The Jabs family consisted of a white father, a Native American mother and two children. They moved to a suburb for employment reasons. Mr. Jab, the main provider for the family, lost his job due to the recession. The family had to move to another community because the father sought vocational training. As a result of that training, they moved to a suburb and an area they wanted to raise their children due to his more marketable skills. Because the mother was an enrolled member of a federally recognized tribe, they obtained a loan from the Section 184 Indian Home Loan Guarantee. The family sought after and achieved the American Dream.
Keeler gave the reader a listing of abbreviations at the beginning of the book. I found this most helpful. There had been so many times when I was reading an article or book and an abbreviation came up and I had to go back in the document to find the meaning of the abbreviation.
The land where suburbs had been built in this country had long been contested land, land that was violently taken from tribal nations and Indian communities. The theft occurred as a result of treaties and white settler colonialism. The federal policies, which interfered in the lives of the indigenous, represented a harsh and unrelenting history of oppression. Keeler introduced the term enduring indigeneity. She recognized Native Americans did not simply move out of the way so white settlers could take over their land. They employed with, adapted to and resisted the continuous shift in their living arrangements. American Indian individuals, families, communities and organizations had to formally and informally negotiate their claim, creation and space in suburbs. They were mediators of placemaking, homemaking and homeownership, not spectators. Native American people often figured out ways to take advantage of federal Indian policies to seek benefit from them. “Yet, the American Dream, commonly thought of as a yard to call your own, simply does not and cannot exist without the dispossession, removal, and relocation of American Indian people away from their homelands” (Keeler, 2023, pg. 11).
As a historian, I enhanced my historical knowledge when I learned about additional historical events that changed the lives of Native Americans in Keeler’s book. She provided me with opportunities to learn about specific historical events such as the passing of the Morrill Land Grant Act in 1862. The act involved the creation of land grant colleges in the U.S. states by the use of proceeds from the sale of federally owned land. Land obtained from indigenous tribes through treaties, cessions or seizures. I was aware of the Pacific Railway Act implemented by President Lincoln. He saw the Indians’ interference with the establishment of the transcontinental railroad as an occurrence not to be tolerated. Thirty-eight Indian men lost their lives due to their interference under Lincoln’s orders. A plethora of non-Native villages cropped up all over the western portion of this country as the result of the progress of the railroad enterprises.
The year of 1862 continued to be a very bad year for Indian people in Minnesota. The Dakota War, also known as the Sioux uprising, led to dramatic changes in Indian policy in Minnesota. As a result of the war, a multitude of Dakota, Ojibwe and HoChunk people were forced from their homes and tribal lands. 1600 Non-combatant Dakota women, children and elders were marched from the western and southern portion of the state to the river bottoms near Fort Snelling at Pike Island. They were held under a watchful eye of the military while in rudimentary stockades between November 1862 to May 1863. Approximately one-quarter of them did not make it through the winter. Over 390 Dakota men, who were placed on military trial, ended up sentenced to death by hanging. To add insult to injury, seizure of land prevailed as the result of the treaty abrogation which included the elimination of Dakota reservation lands within the state of Minnesota.
Donald Fixico’s book “The Urban Indian Experience in America” unveiled the ethnohistory of modern-day urban Indians. Keeler mentioned this book and I have used this book when conducting research for some of my literary projects. Keeler’s book reminded me of Fixico’s book. He experienced first hand knowledge concerning many Native Americans’ contemporary oral traditions through interviews, observations and historical sources. Fixico studied the impact urbanization had on Indians and how they came to terms with the negative and positive aspects of living in urban areas. As a result of his studies, he discovered that two-thirds of all Indians in the U.S. live in cities. Many of the urban Indians happened to be third or fourth-generation city occupants. They were descendants of those pushed by the federal government to move to urban areas during the federal government’s relocation program during the late 1940s through the 1960s. Fixico observed and examined those who moved to the cities fifty years ago to those who have lived in the city for the past 30 years, the original inhabitants and their offspring. The Native American inhabitants have overcome serious problems such as alcoholism, poor health services, unemployment, cultural alienation and ghetto housing. He discovered that Native Americans living in cities proved to be better able to achieve a balanced cultural tradition and have adapted to modernity.
Keeler brought to life why many American Indians ended up living in suburbs such as poverty, unemployment and the federal government’s relocation efforts. Approximately seven out of ten American Indians reside in urban areas. Studies to address the unique circumstances surrounding the lives of these individuals have been rare. Concerted efforts have been taken to address the problems many people of color face. The American Indian Movement, which began in 1968 in Minneapolis to counteract police brutality, also fought to restore and preserve the other rights of Native American people. Keeler addressed the issue of people of color as over-represented in jails and prisons while overlooking or ignoring crimes committed by white people. The injustices stem from the history of their loss of land and settler colonialism, which included massive development and suburbanization, which had been directly associated with the continuous American Indian state of homelessness across the U.S. Homelessness did not exist before the arrival of Europeans, Americans and capitalism. The Twin Cities region had been the traditional homelands of the Dakota people. The Dakota people, Ojibwe people and other Native people had made their home in the area, their place. I highly recommend American Indians and American Dreams for its poignant and honest approach and because of its thorough examination concerning the federal laws impacting housing, the Native Americans ability to rise above various forms of oppression, and Keeler’s distinct innovative examination of the long history of urbanization and suburbanization of Indian communities in Minnesota.