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Documentary: "Not Just Native History, This is American History"

Rocky Mountain PBS

Urban Rez is a documentary that explores the history and modern-day effects of 1950s policies that encouraged American Indians to leave their homelands to relocate to urban areas across the country, including Denver.

Slated for national release in 2013, this film looks at the largely forgotten 1952-1973 Voluntary Relocation Program and captures how individual choices and government decisions have impacted families for generations.

Director Lisa Olken is a documentary filmmaker with Rocky Mountain PBS who has worked on such productions as Rocky Mountain Legacy and Spirit of Colorado.

A screening of Olken’s work-in-progress film Urban Rez is being held in the Panorama Room of UNC’s University Center Wednesday, Nov. 14 from 7 – 8:30 p.m.. The event is free and open to the public, but an RSVP is needed. Call (970) 351-1909 or find details and RSVP online here.

Erin O’Toole: It’s now been 60 years since relocation began. Let’s start with a little background on these relocation policies – what was the idea behind them and where in the country did this go on?

Lisa Olken: It was from 1952 to 1973 where the U.S. government encouraged American Indians to leave their tribal lands and reservations and move to urban areas throughout the West. It was really throughout the country, but most of it was really throughout the West. And Denver was one of the first five cities in the 1950s where American Indians came to relocate.

It’s not only state history, it’s also American history. I certainly didn’t learn this in any of my classes. And even though it’s only been four generations since the end of relocation in 1973, I think a lot of people will be surprised to know that 65 percent of all American Indians now live in urban areas. Most of them are not on the reservation.

O’Toole: In the course of making this film, you’ve talked with a number of Native Americans who did relocate. I’m curious how they feel about the program now.


Olken: I think that people who have relocated and stayed in cities have found the urban mainstream very interesting, and it has given them a great deal more opportunity than they would have gotten on the reservation.

I want to make it clear that there are a lot of native people who still return back to the reservation for celebrations, for naming ceremonies, to visit their families. So there are a lot of people who live in cities, but they don’t call the cities their home.

The people who stayed, the people who have come since the 1970s, find that they’re able to walk both worlds, keeping their culture alive, keeping their tribal traditions alive, but also adapting some of the mainstream ideals that they want. But nothing is being pushed on them anymore.

Credit National Archives and Records Administration
National Archives and Records Administration
Bureau of Indian Affairs relocation brochure from 1950s

O’Toole: There’s certainly a strong Colorado connection when we’re talking about relocation. I’m wondering - how did you end up working with the University of Northern Colorado?

Olken: Originally I wanted to take this relocation film through college people, and then go back through their ancestors, getting to their grandparents. That didn’t quite work out that way. I was able to connect up with some college students and definitely the UNC staff there, and Solomon Little Owl [director of UNC Native American Student Services].

What ended up happening is they invited me and my native crew – it’s an all native crew, I’m the only white person on the crew – to go to the Crow buffalo hunt. They have buffalo up on the Crow Reservation, which is southern Montana.

So we were able to shoot a huge aspect of the culture that has evolved to include non-natives, yet they are still reliving what their ancestors did. So it’s a very interesting twist on keeping tradition alive -- but adapting it to the 21st century.

O’Toole: There’s a screening of ‘Urban Rez’ Wednesday evening at UNC in Greeley, to which the public is invited. What are you hoping people will take away from this film?

Olken: I hope they will see – at least the Native people that will be there – I hope they will see themselves in a positive light, and understand that this is American history, this is not just native history. And with the non-natives who will be there, I hope they’ll learn something about their neighbors, and about their city and state that they didn’t know before.

It’s really – this idea of migrating to another city, relocating to another city -- it’s so universal. And I hope that people understand that this happens to all of us.

As the host of KUNC’s new program and podcast In the NoCo, I work closely with our producers and reporters to bring context and diverse perspectives to the important issues of the day. Northern Colorado is such a diverse and growing region, brimming with history, culture, music, education, civic engagement, and amazing outdoor recreation. I love finding the stories and voices that reflect what makes NoCo such an extraordinary place to live.
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