In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Native Americans in Cities

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Pre-Contact Indigenous Urbanization
  • Latin America
  • Europe
  • Colonial North America
  • Early American Hints
  • Early Republic and Nineteenth Century
  • Twentieth-Century Case Studies
  • Twentieth-Century Surveys

Atlantic History Native Americans in Cities
Nathaniel Holly
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 June 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0363


Let’s start with a number. At last count, more than 70 percent of Indigenous peoples in the United States—that’s just under four million people—live in cities. Even when faced with this reality, scholars are only slowly coming to realize that the phrase “Native Americans in cities” is not a sort of Zen koan. American Indians and urban places are not mutually exclusive categories of historical analysis. Depending on their chronological and spatial specializations, some scholars have arrived at this conclusion much sooner than others. Three particular eras and areas have been comparatively well trod by historians in search of urban American Indians: the pre-contact Americas, Latin America, and the post-1953 United States. Most of the rest of American history—and I mean America quite broadly here—remains shadowed by scholarly expectations about where Indigenous people are supposed to be. Namely in “villages,” “camps,” “the wilderness,” and “reservations.” A Native American in a city is a problem to either be explained away or ignored. And the possibility of Indigenous peoples being urban themselves—constructing urban places and organizing their ways of being-in-the-world around those centers—is hardly considered. When interrogating the primary sources themselves—from early America or even the 21st century—and listening to the voices of Natives, however, urbanism emerges as an unassailable reality for many Indigenous peoples of the Americas. Yet conceptually connecting the indigenous cities of Cahokia and Tenochtitlan to the urban centers of modern Native America remains a task for future scholars. As will become clear, the scaffolding necessary for such a synthesis remains under construction.

General Overviews

The diffuse nature of scholarship focusing on Native Americans in cities means that general overviews—such as they are—remain tightly tethered to the most historiographically developed areas. The title of Fixico 2000, for example, seemingly advertises a sweeping account of “urban Indian experience” without delivering on that promise. Indeed, the first chapter begins with “The Relocation Program,” a 1950s effort that was largely responding to the “problem” of American Indians in US cities. Outside of a brief essay from Jack Forbes, the effort of Lobo and Peters 2002 largely replicates the problem. As Donald Fixico writes in his foreword, “American Indians have migrated to towns and cities since the early decades of the twentieth century” (p. ix). What’s more, these studies largely treat the same ground that Sorkin 1978 and Thornton, et al. 1982 do. But as Calloway 2021 demonstrates, the “urban frontier” (a phrase coined in Gitlin, et al. 2013) and its associated Native inhabitants have a much earlier history in the land that became the United States. Focusing on colonial cities like Boston, Albany, Philadelphia, and Charleston, Calloway illuminates a rather longer and more widespread history of Indigenous urbanism than most earlier scholars of the phenomenon allowed. Peters and Anderson 2013 offer a more global perspective on this historiographical and historical phenomenon. There are a handful of noteworthy efforts to connect these chronologically disparate attempts at describing Indigenous urbanism. Thrush 2016 and Thrush 2017 offer two ways to grapple with the larger phenomenon and its attendant questions: an annotated bibliography and a methodological essay. As one might expect, however, the most recent foray into the field is the most comprehensive. Blansett, et al. 2022 gathers scholars who focus on urban American Indians from colonial New Orleans to the 21st-century Dakotas. This necessarily collective effort is the most thorough attempt to understand the broad contours of Indigenous urbanism.

  • Blansett, Kent, Cathleen Cahill, and Andrew Needham, eds. Indian Cities: Histories of Indigenous Urbanization. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2022.

    A collection of twelve essays from an interdisciplinary set of scholars. The contributions cover the Indigenous presence in colonial cities like Charlestown and New Orleans, in 19th-century urban centers such as Washington, DC and Mankato, and 20th-century urbanism from Dallas to Winnipeg. The book even contains a pair of essays about a new sort of Indigenous urbanism that emerged during the NoDAPL protests and the impacts of urbanism in Indian Country during the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Calloway, Colin. “The Chiefs Now in This City”: Indians and the Urban Frontier in Early America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2021.

    DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780197547656.001.0001

    The only effort (so far) to illuminate the widespread presence of Indigenous people in the cities of early America, Calloway’s book is necessarily descriptive. It aims to show “how often” American Indian delegations traveled to urban places and what those visitors experienced during their frequent and extended stays in town.

  • Fixico, Donald. The Urban Indian Experience in America. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000.

    Calling on conventional historical sources, interviews, and oral histories, Fixico offers a wide-ranging synthesis of the connections between Native Americans and cities. A central focus here is on the “maintenance” of Indian identity in cities—even for third and fourth generation urban American Indians.

  • Gitlin, Jay, Barbara Berglund, and Adam Arenson, eds. Frontier Cities: Encounters at the Crossroads of Empire. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.

    Though this collection is concerned with more than urban American Indians—indeed it is a global investigation of the “frontier city” phenomenon—there are a number of chapters here that provide focused looks at such Indians in cities. Usner’s chapter on New Orleans and Rushforth’s on Montreal are especially instructive in this regard.

  • Lobo, Susan, and Kurt Peters, eds. American Indians and the Urban Experience. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2002.

    An interdisciplinary collection of scholarship, poetry, and art that details the varied experiences of urban American Indians. Takes the pervasive rural/urban divide that shapes understandings of American Indians as the key assumption in need of investigation.

  • Peters, Evelyn, and Chris Anderson. Indigenous in the City: Contemporary Identities and Cultural Innovation. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2013.

    With chapters—indeed entire sections—on Indigenous urbanism in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, this volume offers a comparative look at a global phenomenon. Importantly, the same assumptions about where Natives “belong” color the dearth of scholarship about Indigenous urbanism throughout the world.

  • Sorkin, Alan L. The Urban American Indian. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath & Company, 1978.

    A traditional look at Native Americans in cities, which focuses on the post–Relocation Act era, highlights the lack of American Indian success in urban centers, and offers suggestions for policy reforms to address the major issues. Compares urban Natives to those who remained on reservations.

  • Thornton, Russel, Gary D. Sandefur, and Harold G. Grasmick. The Urbanization of American Indians: A Critical Biography. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982.

    An early effort to collect and catalogue the wide range of experiences of urban American Indians and the varied expressions of American Indian urbanism. A useful collection for investigating some of the first works on city Indians.

  • Thrush, Coll. “Placing the City: Crafting Urban Indigenous Histories.” In Sources and Methods in Indigenous Studies. Edited by Chris Andersen and Jean M. O’Brien, 110–117. New York: Routledge, 2017.

    An introduction centered on how to do urban Indigenous history in three ways: Natives in cities on their ancestral lands, Natives who migrate to cities, and “the use of Indigenous imagery in the urban imaginary” (p. 111).

  • Thrush, Coll. “Urban Native Histories.” In Oxford Handbook of American Indian History. Edited by Frederick E. Hoxie, 553–570. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

    A state-of-the-field chapter that also offers thoughts on new ways to tackle the seemingly anomalous presence of Native Americans in cities. Noteworthy that Thrush skips directly from “Indigenous Urbanities Before European Arrival” to “Indian Communities in Twentieth-Century Cities.”

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