L.A.’s Native American History
Historian Nicolas Rosenthal, at LMU’s Tongva Memorial, says the Los Angeles area is home to more than 200,000 Native Americans.
Published: August 14, 2012
Nicolas Rosenthal says that in college he was interested in both urban U.S. history and American Indian history but he found almost no overlap between the two. Now he’s an associate professor of history at LMU, and his new book, “Reimagining Indian Country: Native American Migration and Identity in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles,” is a major step toward filling that void. Rosenthal was interviewed by John Kissell.
In 1940, about 8 percent of Native Americans lived in U.S. cities. By 1950, about 45 percent were urban-based. What explains that migration?
World War II had a tremendous impact on Native American urbanization. Native people joined the military, worked in defense factories, and followed the progress of the war, all of which tended to orient them away from reservations and toward cities.
How many Native Americans live in Los Angeles County today?
Estimates vary. The 2010 U.S. census counted about 150,000 American Indian and Alaska Natives in L.A. County, but the actual number is probably 200,000 to 250,000.
In the early years of the film industry, Hollywood stereotyped Native Americans even as it employed them. Did Native actors at the time feel they were sacrificing integrity for economic stability?
Many Native actors struggled with this tension. Some resigned themselves to it, while other sought to reconcile it by using their notoriety as Hollywood stars to become advocates for Native people.
Is Hollywood today a major source of employment to L.A.’s Native Americans?
Native Americans continue to work in the arts, including the film industry. Their struggles for control over the ways that Native people are depicted in popular culture continue, as well.
In the 1960s and ’70s, a Red Power movement with similarities to the Civil Rights movement emerged among Native Americans. The Civil Rights movement changed the nation, but did Red Power have a significant impact on the U.S.?
It fundamentally changed the relationship between American Indian tribes and U.S. society. Thanks to the Red Power movement, Indian tribes now exist much more as semi-sovereign nations, a status that affirms the rights they were promised in treaties dating back to the colonial period of American history.
Do Native Americans shape the L.A. region’s politics, culture or business environment in a particular way?
Despite the large percentage of the Native American population in cities, Native people have historically been a relatively small part of L.A.’s population. Their influence in recent years has had more to do with the rise of tribal gaming, as California tribes (many of whose members have urban experience) contribute to political campaigns, sponsor cultural events and serve as major employers throughout the region.
What do most of us not know about L.A.’s Native Americans that would surprise us?
The Los Angeles metropolitan area historically has had the largest urban American Indian population, and by the 1970s it was second only to the Navajo Reservation for the largest concentration of Native people in the country. Around that time it became known as the “urban Indian capital of the United States.” Native Americans are everywhere in Los Angeles — as students, workers, small business owners, artists and professionals, and in just about every sector of urban society.
How have Native Americans changed as a result of becoming urbanized peoples?
Like other urban migrants they’ve become modern peoples. At the same time, they’ve maintained and further developed identities as members of specific tribes and Native Americans more generally.
You titled your book “Reimagining Indian Country.” Who is in need of a new view of Native Americans?
Just about everyone! Scholars and policymakers to be sure, but the general public has also for too long “imagined” Indians as confined to isolated reservations, when in fact the majority of the population has lived in the midst of urban society for decades.
Photo by Jon Rou