- Putting People Where They Belong:American Indian Housing Policy in the Mid-Twentieth Century
As with any group of people residing in Minnesota, the housing of the Indian population varies greatly. Some live in well-equipped, modern homes; others reside in poorly furnished, poorly constructed homes; and others exist under the most deplorable conditions. Since the number living under good housing conditions is extremely limited, no attempt will be made to consider them. These homes are generally found in the Twin City area or in towns or cities where an Indian office is located. Here, the occupants are well established economically and enjoy security.—the indian in minnesota: a report to governor luther w. youngdahl of minnesota by the governor’s interracial commission, april 1, 1947
After four years in the United States Air Force, Jerry Flute, a tribally enrolled community member at the Sisseton-Wahpeton Reservation in South Dakota, wanted to use his earned military benefits to enroll in and attend college courses. Flute briefly drew on Operation Boot Strap, an education benefit program available to GIs, to attend college classes, but withdrew from school before he finished his degree. As an American Indian and a veteran, Jerry Flute was entitled to participate in programs and draw benefits through both the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and Veterans Affairs (VA). However, Flute, like other American Indian veterans, faced a tangled web of bureaucracy as he worked to access grants he was eligible for as a veteran and those he was entitled to as a tribally enrolled American Indian.
When Flute sought higher education assistance from the BIA, he was instead encouraged to move to an urban area for job training and placement as part of the expanded Indian Relocation Act of 1956. Determined to finish his education, Flute next contacted the VA for educational assistance. The VA would require him to pay for all his education expenses upfront and wait for reimbursement. Flute was left with few options. Feeling discouraged, he left South Dakota for Los Angeles through the BIA’s Relocation Program.1
As a new transplant arriving in Los Angeles, the Sisseton-Wahpeton [End Page 70] Native and military veteran immediately knew his situation was less than ideal. Flute not only found himself trapped in a job where his wage was “below any minimum standard,” he was also housed in a “slum area,” both of which made subsistence “nearly impossible.” After two long years in California, Flute returned to his reservation. Again he sought BIA assistance for education, again he was discouraged, and again he relocated to California. After a second, lengthier stint in California and an attempt at a new trade, auto body repair, Flute increasingly missed “home,” felt discriminated against at work, and disliked the fast-paced atmosphere of Southern California. Jerry Flute traveled a well-worn path home to South Dakota.
Jerry Flute was not alone. Thousands of American Indian veterans endured similar fates in the post-WWII environment as they struggled to “rein-tegrate” into the dominant society and achieve the “American Dream” after military service. Across Minnesota’s Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, the geographical focal point of this article, many Indian veterans lived in slums, often raising their children in severe poverty and areas of high crime, while many proactively sought ways to move out of urban areas and into more stable and permanent housing beyond the city.2 Though American Indians historically serve in the military at higher rates than any other racial/ethnic group, the very agency that was created to serve all veterans, the VA, rendered American Indians as incompatible with veteran status. The experience of Jerry Flute underscores the complicated issues Native veterans face when they attempt to access BIA and VA programs and benefits. The barriers Jerry Flute faced as he worked to access education benefits mirror the same obstacles American Indian veterans must navigate to access unemployment services, medical care, and housing programs they are entitled to from both the BIA and VA bureaucratic structures.
Just as Jerry Flute, numerous American Indian veterans of WWII worked to access federal programs and benefits during an unprecedented postwar suburbanization boom. The...