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Native Cleveland: Robert Roche and the Origins of American Indian Activism in Cleveland

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He also said that after an upcoming conference in Green Bay at the end of October (the first national AIM assembly in decades), he intends to assume a strictly "advisory" role in the organization.

"I'll give them any advice they need," he said, "but I want to keep doing this for the rest of my life."

By this, he means the diabetes campaign. He's as passionate about Zumba and Vitamix blenders as he once was about storming the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

When he stirs in the car, Roche takes the opportunity to ask if Banks ever talks to Jerome Warcloud these days. Warcloud was a long-tenured director of the Cleveland American Indian Center in the '70s and '80s and now lives on a reservation in South Dakota.

"Warcloud?" Banks perks up at the name. "I thought he kicked the bucket years ago."

***

Baffled representatives at both the Midwest and Eastern regional offices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs had to "check" to see if Cleveland, Ohio, fell under their administrative purviews. In fact, the lady to whom I was directed at the Eastern office seemed downright inconvenienced by my request for information relating to the BIA's Cleveland office and Native American relocation there.

"There's no office in Cleveland," she said.

"But there was."

"There are no tribes in Ohio," she said (referencing the 566 Indian nations which have been recognized via federal enrollment, a mere fraction of the total number which once occupied this country).

"Right, but I mean in the '50s and '60s," I say. "There was an office here for the relocation program. I'm trying to find some paperwork about it. Case files, things like that."

"You mean the 1800s?"

"No ma'am. I mean the 1900s."

(Those files turn out to be housed in the National Archives, Group 75.13, in Washington D.C., but I was unable to access them in person for this story.)

The fact that Cleveland has an American Indian population at all is due almost entirely to the federal program mentioned above. Initiated in 1956, the Indian Relocation Act was exactly what it sounds like. It represented the land-based inroads within the government's broader "termination" policy for natives. Reservation Indians were lured to American cities to acquire job skills and assimilate into the dominant culture.

A '50s-era reservation poster promoting Denver, one of eight destination cities, touted the "Good Jobs," "Happy Homes," "Many Churches," and "350 Days of Sunshine" in Colorado, "the Tallest State!"

By 1970, roughly half of all American Indians lived in urban areas. This was a more dramatic population shift than any other in their history. As late as 1950, 86.6 percent were still on reservations.

Cleveland was the easternmost of the relocation cities and was considered an optimal location in 1960, writes Lynn Metzger in a 1988 dissertation for Case Western Reserve University, "as it was a booming industrial center with plenty of entry-level jobs, and it was such a distance from the reservations that the relocated individuals could not easily go home."

In Cleveland, men generally were trained as welders and women as stenographers. An Anishinaabe man in Banks' coterie mentioned off the cuff that his uncle had been in Cleveland and ended up welding pontoon boats.

But the BIA was notoriously unhelpful during those years — "Boss Indians Around," was the Native slang. Dispersed to assorted slums with minimal information on how to adapt to city life, Indians were left to fend for themselves. Most of them struggled with simple things like riding buses — how do you get it to stop? — buying groceries and communicating with landlords in English. As a rule, most relocated Indians (who had been given a one-way bus ticket) were issued a one-month stipend. And that was it. Many descended quickly into poverty and alcoholism. Others fled back to the reservation in borrowed vehicles when funds ran out.

When Russell Means arrived in the late '60s, Cleveland's American Indian population had soared from 109 to 1,200. (According to 2010 census data, Native Americans now make up 0.3 percent of Cleveland's population). Means soon took matters into his own hands. He established the Cleveland American Indian Center in 1969 so that new arrivals had a place to convene and socialize, though many of the men already were doing so at the Old 77 Bar on Detroit Avenue, what is now the Happy Dog.

Ohio City and Detroit-Shoreway became the region's Indian Country. Means, infuriated by the BIA's policy to intentionally settle Indians away from one another, encouraged a mass relocation to the west side. There, in the basement of St. John's Episcopal Church on Church Avenue and West 28th Street (what is now Hingetown), the center held its first informal meetings.

Robert Roche drives me there one morning in September. He's leading a guided tour of American Indian history in Cleveland since relocation. He's already shown me the roach- and rat-infested apartment buildings on the east side where Indians were often settled, and we're now checking out the organizational hubs.

"I grew up in this neighborhood," I tell Roche, once the keys are out of the ignition. "I never knew it was such an Indian hotspot."

"We are the invisible minority," he says. "Some of us don't look like Indians, you know, so it's hard to tell. Some tribes look like Asians. Some tribes look white. There are blonde Indians! A lot of times, people assume I'm Puerto Rican."

The basement in St. John's is currently under construction, but the crew lets us spelunk through the basement debris. Roche's face is that of a grandmother rediscovering her wedding album: "This is where it all began," he says.

***

One of the most iconic moments in Cleveland's AIM-style activism transpired in 1971. The event is recounted both in Russell Means' 1995 autobiography Where White Men Fear to Tread and in local attorney Joseph Meissner's recent book Legal Warriors. Meissner was the Cleveland American Indian Center's lawyer in 1972 when they filed the initial Chief Wahoo lawsuit and has remained affiliated with the community ever since.

In 1971, Cleveland civic leaders and "top businesspeople" — a power elite that exists to this day — were planning a celebration for the city's "Super Sesquicentennial." A reenactment was planned at Settler's Landing on the banks of the Cuyahoga, complete with real-live descendants of Moses Cleaveland himself.

The day before the event, organizers realized with a shock that they'd forgotten to enlist local Native Americans to "welcome" the settlers to Cleveland. They promptly called the Indian Center to invite them to attend.

"We'd love for you to wear your costumes," they said (roughly).

Means, then the Center's director, enthusiastically accepted the invitation and showed up the following day with a cohort in full regalia — tomahawks, headdresses, and all. Except when "the settlers" arrived by boat at Settler's Landing, the Indians formed a blockade and refused to let them disembark.

"We've got enough of your kind," was the message they hoped to make loud and clear that day. "You are not welcome."

Some brisk negotiations ensued, and Cleveland leaders vowed to take Native American concerns more seriously, if nothing else so that they could get on with their party.

Those promises, though, certainly didn't pan out in the court of law. The Indian Center's $9 million suit against the Cleveland Indians baseball team was settled only after 12 years of tedious courtroom appearances. Local Native Americans received a grand total of $35,000.

It's unrealistic, then, to ascribe any urgent significance to the $9 billion lawsuit that Roche and a legal team threatened to file this summer. Roche, Sundance (the Cleveland AIM director) and lawyers are still actively meeting to determine when and how to move forward with it. Some of the timing, Roche says, may be dependent on the Washington Redskins.

Roche has acknowledged that the figure may seem exorbitant, though he maintains that for 100 years of racism, it's not entirely out of proportion.

"With these people," Roche told me, "if you don't go after their pocketbooks, they don't care at all."

***

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