Critical Essays Understanding Federal Relocation Policy


The particular socio-political context of the two middle sections of House Made of Dawn is referred to by Tosamah and Benally, especially in Benally's recollections of Tosamah's objections to the policies. When Abel first appears at the carton factory, he has been brought there by a Relocation official who has failed to fulfill his responsibility of finding Abel a place to stay. The situation of Tosamah, Benally, Abel, and even Milly in the urban environment of Los Angeles is a product of the federal policies of Termination and Relocation, which were fostered especially during the 1950s and never really abandoned in spite of considerable evidence of their destructiveness and unworkability. The most accessible discussion of these policies is found in Vine Deloria's Custer Died for Your Sins (1988).

The federal programs were intended to be the culmination of assimilationist thinking initiated with the missionary efforts of Puritan immigrants. The intended result of the 1950s legislation was that Indian reservations would be abolished (terminated) and Indian people would be integrated into mainstream society and economy. This outcome would be accomplished largely by the relocation of Indians to urban areas and the provision of transition benefits such as job training and health care. As with other Indian programs, funding was never adequate for the benefits side of the program, and thousands of Indians found themselves in the slums and skid rows of inner cities — jobless, poor, and lacking the family and community supports that they might have turned to at home. It is just such a marginal inner-city environment in Los Angeles in which Tosamah, Benally, and — for a while — Abel find themselves.

Tosamah and Benally manage accommodations to the new reality, Tosamah by following the model of the trickster and Benally by reliance on pastoral reverie. In his night-long reverie after Abel's departure, helped along by a bottle of wine, Benally defends the policy of Relocation in terms that show — in the light of events just described in the novel — a profoundly naive and sad acceptance of the shallow, materialistic values of the secular society. Benally criticizes what he sees as Tosamah's cynicism and nihilism (and indeed, on other issues such as witchcraft Tosamah does appear "not to understand"), but acquaintance with the actual outcome of Relocation policies would indicate that Tosamah's bitterness and despair flow from his perception of the irreparable damage accomplished by these misguided programs. However, Tosamah is also committed to his life and ministry in an urban setting.

The focus on Abel suggests another response to the historical pressure embodied in the Termination and Relocation programs: rejection of the whole scheme altogether, including the possibilities offered by Tosamah and Benally, and insistence on return to the conservative, traditional, pueblo reservation. Only when he rejects his urban career as a carton stapler and returns to his home place, reinserts himself into a way of life that values the sacred, and reconnects with the landscape and culture of his birth, can Abel's cure truly be accomplished.

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