Urban Tribes: Native Americans in the City - Lisa Charleyboy, Ross Kinnaird

(Quote from Dr. Adrienne Keene)


Urban Tribes: Native Americans in the City

ed. by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale


Indigenous peoples in contemporary culture tend to be exoticized, marginalized, or both. There's a pervasive sense that to "really" be Native American, you have to forswear all modern culture. As Lisa Charleyboy, one of the editors of Urban Tribes puts it:

"[We've] grown up being told that we can't really be Native if we are living a "modern" life in the city. There's this deeply held notion that in order to be authentically Indigenous, one must live on a reservation, or one's traditional territory, and have a deep connection to one's land."

This book provides a different perspective. Through interviews, art, poems, and more, Urban Tribes provides a portrait of what one interviewee, Jessica Bolduc, terms Edgewalkers: Native Americans who live in an urban environment while still embracing their cultural heritage.


Urban Tribes is a gorgeous book, chock full of art, images, and portraits of the interviewees. One of my favourite sections was a series of photos of LA's Indian Alley. The book also confronts many of the issues plaguing the community: the violence perpetrated on Indigenous women and students, the struggle to have art inspired by ethnicity viewed as relevant rather than, to quote Nicholas Galanin, "belonging in a natural history museum with dinosaur bones", and the burden of acting as an exemplar in universities and the workplace. As Dr. Adrienne Keene puts it:

"We are not just in college for ourselves. We are there for our communities and our people, and there is an expectation that we will use our degree to help make change. But this is an enormous pressure. Especially when the paths to giving back aren't clear and instead are paved with resistance from our own communities."


The part that affected me the most was a lyrical, passionate poem by Roanna Shebala. In part:

Throw on a war bonnet
Tell me it's fashion
Tell me how imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
Go to your local truck stop.
Buy some dream catchers made from China.
Hang them on your rearview mirror of
Your Jeep Grand Cherokees,
Your Pontiacs,
Your Winnebagos
As you drive down I-40 your vehicles catch the dreams
Road killed by Manifest Destiny."

The only thing lacking for me was context. While each speaker's tribe (or tribes) are identified, I don't have the contextual information of what this means, particularly since most of the interviewees are Canadian and my knowledge of native Canadian history is particularly deplorable. The book creates a portrait of a more unified experience, without exploring cultural differences between tribes. All the same, it's a thoughtful, interesting, beautifully constructed and artistic book, and some of the works have continued to haunt me, particularly Roanna Shebala's poem:

Applaud the Cleveland Indians'
Chief Wahoo's bright white choppers
Casting reflections
On how to
Love you some Indians.

Go paint the town!
Double coat over history.
Whitewash the red bricks of the reservations.
Let's have Indian Day at our schools
Use November to teach students
the Turkey dance with color construction paper headdresses and teepees.

Now go home
Wash off the paint."

~~I received an advanced reader copy of this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Annick Press Ltd, in exchange for my honest review.~~