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Back to Their Roots for Retirement : Aging Indians Finding They Can Go Home Again

March 06, 1988|ALAN CITRON | Times Staff Writer

One would be hard pressed to make a case for Broken Bow's assets as a retirement community. The climate tends to be bone-chillingly cold or oppressively hot. The economy is in decline. And church sing-alongs are among the only social diversions in the small Oklahoma farming town.

But for the Rev. Simon Durant, a full-blooded Choctaw Indian who spent most of his adult life preaching the gospel in and around Los Angeles, Broken Bow is where the rainbow ends.

"This is my home," said Durant, 73, who recently returned there with his wife. "So I decided to come back. There may be a lot of problems here, but there is also a lot of love."

Durant and many other Indians who abandoned the grinding poverty of their homelands decades ago for the promise of a better life in the big city have apparently decided that there is still no place like home for their retirement. Studies by a USC anthropology professor indicate that more than half of the elderly Indians in Los Angeles are returning to the reservations and other Indian territories.

Free hospitalization and federal housing subsidies and food allowances are just some of the benefits drawing Indians back to their tribal homelands. The areas also offer cultural enrichment to those who have spent decades holding their pow wows under the arched roofs of high school gymnasiums, instead of the starlit skies of the great outdoors.

"These American Indians who have lived in the city for 20 or 30 years have adapted to urban life very successfully in that they have been able to hold jobs, buy homes and get credit cards," said Professor Joan Weibel-Orlando, who has studied the life styles of older Indians for 15 years. "But learning those survival techniques does not mean that they have lost their identity. . . . And many are finding that they can go home again."

Home for many Los Angeles Indians is Oklahoma and South Dakota, two states that paradoxically placed 24th and last in a nationwide survey of desirable retirement spots.

Weibel-Orlando first stumbled on the homeland phenomenon several years ago while studying the habits of 40 older Indians. Sixteen of the Indians in her group stayed in Los Angeles for the duration of the study. But the remaining 24, or 60%, returned to their home territories.

Subsequent research indicated that the pattern was commonplace. Weibel-Orlando said the exodus of elderly Indians, which could have started as far back as the mid-1960s, apparently has accelerated in recent years.

"The difference is that those people who came to Los Angeles and made the decision to stay and tough it out are approaching retirement age," she said. "And now they are making the decision to live out their years in the city or go back."

Population Boom

Carl Shaw, a spokesman for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, confirmed that the reservations are experiencing something of a population boom. The number of people living on the nation's 278 Indian reservations rose by nearly 20,000 between fiscal 1986 and 1987, to 864,000.

He could not say whether elderly Indians were primarily responsible for the surge, since births and the comings and goings of younger Indians who continue to try their luck in the city could also play a part. But any such movement among retirement-age Indians in Los Angeles is significant since the metropolitan area has the largest Indian population in the United States, with an estimated 125,000 Indians belonging to 150 tribes.

Steven L. A. Stallings, chairman of the Los Angeles City and County Native American Commission, said the homeland phenomenon is apparently pervasive among those Indians who came to the city under the massive Eisenhower-era tribal relocation program sponsored by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. For all the personal and professional strides they may make in the city, and for the hopelessness and despair that are commonly associated with the reservations, Stallings said, most urbanized Indians never break their ties to the homeland.

"When Indians talk about home they're not talking about West Covina or El Monte," Stallings said. "They are talking about their home reservations. And since most come to Los Angeles for economic reasons, there is a tendency for them to go back to the reservations."

Able to Buy a Home

Durant and his wife, who have one daughter, returned to their homeland several years ago, after spending more than 30 years in the Los Feliz District. The couple could not afford to buy a home in the city on Durant's modest salary as a Pentecostal minister. But in the Indian territory known as Broken Bow, a community of 3,695 tucked into the southeast corner of Oklahoma, where Indians share the land with white farmers and ranchers, they were able to purchase a two-bedroom, wood-frame house on land dotted with shade trees for only $32,000.

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