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

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.

Durant has cultivated a garden that produces potatoes, radishes, sweet corn, beans, watermelon, sweet potatoes “and whatever else I want.” But more importantly, he has fully immersed himself in his culture as the leader of an Indian gospel choir, “We sing songs in Choctaw and English,” Durant said. “I have taken our singing group all over Oklahoma.”

Rachel Batiste, who is also a full-blooded Choctaw, worked as a nurse at a Bell Gardens convalescent home until a few years ago when her husband’s illness caused the couple to return to Broken Bow. Their insurance did not cover all of his medical costs in Los Angeles. But in Broken Bow, where there is a special Indian hospital, his hospitalization is free.

Batiste said their neighbors have been very supportive. “The reservation people are glad we’re back,” Batiste said. “But it has been an adjustment. Everything is quiet here.”

Like Batiste and Durant, Weibel-Orlando said most older Indians are able to find fulfillment on their homelands. But there are exceptions. Those who have achieved even modest success in the city are often viewed as “being loaded” and can be subjected to constant demands for loans from neighbors. Others who cannot survive strictly on their retirement incomes usually discover that job opportunities are practically nonexistent.

Skills Highly Valued

Those who stay, however, often find that their urban skills are highly valued. Weibel-Orlando said that urbanized Indians can have a significant impact on their communities by acting as “culture brokers” between the people living on Indian lands and the outside world.

Charlotte Ortiz, a nurse who was politically active in Indian and community affairs in Long Beach before retiring to Pine Ridge, S.D., was promoted to a position of leadership when her neighbors realized that her strong organizational abilities could be used to their advantage.

In the seven years since she returned to the reservation, Ortiz has helped her “Grey Eagle Society” obtain a free government van, has been appointed to the executive boards of several reservation organizations and has become a leader of her church and a teacher in the schools.

She said that her retirement years are proving to be far more active than her working years. “Most people just pick one thing to get involved with,” said Ortiz, 69. “But I tend to get in over my head. I’m trying to do the best I can for my people.”

Like other returnees, Ortiz does not dwell on the chronic alcoholism and other problems that plague her community, such as the fact that Shannon County, where the reservation is located, was listed as the poorest county in the country in the 1980 census. She said she always looked forward to returning to Pine Ridge, a place well known as the home of the Indian Chief Crazy Horse and as the setting of the 1973 Indian civil rights protests at Wounded Knee.

‘Where My Roots Are’

“I always knew I’d come back to South Dakota,” Ortiz said. “That’s where my roots are, my family, my ancestors and friends. Even after all those years in L.A., I knew I’d go back. That’s where the Sioux spirits are. . . . That’s where I want to be when I die.”

After years of visiting, Ortiz and her husband finally settled on the reservation in 1981. In an Indian ritual symbolizing appreciation, they gave away the hundreds of personal items they could not take with them as gifts to friends, relatives and even some strangers.

As the family camper made its way over the Cajon Pass and on to Pine Ridge, Ortiz cried as she contemplated the fact the she was putting 1,800 miles between herself, her sons and her grandchildren. But Ortiz said she adapted to the rhythm of reservation life fairly quickly.

The couple built a house on a plot of land they had inherited. In anticipation of the bitterly cold South Dakota weather, they planted a garden and froze fruits and vegetables for the winter. They also gradually discovered that services they had taken for granted, such as automobile repair shops, were nonexistent on the reservation, which is one of the largest in the United States, with more than 12,000 Sioux spread across 5,000 square miles.

And Ortiz, who had grown accustomed to having pizzas delivered to her home when she lived in Long Beach, also learned how to sharpen her culinary skills, since the nearest restaurant was more than 35 miles away. “If you want to eat around here you have to cook,” she said.

Expects to Return

Shirley Murphy, a Sioux Indian living near San Diego who is Ortiz’s niece, said she also fully expects to return to Pine Ridge when she and her husband retire. The couple actually lived there for three years, but returned because their two elementary school-aged children missed the city.

Murphy, who is pursuing a masters degree in counseling and guidance, said she never felt that she was fully accepted into traditional American society. The reservation is another story.

“If I had the money I would not go to the Bahamas or Europe,” she said. “I would go to Pine Ridge. Part of my heart is there and it can never be removed. . . . On the reservation I have found that I am in my element. I feel that I have been validated as a human being.”