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CLEVELAND (WJW) — This Native American Heritage Month we are examining a federal act that ushered many Native Americans to the Cleveland area.

Although some people found success in Northeast Ohio, others say the push to relocate from reservations remains a controversial part of history.

The promise of opportunity led Norma Shields to Cleveland by train in 1961 she in her early 20s.

“I’m am a Oglala Sioux from Pine Ridge, South Dakota,” said Shields.

The Indian Relocation Act of 1956 attracted Native Americans like Shields from reservations to big cities across the country with the promise of jobs.

“For me it was fine, but I can tell you about a lot of other people, it did not work,” she said. “… And that’s why this was a failure.”

Many Native Americans saw it as just another way of forced cultural assimilation.

“It was cultural genocide even though it was guised as a jobs program,” said Cynthia Connolly, an executive board member of the Lake Erie Native American Council.

Connolly said Cleveland was chosen as one of the select cities with this in mind.

“It was chosen specifically because of it’s distance from tribal reservations because Cleveland is in a state with no federally recognized tribes,” she said.

Some children of men and women who relocated to Cleveland said cultural assimilation left a lasting mark.

“Their kids their grandkids don’t know anything about their culture,” said Marie Toledo.

Toledo’s father John came to Cleveland like Shields in the early ’60s. Originally from New Mexico, he was trained as a welder during what his daughter calls his first relocation tour in San Francisco.

“Their efforts were to assimilate us into the greater culture and dismantle our native cultures by extracting young people so that they would no longer understand their languages their culture their dances or have tribal recognition,” said Toledo.

Shields found success in Cleveland, she worked at city hall and raised a family. After years in the city Shields said she can’t go back to the reservation for long.

“I have been back a time or two but it’s different, so then I leave again,” said Shields. “I like living with non-natives, I’m more familiar with their actions and their ways.”

Shields, in her first language, repeated the prayer she said when she was new to Cleveland, the place she now sees as home.

“I said ‘God we came here together, I’m happy to meet these new people. Help us to understand each other. Thank you,’ is what I said.”

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