First nations urban migration and the importance of "urban nomads" in Canadian plains cities: a perspective from the streets.
Subject: Urban poor (Social aspects)
Urban poor (Economic aspects)
City planning
Author: Letkemann, Paul G.
Pub Date: 12/22/2004
Publication: Name: Canadian Journal of Urban Research Publisher: Institute of Urban Studies Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Social sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2004 Institute of Urban Studies ISSN: 1188-3774
Issue: Date: Winter, 2004 Source Volume: 13 Source Issue: 2
Topic: Event Code: 290 Public affairs
Product: Product Code: 9107130 Urban Planning Assistance NAICS Code: 92512 Administration of Urban Planning and Community and Rural Development
Geographic: Geographic Scope: Canada Geographic Code: 1CANA Canada
Accession Number: 129248095
Full Text: Abstract

Based on personal experience of the author, and use of anthropological theory, this paper examines small groups of urban 'street people.' While realizing that many of these people have substance abuse problems and are in general disadvantaged, the paper shows that they are far from powerless, and utilize many strategies in order to survive in the city. Networking is focussed upon here, in terms of ways that these individuals are connected in urban settings, as well as facilitating a connection between rural (often nearby reserve) and urban communities. Native and non-Native transients have important roles in subsistence strategies necessary in the process of First Nations urbanization, and these are often overlooked.

Keywords: First Nations, urbanization, networking, subsistence, 'street people'


Cet article, bass sur l'experience personnelle de l'auteur et certaines theories anthropologiques, examine un petit groupe de sans-abri. Bien que plusieurs sans-abri aient des problemes de toxicomanie et sont desavantages, cet article demontre qu'ils ne sont pas completement impuissant. Les sans abris utilisent differentes strategies pour survivre dans la ville. L'article analyse les reseaux de relations en ce qui concerne leurs connections urbaines et celles entrent les communautes urbaines et rurales (pres d'une reserve). Les sans-abri aborigenes et non-aborigenes ont des roles importants en ce qui concerne les strategies de subsistances necessaires au processus d'urbanisation des Premieres nations.

Mots cles: Premieres nations, urbanisation, reseaux, subsistance, sans-abri


This paper employs anthropological and sociological theory to frame some of my experiences living among individuals commonly referred to as 'street people.' Social scientists recognize that First Nations peoples are much more complex than is suggested by studies of pathology and economic disadvantage (Menzies 1999: 241), yet many of the same studies still characterize 'street people' largely in terms of culture loss, pathological afflictions and/or isolating social marginality (e.g. Menzies 1999: 236-8: Hudson 1998: Morris and Heffren 1988). My experience suggests that these portrayals, while substantially correct, are also incomplete. The people I call 'urban nomads' think of themselves as much more than victims. Even those with substance abuse problems and/or other pathologies formulate identities in relation to understandings of Aboriginal tradition, including social organization, practices and key symbols.

Dominant perceptions of Aboriginal homeless people are related to a long history of marginalizing, isolationist characterizations of an urbanizing Aboriginal population. Urbanizing Aboriginals have been described as the creators of slums surrounded by a wall of poverty (Dosman 1972: 10). This perception is reiterated in Wacquant's (2001: 125) description of urban ghettos as exhibiting a now "advanced" marginality, increasingly bounded by poverty and viewed by insiders and mainstream society as social purgatories.

Although dysfunction, pathology, stigma and marginality are certainly present on the streets, I argue, based on observations, that urban nomads demonstrate considerable cultural awareness and diversity, as do other 'homeless' people (Cress and Snow 2000:1101). Rather than primarily 'bounded,' some of these people act, and perceive themselves more, as 'boundary-spanners.' First Nations people in general who live part-time in cities and on reserves tend to integrate rural and urban contexts that are less culturally dichotomous for them than is usually portrayed (Grantham-Chappel 1998: 386). A broad ethnohistorical and contextual perspective is necessary for understanding diversity among the homeless (Cress and Snow 2000: 1101). This is especially important when many urban Aboriginal transients come from reserves that resemble rural ghettos, (see York 1990) often with staggeringly high unemployment rates. To the colonial administration, reserves were sites designed for assimilation and forced culture change, (Carter 1990: 23) and (for First Nations) seen as sanctuaries for culture retention. A central characteristic of many reserves is their geographical and cultural isolation from mainstream society (Buckley 1992: 11). In such a context, symbolic, ideological and pragmatic 'isolation' in an urban domain can only be a matter of degree and relative perception.

The 'urban nomads' (Spradley 1970) I lived with are only a narrow segment of the spectrum of people categorized as "homeless" or 'street people.' Their homelessness is sporadic rather than chronic, and unlike many homeless people, urban nomads constitute groups of highly visible people that concern the public (Jencks 1994: 7). The urban nomads 1 lived among were relatively young, predominantly male, mainly of Aboriginal descent and very mobile, in contrast to other homeless people (more evenly split between women and men) who remained very close to shelters over long periods of time. Most of the cities I stayed in are near First Nations reserves, and many Aboriginal people have moved or are in the process of moving to these urban centres. Of these people, urban nomads constitute only a very small number who practice semi-nomadic existences, usually only for parts of the year.

Certain practices of urban nomads appear analogous to what is perceived as 'traditional hunting band' social organization (see Henriksen 1995: 17-40; Leacock 1986140-70: Braroe 1975:87-110). Anthropologists working among the urban homeless recognize similarities in adaptive strategies and mindsets between urban nomads and hunter-gatherers. (Gigengack and van Gelder 2000: 10; Hauch 2002: 206). Such analogical reasoning can serve to integrate different symbolic and temporal domains (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992: 233). This paper uses personal experience, ethnographic observations and humanistic style, in focussing on my recollection of events and people, shaped through collaborative dialogue with urban nomads, and subsequently with other ethnographers and First Nations people.

Ethics, Access and Personal Experience as Informal Methodology

The ethical propriety and degree of methodological 'rigour' in data collection warrants discussion. 1 was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the mid 1970"s and my disorder has been fully controlled since early 1995. Between 1976 and 1994 illness precipitated episodes of varying duration of my living 'on the streets' in several cities, including Winnipeg, Brandon, Moose Jaw, Edmonton, Red Deer, Calgary and Vancouver. Most of the people I interacted with and received support from were Aboriginals. Many were in situations similar to mine, living periodically without a home, involved in substance abuse and often seeming quite manic. These shared characteristics helped me fit in as a non-Native male. I was in no way conducting clandestine research among these people, and I did not consider myself an anthropologist until I received my doctorate, on an unrelated subject (Letkemann 1998).

My episodes of living on the streets cumulatively total approximately a year, including periods in spring, summer and early fall. Sometimes I possessed, and often slept in a vehicle, including a van. Having literally no monetary resources, and often perceiving myself as a refugee from police and even family and friends, I relied on cooperative efforts to provide minimal amounts of gasoline, and the van provided short-distance transportation, becoming my contribution in a subsistence system involving reciprocity. However, on several occasions I relied on shelters such as the old brick Salvation Army hostel in Winnipeg, or slept on public transportation or covered with fallen leaves in forested urban parks. Sometimes I lived in several cities in the same month, as I would periodically travel by sitting in 'truck stops' and getting rides with exhausted semi-trailer drivers, or riding open-topped freight rail cars. Occasionally local police would provide long distance bus passes. Most people would be surprised at how far and how quickly urban nomads can travel with no money at all.

As my experience with the lifestyle grew, this familiarity increased my episodic reliance on street life, and facilitated acceptance by urban nomads. I was never trying to elicit information towards any future publication, and the questions I asked and information I collected were designed to better understand and adapt to situations I found myself in. Urban nomads interest me not primarily as Aboriginals, but as former (and I believe underappreciated) 'associates' in the work of subsisting on the streets.

I am aware of the danger of generalization from personal experiences, and misrepresentation posed by the reclassification of 'vagrants' as individually pathologically afflicted or mentally disabled, lest we neglect the recognition of poverty as a social product (Lott and Bullock 2001: 200; Hopper 1991). However, studies also establish that a significant number of homeless people do suffer from mental illnesses (Orwin, Sonnenfeld, Garrison-Mogren and Smith 1994; Hopper 1991; Hopper Susser and Conover 1985), often since these people are among the more vulnerable, especially with recent policies of psychiatric deinstitutionalization (Alberta Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health 2001, Nelson, Lord and Ochocka 2000; Stein and Santos 1998; Robertson 1991).

A considerable amount of ethnographic data has been published based on interviews with such people recalling their experiences (e.g. Morris and Heffren 1988), very little of which specifically recognizes the importance of narratives of the mentally ill homeless (Lovell 1997). Albeit sparse, literature by academics about personal experiences with bipolar disorder indicates that psychotic episodes can be remembered in vivid detail (see Jamison 1997; 1996).

Although I did not take notes or conduct systematic interviews, during my postsecondary anthropological training I often thought about my experiences and discussed them at great length with other students and anthropologists. This paper represents a re-contextualization of these experiences through the lens of ethnographic context, and temporally distanced re-conceptualizations are valuable in providing rich, considered data (see Marcus 1998: 2). This article is based on vivid memory of selective elements of personal experiences, dialogue and observations. These have been academically refrained, much as if another anthropologist interviewed me about life as an urban nomad (which would seem spurious). My illness is obviously another 'filter" through which I experienced life as an urban nomad. However, recognizing the nature of this process likely contributes to the validity of my observations. As is the case in ethnographic research among unfamiliar cultural groups, ethnographers may be unaware of the extent or even the existence of what (in Western terms) constitutes mental illness and contributes to narrative problematics. Ironically the narrative of the 'mentally ill' might permeate ethnographic data, as well as paralleling the fragmented discourse, multiple referents and dislocation of meaning associated with the post-modern self (Lovell 1997: 355; Rosenau 1991).

At those times when I had the advantage of owning an old van as shelter and transportation, I parked in downtown core areas, as close as possible to a central social location, whether a 'skid-row' tavern, or a shelter for the homeless, in order to obtain social and material support. People living on the streets accepted me in their activities and conversation partly in return for my occasionally being able to provide transportation. The van also served as a sort of hangout, where individuals would show up to drink and visit out of the public sphere. 'Informal methodology' is important as it can provide contextual and behavioural knowledge that interviewing often cannot (Rosenthal 1991:110). 'Hanging around' as informal methodology may not be systematically rigorous, but over time it facilitates analysis that make sense out of "gross categorizations" like beggars or 'street people' (Lovell 1997: 358; Williams 1995: 26).

Social and Theoretical Context

There are central difficulties in academic and media presentations of seminomadic urban peoples. Politically motivated applied research may seem paternalistic, while research attempting to avoid a 'blame the victim' view may produce unrealistically positive, sanitized representations of the oppressed (Gigengack and van Gelder 2000: 9). Many studies tend to emphasize Native people collectively as victims in dialectical relationships with Euro-Canadians (Buchignani and Letkemann 1994: 217). On the other hand, trying to put a positive spin on such ethnographic characters can have the effect of romanticizing the lifestyle, congruent with populist media that often takes advantage of public fascination with the 'exotic' domain of the streets. Researchers tread a fine line of political correctness (Gigengack and van Gelder 2000: 8-10).

Still, it is important to recognize that even the severely disadvantaged have the agency to attempt formulation of a positive sense of self, place and purpose (see Indra 2000). In these processes, the urban nomads I lived with also romanticized their situations, emphasizing their bravery, survival skills and successes and downplaying the negative aspects. I commonly heard stories of dangerous exploits, fearless physical encounters, sexual adventures and expressions like "we prefer to sleep under the stars." On many occasions I also felt personal achievement and pride in a level of subsistence ability that allowed me to live, interact, and even travel long distances with almost no monetary resources. For many urban nomads, and myself there exists a felt sense of agency in reconstitution of mainstream societal constructs of 'necessities.'

Perceptions of the 'self' and 'other,' continue to be strongly defined in Western society by whether or not an individual works (Letkemann 2002a, 2002b, 1998; Burman 1988; Abrahmson et al 1988, Waxman 1977: 90), and maintains a fixed household (Simon 1971: 35). Individuals who appear to be defying this moralized convention by living on urban streets cause a variety of strong reactions, notably including anxiety and suspicion (Dumeir and Molotch 1999: 1291; Hudson 1998: 1). When they are of a visible First Nations origin the stigma of poverty as deviance is combined with culturally-specific stereotypes of lazy, untrustworthy, criminal character and unclean body and mind (Cozarrelli, Wilkinson and Tagler 2001: 222; see Braroe 1975; Lithman 1985). These racist perceptions of the poor are especially prevalent among members of the middle class (Cozarreli et al 2001: 222; Hoch 1987: 20-23), providing a rationale for discrimination, associating poverty with cultural dysfunction (Newman 1988; Hunter 1981: 64). Much of what is termed 'dysfunction' relates to what is seen as a rejection of, or uncaring attitude towards well-defined 'necessities.' That these might be perceived by the homeless as unnecessarily constraining, paternalistic and even ethnocentric, is commonly ignored or viewed as further evidence of a dysfunctional worldview.

Urban Nomads and the Urbanization Process

A majority of American and Canadian Native people now live in cities, but this does not necessarily diminish cultural awareness, a sense of tribal association or (usually) identification with a reserve community (Kramer and Barker 1996: 399-400; Grantham--Chappell 1998: 386; York 1990: 85). Extensive relocation between cities and rural reserves is common in the urbanization processes of many Canadian First Nations peoples (see Frideres 1998:124-33). In less than 150 years, Canadian plains First Nations peoples have had to struggle to resettle first on reserves and presently in cities (Colson 1999: 30-33). During this time, the hunter gatherer lifestyle and spirituality of Plains Native peoples have been extensively romanticized as well as vilified in the popular culture media (see Meyer and Royer 2001: Bird 1996; Francis 1992). Studies of Third World and Western urban poverty constitute parallel examinations (Susser 1996: 415). Hunger and lack of adequate shelter are strong push factors towards the urban streets (McCarthy and Hagan 1992: 624). In this process, nomadic or seminomadic urban nomads establish contacts and social networks in the urban centre (grideres 1988: 244-5). The conditions of life on the streets should be viewed in relation to the isolation and marginalization characteristic of many reserves (Tanner 1993:91-3). Many of the urban nomads were also semi nomadic on their 'home' reserves. They are part of an often-overlooked rural homeless population (Filchen 1991: 179) with temporary and unstable housing situations due to extreme poverty (see York 1990). My experience with them suggests that both Native and non-Native urban nomads also identify with a freedom associated with a culturally salient perception of Aboriginality as including a semi-nomadic 'living off the land.'

Like other migrants, Native people often urbanize in a process of movement back and forth from rural to urban areas, slowly establishing more permanent residence in the cities (Frideres 1998: 244-5). Urbanization commonly involves a nucleus of clique formation that leads to more stable forms of social organization in the city (Frideres 1998: 244). The nomads I lived with are a central part of this nucleus, and are frequently in the process of migrating between rural and urban domains, in both directions. Aside from poverty, factors in moving may include periodic feeling of a need to escape constraints or restrictions of many types, sometimes related to substance abuse or illnesses like bipolar disorder which can cause familial conflicts and institutionalization. Further, among the poor in general, periods of living on the streets have become subsistence strategies (Hopper, et al. 1985:185). The urban nomads I interacted with are essential to this strategy. Constantly moving between different domains, they often referred to themselves as "travellers," a term that reflected their 'unrestricted' ability to subsist and strategically relocate, partly due to extensive social connections and 'alternative' worldviews.

Urban Nomads: Social Organization and Routine

The urban nomads I lived with are distinct in part since they actively disassociate themselves from other homeless people who are not very mobile and often or chronically incapacitated. I heard them insult such people frequently and they did not include them in activities or exchanges. Even chronically incapacitated kin are largely excluded and may be treated with derision. I interceded several times to defend aged homeless people from their younger, more active relatives who were living on the streets. The harassment was usually verbal taunting and/or feinting blows, and not physically harmful. Whenever I observed three or four nomads harassing an incapacitated person and voiced my objections, saying "leave him alone", they would look surprised and amused and walk away, never challenging me at all. I did not have that agency independently, but was allowed it collectively. Urban nomads are also prone to extreme bouts of inebriation, but these are cases of 'binge drinking' rather than everyday states, and may have an adaptive role in longer-term systems of reciprocity and sharing (Hauch 2002). During these occasions, less mobile homeless may be victimized by theft, taunting and occasional violence. Stealing from these people offers little material reward to urban nomads, and appears largely as an assertion of hierarchy.

Subgroup Alliances

The urban nomads I lived among usually spend their days in subgroups of two to four individuals. These alliances are so flexible that subgroup membership almost never remains the same for more than a few days. They reorganize on the basis of information about possibilities of material resources, as well as factors of past successes or failures, personality, kinship and conflicts. Such seemingly spontaneous daily socio-political organization is described among some hunting bands (i.e. Henriksen 1995) and resembles the reserve political alliances described by Lithman (1984). The ability to change subgroup alliances is also a commonly recognized social mechanism designed to reduce conflict and create extensive networks within the larger tribal group. Subgroup membership incorporates, yet often cross cuts kinship relations. In fact, most of the conflict I observed was between close kin, who tended towards competitive behaviour, especially involving sexual relationships.

Urban nomads usually sleep in shelters or nearby parks, so they begin the day as a large group. Extensive discussion and negotiations about possible courses of action, along with established alliances leads to daily subgroup formation. Usually a subgroup is organized around someone's idea of ways to best acquire needed resources, and this individual becomes the informal decision-maker for the group for as long as their decisions prove sound. Leadership is as flexible as subgroup membership, and both may change during the course of a day. Often one part of the group will simply abandon the other and go their separate ways with no negotiation (see Henriksen 1995). They will usually meet another subgroup of nomads and form new sets of alliances. I was a sort of 'freelancer' in this system, and I generally stayed with certain individuals who I had learned would accept me and who 1 could trust. When these people decided to reform alliances, I would follow them. This would not have been a good longer-term subsistence strategy, as I was viewed as partly dependent on these people, which tended to decrease my level of prestige while increasing theirs. However, these people and I were also viewed as 'stable', and to a certain point I would put up with being manipulated by them.

Shifting membership in small groups contributes to solidifying a larger social community, (Desjarlais 1994: 896) partly offsetting the unpredictability commonly perceived of as characteristic of 'street life.' Flexible group membership on the streets allows a political agency of tactical movements (Ibid: 896). The ability to align and realign with a variety of subgroups provides a significant degree of (immediate) social freedom and choice, and creates networks among all group members.

Urban nomads, like many homeless people, are alienated from members of mainstream society and limited with whom they can develop strong social bonds (Sterk--Elifson and Elifson 1992: 248; Lott and Bullock 2001: 201). However, shifting network alliances challenge the premise of the 'bounded' poor, as individual alienation is not a characteristic of relationships between familiar people in similar positions (Sterk - Elifson and Elifson 1992: 248). Processes stemming from catalytic forces of poverty can result in positive social aspects, in spite of the very real suffering (Lovell 1997: 362). This occurs through feelings of belonging, along with a culturally relevant ethos of flexibility, actualized in a felt freedom from certain 'encumbrances' of mainstream society.

The 'Information Economy'

Due to extensive migration in both directions between cities and reserves, and unanticipated situations along with the frequent lack of telephones in many urban and reserve dwellings, many domiciled people find themselves unsure of how best to locate others at any given time. Almost daily, people approached the nucleus of urban nomads trying to locate someone or needing information about things that had occurred. Their semi-nomadic lifestyles provide nomads with continually updated information on what people are doing, what resources they could be expected to possess, what kind of trouble they are in and where and with whom they are living. Urban nomads interact daily with a wide network of people who have recently been to the reserves, established city dwellers, and people in, or recently having been in various places, whether an educational institution, prison, halfway house, mental institution or substance abuse treatment facility. This constant networking means that to some extent the nomads have the status of information brokers. As well, it is in the interest of the domiciled urban poor to actively maintain connections among the homeless since they may have to resort to street life as a periodic subsistence strategy (Hopper et al 1985). Reciprocal interactions are remembered and are another way that the homeless are not bounded, but extensively connected to people in many domains.

Urban nomads are well aware of the exchange value of their social knowledge, although their ability to negotiate is constrained by their immediate needs. In response to an inquiry, the nomads I was with usually claimed much more knowledge than they really possessed, often being carefully ambiguous in order to get a ride, ostensibly in search of a person or specific information. I often heard one or more nomad say "I'll take you to them," in response to an inquiry. For the person seeking information, this is much like choosing to hire a person to track someone down. Sometimes the 'client' takes two or three urban nomads with them to try to find, or find out about someone.

I witnessed some rather odd situations involving the initial 'recruitment of clients'. Whenever someone seeking information approached the nomads with their query they were given a host of earnestly expressed, yet often conflicting responses that appear to be attempts to mislead. After repeatedly witnessing such behaviour it became obvious that they were competitively demonstrating the extent and relevance of their knowledge, and this demonstration included bluffing. Some initial 'answers' are more outdated than others. The 'clients' usually choose a nomad they recognize as having the most up to date information. However, they base this on their own knowledge and how well it meshes with the varied responses, in an elaborate dialogue that informs all involved and reflects the importance of information as a resource.

Urban nomads capitalize on the availability of transportation to gain information for themselves as much as for their client, making a point of travelling to houses that they ordinarily do not have access to on foot. Such journeys may or may not bring them much needed material resources, but they will always add to their knowledge base, which is just as essential. This process could go on for a long period of time, and might involve several trips. Each time the 'client' will get closer to the object of their inquiry, or abandon the nomad in favour of another approach. In either scenario, a connection has been made and a great deal of information exchanged.

Being driven around from place to place might result in a temporary place to stay or a meal for the urban nomad. Occasionally they are recruited, usually by a relative, to baby-sit in the home in exchange for temporary food and lodging. It is likely difficult for a casual observer to envision one of these 'street people' as part time baby-sitters, but this is not uncommon. It is an adaptive strategy for the poverty stricken domiciled family as well as the urban nomad. Such trips also let them know which people, at that time, do not welcome them at all. I heard expressions like 'you're nothing but trouble' or 'don't come around here after what you did' that inform the nomad that the household is not approachable, and has no immediate resource value. However, information about who is not receptive is valuable when shared among nomads, and can have long lasting reciprocal effects, that may also influence alliances on the streets.

Hostile responses are usually due to some recent altercation, or a perceived injustice involving friends or relatives. Drawing the attention of neighbours who then call the police is one of the most serious offences, since it may jeopardize the domiciled person's position in the neighbourhood. For many reasons, Native people and the poor in general are already disadvantaged in acquiring permanent urban residence. Once established, they do not want to lose their position. Ironically, the same individuals who are invited to spend the night or share a meal may subsequently be assigned blame for actions they are not responsible for. In my experience, most trouble that occurs when a nomad is in a house is inevitably blamed on them, even when the householder is the cause. For minor incidents, everyone, including the police, casually accept this assignation of blame, which often leads to a night spent in the local jail. When the police arrive, I would hear statements by the householder is to the effect of 'I don't even know who he is, he just barged right in here. Look at the mess he made!'

Taking the blame for such disturbances is an important service provided by the urban nomad. In these cases, I never observed a nomad proclaiming their innocence. The urban nomads are considered (and considered themselves) to be less constrained than the householder in taking these kinds of risks involving police. In several cases, a nomad accused and removed by police one night was able to stay at the same house the next day, with no hard feelings. Notably, I was also the object of such accusations, but as a non-Native male, police only told me to leave or dropped me off at a shelter.

Exchange of information is an important part of the political economy of homeless people in general (Desjarlais 1994: 893). The sharing ethic, a central symbol of Aboriginality, is expressed through the politicized structure of information exchange. This ethic is reinforced by the symbolically charged practice of freely sharing other subsistence related items. Although not directly conducive to saving resources with a goal of acquiring permanent residence, such sharing is ultimately a good subsistence strategy for urban nomads (Hauch 2002: 211). This maintains connections with domiciled urban poor that can facilitate subsistence abilities of both groups through movement across domains (see Hopper et al 1985).

Conclusion: Connecting Social, Physical and Symbolic Domains

Using the adventurous connotations of their term for themselves, these 'travellers' can think of themselves as survivors in the face of societal constraints and thus freedom from them. The 'American dream' myth/urban legend of arriving in the unfamiliar and rather hostile environment of the city with virtually no money, and struggling to eventually succeed is a powerful folk conception for potential and new immigrants as well as long time residents. The urban nomads operate in the realms of and contribute to such mythology as well as to key symbols of Aboriginality, like semi-nomadism, flexible social organization and sharing. They physically and metaphorically connect domains of reserve and city life, Native and non-Native, homeless and domiciled. They may be considered both liminal and marginal and as occupying the positions of the 'underclass,' yet they are also powerful social and cultural brokers. Through daily practice, the urban nomads also render categories of the domiciled urban poor and the homeless less dichotomous, and rather more complex and fluid than is usually perceived by members of mainstream society.

Within a context of pathologies, oppression and constraints these individuals carve a niche of social networks and ethnic and socio-economic identities. Like Native peoples in general, urban nomads do not accept marginalization as inevitable, and the racism underlying this exclusionism contributes to a reluctance to accept mainstream compliance ideology (Frideres 1998: 329) that includes being perceived centrally as victims rather than individuals. Even when suffering from substance abuse problems and/or mental illness, these people are not necessarily acting in random fashion. Urban nomads have to be acutely aware of patterns of interaction and sharing, networking and brokering, pragmatic knowledge and means of manipulating situations. They are boundary spanners in the process of urban migration that links reserve and city lifestyles and worldviews (Grantham-Chappell 1998). Rather than being singularly 'bounded,' they contribute to the complex link between mainstream society and a marginalized group. I am grateful to the urban nomads for taking me in when I needed a place, and glad to know that, like myself, some of them have relocated to successful career and family lives.


I want to thank the anonymous reviewers, and Dan Chekki, Michelle Swanson, Peter Letkemann, Norman Buchignani, Ryan Heavyhead and Sandra Bamford for helpful comments on earlier drafts or encouragement that precipitated my writing this paper.


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Paul G. Letkemann

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