Small But Determined, Local Indian Population Fights for Community Center

By Meredith Heagney | Friday, November 9, 2012

Artist and American Indian Center volunteer Robert Wapahi helps children make hand drums out of deer hides. The drums were then used in a fundraiser held last night. Credit: Meredith Heagney

On a typical Thursday night, the children of the American Indian Center of Chicago, 1630 W. Wilson Ave., zoom around the spacious but well-worn tribal hall, under the watch of parents and grandparents, who eat chicken noodle soup and store-bought cookies while they catch up with one another.

Some kids make drums out of deer hides. Some are in the early stages, peeling the thin, smelly skins out of a tub of cold water, which helps them soften. Others are painting designs on their drum faces, or banging away noisily.

Yesterday evening, the finished drums were played at a fundraiser in honor of November’s Native American Heritage Month, a sorely needed benefit for the struggling American Indian Center, now the oldest urban community center for American Indians in the United States. AIC supporters are struggling to keep the Center going so the little drummakers can one day bring their own children and grandchildren.

“That’s the importance of the American Indian Center, the cultural values our seniors instill on the younger generations,” said Joe Podlasek, executive director.

This past year, grant funding from the City of Chicago and private foundations to the Center was reduced by about $100,000, according to Podlasek, bringing their annual budget to around $900,000. To run at full potential, he estimates the Center would need between $3 and $5 million dollars a year, not counting the millions of dollars required for a desperately needed renovation of the 86-year-old former Masonic temple the Center calls home.

In 2011, the Center employed 10 full-time and 12 part-time staffers, Podlasek said. Now they’re down to four full-time and eight part-time. One of the Center’s signature programs, free lunch for seniors, had been cut from five days a week to two days a week and last January was reduced to just one day a week.

The Center is down, but it’s not out, Podlasek said, much like the Native people.

“Resilient is a good word” to describe the population, he said. While many other struggling nonprofits have shut down, “we did not close because of the strength of our community.”

That community has to be extra strong, because it is so small.

Susan Power, 87, the last living founder of the American Indian Center of Chicago. Credit: Meredith Heagney

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2011, about 5.1 million people who are Native or part Native live in the United States. About 84,000 of them live in Illinois, with most (about 54,000) concentrated in Chicago, Naperville and Joliet. In the Chicago city limits live 18,545 who are at least partly American Indian. Podlasek said he and many others live in the Chicagoland suburbs, and that the population was much larger about 20 years ago, and concentrated in Uptown.

Podlasek believes this smallness is part of the reason it’s difficult to obtain funding. But the patrons of the American Indian Center refuse to close up shop and join other community centers with similar programming.

“It’s another form of assimilation we are not going to take part in,” Podlasek said.

Lately, the Center has had a lot of trouble with numbers: In 2011, the Center received a city grant for $26,240 for youth programs, said Jennifer Hoyle, a spokeswoman for the Chicago Department of Housing and Economic Development, which administers the city grant. That funding was not renewed for 2012 because the Center did not serve the number of youth specified in their 2011 contract. To meet the contract’s requirements, they would’ve had to have served 20-21 youth per school day, but actually served just four or five a day, Hoyle said.

The good news, Hoyle said, is that the city worked with the Center to improve attendance and plans to award a grant of $25,000 for 2013, pending approval of the budget by City Council.

Of course, that won’t be enough to turn things around on its own. The Center’s members do their best to keep the place going through volunteer work, but most American Indians in Chicago are low-income, Podlasek said, so they can’t do much to help financially.

Jasmine Alfonso displays a traditional Oneida tribal outfit at last night’s fundraiser for the American Indian Center. Credit: Meredith Heagney

The Center was founded in 1953, about the time when Native Americans were being moved by the U.S. Government off reservations and into urban areas. Some came to Chicago before that, after World War II, to look for work, said Ann Durkin Keating, chair of the History Department at North Central College in Naperville, who wrote a book about Indian history in Chicago. A small number have stayed here since the 1700s, when the swath of land between Chicago, Detroit and Peoria was “Indian country,” Keating said.

The push and pull of movement and assimilation left American Indians in the 20th Century feeling displaced, rarely ending up on their true ancestral lands, she added.

Susan Power, 87, the last living founder of the Center, says the need is urgent. “In order to not have cultural genocide, we had to have a place to get together and meet.”

The neighborhoods around the Center, Uptown, Ravenswood and Lincoln Square, used to be home to most of the city’s Native population, Podlasek said, but as the area gentrified in the last 15 or so years, many of them were priced out by rising rents and are now dispersed around the city (particularly in Pilsen and Rogers Park) and the suburbs.

That means many come a long way to take advantage of the programs, which include an after-school program for children and that once-a-week free senior lunch. Hundreds of families use the Center’s food pantry and come in for clothing and household items each month, Podlasek said. And they’re not all Indian.

“Anyone in need, we help out. All our programs are done in a culturally based, Native way, but everyone is welcome,” he said.

The Center receives funding from the National Science Foundation for a research project in partnership with Northwestern University and the Menominee Tribe to create an elementary science curriculum that incorporates both Native and Western methodologies. Part of this project is an urban ecology program that includes a medicinal garden around the Center. And the Chicago Blackhawks hockey team is donating at least $60,000 to renovate the Center’s third floor into a usable gym and theater, Podlasek said.

The Center extends beyond the city, too. In 2005, the Center opened Trickster Gallery, an arts space in Schaumburg and owned by the village. The Center even has an exhibit in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington.

Anthony Pochel, 13, and a hand drum he made. His ancestors were Lakota and Cree Indians. Credit: Meredith Heagney

“It stands as one of the most important urban institutions for Native Americans in the United States,” North Central College’s Keating said. “There just aren’t centers like this in every city.”

When Karen Zahn, 56, moved to Uptown in 1966, she saw a much more concentrated Indian population than the one that exists today. Now, she brings some of her six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren to the Center. The kids are “like the United Nations,” she said. Not only Native but also Irish, German, African and “who knows.” Zahn likes that, because it reflects a melding, rather than a segregation, of ethnic groups.

For Zahn, it’s special to bring her grandchildren and great-grandchildren to the Center to learn about the Native part of their culture.

The programs are “not much, but whatever it is, we’re here,” she said. One recent evening, she brought in a child’s “medicine dress”, a traditional garment with little noisemaking beads, made out of SpongeBob SquarePants-patterned material. She gave it away to a man with a 4-year-old daughter.

Emylee Delgado, 35, also was at the Center that night. She brings her four children, ages 8 months to 9 years, to the Center all the way from her home on West 22nd Street near the intersection of Pilsen and South Lawndale. The family practices “unschooling,” which means the children are educated at home and with other families outside of a school. That makes community resources such as the Center incredibly important, Delgado said, for socialization and cultural education of her children.

“There were times we were here five days a week or six days a week, because there were activities,” she said. But now, she feels, “the Center has been forgotten.”

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