American Indians Leave Uptown Behind

People from across the city come to the American Indian Center for cultural events, said Kermit Valentino. When he was a kid, center "was a place to hang out, and I did." (Photo by Mary Hanlon)

People from across the city come to the American Indian Center for cultural events, said Kermit Valentino. When he was a kid, center "was a place to hang out, and I did." (Photo by Mary Hanlon)

Marilyn Miller was 12 when she and her family arrived in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood during the hot and muggy summer of 1967. Looking for better job opportunities, they moved from the Lac du Flambeau Chippewa reservation in northern Wisconsin under a federal program known as relocation that offered stipends to American Indians who wanted to move from reservations into cities starting in 1952.

The family moved into an apartment at 4939 N. Broadway St. But Miller was disappointed with her new home.

“The quality, the area, the look didn’t match the idea of what I had. Everything was dirty and cluttered. The big city didn’t seem so pretty anymore,” Miller recalled. “I choked back the tears.”

She debated whether to tell her dad, a loving but stern man, how she felt. When she did finally muster up the courage, he told her they were staying in Chicago.

“–˜You never go back, you always move forward,'” Miller said he told her.

Except for a year and a half in the early 1990s, she has lived in Chicago ever since.

Her story is a common one: Thousands of Native Americans moved to Chicago from reservations and other rural areas in the second half of the 20th century. As community and social service organizations were established in or near Uptown, the area soon became the anchor of the city’s American Indian community.

Data from the 2000 Census show that the city’s American Indian population has continued to grow. Though a small share of Chicago’s total population, their numbers increased 47 percent in the 1990s, to 10,290.

But, for the first time since 1950, Uptown is no longer Chicago’s Native American population center, The Chicago Reporter found.

Uptown lost 269 of its 652 Native American residents between 1990 and 2000, according to the census. Several community areas that are mostly Latino are now home to Chicago’s largest Native American populations.

American Indians reside in every community area in Chicago and are found in many of its nearby suburbs, census data show.

Some American Indian leaders say the census doesn’t accurately reflect the size of their community because many residents don’t fill out census forms. Still, they note that many residents have moved out of Uptown and surrounding areas in the past 10 years because they can no longer afford to live there.

“The biggest thing is the housing,” said Miller, who shares a home with her two adult daughters in nearby Irving Park. Miller volunteers with several American Indian agencies in Uptown.

Between 1990 and 2000, the neighborhood went through racial change, gaining 2,041 white residents, who now make up 42 percent of the population, up from 39 percent.

Faith Smith, president of the Native American Educational Services (NEAS) College, a private Native American-owned college at 2838 W. Peterson Ave., has been active in Chicago’s American Indian community for more than 20 years. A longtime Uptown resident, she acknowledged that many of Uptown’s Native Americans struggle to find affordable housing.

But gentrification is not the sole reason American Indian residents have left, Smith said, pointing out that redevelopment has been going on in Uptown for more than 10 years.

“There are American Indians who move because they choose to, and nothing else,” said Smith, who is a member of the Ojibwe tribe. “Indians are not a monolithic group.”

Others note that many Latinos have Native American heritage.

Marliza S. Rivera, 37, is both Mexican and Kiowa but identifies herself as Native American. She lives in Pilsen, a predominantly Mexican neighborhood on the near Southwest Side that gained Native American residents during the 1990s. Pilsen falls within the Lower West Side community area, whose American Indian population tripled, to 430 residents.

“It was easy to assimilate into the Mexican culture here and not forfeit my Indian heritage,” Rivera said. “The Mexican community is very accepting.”

Even with the population shifts, most American Indians in Chicago still view Uptown as the center of their community, said Patricia Tyson, coordinator of social services for 19 years at St. Augustine’s Center for American Indians, an agency at 4512 N. Sheridan Road.

“It’s sort of like if you took and put the wagon wheel with the hub over Uptown and then just extend it from there,” said Tyson, 69, who is Sioux and Irish.

Native Ground

Chicago has one of the largest urban Native American communities in the country, said Robert Galler, interim director of the D’Arcy McNickle Center for American Indian History at the Newberry Library, 60 W. Walton St.

American Indians lived in the Chicago area long before the city developed. But “there was an influx” beginning in the 1950s with relocation, Galler said.

The program was intended to help Native Americans move from impoverished reservations into job-rich cities, including Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Chicago. In some cases, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs subsidized housing.

But many struggled in their new cities, said Donald L. Fixico, a professor of American Indian history at the University of Kansas.

“Native peoples were not really trained for particular jobs, and then the ones they were trained for, sometimes there were too many of them–”too many carpenters, too many plumbers.”

Relocation was “a quick fix to a longstanding problem” of what the U.S. government should do with Native Americans, said John Dall, 41, founder and coordinator of the Chicago branch office of the Ho-Chunk Nation. The office, at 4941 N. Milwaukee Ave., provides social services to the area’s Ho-Chunk population.

“They figured they could take Indians off the reservation and put them into dense urban areas, give them a stipend of money, –¦ [and the Indians] would then melt into the surrounding community. But it didn’t work out that way.”

Between 1950 and 1970, Chicago’s American Indian population grew from 775 to 6,575, according to census records. The largest concentration was in Uptown.

Housing was cheap and plentiful in Uptown when the act was in full swing, said Vincent Sice Romero, executive director of the Uptown office of the California Indian Manpower Consortium, a social service agency based in Sacramento, Calif.

“That was the immediate draw,” said Romero, who is Navajo and Laguna.

Many of the new arrivals gathered for social and cultural events at a military armory, Romero said.

“It was just where [the federal government] would allow Indians to have powwows and gatherings,” he said.

In 1953 local leaders created the American Indian Center as a cultural home and social service agency. As the city’s Native American population grew, the center offered educational programs and job placement. It was located at different sites before finding a permanent home in 1967 at 1630 W. Wilson Ave.

“It was our Ellis Island,” said Tyson.

Kermit Valentino, 46, an Oneida Indian, grew up in Uptown in the 1960s and remembers the center’s after-school programs, Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts and canoe club. “We even had a teen room. It had a pool table and table tennis,” he said. The center was “a place where a kid would hang out, and I did.”

More than 20 other Native American agencies and centers opened in Uptown and the surrounding areas. They provided a range of social services, including health care, education and community development.

“Most Indian families who came to Chicago have passed through the center, participated in a powwow there, attended a funeral, ate at a potluck or used a particular service provided by an Indian agency in the area,” said Romero. Uptown has “always been the pulse of our community.”

By the 1980s, however, Uptown’s American Indian population had started to dip. It lost a third of its Native American residents between 1980 and 1990, and another 41 percent in the decade that followed. By 2000, the neighborhood had fewer than 400 American Indians.

“The transformation from low-rent flats and apartments to very expensive condominiums has definitely taken its toll on Indians,” Miller said.

The city has to take some responsibility for Native Americans leaving their base in Uptown, said Joe Podlasek, the executive director of the American Indian Center, “because they’re offering no affordable housing as part of the changes that’s going on here.”

Alderman Helen Shiller, whose 46th Ward includes most of Uptown, said she began working to preserve affordable housing in the neighborhood long before she took office in 1987. She added that she’s aware Native Americans are leaving the neighborhood, along with others who can’t afford to stay.

“If I knew how to keep housing available for poor people of any ethnic background, I would be doing it in a second,” Shiller said.

“All I know how to do is to take opportunities to preserve housing, and then to make sure people know it’s there.”

Common Cultures

The first thing many will notice about Rivera, of Pilsen, is her hair: It’s a luminous auburn color, cut in angles that frame her oval face before cascading down past her waist.

Rivera was recently having lunch at Cafe Jumping Bean, a sandwich and coffee shop at 1439 W. 18th St. A number of the people streaming in and out stopped by, nodded or waved hello. Rivera was born less than a block away and has lived in the neighborhood most of her life.

The Lower West Side community area now has the city’s fifth-largest Native American population, according to census data. The area has 44,031 residents, 89 percent of them Latino.

Rivera has grown accustomed to living among both American Indian and Mexican cultures.

“Our cultures are very similar,” she said. “We’re both humble peoples and often don’t want to draw attention to ourselves.”

Rivera has another theory for why mostly Latino neighborhoods had higher Native American counts in the 2000 census: Many people may have acknowledged their dual heritage for the first time.

Before, “it wasn’t socially acceptable because there weren’t enough Indians here in Chicago,” she said. “And so if they were already in a Mexican neighborhood, they were claiming to be Mexican.”

Jeff Abbey Maldonado admits, “I never sought out the [American Indian] community until I got older.”

The 32-year-old’s mother was an Alabama Coushatta Indian and his father was Mexican. A muralist and painter, he now lives in Pilsen, where he has rented an art studio for eight years.

Growing up in the Bridgeport and Brighton Park neighborhoods, Maldonado “did lean more toward the Mexican community” because of his father’s influence.

“On the weekends, we would go shopping for tortillas or menudo [Mexican tripe soup]. –¦ I found the Native American community wasn’t as accessible as my Mexican community.”

Public officials representing Latino areas expressed surprise with the Reporter’s analysis of the population shifts.

“I was floored,” said 12th Ward Alderman Ray Frí­as.

“I’m very active in my community. And I’ve just not seen this.”

Politically, Native Americans are not as “cohesive” as the Latino and black communities, Rivera said. For many American Indians in Chicago, survival takes precedence over politics. And, as a result, “American Indians are usually the last to be acknowledged [in Chicago], and so our issues and struggles don’t show up on anyone’s radar screen.”

But that doesn’t mean Chicago’s Native Americans have no sense of unity, said Smith. “The community has never really been defined by geographical borders.”

Coming Home

The more the American Indian population shifts, the more the community must sustain a cultural base, Miller and others say. Despite the population drop in Uptown, the American Indian Center still brings people “home.”

“I don’t know how else to describe it–”the center is simply the focal point of the community,” said Susan K. Power, a Dakota Sioux who was one of the center’s founding members. “It’s our home away from home. We can come here, be among friends and enjoy a sense of community from our Native perspective.”

On a Friday evening in mid-February, large plumes of smoke from burning cedar, white sage and sweet grass floated through the center’s main hall. Father Peter J. Powell, pastor of St. Augustine’s Center for American Indians, led a memorial service for William A. Flood, who had died that week. The 81-year-old Lakota Sioux was a respected elder in the Native American community.

At the end of the ceremony Powell sprinkled Flood’s coffin with holy water and blessed it by gently waving a large white feather. Men tapped large kettle drums in a slow, steady beat. Moments later someone placed a plate of American Indian frybread, meats and pasta on top of the coffin along with three red carnations and a family picture.

“We were a community coming together to say goodbye to one of its grandfathers,” said Podlasek, 40, the center director, who is Ojibwe and Polish.

“You couldn’t possibly move this place and get the same atmosphere,” Valentino said before a graduation ceremony at the center several months later. “Even though people move away, like to the South Side or West Side, when there is an event this is where they come.”

Tyson, the St. Augustine’s program coordinator, who for the past year and a half has commuted to Uptown every day from northern Indiana, said that’s also true for the neighborhood as a whole.

“We haven’t given it up,” she said. “It’s just that we don’t live here anymore.”

Contributing: Steve Sierra. Megan Marz helped research this article.

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