Uncovering Native Roots

Jeff Abbey Maldonado (Photo by Mary Hanlon)

Jeff Abbey Maldonado was 19 when he started looking for books that would help him understand what it meant to be Native American.

The problem was that he couldn’t find anything about contemporary people like him, living in a city like Chicago.

“We have all this history, but what about information and writings on what we’re like today–”what we do and how we live?” said Maldonado, 32, whose mother was a member of the Alabama Coushatta tribe and whose father was Mexican. “I really didn’t have anybody I could talk to about [it]. I would talk to my family, of course, but I wanted a different perspective. I really didn’t know any other American Indians in the city.”

Maldonado grew up in the Bridgeport and Brighton Park neighborhoods. He said he always considered himself “just a city guy.”

Maldonado’s mother would attend events at the American Indian Center in Uptown, but he has no memories of going with her. Maldonado’s father would take him, his two brothers and his two sisters on frequent trips into Pilsen, a mostly Mexican neighborhood. “I guess realistically I felt closer to the Mexican community,” he said.

Still, his mother’s side of the family told him stories of his grandfather and great-grandfather, who both served as chief of the Alabama Coushattas in Louisiana.

Maldonado became even more interested in his Native American roots when he was attending Columbia College Chicago. At that time, “there was this pop-culture interest in all things Native American,” he said.

One of his art professors invited Maldonado to a potluck dinner at his house because he thought it would be “deep” to have an American Indian over, Maldonado said.

As much as the stereotyping bothered him, it also pushed Maldonado to find out more about his background. He later lived for three months on the Alabama Coushatta reservation, where he found the slower pace of life both renewing and challenging. He was surprised at how open and generous people were, and how they got by, living 20 miles from the nearest town.

“Our reservation was located in the woods, and so the nearest corner store–”a city staple–”is a mile away, one way,”

Maldonado explained. “When I was at the reservation it actually slowed me down. –¦ I began to understand that there was a higher power. And that helped with my work because painting is a very spiritual thing for me.”

Maldonado is now a professional artist who lives and works in Pilsen. He is married and has a 12-year-old son. While some themes in Maldonado’s work are driven by his American Indian culture, he dislikes the use of typical Native American imagery.

“Because I belong to the tribe, I feel like it’s a privilege,” he said. As an artist, that’s been “my ongoing search–”to try to find an image or create imagery that’s true to who I am, without having to rely on the stereotypes.”

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