With about 40 people in attendance and a bright spotlight illuminating a microphone and the featured speakers, Friday, January 27, marked an evening of meaningful storytelling exploring the roles that the American Indian Center (AIC) in Chicago has played in people’s lives over the decades.
It felt warm, celebratory, and at times filled with laughter – but sad, too, as the event was the second in a series of six commemorating the AIC’s home of more than 50 years in the Uptown neighborhood as it prepares to depart for new digs in Albany Park.
Called “Robust Indigenes” and funded in part by an Illinois Humanities Community Grant, these events are basically open-mic storytelling nights. The oral histories are being videotaped and will be made available on the AIC website later this year, thanks to Northwestern University. They will culminate in an exhibit to open at the center’s new location in 2018.
Many of the stories that were shared on January 27 focused on the building, still filled with artwork and murals, but already bursting with boxes in preparation for the upcoming move. The talented maker of much of that artwork, Robert Wapahi, Dakota, recalled some participants in the center’s activities saying that they thought they observed spirits haunting the upper floors of the building. Smiling, he suggested that what they actually saw “was probably me, walking around with my long hair down.”
Wapahi said that the view from the roof of the building, with treetops interspersed irregularly among the buildings, is the best in Uptown. “In nature, there are no straight lines,” he remarked. “That view made me feel at home.”
“This building was like living in a castle,” Wapahi told the crowd.
Cyndee Fox-Starr, Omaha/Odawa, whose mother and father played important roles with the AIC for years as bookkeeper and camp bus driver respectively, remembered mothers cooking fry bread and corn soup. She described the thousands of pow wows over the years, when singing would continue well into the morning, and how the AIC hosted the first urban inter-tribal pow wow. She talked with nostalgia about how people would characteristically point with their lips, often because their hands were full carrying things.
The oldest urban Native American community center still in operation, the AIC was founded as thousands of Native families from Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Wisconsin, and elsewhere moved to Chicago as a result of the federal Urban Indian Relocation Program of the 1950s. First located on LaSalle Street and then on North Sheridan Road, the Center since 1966 has occupied a former Masonic temple at 1630 W. Wilson Ave. The AIC quickly became a very diverse cultural hub as Ho-Chunk, Ojibwe, Oneida, Menominee, Lakota, Navajo, Blackfoot and others – a 2015 survey found that the Center reached people from 137 tribal nations – came together for summer camps, pow wows, archery, and wrap-around social services. By the year 2000, the Chicago-area community had reached more than 40,000 people.
But in 2015, facing high maintenance costs in the aging building, the AIC announced plans to move. The idea for “Robust Indigenes” was born, not just to gather oral histories but to shore up the story of the AIC’s community over these past six decades and to explore questions: What does it mean to leave a place that has been home for more than 50 years? What kind of new chapter begins with this move? And how has the identity of this community changed since first settling here, as it became a very diverse urban Native community comprised of people representing dozens of tribal nations?
Mark LaRoque, Ojibwe, said “Our lives are all about breath, and breathing. Are we humans on a spiritual journey, or spirits on a human journey?”
“This place has a lot of good memories,” LaRoque remarked. When it closes on February 24, he said, “We’ll move from this place and go to the new AIC and open up a new chapter. For Native Americans in Chicago, we’re not leaving. We’re just growing.”
Visit the AIC’s website at www.aicchicago.org to learn of future events and to see “Robust Indigenes” storytelling.