Native American elder recalls isolation of early days in the city

May 16, 2014

By: Bill Healy

In the early 1950s, Chicago was home to less than 1,000 Native Americans. By 1960, that number had grown to 10,000, in large part because of changes to federal policy.

The Indian Relocation programs of the 1950s enticed many Native Americans to move from reservations to big cities, including Chicago. But many Native people felt isolated in their new surroundings, disconnected from their traditional cultures.

The American Indian Center was formed in 1953 in Uptown as a sanctuary for Native people. Father Peter Powell and Susan Kelly Power were among the Center’s founders. Power, 89, is a Native American who grew up in North and South Dakota and moved here as a teenager. Powell, who is white, has spent his career serving as a priest to the Native American population of Chicago. They stopped in the StoryCorps booth recently to talk about how life has changed for Native American people since the 1950s.

“In the early days of Relocation, it was a deliberate policy of the Indian Bureau to scatter people from the same tribe so they wouldn’t get together,” Father Powell said. A friend told him how she used to stand next to a poster of the ballerina Maria Tallchief because she was one of the only Native American she knew of in Chicago.

StoryCorps’ mission is to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to share, record and preserve their stories. This excerpt was edited by WBEZ.

Native people helped each other adjust to city life, “but the loneliness for home never left us,” Power said. She made a name for herself recording the traditions of the various cultures. The Newberry Library has a fellowship named in her honor, for scholars of Native American culture. “Everyone has a history and no one’s history should be forgotten,” she said.

More than six decades after it opened, the American Indian Center still stands in Chicago’s Uptown community at 1630 W. Wilson.

“That first generation [of Native Americans in Chicago] – so wonderfully traditional – was the foundation for our community today,” Father Powell said. “And the heart of that community is the American Indian Center.”

“If you’re around us long enough, you become part of us and you feel it,” Power said. “Come up to our center sometime and you’ll see. Indians are never nosy about if you’re worth knowing, if you’ve got a good enough job or a place to live in. Should I take the time to know you?”