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A collage of Chicago's Uptown neighborhood circa 1950 overlaid with images of Chicago's Indigenous community

Left image: St. Augustine Indian Center on Sheridan Rd. in 1975. Top right image: The American Indian Center’s 1972 Spring Exposition on West Wilson Ave. Bottom right image: Indigenous leader Mike Chosa at the Chicago Indian Village in 1970.

Photos by Chicago Sun-Times. Collage by Maggie Sivit / WBEZ

Uptown was once a vibrant hub for Chicago’s Native American community

Chicago is a city of neighborhoods, known for vibrant cultural communities.

One Curious City listener wanted to know if Native Americans currently have a neighborhood enclave in the city.

A sign reads "Chicago's American Indian Village" in the foreground, movement organizers in the distance

Chicago Indian Village was a movement that demanded better living conditions for Native Americans in the city. It began in the Wrigleyville neighborhood but many organizers were based in Uptown.

ST-14002031-0002, Chicago Sun-Times collection, Chicago History Museum

Native people have always been in Chicago, despite continued attempts to remove them that culminated in the 1833 Treaty of Chicago. Still, Chicago remains an important place for Native Americans in the region.

The Chicago metro area has the third-largest urban Native American population in the United States, estimated to be around 65,000, according to the American Indian Center (AIC).

While there isn’t one concentrated neighborhood anymore, Uptown on the city’s North Side used to be that nucleus.

A group of drummers at the American Indian Center’s 1995 Spring Expo

The American Indian Center’s 1995 Spring Expo at 1630 West Wilson Avenue.

Al Podgorski / Chicago Sun-Times. ST-30003011-0010, Chicago Sun-Times collection, Chicago History Museum

In the early 1950s, many Native Americans came from other states to cities including Chicago as part of a relocation program initiated by the federal government. Many settled in the Uptown neighborhood, drawn by the AIC and other community organizations that prioritized Native people. Though there is no longer a central neighborhood, the Native American population in Chicago still finds community across the city.

Federal relocation brought thousands of Native Americans to Chicago

Robert Wapahi was about 12 years old when he and his family were bussed to Chicago as part of a federal relocation program in the late 1950s. The Dakota Santee Sioux elder remembers pulling into the Greyhound bus stop at Union Station.

“They’d … bus you into the city from different places, from all reservations,” Wapahi said. “South Dakota, Arizona, California — wherever they were colonizing at the time.”

It all goes back to hundreds of treaties that were signed by the United States government with Native Nations between 1778 and 1871. The government violently dispossessed Native Americans of their lands and forced them onto reservations, which it mismanaged and kept impoverished through federal policy.

Starting in the 1950s, the federal government sought to finally rid itself of treaty obligations. Congress passed the Termination Act, which stripped more than 100 tribes of their federal recognition, dismantled tribal governments and eliminated reservations.

Under the guise of offering jobs and housing, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), an agency of the Department of the Interior, bussed Native Americans from their reservations to cities across the U.S. It was an effort to weaken reservation populations and assimilate them into mainstream society.

More than 100,000 Native Americans nationwide participated in government relocation programs.

Wapahi remembers going to the BIA’s Relocation and Field Employment Assistance offices in Chicago.

“They’d give you one check, a month’s rent, and tell you to ‘go to Uptown area,’ ” he said.

Dancers at the American Indian Center's 1972 Spring Exposition

The American Indian Center at 1630 West Wilson Avenue hosts their 1972 Spring Exposition.

ST-70005532-0016, Chicago Sun-Times collection, Chicago History Museum

New arrivals settled in all parts of the city.

While Wapahi’s family lived on the West Side, most Native people ended up in Uptown. The neighborhood had affordable, tenement-style apartments and numerous social service offices. There was also the AIC, established by Native people already living in Chicago. Anticipating the influx of Native Americans to the city following the Termination Act, the center — then on Wilson Avenue — was designed to “help Native families cope with the transition from reservation to urban life.”

In the decades following termination and relocation, the Native American population in urban areas exploded. By 1970, there were at least 6,500 urban Indians living in Chicago, according to U.S. Census data. Even after federal relocation ended, in 1972, people continued moving to the city on their own.

Uptown became a nucleus of Chicago’s Native communities

Pam Silas, an Oneida descendant and member of the Menominee nation, came to the Uptown neighborhood with her younger sister in 1974 after running away from an abusive foster care home. They reunited with their mom, who was already living in a one-bedroom apartment with their stepdad and older brother.

“You could walk to services, you could get easy access without having bus money or anything,” Silas, who today is the associate director of outreach and engagement at Northwestern University’s Center for Native American and Indigenous Research, said of the neighborhood.

Two people sit on either side of a desk at St. Augustine Indian Center

St. Augustine Indian Center, 4512 North Sheridan Road, in 1975.

ST-15003194-0010, Chicago Sun-Times collection, Chicago History Museum

Two people stand in a kitchen at St. Augustine Indian Center

St. Augustine Indian Center, 4512 North Sheridan Road, in 1975.

ST-15003194-0028, Chicago Sun-Times collection, Chicago History Museum

Silas and her family depended on organizations like the AIC, and St. Augustine’s Center for American Indians to survive extreme poverty in Uptown.

St. Augustine’s provided food boxes to families in need and helped people sign up for social services like welfare. They also ran the Boozhoo Niijii Drop-In Center, which gave out daily meals and was a place where people experiencing homelessness could shower, store their things and receive mail.

The Uptown neighborhood in Chicago in 1967

Children and some adults walking on the sidewalk and through empty lots in the Uptown neighborhood in 1967.

ST-15001694-0011, Chicago Sun-Times collection, Chicago History Museum

But life in Uptown continued to be difficult. Silas said she frequently saw cockroaches crawling between the wall and floorboards from the mat she slept on.

“Those were times we were malnourished because we would have to eat … white bread and sugar sandwiches,” Silas said. “Maybe if we had a carton of eggs, we could make that last for a while.”

Crowded living arrangements were common in the neighborhood at the time, and many buildings were left to fall into disrepair. Gangs and domestic violence were also commonplace, Silas said.

“It was huge, congested tenements that owners would buy up and then rent out with no real commitment to community,” Silas said. “It was all about cash flow.”

In 1970, a group of residents organized a movement demanding better living conditions for Native Americans. It started in nearby Wrigleyville, and became known as Chicago Indian Village. Many of the organizers were members of the Native American Committee (NAC), a group born out of the AIC with a focus on activism.

Dorene Wiese teaches media skills to Native youth living in Uptown

Dorene Wiese teaches media skills to Native youth living in Uptown through her work with NAC.

Courtesy of Dorene Wiese

Dorene Wiese was recruited by the NAC while still a senior in college to start the organization’s first adult learning center. She said a large part of the group’s work focused on expanding Native Americans’ access to education, including helping people earn GEDs.

“We had a group of families, we had young people that needed assistance,” she said.

Wiese went on to work at the Native American Education Services (NAES) College, the first urban four-year college in the U.S. run by and serving Native Americans. Today, Wiese is the president of the American Indian Association of Illinois.

The American Indian Center on Wilson Avenue

The American Indian Center on Wilson Avenue, featuring murals by Robert Wapahi.

Photo by Allix Rogers for Open House Chicago. Courtesy of the Chicago Architecture Center

Robert Wapahi, who left the city as a teenager, moved to Uptown in 1989 to be close to his children.

Wapahi painted stunning murals on the walls of the AIC. Wapahi said the center felt like a second home.

There were other important gathering places in the neighborhood that created a sense of community, often centered around work.

Readyman, a day-labor agency, was one place many Natives met each other. Silas said the Native American population was practically the city’s labor force.

“They’d sign us up. We’d have to be there by, like, 4:30 in the morning, and then they’d have their contracts with … factories in the vicinity,” Silas said.

Director Mitchell Whiterabbit and children at the American Indian Center Headstart in 1974

Director Mitchell Whiterabbit at the American Indian Center, 1630 West Wilson Avenue, Chicago, Illinois in 1974.

ST-10003186-0009, Chicago Sun-Times collection, Chicago History Museum

Silas said there were also many neighborhood bars where Native Americans would often gather. She said the person-to-person interaction in the neighborhood was just as important as the social services and cultural programming offered by various organizations.

“Yes, the organizations provided services, but also we were supported because we had other families that we could borrow from or lend to,” she said. “A lot of things happened informally.”

“They’re all scattered”

By the end of the 1980s, many factory jobs had left the area. Uptown was being gentrified; dilapidated buildings were torn down to make way for new developments. Wiese said the cost of living skyrocketed.

“That's also when they, the people started leaving Chicago, because … they could no longer work in those factory jobs,” she said.

According to Wiese, some Native Americans moved to neighborhoods west of Uptown. Others left and went back to their reservations, taking with them the skills they acquired in the city.

Wapahi said he noticed the community fabric changing in Uptown in the 1990s.

“It wasn’t until … ’93-94 that I started noticing the thinning out,” he said. “Everybody was either going home or passing on or going somewhere.”

Today, Wapahi lives in Jefferson Park, and regularly attends elder luncheons at the AIC and the Kateri Center, a Native American Catholic Church. But he misses having a concentrated community where he can walk down the street and see other Native people.

“There's not a nucleus, a solid nucleus anymore,” he said. “They’re all scattered.”

Attendees hold hands and dance in a circle while drummers sing and play their instruments at the American Indian Center in Albany Park

Attendees hold hands and dance in a circle while drummers sing and play their instruments during a round dance event at the American Indian Center in the Albany Park neighborhood in March 2022.

Pat Nabong / Chicago Sun-Times

But Native Americans continue to come to Chicago and continue to build community in neighborhoods across the city.

While Uptown is no longer the nucleus, there is still a thriving community of Natives living in Chicago. In the North Center neighborhood, the Kateri Center offers space for language circles.

Now in the Albany Park neighborhood, the AIC continues to be a focal point for Native people in the city, regularly hosting powwows.

And numerous other organizations across Chicago provide spaces for community and culture.

Kadin Mills is a freelance journalist covering Indigenous issues. Follow @krmilz.

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