The history of Native Americans contains many sorrowful narratives of displacement and broken promises from the United States government. The American Indian Center of Chicago, located in Uptown, has its roots in that history. But at 60 years old, the longest-running urban Indian organization in the country also has plenty to celebrate at its annual Chicago Powwow, running Sept. 13-15 at Busse Woods Forest Preserve in Elk Grove Village.
The AIC grew out of what executive director Andrew Johnson, a Cherokee, calls "the termination period." After World War II, the Indian Relocation Act selectively eliminated some tribal statuses and sought to move Native peoples from reservations to urban centers, on the (mostly broken) promise that better housing and employment opportunities awaited them there.
Chicago was the only one of the five original relocation centers without a large in-state reservation. So the AIC, which started in 1953 and has been housed in a former Masonic temple on Wilson Avenue since 1966, grew into an organization that not only provides a wide range of social services and communal space for urban Native Americans, but also serves to celebrate the living traditions of over 50 tribes from across the U.S.
Johnson reports there are 45,000 Native Americans living in Cook County alone.
Powwows take place throughout the country, and, says Johnson, "it's a communal celebration. It's cultural, spiritual."
AIC director of development Dave Spencer, who is Choctaw and Dine, points out that "there are different types of powwows, and ours is a contest powwow." Dancers compete in a variety of styles — including traditional, grass dance, fancy dance and jingle dress dance — for cash prizes. Some of the categories are limited by gender (only men perform the grass dance, while jingle dress is for women), and the categories are further divided by age. There is also an intertribal dance, which, Spencer says, "is not only for dancers in regalia, but also for visitors and spectators."
Says Spencer, "Powwow culture is very complex. There are a lot of things going on. Powwows have aspects of ceremonial practices, but they are not ceremonies, for the simple fact that they are public. But there are a lot of what I guess you could call ceremonial rituals that go on within powwow circles." For this reason, says Spencer, "the emcee has a big responsibility because he is the one addressing the public and explaining what's going on."
Cyndee Fox-Starr, AIC's special events coordinator who is from the Omaha and Odawa tribes, is a dancer as well as a bead worker and seamstress. She says that the vendors at the powwow must sell handcrafted Native-made items. "What I like to tell people about handmade items is that you're getting a person's own creativity in it. And things are usually made with good feelings and whatever good feelings you have, you're putting into those items and those are being transferred, which would never come from machine-made items." Spencer says, "We don't want the vendors to sell products that perpetuate stereotypes."
Outside of the annual powwow, AIC runs the Trickster Art Gallery (190 S. Roselle Road, Schaumburg; trickstergallery.com). AIC works with other local organizations, including the Field Museum and the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian in Evanston, to promote contemporary Native-American culture.
Native artist Bunky Echo-Hawk, who has a show opening in late September at the Field, has done public programs at AIC, and, says Johnson, "funds came through AIC to help support (the Field exhibit)." Echo-Hawk, who is of Pawnee and Yakima descent, used Pawnee artifacts from the Field as inspiration. His work also frequently takes aim at corporate misappropriation of Native imagery, as well as examining problems facing Native youth.
Celebrating the past and present simultaneously runs through the Mitchell Museum's collections, especially the current "Did You Know They're Native?" spotlighting photographs and biographical information on notable Natives living and dead, such as Dan Akee, a Navajo code-talker from World War II, Wayne Newton, Maria Tallchief and superathlete Jim Thorpe. The museum, in addition to presenting Native artifacts arranged by geographical regions in its permanent collection, features "Changing Views of American Indian Fine Art" — work created out of Indian art schools incorporating modern techniques — in its upstairs gallery.
For AIC's staff, the year-round programming and the powwow share an important goal. "It mobilizes our community," says Spencer. "It gives us an opportunity to let the general public know that we're a living culture."
"Bunky Echo-Hawk: Modern Warrior" opens Sept. 27 at the Field Museum; 312-922-9410 or fieldmuseum.org.
The Mitchell Museum of the American Indian is at 3001 Central Ave., Evanston; 847-475-1030 or mitchellmuseum.org.
American Indian Center Powwow
When: Sept. 13-15
Where: Busse Woods Forest Preserve, Elk Grove Village
Tickets: $5-$10 at 773-275-5871 or aic-chicago.orgCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun