Indian Pride And Progress Barry Richardson is keeping social and cultural programs going despite budget cuts

Barry Richardson leans against a brick wall, staring into the sunlight of an unseasonably warm fall day. At a photographer's request, he points his eye toward the distance and offers a wry smile. It may only be a pose, but the subject sees grander meaning in the simple gesture.

"That's what I'm doing -- looking into the future," he says and pauses a moment. "And what I see is more budget cuts."


That's not all he sees. As the executive director of the Baltimore ++ American Indian Center, much comes under his purview: a $1.5 million budget, roughly 3,000 Baltimore American Indians and a host of societal problems -- from high unemployment to low voter registration.

The thought of it would doom some men, but after 10 years running the Fells Point-based organization, Barry Richardson, 37, has learned to thrive on it.


"Every morning I get up I know I can make a difference. The Baltimore American Indian Center can make a difference. We offer the services people need, services that can give people that little push. And that's all a lot of people need -- someone to say we care about you, we believe in you," says Mr. Richardson, a member of the Haliwa-Saponi tribe.

A lumbering man, more round than tall, he speaks with a North Carolina accent as thick as tar. Quick-witted and unpretentious, he peppers his speech with four-letter words he later asks not be repeated. And as he settles into conversation, he stretches his large frame ("Just say I'm a big guy," he replies when asked about his weight) across two chairs; his back leaning against one, his feet up on another.

Since taking over, Mr. Richardson has earned a reputation for being an outspoken, and sometimes abrasive, proponent of local American Indian causes. Laughingly he confesses to his nickname: "Little Caesar." Considering the progress he's made -- and the ambitious cultural arts festival he's planned for next week (see box for details) -- it's easy to see how others could envision him as a builder of empires.

In the last several years, the center has nearly doubled its size, adding an American Indian museum, day care center and senior citizen facility. The efforts have been so successful, in fact, that many American Indian leaders view Baltimore as a model.

When Kay Ensing formed the Virginia Native American Cultural Center in Richmond recently, Mr. Richardson was one of the first directors she consulted.

"Barry walks his talk. When he says he's going to do something, it gets done. . . . He's a good listener, but he's willing to tell you what he really thinks," she says.

And he doesn't mince words when talking about how he believes society views American Indians.

"I always joke, 'Thanksgiving time! Bring out the Indians. Dust 'em off, parade 'em around. Christmastime? Put 'em up. Bring out Santa Claus.' It bothers me. We're not the Easter bunny," he says, anger and frustration welling up in his voice.


Then there is his support for the protests against the Washington Redskins and other athletic teams that use American Indian names and war paint, tomahawks and mascots.

"I'm sick and tired of people masquerading around in Indian regalia and stereotyping the American Indian," he says. "It's demeaning to me and my people. The American public wouldn't put up with that with b.s. for another group. . . . But since we're so small, people don't care what we think."

And although he serves on the governor's commission for Maryland 1992, a group orchestrating activities commemorating the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' arrival in America, the very existence of it raises his ire.

"People don't understand that Indians celebrating Columbus is like Jews celebrating Hitler's birthday," he says.

So why belong?

"You try to stop it at first. When you see you can't, then you try to run alongside it, so it doesn't run you over," he says.


Despite his attitude, Ann Hartman, executive director of the commission, praises the contributions he's made. One of the events scheduled for next year -- the North American Indian Summit and Exposition in Hagerstown -- was his idea, she says.

"Barry's been very outspoken, but in such a way that it drew attention and not antagonism," she says.

Rather than just talk about the image problem, Mr. Richardson has formed a for-profit organization, Pow Wow, which organizes American Indian cultural events along the East Coast. In addition to dancing and drumming contests, he sponsors a fashion show at which American Indians appear in traditional garb and modern-day clothing.

"I want people to see there are Indians here today who wear Brooks Brothers suits," he says.

But the organization has generated controversy among some American Indians who question whether Mr. Richardson is commercializing their culture.

"Among some Indian people who are more traditional, pow wow had a different meaning," says Patricia King, executive director of the Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs in Crownsville. "Originally a pow wow was an opportunity to come together, a home away from home. It was also a time to honor special people -- such as the warriors and more recently to honor the Vietnam veterans. . . . Many don't feel it should be used as a commercial enterprise. Some feel pow wows are no longer just for Indian people. They're for non-Indian people. People come to . . . buy posters and jewelry."


Yet Mr. Richardson maintains that education is his primary goal. "I have detractors who say I shouldn't be doing this for money," he says. "What I'm interested in doing is expanding the scope of learning about Indian people. I don't see a lot of people doing that."

Educator is a role he knows well. The son of a farmhand and a construction worker, he was raised in Warrenton, N.C., in a log cabin with two rooms and no indoor plumbing. He considers his most traumatic childhood experience being transferred from an American Indian school to a predominantly white one in the ninth grade.

"Those were probably the four worst years of my life," he recalls.

Classmates shunned him. Cafeteria workers used to hoot and imitate war dances when he entered the room. And the librarian refused to stock books about his American heritage.

"You were like scum of the earth, and you'd think, 'What in the world did I do to deserve something like this?' " he says.

Curiously, though, the bitter events strengthened his pride. "It brought out more of my Indian-ness. It made me more aware of who and what I was all about," he says. He acted on those feelings by forming Young Indians in Action, a cultural group of American Indian youngsters.


But the alienation got so bad in the 11th grade that Mr. Richardson briefly dropped out of school. "I got so that I just couldn't take it," he says. With guidance from family members, he returned.

After graduation, things looked up. He married his childhood sweetheart, the former Brenda Lynch, who is now a nurse, and received his political science degree from Pembroke State University in North Carolina in 1976.

"I thought because I went off to college and got this little degree I knew everything," he says. "I was going to get rich. Wrong. I got out of college and couldn't find a job."

Unemployed and the father of twins, Marty and Stacey, now 15, Mr. Richardson had no choice but to accept food stamps.

The experience increased his interest in basic survival issues for American Indians, and he eventually got a job as housing coordinator for the North Carolina Commission of Indian Affairs. In 1980, he moved to Baltimore to become housing director for the local American Indian Center. Within two years he was named executive director.

His 60 hour workweeks and weekends spent at cultural events don't leave Mr. Richardson much time to relax. On those rare vacation days, he, his wife and three children (the couple also have a son, Adam, 7) travel from their Catonsville home to visit relatives in North Carolina.


"I listen to the wind whistle through the pine trees," he says. "That's the only way I've really found to relax."

He also uses the time to mull over one of the most troubling aspects of his job. While he's made strides in improving housing, job training and alcohol and drug abuse prevention programs, he laments being unable to change the high school dropout rate among Baltimore American Indians, which according to a 1989 study hovers near 90 percent.

"If there's one thing I can point to that's really baffled me it's that we haven't been able to make a dent in the problem," he says. "For some reason or another, the Baltimore City school system is not working for Indian kids. . . . We're not making any headway."

His frustration is complicated by the fact that the city has trimmed $30,000 from his budget, which has meant curtailing activities and disbanding the community services program. In these uncertain economic times, future cuts seem possible. But even if there are tougher times ahead, Mr. Richardson is determined to stay the course.

"It's been an extremely difficult year," he says. "Sometimes you sit back and evaluate what your options are, what you'd like to do. But then I look and see there's so much stuff here I still haven't done, and that brings you back."

The Richardson File


Occupation: Executive director of the Baltimore American Indian Center.

Born: Aug. 13, 1954; Warrenton, N.C.

Education: Graduated from Pembroke University in North Carolina in 1976 with bachelor's degree in political science.

Family: Married to the former Brenda Lynch since 1973; three children: twins, Marty and Stacey, 15, and Adam, 7.

Current home: Catonsville.

Hobbies: Sports, day trips and reading history. ("Every time I read history, though, I get mad because I always know the outcome for the Indians.")


On American Indian political power: "It's very difficult to get our people to register to vote. I feel if you're going to have political clout, then you do it one of two ways: You have people or you have money. We have neither."

Cultural festival

The National Native Cultural Arts Festival takes place tomorrow to Wednesday and Friday to Sunday at Festival Hall and the Baltimore Convention Center. Sponsored by the Baltimore American Indian Center, the event includes an art show, drum and dance contests, food, crafts and various demonstrations. Admission is $5 for adults and $3 for children and senior citizens. A voluntary donation of a can of food is also requested. For more information call (410) 675-3535.