CHICAGO -- When Robert Wapahi gathers children and teen-agers in a circle to tell the traditional American Indian stories that form the core of his culture, he always begins with, "Back in the time when all things spoke."
It means, he says, "back when we all were one," when his ancestors experienced unity of people, nature and spirit as a tangible force.
Many miles and years later, through sickness, wars, failed government programs and neglect, Mr. Wapahi and a small band of American Indians living in Chicago -- "urban Indians," as one said -- are trying to recapture the spirit of their ancestors and pass it on to their children.
It is a difficult venture. Unity is now elusive. Traditions have slipped away. Distractions are everywhere.
On reservations American Indians combat joblessness, poverty and alcoholism. In urban areas there are more jobs, but poverty and alcoholism remain and are joined as obstacles by gangs, parents who do not pass on their Indian culture and what Mr. Wapahi calls "the electric window," or television.
"I am worried about the young people here," Mr. Wapahi said recently, taking a break from his oil painting of a young American Indian lifting his hands to a bank of clouds, each carrying the delicate hint of the face of an ancestor.
"There are so many distractions and bad influences," he said. "Istarted trying to pass the Native American culture on to my own children, and then I started working with the other children, and now it's become the whole neighborhood."
Mr. Wapahi, 47, a Sioux, teaches painting and music on the third floor of the American Indian Center in Chicago. The center has served as a community safety net and rallying point for American Indians since it opened in 1952 at a different location.
American Indians who had been living here since the 1930s and 1940s created the center, the first of its kind in the United States, to help the influx of newcomers, who were part of the federal government's program to move American Indians off reservations and into urban areas.
Now those who use the center say it is a struggle to keep a year-old building in good repair and to reach a scattered community. "We use five rooms out of 64," Mr. Wapahi said. "The heating bills are enormous."
But the center still provides a needed sense of unity. There are basketball games, ceremonial meals, religious ceremonies, a social service center with free food and clothes and job referrals.
Displays of American Indian pottery, murals and documents are abundant. There are yarn wall-hangings called "God's eyes" to protect against evil, and leather "dream catchers" to capture good dreams and keep out nightmares.
And there are wakes. While many are for people who have died of natural causes, others are wrenching reminders that urban problems havenot spared American Indians.
"Last summer we had four deaths among teen-agers," Mr. Wapahi said. "Two were shot, one was knifed and one was chopped up with a machete. Four wakes right in the Indian Center for teen-agers."
The most visible activity of the Indian Center is the fall powwow, held each year since 1953. The center also gives talks to schools and takes part in a variety of suburban powwows.
"We try to promote Native American culture and bring it to people in the suburbs," said Linda Hayford of Buffalo Grove, who helped organize the most recent powwow in Arlington Heights, Ill., a joint effort of the center and the Lakota Dancers, a Boy Scout troop of the Northwest Suburban Boy Scout Council.
Sam Keahna, executive director of the Indian Center, said his group takes part in the Lakota Dancers' powwow because the group "helps us a lot. They painted the entire upstairs, and they hold a food drive for our pantry. It is important for us to educate the public on what it is like to be an urban Indian."
Mr. Keahna, 47, came with his family to Chicago in the 1950s from the Mesquakie village in Tama, Iowa,as part of the federal government's "relocation project." Those who developed the project said its goal was to free Indians from reservations and bring them into mainstream American life, economically and culturally.
But it was always controversial, and 40 years later, many believe it was another government attempt to confiscate Indian land.
"The goal was to break up our lands," said Susan Power, 67, a Sioux who lived in Chicago before relocation and helped found the Indian Center. "It was not done with our best interests at heart."
Those who left the reservations for settlements in Chicago, Los Angeles, Denver, Seattle, St. Louis and Detroit discovered that while jobs were more available, American Indian culture was difficult to maintain in the cities and government programs to ease the transition often did not work.
Many American Indians were left without a secure foothold. Their children sometimes felt as though they were living on a hostile, alien planet.
"I was called a dog-eater at school, even by the teachers," said Robert Primeau, an artist who now runs the gift shop at the Indian Center and teaches traditional Indian crafts to the children. "When I was younger, I didn't like to admit that I was a Native American."
Mr. Primeau, 34, was born in Chicago to parents who came during the relocation. He remembers the Indian Center as a safe haven.
"They had programs here, and I would have to come up either Wilson or Clark to get here," he recalled. "There were a lot of [Appalachian whites] in the area then, and if you didn't have blond hair and talk with a twang, you were going to get beaten up. I got beaten up a lot."
Mr. Primeau, also a Sioux, said he eventually started to fight back, got in trouble and went back to his family's reservation on the border of North and South Dakota to finish school. There he learned to sculpt, paint and make jewelry.
"I feel very lucky," he said. "I've been able to see both -- the city and the reservation. People who've never left the reservation don't know what the rest of the world is like. I'm the urban Indian."
Ann Winneshiek Lim, 82, has lived in Chicago since 1943. She remembers being lonesome when she first came here from her home in Wisconsin to wait for her husband to return from World War II.
"But we all lived near each other, so we used to meet in Lincoln Park to have lunch," Mrs. Lim said. "We'd eat and play cards and then go out into the park and have a good time."
Mrs. Lim, a Winnebago, remembers a simpler time when the adults would put on Christmas pageants and "pick out little boys to be the wise men and the shepherds and
dress up the little girls as angels.
Concern about the future of Indian children is not confined to the elders. David Spencer, a 24-year-old De Paul University student, works part time at the Indian Center as part of a Native American Youth Services program based at Truman Community College.
Mr. Spencer's goal is to start an after-school program for teen-agers to replace one that lost its funding in August.
"We want academics and tutoring, but we also want art and music," Mr. Spencer said. "Chris Drew has a silk-screen room he says our students can use. Allen Two Crow wants to start an acting group. This is really needed because the kids get involved with so many bad people."
According to the 1980 census, only 56 percent of American Indians over 25 had high school diplomas. The 1990 figures are not yet available.
Mr. Spencer and some of the teen-agers have cleaned up and decorated a room on the third floor for the after-school program.
"Working with Native American youth is a real priority for me because the dropout rate is terrible and teen-agers just don't have enough young role models in their 20s," said Mr. Spencer, who is Choctaw and Navajo.
"I know young adults are involved in their own lives, but they have to look back to the community and help their people."