Chicago Native American Population Grows, Community Stronger, More True History Wanted Across City



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A generation ago, Nizhoni Ward’s paternal family had lost ties to their homeland.

But Ward, 17, of Homewood, has embraced her ties to the Navajo and Choctaw Nations.

On a recent Saturday, she wore a colorful ribbon skirt and sash identifying her as Miss Indian Chicago as she sang in a crowded gym at the American Indian Center in Chicago.

She uses her title to attend cultural events in hopes of changing popular depictions of Native Americans.

“We’re just ordinary people trying to connect back to our country, connect with our ancestors and make our ancestors proud and make a change for the future that being an Indian is something that is very important and very sacred,” Ward said.

Over the past 10 years, more Chicago residents identify as Native American — up from 13,337 in 2010 to 34,543 in 2020, according to a Chicago Sun-Times analysis of census data.

But community members and experts say collecting accurate data is complicated.

Although the community is small compared to other racial and ethnic groups in Chicago, its roots go back to the city’s origins.

After decades of national assimilation programs — ranging from boarding schools to encouraging Native Americans to move to cities like Chicago — Ward and others are pushing for a more truthful history of their community and embracing its traditions.

Clovia Malatare, a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation, has lived in the Chicago area for decades. She attended the same event as Ward with her son and granddaughter. After sharing a meal, Malatare joined in a circle to dance.

“I do try to participate and bring my grandchildren so they can be there,” Malatare said of events designed to bring the Native American community in Chicago together. “I want them to recognize that this is part of their community and that they need to be involved.”

Clovia Malatare, 71, of Harwood Heights, who is a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation, participates in a round dance at the American Indian Center in Albany Park.

Clovia Malatare, 71, of Harwood Heights, who is a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation, participates in a round dance at the American Indian Center in Albany Park.

Previous generations often hid their identities for fear of various assimilation policies, said Pamela Silas, associate director for outreach and engagement at the Center for Native American Indigenous Research at Northwestern University. Now some are reconnecting with those communities and learning the languages ​​and history.

During the coronavirus pandemic, Silas took part in a virtual language class with about 80 others learning Menominee.

“We want people to regain their identity that has been systematically taken from them by this country’s assimilation policies,” Silas said.

Anthony Tamez’s grandfather is a First Nations member in Canada but was forcibly removed from his community as a child and adopted by a family in Illinois. Tamez said his grandfather’s adoption was part of what is now known as the “Sixties Scoop,” in which Indigenous children were taken for adoption by mostly non-Indigenous families, according to the Canadian Encyclopedia.

In Chicago, Tamez, who is part of the Cree and Lakota Nations, is active in the Chi-Nations Youths Council, a group that has pushed for policies that better reflect their community’s history, including by getting city officials to make Columbus Day to become Indigenous Peoples Day.

The group also helped draft a resolution that the Chicago City Council passed recognizing that the city is on the ancestral homeland of tribal nations, including the Ojibwe, Odawa and the Potawatomi.

“I’d say it’s far from what an apology could be or will be, but at least we’re starting to acknowledge things that have happened to Indigenous people, rather than ignoring them outright,” Tamez said.

In recent years, the group has also created the First Nations Garden in Albany Park, which grows herbs and plants used in traditional medicines and foods, Tamez said.

Norma Robertson, a member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate Nation, said her family moved to the city in the 1950s under the Indian Relocation Act, a federal effort that encouraged Native Americans to move to cities. Even after that experience and attending boarding schools, she said she and her family kept their language, songs, and culture.

Robertson said she sees a shift in society, making it easier for Native Americans to embrace and practice their traditions openly rather than feeling pressured to fit into mainstream culture.

“We always knew what was acceptable to us,” she said. “We’re trying to take back who we were, and we don’t always have to look like the dominant culture.”

Norma Robertson, who has lived in Chicago for more than 30 years and hails from the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate Nation of South Dakota, is reflected on glass next to the jewelry she created at a recent dance event at the American Indian Center in Albany Park.

Norma Robertson, who has lived in Chicago for more than 30 years and hails from the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate Nation of South Dakota, is reflected on glass next to the jewelry she created at a recent dance event at the American Indian Center in Albany Park.

Robertson’s family and others came to Chicago in search of better housing and jobs, but many did not find them, said Shelly Tucciarelli, executive director of Visionary Ventures NFP Corporation, which promotes economic development and affordable housing in Native American communities.

The decades that followed included a wave of activism, as Native Americans searched for affordable housing.

“And so now we’re with fourth- and fifth-generation Native American families here in town, and yet we didn’t have affordable housing,” Tucciarelli said.

In December, a planned 45-unit affordable housing development was chosen by city officials as one of the projects that will receive funding from tax credits for low-income housing. It will be built in Albany Park and will serve the Native American community, although residents are not required to be registered tribe members, Tucciarelli said.

The apartments will range from studios to three bedrooms, so that several generations can live together. The development also includes office space that Tucciarelli hopes will be occupied by a Native American organization and a rooftop garden as a meeting place.

In May, the Field Museum’s renovated Native North American Hall will feature stories of activism among Chicago’s Native American community as part of a “Native Truths: Our Voices, Our Stories” exhibit. The Field Museum has worked with a community advisory board in doing so, and also to review the existing collection and update information as needed, said Eli Suzukovich III, a research scientist at the museum.

Organizers also wanted the new exhibit to delve into the history of Native Americans who were also African American. A photo shows an Englewood resident who was Native American, black, and part of the Great Migration to Chicago.

“The documentation, as you can imagine — the census in the ’50s and ’60s – those people wouldn’t necessarily have been counted as Indigenous because of anti-black racism, both in the South and here,” said Ryan Schuessler, an exhibit developer at the Field Museum. “Maybe they were never counted as such. And so we tried to show those more hidden stories here as well.”

Contributing: Jesse Howe, Andy Boyle

Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.

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