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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


November 17, 2001 - Issue 49


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Indian Center Balances Past, High-tech Future


 by Brenda Warner Rotzoll-Staff Reporter Chicago Sun Times-November 6, 2001

There's a constant balancing act of old versus new at Chicago's American Indian Center, as Native Americans struggle to preserve their culture while getting the education and experience they need for jobs paying a decent wage.

Computer training should help with both goals, said Joseph Podlasek, who became the center's executive director this year and has set up a small computer school there.

"Computer skills are mandatory now even to get a quality education,'' let alone a good job, said Podlasek, a computer professional.

Then, there's tradition.

"Most Indian people have been moved away from their grandmothers, and it's the grandmothers who tell the grandchildren the stories about tribal history,'' he said.

Part of the work of the computer training center will be to get those traditions written down and available online.

There were about 75 American Indians in Chicago when Susan Kelly Power came here from the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota in 1942. All of them were here for jobs, according to Power.

The big move to the cities came in the 1950s, when Congress ended federal supervision of reservations and the Bureau of Indian Affairs sought to integrate Indians by moving them into cities. But promised jobs mostly weren't there, and Indians were stranded with no support network.

That's when Chicago's Indians decided to form their own center, with the aim of helping each other.

Since 1963, the center has occupied an old Masonic Temple at 1630 W. Wilson. It teaches traditional arts and crafts to adults and children; has a program to tell school children about American Indian ways; runs powwows to bring together Indians and non-Indians and runs social support services.

For the last 13 years, with major help from the Greater Chicago Food Depository, the center has run a food pantry. And it provides clothing, furniture and household items that are donated.

The center's signature event is the annual powwow it co-sponsors with the Illinois Arts Council, drawing more than 10,000 people, most of them not American Indians. The 48th powwow will be at the University of Illinois Chicago Pavilion Friday through Sunday.

The honor color guard at every session of the event will be five of the few surviving Navajo Code Talkers, who in World War II did frontline duty in the Pacific sending messages the Japanese couldn't decode.

The 2000 Census found there are 31,558 Native Americans in Illinois; 21,855 of them are in the six-county area of metropolitan Chicago, 15,702 in Cook County and 10,290 of them in the city of Chicago. That's up from 1990, when the count was 21,836 statewide, 10,299 in Cook County and 7,064 in Chicago.

The latest census for the first time allowed people like Podlasek, who is half Indian and half Polish, to list themselves as being of more than one race. People listing themselves as Native American plus another race totaled 74,948 in Illinois, 34,607 in Cook County, 10,290 in Chicago alone, and 4,057 in DuPage County, 2,523 in Kane, 4,209 in Lake, 1,143 in McHenry and 2,891 in Will County.

Podlasek said numbers are up because more American Indians are getting better educations, better jobs and moving to the suburbs instead of back to reservations.

Discover Native America in Chicago

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Canku Ota is a copyright © 2000, 2001 of Vicki Lockard and Paul Barry.


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