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Kalle Eko/MEDILL

Victorio Peoples, left, and Anthony Freeman regularly attend the American Indian Center's Wednesday senior lunch.

Chicago’s American Indian Center perseveres as funding gets slashed

by Kalle Eko
April 12, 2012

At noon in the American Indian Center in Uptown, under the shadow of murals and tribal flags, a black-clad man sat at a long table eating lunch and chatting as he does every Wednesday -- something he may not be able to do for much longer.

Victorio Peoples, who is of Yazoo and Creek Indian descent, wasn’t there for the roast beef, bread and potatoes, or the olive salad. And even though he isn’t very active in center events, Peoples makes a point of attending the senior lunch in order to be around fellow Native Americans, and is frequently one of the last people to leave.

“I have an uncontrollable urge to be in the company of Native Americans,” Peoples said. “I come every Wednesday because I can be guaranteed to be around the people.”

More than 13,400 Chicagoans identify themselves as being of American Indian or Alaska Native descent, according to the 2010 U.S. census. Though Native American seniors from across Chicago’s North Side make up the majority of the 50 weekly attendees, the lunch is open to anyone of any age and all ancestries. Recent budget cuts have reduced the lunch from biweekly to weekly. The center also has had to cut staff and reduce its social services.

In 2012, the City of Chicago cut funding for the senior meal program by 50 percent, prompting a February email from AIC executive director Joe Podlasek to members and potential donors warning that the lunch program “can only last for a short period of time.”
To meet the budget shortfall, the center is relying more heavily on volunteers. Cyndee Fox-Starr, who is the lunch coordinator, was laid off from the center’s staff but continues working there as a volunteer. Every Wednesday, she drives 35 miles from Griffith, Ind., to cook and serve the seniors lunch.

Fox-Starr said she has grown up around the center and loves serving the seniors, many of whom she has known for decades. She said many need the fellowship that the center offers just as much as a home-cooked meal.

“Here, the seniors get to visit with each other,” Fox-Starr said. “This is the place that they can come to fill up.”

Thousands of Native Americans were relocated under federal policies to urban areas like Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s, but found little support and few social services. Chicago’s American Indian Center, the oldest urban Native American center in the United States, was founded in 1953 to fill that gapfor the diaspora.

Today, a number of factors complicate the center’s search for funding, not the least of which is the exclusion of urban Native Americans from most federal funds. In 2009, President Barack Obama told the leaders of 564 federally recognized tribes that he was committed to working on a “policy agenda for Indian country,” but urban Native Americans are ineligible to apply for most federal funding.

AIC Director of Development David Spencer, who is the center’s only grant writer, said he asks every volunteer to try writing grants, since public and private funds that could help finance the center go unapplied for on a daily basis.

The center is trying to attract more people to an expanded range of events through its Facebook site and Twitter account in order to bring in more money through admission fees. Events include the center’s annual powwow, monthly bingos, and community bowling outings..

“We want to raise money as well as get families involved,” Spencer said. “We just have these ideas but not enough staff.”

But even as the center faces one of the most austere periods in its history, its users are most appreciative that it remains at the very least a community space, a place where Chicago’s Native Americans can meet to share their culture and heritage.

“I love the fact that it’s still here,” Peoples said. “They’ve probably tried to close this place down on numerous occasions, but that’s the most wonderful thing about it: that it’s still here.”