Edna Thomas was among the many Native Americans who migrated to Chicago when factories were humming and hiring after World War II.
It was an era when old-timers would say: “If you can’t get a job in Chicago, you’re not trying.”
Born Edna Elizabeth Jones, she grew up on an 1,800-acre reservation in Redwood County, Minnesota, the tribal land of the Lower Sioux, who are also called the Mdewakanton Band of Dakota. Her parents, Cecelia Ethel Redwing and Joshua Jones, “were close to full-blooded,” according to her daughter, Melinda Cockrum. Before his death from cancer at 26, Jones, a talented shortstop, played minor league ball, she said.
Opportunities near the reservation were limited and not just because of an absence of manufacturing jobs, Cockrum said. Mrs. Thomas recalled Native Americans faced standoffishness or suspicion. “She said there was always a feeling, if you came into a shop and tried shopping, maybe, they would just look at you,” Cockrum said. “She said there really wasn’t that much to do there, and that’s why she came to the city.” The rest of her family followed.
Mrs. Thomas, 89, died Monday of a stroke after suffering a broken hip, her daughter said. She was the second-oldest of an estimated 1,000 members of the Lower Sioux, said a spokeswoman for the tribe.
Many indigenous people arrived in Chicago and other cities through postwar programs that trained them in iron work and other trades, though some view those relocations as another failed government promise that diluted native ranks, said Susan Kelly Power, a co-founder of Chicago’s American Indian Center, 1630 W. Wilson.
But Mrs. Thomas headed to Chicago on her own, said Power, her friend of 65 years and a member of the Sioux nation who grew up on the Standing Rock Reservation in the Dakotas. “At 17, I came into this big city not even knowing how to use a telephone,” said Power. “There were few Indians around, but we found each other. We stuck together. We watched out for each other.”
In the early 1950s, Mrs. Thomas moved into the Evangeline, a residence for women run by the Salvation Army, said Power, who also lived in the building. They were close to Washington Square Park, once nicknamed “Bughouse Square” for its lively debates and soapbox agitators. There, any speaker could “harangue hobos, radicals and others,” according to United Press.
In 1953, she married Vincent Robert Thomas, a carpenter from Wisconsin who was of Chippewa heritage. They raised Melinda and her brothers, Bruce and Stephen, near Wrigley Field. The children attended Nettelhorst School. Mrs. Thomas’ uncle, Howard Jones, used to quiz them about whether they felt racial prejudice. “He was always concerned about that,” Cockrum said. He’d ask them: “How do they treat you in school?”
But the neighborhood was a mix of nationalities, she said, with Japanese-Americans who’d been held in wartime internment camps, white ethnics and Hispanic students. Wrigley Field was accessible to any kid. “You could walk up to the place and get a ticket,” she said.
Mrs. Thomas spoke the Sioux language, made fry bread and enjoyed attending powwows and events at the American Indian Center. She attended Mass at the St. Kateri Center at St. Benedict’s church, named for Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American to be canonized.
“Concern for the environment, that was a big thing to her, that’s Native American,” Cockrum said. “Everyday was Earth day.” Mrs. Thomas often picked up litter on the street, she said.
She found moments to teach her children about their indigenous heritage while watching TV. If Adam Beach, Heather Locklear or Maria Tallchief appeared onscreen, Cockrum said, she’d declare: “’She’s Native American’ or ‘He’s part Indian.’”
Mrs. Thomas’ husband died before her, as did her son Bruce; her parents; a sister, Sylvia Ryan; and a brother, Lanny Nelson. She is also survived by another son Stephen and one grandchild. A celebration of her life is planned 4 to 8 p.m. June 3 at Olson Burke-Sullivan Funeral and Cremation Center, 6471 N. Northwest Highway.