Melodi Serna (right), executive director of the American Indian Center, who is from the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians and the Oneida Nation, hugs Nizhoni Ward, who is from the Navajo and Choctaw Nations and recently was crowned Miss Indian Chicago during a round dance gathering at the center in Albany Park.

Melodi Serna (right), executive director of the American Indian Center, who is from the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians and the Oneida Nation, hugs Nizhoni Ward, who is from the Navajo and Choctaw Nations and recently was crowned Miss Indian Chicago during a round dance gathering at the center in Albany Park.

Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

As Chicago’s Native American population grows, more efforts are underway to build community

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

SHARE As Chicago’s Native American population grows, more efforts are underway to build community
SHARE As Chicago’s Native American population grows, more efforts are underway to build community
A generation ago, Nizhoni Ward’s paternal family had lost ties with their tribal nation.

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 a sash identifying her as Miss Indian Chicago as she sang in a crowded gymnasium inside Chicago’s American Indian Center.

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

“We’re just regular people who are trying to connect back to our land, connect back to our ancestors and make our ancestors proud and make a change for the future that being Native American is something that is very important and very sacred,” Ward said.

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Over the past 10 years, more Chicagoans are identifying 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.


While the community is small compared with other racial and ethnic groups in Chicago, its roots date 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 as well so that they can be involved,” Malatare said of events that aim to bring the Native American community in Chicago together. “I want them to recognize that this is part of their community, and they need to be involved.”

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

Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

Past generations often hid their identity out of 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 to those communities and learning the languages and history.

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

“We want people to reclaim their identity that has been systematically stripped from them through the assimilation policies of this country,” Silas said.

Anthony Tamez’s grandfather is a member of the First Nations in Canada, but, as a child, he was forcibly taken from his community and adopted by a family in Illinois. Tamez said his grandfather’s adoption was part of what is now known as the “Sixties Scoop,” during which Indigenous children were taken for adoption by predominantly 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 Youth Council, a group that has pushed for policies to better reflect their community’s history, including working to get city officials to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Nations Day.

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

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

In recent years, the group also created the First Nations Garden in Albany Park, growing 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 during 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 maintained their language, songs and culture.

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

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

Norma Robertson, who’s lived in Chicago for over 30 years and is from the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate Nation of South Dakota, is reflected on glass that is beside jewelry she created during a recent round dance event at the American Indian Center in Albany Park.

Norma Robertson, who’s lived in Chicago for over 30 years and is from the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate Nation of South Dakota, is reflected on glass that is beside jewelry she created during a recent round dance event at the American Indian Center in Albany Park.

Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

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

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

“And so now we’re on the fourth and fifth generation of Native American families here in the city, and still we had no 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 get funding from low-income housing tax credits. It will be built in Albany Park and will serve the Native American community, though residents won’t need to be an enrolled tribal member, Tucciarelli said.

The apartments will range from studios to three-bedrooms to allow for multiple generations to live together. The development also will include office space Tucciarelli hopes will be occupied by a Native American organization and a rooftop garden as a place to gather.

In May, the Field Museum’s renovated Native North American Hall will feature stories about activism among the Native American community in Chicago as part of a “Native Truths: Our Voices, Our Stories,” exhibition. The Field Museum has been working with a community advisory board on that and also to go through its existing collection and update information as needed, said Eli Suzukovich III, a research scientist at the museum.

The organizers also wanted the new exhibition to dig into the history of Native Americans who were also African American. One photo will show an Englewood resident who was Native American and Black and who was part of the Great Migration to Chicago.

“The documentation, as you imagine — the census in the ’50s and ’60s — those folks would not have been counted as Native necessarily because of anti-Black racism both in the South and here,” said Ryan Schuessler, an exhibition developer at the Field Museum. “Perhaps have never been counted as such. And so we tried to represent 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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