Susan Kelly Power, icon of Chicago’s Native American community, dies at 97

Power helped found the American Indian Center in Chicago.

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Susan Kelly Power

Susan Kelly Power helped found what is now the American Indian Center of Chicago in 1953. The organization helped newcomers to the city find jobs and housing.

Warren Perlstein

When Native American families came to Chicago in the 1950s and in subsequent decades, Susan Kelly Power, a Yanktonai Dakota, was there to help them.

Ms. Power helped found what is now the American Indian Center of Chicago in a basement in 1953, where she and others helped link up newcomers to homes and jobs. The center continued to grow and is now at 3401 W. Ainslie St. It was the first Indian center in the United States.

“She made sure any Native American who needed help would be able to make it on their own,” said Sharon Skolnick, who met Ms. Power while working as a volunteer at the center. “Susan knew how to be very persuasive and was able to give Native Americans opportunities.”

Hilda Williams, whose father, Scott T. Williams, also known as Chief Thundercloud, helped found the center with Ms. Power, said Ms. Power remained an icon in Chicago’s Native American community for decades.

“Everyone  who came to the Indian center knew her very well,” Williams said.

Ms. Power died of complications of Alzheimer’s disease Saturday at Symphony of South Shore, a senior facility. She was 97.

Ms. Power was born in 1925 in Fort Yates, North Dakota, on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.

“She was proud of her Yanktonai Dakota heritage and of being descended from a line of hereditary chiefs, including her great-grandfather, Chief Mahto Nunpa,” her daughter, Mona Susan Power, wrote in an email.

“Her mother, Josephine Gates Kelly, was a revered leader who ultimately became chairperson of the tribe in 1946. [Ms. Power] greatly admired her mother, and sought to follow in her footsteps, eventually becoming an activist leader herself.”

Ms. Power held a variety of jobs during her lifetime, doing factory work when she was young, and in later years proofreading law journals for the University of Chicago Law School, working at the Museum of Science & Industry, the Salvation Army, and the Census Bureau. Her favorite job was at A.C. McClurg’s Book Distributing Co., her daughter said.

“Susan was a voracious reader who loved nothing better than being in the heart of the book world, meeting authors, enjoying advance access to forthcoming titles. She regularly visited libraries and used bookstores throughout the city, gradually putting together her own impressive collection of books on Native American history,” Mona Susan Power said. 

Ms. Power also was involved in the activities of other Native organizations, including the Indian Council Fire and the National Congress of American Indians, where she was the youngest member upon their founding in 1944, Mona Susan Power said.

In the early 1970s Ms. Power became a pivotal activist in the Chicago Indian Village movement, which protested poor living conditions and inadequate job opportunities available to Native people lured into cities, her daughter said.

“She had a strong voice, and when something wasn’t right, she did not hesitate to speak up about it,” said Cyndee Fox-Starr, whose parents were friends of Ms. Power.

That was important at a time when families moving to Chicago hesitated to speak up on their own because they feared consequences, Fox-Starr said.

“She continued to have that voice within the community right until three or four years ago, when her health declined,” Fox-Starr said.

As a result of disappointment in the outcome of some of her activist endeavors, [Ms. Power] “became interested in learning about the law and earned a paralegal certificate at age 70,” Mona Susan Power said. “She often supported and represented community members needing legal advice, always without payment.” 

Ms. Power won a leadership award from the American Indian Center and the 2012 Unsung Heroines Award from Cook County, presented to her by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, among other awards.

On a visit to her daughter, who attended Harvard in the 1980s, Ms. Power noted that there wasn’t any plaque or monument in Harvard Yard indicating where Harvard’s Indian College once stood. After she made phone calls and wrote letters, she was invited to join a committee organized by the Harvard University Native American Program, and a plaque was put in place in 1997, Mona Susan Power said.

Ms. Power was one of the speakers at the plaque’s unveiling.

Ms. Power was preceded in death by her husband, Carleton G. Power, who died in 1973. In addition to her daughter, she is survived by a stepson, Douglas Power; his wife, Jeanann Glassford Power; stepdaughter Marjorie Mbilinyi; and five grandchildren. 

A “Celebration of Life” will be held on Jan. 22 on what would have been Ms. Power’s 98th birthday at the St. Kateri Center of Chicago, 3938 N. Leavitt St.

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