American Indian Center of Chicago (September 24, 2011) — Uptown pedestrians must’ve been surprised to see this sign in front of the American Indian Center: “NO PARKING. RESERVED FOR TOTEM POLE.”
And yet, was it such a surprise? The Chicago area has been the home of native peoples of various tribes for centuries.
The American Indian Center (AIC), founded in 1953, is the oldest urban Native American center in the nation. The group’s mission is to promote fellowship among Indian people of all tribes living in metropolitan Chicago, and to create bonds of understanding and communication between Indians and non-Indians in the city. AIC works to advance the general welfare of local American Indians, fosters the economic and educational advancement of Indian people and sustains Indian art, culture and values.
The ceremony this Saturday morning took place on and around the front steps of the AIC. Executive director Joe Podlasek, the organization’s executive director, proved a genial MC, welcoming all to the occasion and introducing the many special guests. He told the crowd of about 75 that he is part Ojibwa, from Wisconsin, and part Polish. “We are the earliest urban center for Indians,” he said, “and are proud to serve in that role. Indian people are not lost in history. We’re very much alive today.”
He then introduced AIC board president Clarissa St. Germaine, who is affiliated with the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwa. Among the AIC attending leaders was Mike “Macky” Pamonicutt, who is the head of veterans’ activities among Chicago area Native Americans. He is a descendant of early Chicago settler Alexander Robinson, a chief of the Potawatomi tribe.
This was a unique stop along the totem journey, because of its urban nature and the fact that multiple tribal groups were represented. In addition, there were many representatives from the library community, including the Greater Midwest Region Regional Medical Library at the University of Chicago, Illinois, Northwestern University, and the national Medical Library Association.
Other guests included area neighborhood activists (please remember a former Chicago neighborhood activist/attorney is the current President of the United States).
Martin Castro, a Chicago native who chairs the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, addressed the gathering. Castro talked about his family‘s roots in Mexico, and how his grandfather used herbs for healing, just as the native peoples of the United States have done for so long. “We are all one people,” he said. “We need to heal our world. We have lots of challenges and we need to connect in order to solve them.” Certainly the rich tapestry of guests at this ceremony, all here to celebrate the totem and native culture, seemed to embody that concept.
A group of singers and drummers from the AIC lent a festive air to the proceedings, lifting up songs of blessing for veterans, for women, and for all. Master carver of the healing totem, Jewell James, described the symbolism of the totem and stories of its journey so far. Clad in a hat and vest fashioned from cedar wood, James played a soft song on the flute that brought quiet thoughtfulness to the assemblage, even on a busy Chicago street.
Podlasek mentioned the AIC herb garden which, although currently thriving, “used to be a real mess. But we’ve found ways to be creative, and to bring it back. That’s the way our people have been for centuries — even when faced with challenges, we always manage to create something good.” He then offered a prayer for the totem’s journey.