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American Indian Center of Chicago provides awareness and support

What is the American Indian Center of Chicago? The odds are very high that
we have reached out or worked with at least one family from each
reservation at some point in our 52 years of service. We work closely with
other urban Indian organizations and reservations nationally to strengthen
families.

For these reasons we were able to be the first urban Indian center included
in the inaugural exhibits of the National Museum of the American Indian in
Washington, D.C. Clearly, we are not the only urban Indian center, and not
the only one helping all people. But we appreciate the opportunity to share
what we are doing in Chicago and welcome everyone to join us Nov. 11 - 13
for our annual pow wow and, of course, throughout the year as well.

In 1953, AIC was established as a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization for
community support and empowerment for the greater metropolitan area. The
AIC provided space for American Indian families removed by federal
relocation programs to continue to practice cultural traditions, provide
cultural awareness and build a Native community in Chicago.

As the oldest urban Indian organization in the United States since the
relocation act, the AIC has been the visible symbol of Chicago's American
Indian community for 52 years. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, there are
approximately 73,000 American Indians in Illinois, with 32,000 residing in
Chicago. This makes Chicago the third largest urban American Indian
population in the country with over 100 tribal nations represented.

The AIC represents this urban population, resulting in a diverse
multi-tribal community searching for a common social and cultural place of
gathering. In 2004, AIC programs served over 50,000 people of all races and
religions including at-risk youth, single parents, elders, students,
educators, members and organizations of the arts community, and
community-based families.

Throughout its history, the AIC has been Chicago's principle American
Indian cultural source. Because there is no tribal reservation in Illinois,
the mere existence fills a void in the region where Native communities
Continue to be overlooked and underserved. The AIC has helped thousands of
American Indians from around the country make a successful transition to
urban life, while helping to retain and enrich their Native cultural
heritage and identity. The AIC is a Native-owned and operated center that
not only serves its Native constituents but non-Native, low-income families
and individuals as well.

Governed by a community-elected board of directors which meets monthly, the
AIC is utilized for such diverse purposes as community and youth meetings,
educational programs consisting of cultural and academic classes, community
potlucks, wakes and commemorative dinners, pow wows, performing arts and
countless community events showcasing Native talent. When Chicago's Native
community needs a place to go to, the AIC is where they gather.

The AIC has grown tremendously in the last five years. From 2001, the
programming increased from two to 13 programs. The programs are now
organized into three departments: education, wellness and arts. The staff,
who are always multitasking and very devoted to the community, are very
special. I cannot say enough about them. They continue to support the
strength and growth of the AIC and our community members even when times
are tough.

We recently expanded to include the only Native-owned and operated art
institution in the state of Illinois - "Trickster Gallery." In fiscal year
2005, the AIC embarked on a vital new program where Native people can begin
to empower themselves by defining in-depth who they are in order to break
the cycle of dehumanization, objectification and misrepresentation. The
following month, the elders program's grand opening took place, with
services for at least 30 Native elders per week.

With a strong understanding of the need for networking, the AIC board of
directors has supported the leadership roles the AIC has accepted locally
and nationally. Locally, the Coalition of the Chicago American Indian
Community is comprised of 12 Native programs in the Chicago area that come
together once a month to discuss local issues and work together on select
initiatives. Most importantly, the CCAIC continues to open up
communications between organizations to share important community events
and ensure we do not overlap services.

At the national level, the National Urban Indian Family Coalition, of 18
urban Indian organizations from across the country, has been a huge success
and is making important strides to change the way people think about
American Indians. Thanks to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which helped
launch these gatherings, we have made unique friendships and work together
as if we have known each other our entire lives. Additional resources from
the Marguerite Casey Foundation provided us the opportunity to host our
first NUIFC conference in Phoenix in February. One of our goals was to
increase the awareness and participation of tribal leadership. Navajo
Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. joined us for a special presentation to
encourage building new relations between reservation and urban American
Indians.

Personally, I am very proud and honored to be asked to be part of this
leadership in Indian country today. To be one of the executive directors of
the many fine American Indian centers and part of a great national team of
Indian people is exciting. Although the NUIFC and CCAIC encounter many
challenges, they will be successful because they lead from the experience
and wisdom of our elders.

I hope we can successfully find ways to help our next generations
understand the importance of working in our communities and continuing to
learn our traditions and pass them on to their children. Many of our
brothers and sisters were taught these ways, but the employment
opportunities are not within the communities. We must encourage ways to
invest in our communities and create jobs with equal pay and benefits.
Education and partnerships will be key to making these changes successful,
while we find ways to support the many families in need of the basic
necessities of life today. Remember, our children ... they are our future.

Joseph Podlasek, an enrolled member of the Lac Courte Oreilles band of
Ojibwe, is the executive and technical director of the American Indian
Center of Chicago.