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American Indian Community House seeks funds to grow

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NEW YORK - Serving the largest urban Indian population in the nation, the American Indian Community House is raising funds to move to a new building that it hopes to own eventually.

Its ambitious plans include opening a small hotel and a free-standing theater for its active performance schedule. After discussing the move for years, the Community House has launched a direct mail appeal, although it might need the funds simply to maintain services.

"At AICH, obtaining resources for our community is a continuous struggle," wrote Executive Director Rosemary Richmond.

"For more than 30 years, we have provided vital services and created a cultural base for urban Indians. Our programs touch all facets of our clients' lives and we have become key to providing support to a community of urban Indians in this region.

"In the current environment, a difficult situation has become almost impossible."

Richmond said cutbacks in government funding and the financial downturn after the 9/11 attacks have run into a large increase in Indian population in the New York area. AICH provides health and wellness programs, including trail-blazing HIV/AIDS prevention services in five sites across New York state. It holds job training classes and supports Native performers and artists, many of who have come to the area to start their careers.

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The Community House estimates it provides services to more than 6,000 Natives a year, representing over 75 different Nations. This is still a fraction of the Indian population in the region, which according to the 2000 Census numbered 41,289 American Indians and Alaska Natives. The numbers more than doubled in the count of Indians with mixed race, to 87,241.

It's a dramatic turn-around from 1990, noted Richmond, when New York ranked third. "Nevertheless, raising awareness of the city's Indian population continues to be a tough challenge; as Native Americans, we are not easily distinguishable as an ethnic group and most people's perception is that we live upstate or out west on reservations. In many instances, we become an 'invisible' population."

Urban Indians face two main problems, she said, "lack of access to entitlements guaranteed by treaty rights and alienation from our traditions and cultures."

The Community House works hard to maintain cultural ties. It provides a base for a regional pow wow dance group, the Thunderbird American Indian Dancers, and sponsors an annual festival of Indian dramatic performances. Its casting services have also helped aspiring actors break into movies and television, including last year's famous Columbus Day episode of the HBO drama series "The Sopranos."

It also maintains an art gallery and puts on an annual Indian Market, which ran this year from Dec. 13 - 21.

In the appeal for tax-deductible donations, Richmond concluded, "Your contribution, at this critical time of year, will help us to sustain our community, add new and/or expand existing services, while maintaining our identity and values."