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New York City: A house for the Indian community

New York City has a thriving American Indian community, and our gathering
place is the American Indian Community House (AICH) - an urban Indian
center providing services and assistance to American Indians who reside in
the metropolitan New York area. The AICH was formally incorporated in 1969,
but there has been a Native community here going back at least to the early
1920s.

My own Mohawk family has a long history in New York City, where Indians
migrated early as a result of Wild West shows and show biz in general. In
the early 20th century, New York City was the film capital and many Indian
people worked in films. One of my grandfather's many jobs was as a stuntman
in silent films. My grandparents made baskets and sold them at fairs,
sportsmen's shows, etc. My grandfather also trained horses, and both he and
my grandmother worked as cook, housekeeper, butler or chauffeur on various
estates in Westchester and Fairfield counties and on Long Island.

The federal relocation policies of the 1950s and 1960s brought a multitude
of Indian people to major cities to give them trades and jobs that were not
available on their home reservations. Ultimately, the training they
received was not related to employment opportunities on the reservations,
and many stayed in the urban areas.

New York City's Indian population is diverse - made up of Indian peoples
from the entire Western Hemisphere. Many come as students and stay here
only for the length of time it takes to complete their degree work. Others
come to stay. One large sector of Indian residents is in the visual and
performing arts, for which they come to New York. Helping them pursue their
careers, provide moral support and insight on how to accomplish their
goals, pointing out a venue to showcase their talents through our Circle
performance space or our art gallery, is important to us.

We often act as unpaid agents, referring Indian people for performing roles
and technical jobs in response to the many calls we receive for print,
acting and technical personnel. We define the AICH commitment, while ever
changing in terms of services provided, as primarily to assist Indian
people to pursue their goals in life, upgrade their economic status and
help them access whatever programs are available to them.

Being in New York, we strive to educate the general public on contemporary
and historical myths about Native peoples. Still today, the textbooks teach
bits of our history and truths but perpetuate many stereotypes.

Our Communications and Information component produces our quarterly
Community Bulletin, fields hundreds of questions about American Indians,
maintains our voluminous resource files and provides tours to guests on
site and limited off-site presentations. When indigenous delegates from all
over the world visit New York to attend forums at the United Nations or to
meet with foundations and other institutions, often they stop by the AICH,
where representatives of both the AICH and the Flying Eagle Woman Fund,
which is housed within the AICH, greet them and assist them as much as
possible.

Our Employment and Training program - after suffering huge cuts over the
years - will receive increased funding based on the 2000 Census figures.
Spaced over three years, the funding should allow us to bring this program
closer to the higher levels of service that existed in the 1980s to the
early 1990s. The problem here is that the new Workforce Investment Act
(formerly CETA and JTPA) rules are very stringent and specific about moving
people in and out of the program quickly, and implement a tracking system
that can affect rating and compromise the program.

In our real-world experience, many individuals we assist need attention due
to the multiple barriers to employment and training they experience. Often,
we need to address and help resolve their housing, health, family and
education issues before we can help them attain gainful, unsubsidized
employment.

The new rules and regulations make it nearly impossible to work in a
meaningful way with the people who need our help the most. Thus,
theoretically, we could make or exceed our performance standards at the end
of the program year and then, a year later, fail to maintain the rating,
which could then jeopardize our continued funding.

Despite many obstacles and fewer resources than are needed for even minimum
services, the AICH has gathered many good programs under one structure. In
every field, we do what we can. Our health services provide education,
prevention and referral - with a limited alcohol and substance abuse and
mental health counseling service - where we use outside licensed counselors
for emergency or short-term care. We just started a diabetes program. Our
health staff helps people access services they need and to which they are
entitled. Our HIV/AIDS program is statewide and focuses on testing and
education. We have offices in Syracuse, Buffalo, Akwesasne and New York
City to work with the full community, from youth to elders, on this crucial
issue.

The basic problem with any government funding is that their formula for
determining how much money goes to each center or group is based on
populations, but with other factors incorporated. These other factors
create problems. For example, employment and training funding is based on
population after having been adjusted for other factors including
unemployment (also adjusted), figures that create a formula that is used
across the board. The cost of living or doing business is not a factor.

Therefore, two areas such as New York City and a location with the same
population but with a lower cost of living and doing business could receive
the same amount of funding. They would be held to similar performance
standards, but we would be able to serve fewer individuals and provide
fewer services with the fund due to the higher costs involved in New York
City.

AICH and other urban programs aren't given the option of submitting
realistic budgets but rather live with limited, predetermined budgets to
meet ever-growing needs. As a result, salaries are below standard -
resulting in high turnover and the loss of valuable trained employees. It's
a labor of love for the long-term personnel.

Housing is also a big issue here. It is a recipe for disaster when Indian
people come to New York without a place to stay or sufficient funds to pay
for housing. We can get people jobs but if they don't have a place to live,
they can't hold them. We have had students whose tuition was paid but the
school had no available housing. One girl went home for two years within
the first two months of each school year but persevered, and eventually
graduated after six years.

Our dream? To get our own building, which will house expanded programs, our
art gallery and gift shop, a dedicated theater space we can rent out for
performances when we are not using it and a small hotel with a ballroom and
numerous meeting rooms. The building we have been in for 16 years has been
sold and there are tentative plans to turn it into residential property, so
we are moving to meet that challenge.

It takes gumption to make it in New York, and it always improves your
chances to get a helping hand along the way. I strongly believe that urban
Indian centers are vitally important to the community of Native people who
come to New York or other areas - for whatever time they may be there -
both for services and a place to interact with other Indians. Our cultures
are strong and alive, and centers such as ours help to nurture, strengthen
and maintain a connection to our roots.

Rosemary Richmond, Mohawk, is executive director of the New York City
American Indian Community House.