Special to ICT
CHICAGO – Susan Kelly’s move to Chicago from Standing Rock in 1942 was an isolating experience, but she slowly built a network of Native friends by stopping people on the street and saying hello.
If they looked Native, she’d ask if they were. If they said yes, they’d exchange information.
Ten years later, when waves of Indigenous people began arriving as a result of the federal government’s Urban Relocation Program, she realized they were going to need something more than random luck.
So began the American Indian Center of Chicago, which opened in 1953 as the first urban Indigenous center in the nation.
Now, nearly 70 years later, 97-year-old Susan Kelly Power, a citizen of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, is believed to be the last surviving founder of the long-enduring center with a legacy that continues to unite one of the largest urban Indigenous communities in the country.
Dorene Wiese, president of the American Indian Association of Illinois and a citizen of the White Earth Nation, said Power has been an inspiration to her, with her fierce love and unwavering support for the Native community.
“She would say that we would be like a phoenix – we would rise again,” Wiese said.
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Power was not only involved with the American Indian Center, but participated in several other Indigenous organizations around Chicago, including the Indian Council Fires. And she joined in a historic protest, the Chicago Indian Village Movement, that cast a spotlight on poor living conditions for Native people in Chicago.
Today, Power is in hospice care in Chicago and was not able to speak with ICT about the changes she’s seen over her lifetime. But her daughter, award-winning author Mona Susan Power, talked about her mother and the legacy she built.
She said her mother has always been intelligent, an organizer, an outspoken advocate, and a lover of literature. And despite never having the chance to formally continue her education, she never stopped learning.
“I've had the opportunity to learn from many brilliant professors, but my mother is one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever known,” Mona Power told ICT. “It was really a tragedy that she didn’t have all the educational opportunities that are available today.”
Building a legacy
A descendant of Chief Two Bear, Mathó Núŋpa, and the daughter of Standing Rock Tribal Chairwoman Josephine Gates, Susan Kelly was born in 1925 in Fort Yates, North Dakota, on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.
When she was just 17, she moved to Chicago to live with a Dakota woman from Standing Rock who needed a housekeeper and companion.
The move was a huge adjustment for her; she was initially overwhelmed by the city and its fast-paced lifestyle.
“She said hadn’t ridden on a train before or even talked on a phone, and now she’s riding all alone, and when she got to a huge station, she didn’t know who to look out for exactly, and so she just sat and was completely overwhelmed,” her daughter told ICT.
“Over the PA system, they kept saying, ‘Susan Kelly, Susan Kelly, please report,’” she said. “Finally, the husband of the wealthy lady found her and brought her home, but it was really traumatic for her.”
She quickly became homesick and sought out other Native people.
“She was very shy, but when she would see someone on the street that looked Native, she’d approach them, and if she was right, they’d exchange information,” Mona Power said. “Back then, it was hard because most of the places didn’t have a private telephone, so they might just give an address. On the weekend, [she’d] try to go over to the person’s place to visit. So she started early on building this network of Native people in the city.”
Eventually, someone got a car and could drive people around, expanding the network. Then, in 1952, the Urban Relocation Program brought about 100,000 Indigenous people into large cities such as Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles and Dallas.
Fliers drawing Indigenous people to Chicago promised success, happiness, and job opportunities. They depicted happy families, smiling workers, and successful lives. But that wasn’t what many found when they got there.
Instead, they encountered run-down housing, day-labor jobs, and slumlords. Help was needed for those communities, Mona Power said.
“Mom and her network of friends started talking about the need for help besides what they could do,” she said. “They needed social services, but also, I think, to have a space where they could celebrate being who they were, Native people, and not lose touch with that.”
There was also a growing need for a safe space for Indigenous people to practice cultural and spiritual traditions and to work together to adjust to life in the city.
“It was inter-tribal, but there was an overlap at least with values,” Mona Power said. “I think that’s what spurred them to start an American Indian Center, to be a place of support for many different tribes.”
The American Indian Center of Chicago opened in 1953, the first of its kind in the U.S.
By then, Susan Kelly was adapting to her new environment and had moved on to a job at a book distributorship.
She met her husband, Carleton Gilmore Power, in Chicago over a mutual love of books. Working for a New York publishing company, Carleton Power would come to Chicago to visit the company where Kelly worked, and he eventually moved to Chicago to be with her. Their daughter, Mona, was born in 1961.
In 1966, Susan’s growing family moved to Chicago’s South Side, and in 1971 and 1972, she and her daughter joined in the housing protest.
The protest began in 1970 when Carol Washington, a Menominee citizen and mother of six, began a rent strike to improve the condition of her apartment near Wrigley Field. She and her family were evicted, however, so the American Indian Center took a large teepee out of storage to pitch in a vacant lot next to the stadium.
People gathered to protest the poor conditions for Native people in Chicago.
“The center stepped back at some point, but mom stayed with it,” Mona Power said.
While working with the Indian Council Fires organization, Susan Power was able to introduce her daughter to famed Osage ballerina Maria Tallchief.
“She and my mother, there was a similarity,” she said. “Born the same year, they were both strikingly beautiful and nearly six feet tall, so they kind of looked like they could be sisters.”
And she continued to speak out for Indigenous causes.
A 1975 road trip to the East Coast, for example – launched with plans to show Mona Power the sites connected to her father’s family history – came to an abrupt halt at Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts.
“I could hear her breathing heavily beside me, whispering loudly, ‘Look at them, look at them, worshipping this rock that was the beginning of so much loss and grief and theft and genocide,’” Mona Power said.
“The next thing I knew, Mom had charged the fence and was doing her best to spit over its edge.”
Susan Power then began an impromptu speech about the plague that the pilgrims brought upon Native people.
Eventually, Wampanoag workers from the nearby Plimouth Patuxet Museum came out to watch and encourage her as she forged a space for Native truth even when no space was given.
“Though neither of us said it, we knew we were failed tourists in our homeland,” she said. “We can't pretend away the history that has yet to be heard and honored in this country. We can't be deaf to the grief songs of other tribes when we travel their territory.”
‘Where my heart was’
The American Indian Center, meanwhile, became a hub in Chicago, and continues to provide services to the local community. Its annual pow wow is set for Oct. 7-9.
And Chicago now has the third-largest urban Indigenous population in the country, with more than 100 tribal nations represented.
“With over 75 percent of all Native people living off-reservation and in urban settings, the AIC represents this emerging Native population shift, resulting in a diverse multi-tribal community in need of a common social and cultural place of gathering,” according to the Chicago American Indian Center’s website.
Among those who grew up in the shadow of the center is Cyndee Fox-Starr, a childhood friend of Mona Power and a citizen of the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska and Odawa/Potawatomi of Wikwemikoong First Nation of Canada.
“I remember being a child – I’d go to the pow wows, and there were a lot of drums, a lot of families, and everyone was dancing,” Fox-Starr said. “They’d have Halloween parties and all kinds of events going on almost every weekend.”
The center acted as a rock for Fox-Starr, who saw few other Native children in school.
“We would rather be at the pow wow,” she said. “I didn’t go to prom; I went to the pow wow. I didn’t even go to my own high school graduation; I went to the pow wow. That was where my heart was.”
Mona Power eventually left home to attend Harvard University, where she received a bachelor’s degree and a law degree. Her debut novel, “The Grass Dancer,” in 1994, received the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for Best First Fiction. She wrote a 2002 collection of short stories and other writings, “Roofwalker,” and a 2014 novel, “Sacred Wilderness.”
Her mother continued her involvement in Chicago’s Indigenous community.
“Her advocacy continued after I left,” she said. “If people needed someone to show up for this or that, mom would be there in a heartbeat. The pride she always had in that Native American center was huge.”
But despite being so outspoken and such an important figure in laying the groundwork for Chicago’s Indigenous community, Susan Power was always humble, said Wiese, who met her at the American Indian Center after moving to Chicago to attend North Park University.
“I think she exemplifies the way … we wish we would all be as Native women,” Wiese said. “She's been honest and forthright and supportive and understanding and scolding when she needed to be.”
Today, Susan Power lives on the South Side and is frequently visited by her friends, one of whom is taking care of her beloved cat, Rosie.
“There will never be another person like Susan,” Wiese said.
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