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Amelia Schafer
Special to ICT

Susan Kelly Power, a fierce advocate for the Chicago Indigenous community and a founder of the nation’s first urban American Indian Center, died on Saturday, Oct. 29. She was 97.

Power’s daughter, author Mona Power, reflected on her mother’s legacy and willingness to help others.

At just 17, Susan Kelly, Standing Rock Sioux, arrived in Chicago to work for a Dakota woman who needed help. She would go on to help found the American Indian Center of Chicago in 1953, the first of its kind in the U.S. This photo was taken in the early 1940s, about the time she arrived in Chicago. Susan Kelly Power died Oct. 29, 2022, at age 97. (Photo courtesy of Mona Power)

"Susan K. Power walked in the path of her ancestors, feeling the responsibility that comes when you're descended from a line of hereditary Yanktonai Dakota chiefs and a mother who was a tribal leader,” Mona Power said. “Her mother often said, ‘The chief's family eats last,’ and Power lived according to that example, forever generous in putting community needs ahead of her own, sharing all she had.”

Susan Power, a citizen of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, helped establish the American Indian Center in Chicago in the 1950s and participated in several other Indigenous organizations around Chicago, including the Indian Council Fires.

In the early 1970s, she joined in a historic protest, the Chicago Indian Village Movement, that cast a spotlight on poor living conditions for Native people in Chicago.

A celebration of life will be held on what would have been her 98th birthday on Jan. 22, 2023, at the St. Kateri Center of Chicago.

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Jody Roy, director of the St. Kateri Center, said Power cared deeply for the community.

“She was a joy to have – she supported the whole community,” Roy said. “She was very humble and a big advocate for our community. She was not shy to stand up and say something. She spoke her mind and words that we really needed in our community.”

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Susan Louise Kelly was born in 1925 in Fort Yates, North Dakota, on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, one of eight children to Josephine and Colvin Kelly. She was descended from a line of hereditary chiefs, including her great-grandfather, Chief Mahto Nunpa, and her mother became tribal chairperson in 1946.

She attended boarding schools, including a Catholic boarding school in South Dakota and the Bismarck Indian School in North Dakota, before returning to attend high school in Fort Yates. She spoke in later years of the abuse she and others experienced in boarding schools and how glad she was to return home, according to an obituary written by her daughter.

“She often reminisced about growing up across the road from Sitting Bull’s original grave, and how she and her siblings designated themselves as protectors of his resting place,” her daughter wrote. “They turned to him for solace, and whispered their secrets to his spirit.”

In 1942, at age 17, she moved to Chicago to work for a Dakota woman as a housekeeper and companion. She eventually moved on to a book-distributing company in Chicago, where she became executive assistant to the director. It was there she met Carleton Gilmore Power, who worked for a New York publishing company and would visit the company where she worked. They married, and her daughter Mona was born in 1961.

Susan Kelly Power, Standing Rock Sioux, one of the co-founders of the American Indian Center of Chicago nearly 70 years ago in 1953, is shown with her daughter, author Mona Power, in 1980. Susan Power died Oct. 29, 2022, at age 97. (Photo courtesy of Mona Power)

Her legacy endures at the American Indian Center of Chicago, which remains a hub for the Indigenous community, hosting an annual pow wow and other events, nearly 70 years after it opened.

“She was an extrovert who loved people of all backgrounds, and keenly felt the pain of injustices they suffered,” Mona Power said. “She did her best to help. All who knew her will never forget this example of traditional Dakota leadership.”

Power was predeceased by her husband, Carleton G. Power, who died in 1973, and all her siblings. She is survived by daughter Mona Susan Power; stepson, Douglas Power, and his wife, Jeanann Glassford Power; stepdaughter, Marjorie Mbilinyi; and grandchildren, Douglas Drew and Alessandra Power, and Nnali, Anina and Lyungai Mbilinyi.

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