Special to ICT
Susan Louise Kelly Power, lifetime activist, mother, and friend to many, died Oct. 29, 2022, at the age of 97 in Chicago, Illinois.
Susan was born in 1925 in Fort Yates, North Dakota, on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. She was deeply proud of her Yanktonai Dakota heritage, and of being descended from a line of hereditary chiefs, including her great-grandfather, Chief Mahto Nunpa. Her mother, Josephine Gates Kelly, was a revered leader who ultimately became chairperson of the tribe in 1946. Susan greatly admired her mother, and sought to follow in her footsteps, eventually becoming an activist leader herself.
She was one of eight children born to her mother, Josephine, and father, Colvin Kelly. She was particularly close to her sisters, Helen, Elsie, and Margaret Theodora. All of her beloved siblings predeceased her. She was sent to Indian Boarding Schools during her early years, a Catholic boarding school in South Dakota, and the Bismarck Indian School in North Dakota. Decades later, she regaled her daughter with stories of the abuse she and others experienced in these facilities, remarking how grateful she was to attend high school back home in Fort Yates. 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. They turned to him for solace, and whispered their secrets to his spirit.
Though Susan never intended to leave North Dakota, in 1942 she was sent to Chicago to serve as companion and housekeeper for a wealthy Dakota woman who missed her people. Susan began saving money with the intention of "going home," but in helping out her family on the reservation, it seemed impossible to reach that goal. Susan never did move back to North Dakota, living most of her life in Chicago's South Shore neighborhood.
Susan held a variety of jobs during her lifetime, doing factory work when she was young, and in later years, proofreading law journals for the University of Chicago Law School, working at the Museum of Science & Industry, the Salvation Army, and the Census Bureau. Her favorite job was at A.C. McClurg's Book Distributing Company, becoming the executive assistant to the company's director, Guy Kendall. Susan was a voracious reader, who loved nothing better than being in the heart of the book world, meeting authors, enjoying advance access to forthcoming titles. She regularly visited libraries and used bookstores throughout the city, gradually putting together her own impressive collection of books on Native American history.
Susan was an extrovert who thrived on making friends from all backgrounds. She was particularly excited to run into fellow Native people on the streets of Chicago. Despite being shy in her youth, she would approach anyone she suspected of being Native American, and ask what tribe they belonged to. In this way, she began to form a community of Indian people from many different tribal nations. In 1953, Susan was part of a group that founded the American Indian Center of Chicago, the first Indian Center in the United States. The Indian Center continues its operations as of this writing, now located at 3401 W. Ainslie St. in Chicago, Illinois, 60625.
Susan was involved in the activities of other Native organizations, including the Indian Council Fire, and the National Congress of American Indians where she was the youngest member upon their founding in 1944. In the early 1970s, Susan became a pivotal activist in the Chicago Indian Village movement, which protested poor living conditions and inadequate job opportunities available to Native people lured into cities during the Relocation period. As a result of disappointment in the outcome of some of her activist endeavors, Susan became interested in learning about the law, and via her studies earned a paralegal certificate at age 70. She often supported and represented community members needing legal advice, always without payment.
Susan was honored with many awards throughout her lifetime, a few examples being a leadership award from the American Indian Center, and the 2012 Unsung Heroines Award from Cook County, presented to her by Toni Preckwinkle. On a visit to her daughter who attended Harvard College in the 1980s, Susan noted that there wasn't any plaque or monument in Harvard Yard indicating where Harvard's Indian College once stood. She wrote letters and made phone calls to inquire why this was the case, given that its founders used Native people in an early fundraising effort. As a result of her activities in this regard, she was invited to join a committee organized by HUNAP (Harvard University Native American Program), to secure that plaque. Susan was one of the speakers at Harvard's unveiling of the memorial plaque in 1997.
Susan had a remarkable recall of the history of her reservation and its network of families going back several generations. She began documenting these memories in stories and plays, and was a gifted writer who had several opportunities to be published in the 1980s. However, she turned down these chances, and instead encouraged her daughter's love of writing and eventual publication of volumes of fiction.
Susan was predeceased by her loving husband, Carleton G. Power, who died in 1973, and is survived by her daughter, Mona Susan Power, stepson, Douglas Power, and his wife, Jeanann Glassford Power, stepdaughter, Marjorie Mbilinyi, and grandchildren, Douglas Drew & Alessandra Power, Nnali, Anina, & Lyungai Mbilinyi.
A Celebration of Susan's life will be held at the St. Kateri Center of Chicago, 3938 N Leavitt St., Chicago, Illinois, 60618, on Jan. 22, 2023, what would have been her 98th birthday.