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American Indian Center of Indiana at 20

Native American Dancers at a 2011 heritage event in Indianapolis. - PHOTO BY REBECCA TOWNSEND

The American Indian Center of Indiana celebrated its 20th anniversary earlier this month.

The nonprofit is the only statewide organization serving the Native American Community.

Established in 1992 as the Indiana American Indian Manpower Council Inc., the organization was supported by the U.S. Department of Labor to administer the Job training Partnership Act.

Run by a volunteer board of directors, 80 percent of whom are American Indian, the group has since broadened its vision and expanded its educational and training programs to include health education and wellness, substance abuse, childcare and cultural arts programs. The name was officially changed in 1998.

Today, their mission remains unchanged, says Teri Cardwell, chair of the center's board of directors, "but it has expanded to promote awareness and bring Native American issues to the forefront."

One of AICI's milestone achievements is the health needs assessment it is currently conducting in partnership with the Indiana Minorities Health Coalition. Using information gathered at powwows and other meetings, the group is still preparing the final report, but Cardwell said she hoped the information it provides would help reduce health disparities.

According to the 2010 census, the Native American population experienced nearly a 30 percent increase since the previous census, with approximately 55,000 currently residing in Indiana.

The numbers may surprise Hoosiers, many of whom don't realize the substantial number of Native Americans living in Indiana, "land of the Indians." That's likely because "most Native Americans walk in two worlds," Cardwell said. "Our culture is insular." She said she believes that's due to the long-standing history of racism and bias.

But Native Americans are "still here — and we've been here all along," she added.

In addition to serving the Native American community's needs, one of AICI's goals is to re-establish understanding and respect. "We're trying to engage the community — both Native American and non-Native," Cardwell said.

The center's executive director, Doug Poe, "has done a wonderful job regarding visibility," Cardwell added, noting he is a frequent speaker at universities, high schools, hospitals and various organizations and events, active in promoting AICI statewide. "He is the face of AICI and demonstrates compassion for the Native American population."

She said Poe is largely responsible for boosting the participation rate in AICI's employment services program, which hit record numbers this year with more than 150 participants. In addition, he secured funding for research and the health assessment, which Cardwell described as "significant in advancing our mission."

The center's celebration coincided with Native American Heritage Month and the celebration of Thanksgiving, a holiday known for sugarcoating early interactions between European settlers and Native Americans.

Education and awareness are also part of the purpose behind Native American Heritage Month, which grew out of a turn-of-the-twentieth-century effort to gain recognition for the contributions made by Native Americans.

Plenty of work remains to be done. Examples of the ongoing insensitivity toward native culture include:

+ The recent "Looking Hot" video by No Doubt that portrayed the band in modified — and revealing — Native American attire. Due to outrage by the Native American community, the band pulled the controversial video and issued an apology.

"Our intention with our new video was never to offend, hurt or trivialize Native American people, their culture or their history," the statement reads in part.

+ A recent Victoria's Secret runway show that clothed models in skimpy faux-Native American garb, including a feathered headdress. The lingerie company was forced to issue an apology after being flooded with complaints.

+ The Gap's "Manifest Destiny" T-shirts, which inspired a tide of angry reactions culminating in an online petition calling for the clothing maker to stop selling the offensive shirts portraying the slogan that symbolized a 19th century policy resulting in the extermination of millions of Native Americans. Gap agreed to stop selling them.

Even as insensitivity and ignorance persists, efforts to increase awareness of the complex and diverse tapestry of Native American culture and history are longstanding.

In the early 1900s, Dr. Arthur C. Parker, a Seneca and director of the Museum of Arts and Science in Rochester, N.Y., persuaded the Boy Scouts of America to set aside a day to honor Native Americans.

On Dec. 14, 1915, Red Fox James, a Blackfoot Indian, presented the president with endorsements from 24 state governments in favor of a day to honor Indians. President Coolidge acquiesced by issuing a proclamation designating the second Saturday in May as American Indian Day.

By the end of the decade, several states declared various dates as American Indian Day. It wasn't until 1990 that a joint resolution, approved by President George H.W. Bush, designated November as National American Indian Heritage Month — the same month that President Abraham Lincoln named for the national holiday of Thanksgiving.

But the fairy tale image of pilgrims and Indians happily sharing a meal of turkey and the trimmings is almost entirely false. Some writers, like Richard Greener of the Huffington Post, go farther, calling the story a "complete invention, a cleverly created slice of cultural propaganda."

The idyllic folklore fabricated in 1890 was debunked in 1970, the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrim landing: The Pilgrims never shared a meal with the local Wampanoag and Pequot Indians. Frank B. James, president of the Federated Eastern Indian League, prepared a speech for a Plymouth banquet that exposed the true story — one of Pilgrim crimes, including robbing the graves of the Wampanoags.

A harvest feast — an early forerunner to Thanksgiving — was recorded by one pilgrim in October 1621. Massasoit, an Indian sachem, was invited to the feast, but when he in turn invited 90 more Indians, conforming to the tribal custom of sharing, the outnumbered Europeans weren't pleased.

Despite that sizeable gathering, most historians consider 1637 the first "actual" Thanksgiving, but there was little for Native Americans to be thankful for. Massachusetts Colony Governor John Winthrop proclaimed a "thanksgiving" to celebrate the safe return of a band of heavily armed colonial volunteers who massacred 700 Pequot Indians — mostly women, children and the elderly — near the mouth of the Mystic River.


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