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North American Indian Center in Jamaica Plain looks to the future

Posted by Roy Greene  October 28, 2011 10:10 AM

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(Kade Krichko photof for boston.com)

Joanne Dunn, program director for the North American Indian Center of Boston.

At first glance, Jamaica Plain’s South Huntington Avenue seems an unlikely location for a Native American cultural center. The traffic-lined, T-clogged artery embodies the hustle and bustle of city life - not quite the home for a culture that organizes outdoor pow-wows and builds sweat lodges.

Yet, buried in the jungle of apartment buildings and hospitals on the back side of Mission Hill is one of the largest urban Indian Centers in the Northeast.

The North American Indian Center of Boston has been rooted to its 105 South Huntington Ave. location for more than 40 years -- through the American Indian Movement that shook the nation in the 1970s, a mercurial rise and fall that led to its bankruptcy in the late 1980s, and onto its subsequent rebirth as a non-profit just a few years later.

After years of struggling to prolong its existence in Boston, the center recently secured a series of grants, including the prestigious Administration for Native Americans grant, allowing the center not only to stay afloat, but to look to the future.

With a successful pre-school program and an employment resource center already in place, the center is now tackling contemporary issues, establishing a new program to help native grandparents take care of their grandchildren, in cases where their own children need help for substance abuse.

The center’s brick fortress shows the wear-and-tear of history -- cracking, grit-embedded windows in the gymnasium and curled white paint on the exterior molding. But despite the building’s appearance and the ebb and flow of government grants, “We’re still here,” proclaims Joanne Dunn, program director for the center.

Incorporated on Oct. 20, 1970, the group came together during historic times, with the American Indian Movement in full swing. The movement, which demanded payment for broken US treaties, among other equality issues, gave birth to the famous Long Walk, a demonstration that stretched from Alcatraz Island in California to the steps of the US.

The Boston center did its part in that movement, rallying Indians from the urban and surrounding areas to support the cause at its own rallies.

“That was the one time where I was singled out in a good way for looking like an Indian,” recalled Dunn, a member of the Micmac Nation out of Maine and Southern Canada. It was a time "when it really meant something to be Indian.”

The movement came and went, and the Boston center, despite a bulge in numbers and enthusiasm, had to fight to survive as a positive outlet for its members.

In 1978, the center received funding through the Indian Health Services, a federal agency created to help fund Native American healthcare. With the IHS funding, the center provided a Community Health Program for its members, as well as a rehabilitation clinic for drug users, during a decade when narcotics were prevalent throughout Boston, Dunn said.

Through the 1980s, the federal funding wasn’t enough to support the wide reach of the Boston center, and private donations and membership dwindled. The center, which had more than 100 employees at the time, found itself unable to pay its bills. It filed for bankruptcy in 1989, close to the 20-year anniversary of its founding.

The bankruptcy restructuring, which Dunn calls “lifesaving,” allowed the center to re-emerge as a non-profit in 1991.

“Because we were no longer for-profit, we had no more baggage,” Dunn said. “It was more important to hold onto the center… so we could truly dedicate ourselves to helping the people.”

Today, the Center’s windows stare out at an empty grass lot, a painful scar of those days of financial turmoil. The lot once held several sweat lodges, a playground, and the center's annual pow-wow -- before being sold to the city.

Despite losing the federal support support in early 2010, the group managed to begin a pre-school Head Start program, as well as an employment resource center to get Indian adults back on their feet. The center also was bequeathed a computer lab through the Timothy Smith Grant.
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Recently, the Center was awarded federal funding through the ANA grant to support a partnership with UMass Boston that will create a program for Indian grandparents who step in to take care of their grandchildren.

“It’s a growing issue in all communities, and the native community is by no means an exception to that,” explained J. Cedric Woods, director of the Institute for New England Native Americans Studies at UMass Boston. “It’s a large sociological problem, but I think our institute and the connection with the native community has been and will continue to be a good match.”

Most grandparents, Woods noted, cannot take care of their grandchildren without financial assistance, and that is where the center, in collaboration with Woods’ institute, look to lend a helping hand.

Dunn said she hopes the grandparents' program will be up and running within a few months.

“It’s urban Indian centers like NAICOB … that play an important role in helping people stay connected and provide essential services to native people,” said Woods, a member of the Lumbee Nation of North Carolina. “NAICOB is a very important part of the Indian community in not only Boston, but in Massachusetts."

Dunn said she still remembers the center opening four decades ago. Despite the aging aesthetics of the building, she insists little has changed in the center’s spirit.

“Everybody that has been through this center will have the same story,” said Dunn. “They love it and want to come back … Indian centers are their home away from home, and we’re here for them.”

This article was reported and written under the supervision of journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel (l.chedekel@neu.edu), as part of collaboration between The Boston Globe and Northeastern University.

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