Indian Center regroups after funding loss

June 22, 2012
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The North American Indian Center of Boston (NAICOB) is fighting to get back on its feet after a major 2010 funding loss hampered its work with low-income Indians.

“We’re in a tenuous situation right now,” said NAICOB Executive Director Joanne Dunn in a Gazette visit to the organization’s 105 S. Huntington Ave. headquarters last week. “The real challenge is to go forward and to make sure that we’re still here for the next generation.”

“We feel like we will survive because we always have,” she said.

NAICOB’s staff is down to about eight people serving about 425 American Indian families with basic services including Head Start, employment training and computer training. They work in an enormous, aging building that Dunn called “broken-down” and in need of repairs.

NAICOB, which has operated for 40 years, was much busier before it lost the federal Indian Health Services funding in a dispute over coverage eligibility of the Mi’kmaq, the largest nation served by the center.

Now the center is developing a strategic plan and a capital campaign, and is researching and writing grants for possible new programs. One of those grant researchers is Jamaica Plain resident Crystal Rizzo, a member of the Southern Ute tribe, who got interested in NAICOB after passing by regularly to work on her master’s at Simmons College.

NAICOB also closed and sold its Tecumseh House addiction treatment drop-in center in Mission Hill last year, producing enough funds to keep the Indian Center running for two years, Dunn said.

“The wonderful thing about being an Indian is, it’s very different from the corporate structure. We’re really connected,” said Dunn, explaining offers informal help as well. “We don’t let somebody go away with nothing. There’s a lot of services we provide that we don’t get paid for.”

The formal services are in demand, and Dunn knows their value, as she first came to NAICOB as a client. The employment and job training program, run by Janice Falcone, is in demand.

“They don’t have a support system,” Falcone said of Indians who move off reservations and into the job market. They often are out of touch with their families, and often got no work experience on the reservation, she said. Many people who come to NAICOB for aid are homeless or military veterans.

NAICOB also serves as a cultural center for American Indians to connect with their heritage and their peers. Assistance programs are only for people with official American Indian nation membership, but people who merely self-identify as Indian are welcome to visit as well.

American Indian identity is a hot topic, with U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren embroiled in controversy for claiming to be an Indian with no solid evidence. As the Gazette previously reported, Dunn issued an invitation to Warren to visit NAICOB and got no response.

Dunn said last week that Warren still has not responded, but she declined to comment further on the record, explaining, “I was told to be careful on this one” by NAICOB’s board president.

But she did say, “At some point, you have to draw the line” on how people qualify as American Indians. Otherwise, the U.S. government eventually will erase the official identity of American Indians along with services and protections guaranteed by treaty, she said.

Maintaining a sense of identity is a challenge for off-reservation American Indians, who are a small minority in the state. There are about 19,600 American Indians in Massachusetts, 2,500 of them living in Boston, according to U.S. Census data.

Dunn, who is Mi’kmaq, said that she grew up speaking English rather than her nation’s language because her parents wanted to protect her from often violent bullying.

NAICOB hopes to bring American Indian culture to the general public once again with its annual September powwow, with fund-raising under way. The powwow formerly was held on land next door that is now being developed into an apartment building. Dunn said that she aims to stage the powwow in nearby Olmsted Park.

NAICOB has survived hardships before. Its current form arose in 1989 from the bankruptcy of the former Boston Indian Council. And almost a decade ago, it fought off an attempt by its landlord, the state of Massachusetts under then-Gov. Mitt Romney, to kick it out and sell the building, a dispute that some JP residents likened to the historical forced relocation of Indian nations.

Dunn said that support from JP, where she also lives, in the land sale dispute is one of the reasons she is positive about NAICOB’s future.

“[It is] one of the most embracing communities in the country,” she said. “The Jamaica Plain community, we feel really connected here.”

For more information about NAICOB, see naicob.org

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