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Indian Affair: a celebration at NAES College

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"Sometimes when you get everything ripped out from under," says Faith Smith, "you have to take a look at where do you want to spend your time and what's going to be meaningful." She's talking about the early 1970s, when she became part of "a very ugly battle" that raged within Chicago's American Indian Center on Wilson Avenue.

"There was a strong contingent of people who felt that the center ought to be more of a middle-classy sort of thing," Smith remembers. "A social center or that sort of stuff."

At that point Smith was five years out of college, five years spent working with fellow Indians on the streets of Uptown; she had just become acting director of the center, which she and others believed should focus on poverty and the problems of Indians on the streets. And when the smoke cleared, that's just where they found themselves--on the street, fired from the center's staff.

Eventually, out of that crisis and reevaluation came the rather unique institution that Faith Smith now heads as its president, Native American Educational Services College. It's a school run by Indians for Indians--the first college of its kind accredited to award a bachelor's degree. Although open to people of any background or ethnicity, the college exists primarily to serve Indian communities--"to integrate tribal bodies of knowledge, learning and intellectual traditions into academic curriculum and process," in the words of its catalog.

It's a small yet scattered school. With four different campuses--besides Chicago, they're located in Minneapolis-Saint Paul, on the Menominee Reservation in Wisconsin, and at the Fort Peck Reservation in Montana--NAES typically enrolls 100 to 120 students, with 30 to 40 of them at the Chicago campus. Almost all the students are involved in community work of some kind. Those coming from reservations may be involved in the nitty-gritty of governance and economic development. Then there's the 66-year-old recent graduate who spent some of his life as an "active participant" among the alcoholics of skid row. For his senior project he did what Smith describes as "a wonderful paper on the beginnings of the Indian community as such on skid row."

Smith says it's "basically the failure of major institutions to serve Indians in any meaningful way," that necessitated the founding of NAES. Dropout rates among Indians are astronomical, and "those people who did manage to tolerate those [institutions] through to graduation very often were dysfunctional when they went home to their communities--if they went home at all."

The local Indian population grew up following World War II, Smith explains, when "the Bureau of Indian Affairs identified seven major cities from around the country as places to relocate Indians, moving them from reservations to urban centers, theoretically for training and education--vocational education--the point being that they would disappear from the landscape, from the political entity of the tribe, and that they would fall apart as a populace."

This heritage didn't leave much room for higher education. The struggle to build the college has been an arduous one--and it hit rock bottom nine months ago, when Smith, along with everyone else in the college, found herself literally back out on the street. The building housing NAES was almost completely gutted by a fire; aside from its small library most of the college's Chicago facilities were destroyed.

After almost a year of fund-raising and building, the school has new furniture and equipment, rebuilt rooms, new books in the bookstore. Although it never ceased functioning during the rebuilding process, the college is now fully back in business and feels that it's time for celebration. Some students are ready to graduate and need to receive their BAs. Four people important to the college (three trustees and the academic dean) have died over the past year and should be remembered. All of this--rededication, graduation, remembrance--will take place in a public ceremony at 3:30 next Monday afternoon, October 7, at 2838 W. Peterson. For more information call 761-5000.

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