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Return of the Native

From reburying museum "exhibits" to planting prairies, Joseph Standing Bear is intent on bringing his people back from the edges.



Joseph Standing Bear, one of Illinois' most visible activists on Native American issues, vividly remembers a TV documentary he watched as a teenager about the federal government's Indian schools. The schools were set up in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to teach academic subjects and the ways of white society to Native American children, many of whom had been removed involuntarily from their parents' homes. "The students had all had their hair cut short and couldn't speak their own language," he says. "They wore uniforms and slept in barracks--it was the total opposite of what they had come from. And one of the schools they showed in this documentary was in Carlisle, Pennsylvania--the school my grandmother had been sent to. For the first time I realized what my grandmother had been through, what had happened to a lot of other people like her who were taken away from their community and told to act like somebody else."

Standing Bear hasn't cut his hair in over a decade. "The first thing that happened to people like my grandmother when they got to the Carlisle school was their long hair was cut off. It's for her that I don't cut mine."

When he was a teenager, Joseph Standing Bear was still Joe Schranz. His father's side of the family was German, his mother's mostly Ojibwa. Growing up in the 1950s and '60s on Chicago's southwest side, he'd been told almost nothing about his Native American background, though he was told lots about his German heritage. "My mother was just one of those people who felt being an Indian was something to try and get away from," he says. "She felt it wasn't a good thing for her."

Serious and soft-spoken, Standing Bear started trying to find his place in that culture while he was still in high school. He spent as much time as he could listening to Ojibwa elders in Minnesota, where his mother and grandmother were from. He also followed closely the efforts of Leonard Peltier and other activist Native Americans. He says exploring a heritage he'd barely known he had was exhilarating. "For me, it was a cultural awakening," he says. "I like the German side, but the native part of it called out to things in my own spirit--like my love of the natural environment. I was really concentrating on what I could do to help make things better for my people. I was going to museums and talking to elders I met about how you can be a warrior and serve."

After he graduated he followed his father into the machinist's trade and started working at Continental X-Ray, on the city's southwest side. He didn't begin to speak out on Native American issues until the early 1990s, when he learned that the park district in the southwest suburb of New Lennox was planning to build a lavish golf course on 230 acres of undeveloped land. Archaeologists had found human remains and evidence of a Native American camp on a 19-acre section of the land, but park district officials decided to build there anyway. Standing Bear, other Native Americans, and their supporters protested the plan; one of their most dramatic actions was forming an "honor guard" of Native Americans who stood at the edge of the construction site to show respect for the ancestors whose resting place was being disturbed.

They didn't stop the golf course, but out of their protest came Midwest Save Our Ancestors Remains & Resources Indigenous Network, with Standing Bear as president. Last fall the group incorporated as a nonprofit, allowing it to pay a salary to Standing Bear, who'd lost his job when Continental X-Ray moved to the east coast in 1999. "I never felt comfortable working indoors and doing something industrial," he says. "I was always looking out the window at someplace I'd rather be."

One of SOARRING's primary goals has been the reburial of Native American remains under the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Across the country up to two million remains have been removed from museums and other public buildings, including the Grundy County courthouse in Morris, 15 miles southwest of Joliet, which had the remains of a native child on view in a glass case until last year. "When we accepted the remains from Grundy County, it felt good, because that was the last known remains on view," says Standing Bear. "For the first time in many decades there were no more remains of our people being shown."

The process of accepting and reinterring remains is complex. In many cases no one knows which native nation the person belonged to, and, says Ivan Dozier, vice president of SOARRING, "We don't really know how to handle a reburial because we never really dug up our own people. People assume that once those remains are given back to native people, everything's fine. But we don't know what to do with them. You try to bury them with an appropriate ceremony, but what's appropriate for someone who's been dug up from their resting place and put on a museum shelf, then buried again somewhere else?" He adds that some Native Americans are wary of the whole idea. "They worry that there must be negative things in the spirit world attached to that work." But not Standing Bear, he says. "Joseph's in tune with it. He's the kind of guy that can take it on and take it seriously."

Standing Bear and SOARRING have also helped protect ancient burial mounds, including ones in Cook and Will county forest preserves and on a golf course in the Quad Cities. The land being considered for the Peotone airport may also contain several Native American sites--remnants of villages or burial mounds--and so Standing Bear has allied his group with another opponent of the airport, STAND (Shut This Airport Nightmare Down). He also wants to build respect for Native American cultures, which is why he's spoken out against the University of Illinois' use of Chief Illiniwek as a mascot. "I think no people should be mascots," he says.

Another major goal of SOARRING is to find places to reestablish the plants and animals that are traditional in Native American rituals and daily life. The organization now owns a bison that's being bred on a downstate farm near Le Roy. On a parcel deeded to the Westchester Historical Society at the edge of the Wolf Road prairie, just west of Chicago, members of the group have a garden where they grow sweet grass, Hopi blue corn, sage, and other plants; they're also helping to reintroduce native plants to the preserve's prairie and marsh. In September each year the group does a two-day canoe float on the Fox River, which Standing Bear says is intended to show their concern for Illinois' waterways and to reflect how their ancestors lived along the river. "There's a lot of symbolism in most of what we do," he says. "It's about restoring the balance of the earth, unifying people with each other and with their surroundings."

"Joseph is one of the most important voices in the Native American community in Illinois," says Dona Bachman, director of the Schingoethe Center for Native American Cultures at Aurora University, "because of all the kinds of things he brings together--the garden and the reburials and the powwows."

This past spring Standing Bear started a new project: building a Native American cultural and educational center on a 34-acre piece of land 180 miles southwest of Chicago that was donated by Mary Wilhelm, who'd lived on it for 40 years and wanted it protected. Standing Bear sees it as a place where traditional ceremonies can be conducted and native plants cultivated. He also envisions building a pre-Columbian model village and possibly a small museum, if he can raise enough money--Dozier says it will cost about $300,000 just to clean up a weed-choked lake on the property.

Standing Bear believes the center will help build a sense of community among Illinois' estimated 31,000 residents with Native American roots by giving them a place to reconnect with their heritage. He says his sister hasn't embraced her Ojibwa background, but his teenage daughter--he and her mother are divorced--has.

The center "can really turn into an important place for us," he says. "We want to keep it as natural as it is now, and have powwows there and raise medicinal plants. Show what it meant for our people to live upon the land, not farm and develop it to make more and more money." It isn't much land, but Standing Bear, noting that Illinois never had a reservation, says, "That's the first time a native-based group has had that much land in Illinois since the 1830s."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.

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