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Active Cultures: a gathering of the tribes

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In 1961, President Kennedy became concerned about the state of Indian affairs. House Concurrent Resolution 108 of 1953--which initiated a divisive policy called "termination"--was intended to make Native Americans subject to the same laws as other Americans, giving them U.S. citizenship but taking away tribal sovereignty, treaty rights, and federal benefits and requiring them to pay taxes. The result spelled social and economic disaster for many Indian nations, causing some to sell reservation land and forcing many Native Americans to move into urban areas. Kennedy asked University of Chicago anthropology professor and Indian affairs expert Sol Tax to make some legislative recommendations.

"As was his way, his response was, 'You must ask the Indian people,'" says Tax's protege Anne Terry Straus, now a social sciences professor at the U. of C. Tax, who died in 1995, was the originator of "action anthropology," in which anthropologists encourage the communities they study to take action on their own behalf. He and some of his students coordinated the American Indian Chicago Conference, which took place in June 1961 at the U. of C.'s old Stagg Field and attracted 700 Native Americans from more than 80 tribes. (Tax and his students observed but didn't participate in the conference.) Five thousand others participated in preliminary regional meetings or gave their input. The stated plan was to "review past policies and to formulate new ones."

"It was the first meeting of its size and diversity of Indian people, because it included what are called recognized as well as unrecognized tribes," says Straus. (To have legal Native American status, a person had to be an enrolled member of an officially recognized tribe in accordance with the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934; for various reasons many tribes were not officially recognized, often because of stipulations imposed by the government.) "There were urban as well as reservation people, people who were in tribal government and people who were not part of tribal governments"--in other words, people who had different agendas, had never met before, and, in many cases, were suspicious of each other.

Still, the group made all of its decisions by consensus, says Nancy Oestreich Lurie, who was Tax's girl Friday for the conference and is curator emerita of anthropology at the Milwaukee Public Museum. "What impressed everybody was the lack of argument. Almost automatically, things were carried on in a very Indian fashion. Everyone got to speak, and everyone listened carefully."

The document that came out of the conference, "The Declaration of Indian Purpose," called for "Indian involvement in the decision-making process for all programs that would affect them" and urged the government to respect Native American customs. The document was widely distributed, and a delegation presented it to Kennedy at a White House ceremony the following summer. Kennedy appointed anthropologist (and Tax associate) Philleo Nash as commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which began to evaluate cases of tribes applying for federal recognition and funding.

But some of the biggest changes were among the Indians themselves. "There was a shift to greater political participation by Indians in policies that affected them," says Straus. In 1963, the formerly unrecognized Wisconsin Winnebago (now the Ho-Chunk Nation) became the first tribe without a reservation to apply for federal status. The Great Lakes Intertribal Council and the National Indian Youth Council grew out of the conference, which also strengthened the National Congress of American Indians and paved the way for demonstrations and "red power" activism in the late 60s and 70s. The termination policy was finally reversed during the Nixon administration.

Near the end of the 1961 conference, the attendees danced together at a powwow "just for the pure fun of it," says Lurie. The event will be commemorated at this weekend's Eschikagou Powwow and Indian Traders' Rendezvous, the brainchild of Straus and Hyde Park native Derek Mathews, founder of the Gathering of Nations, the world's biggest powwow, held every year in Albuquerque. The event will include drumming competitions and performances, storytelling, crafts, and appearances by Miss Indian World, Lillian Sparks. It will take place on the Midway Plaisance "about 100 yards from where the Indian village was constructed for the 1893 World's Fair," says Mathews, referring to the area of the Columbian Exposition that featured exhibits on other cultures. "Here we are back on the lakefront. Every 40 or 50 years, this village resurrects itself."

The Eschikagou Powwow and Indian Traders' Rendezvous takes place Saturday and Sunday from 10 to 6 on the Midway Plaisance at Dorchester between 59th and 60th. It's free. Call 888-947-5004.

--Cara Jepsen

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