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Native American life around Chicago

Indigenous people in Chicago have influenced everything from the placement of roadways along their onetime trade routes to the name of our city itself.

But this is not a history lesson.

Chicago is home to the largest population of Native Americans in the Midwest and the second largest east of the Mississippi River — more than 30,000 people representing at least 100 tribes, according to the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“A lot of people in Chicago don’t realize there is such a large Native community living here, and so many Native organizations,” said Josee Starr, operations director at the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian in Evanston and member of the Arikara, Omaha and Odawa tribes.

This past weekend, thousands of people gathered at Schiller Woods, where the American Indian Center hosted its 69th annual powwow, bringing together generations of the community.

“Powwows are celebrations and gatherings where you can come together to sing, dance, eat, visit, renew friendships, make new friendships,” Starr said. “It’s all just a gathering and teaching space.”

With the popularity of shows like “Reservation Dogs” on FX and “Rutherford Falls” on Peacock, Native Americans are creating their own narratives about their culture today.

“Representation matters, right? Positive representation matters,” she said.

Native American culture is alive in Chicago — you just have to know where to look.

If you want to connect with Native experiences — today or otherwise — here are Starr’s suggestions for where to go, and what to see, with excerpts from the Tribune stories dedicated to them:

A runner passes by a mural called

2045 N. Lincoln Park West, Chicago (the underpass at West Foster Avenue and DuSable Lake Shore Drive); chicagoparkdistrict.com

The mural tells the history of Native Americans in Chicago and is only 4 miles east from the American Indian Center, but its site also holds a special meaning.

“The location is far more relevant than most people realize. Angle streets like Rodgers Avenue and Broadway are all former Indian trails that ran right through the Foster Avenue underpass,” said Frances Hageman, vice president of the center’s board and contributing historian in 2009.

The 3,400-square-foot expanse of concrete in the Edgewater neighborhood provided a challenging but promising place for the project, which brought together a collaboration of artists, community members and youthful volunteers. read more

— Tribune archives, June 5, 2009

An exhibit on Walks With The Young Nation (Frank Waln), a Sicangu Lakota hip-hop artist, is part of the Field Museum's

Field Museum, 1400 DuSable Lake Shore Drive, Chicago; fieldmuseum.org

From the 1950s until 2019, the Field Museum’s Native North America Hall was a haphazard collection of everyday Indigenous American items. Vague, terse descriptions rendered the artifacts as faceless as the mannequins on display. Field anthropologists had hastily collected the items in the late 19th century, assuming, chillingly, that the cultures of their origin wouldn’t last.

“Native Truths: Our Voices, Our Stories,” which opened in May, is a long-awaited corrective. A four-year project, the permanent exhibit replacing the former Native North America displays brings the history of Native American life in dialogue with its kaleidoscopic present.

Debra Yepa-Pappan, who coordinates Native community engagement at the Field, says she’s received a flood of requests from Indigenous groups to visit the new exhibit, all of which she’s committed to accommodating.

“Just because the exhibition is open now, that’s not the end. That’s the beginning,” Yepa-Pappan says. “The exhibition needs to be viewed as also living and thriving.” read more

— Hannah Edgar

Cousins ​​Aria Tucker, left, and Akio Pochel-Peters, both 4, help shape a large-scale mound, a public earthwork installation, at Schiller Woods-West forest preserve on Oct.  9, 2019.

(Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune)

Schiller Woods-West (West Irving Park Road, east of Des Plaines River Road), Schiller Park; fpdcc.com

If you head to Schiller Park, a massive serpent will greet you.

Made from soil and ancestral dirt from numerous tribal lands in the nation, Pokto Činto (the Koasati translation of Serpent Twin) is a concept from the neighboring community and area organizations to pay homage to those who inhabited the land before colonization. But it’s the creation of Indigenous futurist artist Santiago X, a citizen of the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana and the Indigenous Chamoru from the island of Guam.

The Serpent Twin is an earthwork piece of public art — an effigy mound of soil similar to those found in Cahokia, Illinois (home to Monks Mound). It is also just one bookend of two that will connect the North Branch of the Chicago River to the Des Plaines River along the 9-mile stretch of Irving Park Road when complete. Serpent Twin will sit in Schiller Park, and the Coil Mound (many tiers of soil resembling the coiled body of a snake) will sit in Horner Park. read more

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The Mitchell Museum of the American Indian unveiled a mural designed by Native youth that tells the Anishinaabe creation story.

Outside the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian, 3001 Central St., Evanston; mitchellmuseum.org

The museum hosted an open house event in late August with the unveiling of a new outdoor mural designed by Native youths, a children’s book author reading and the introduction of a new Indigenous medicine and pollinator garden at its Central Street, Evanston, location.

“We are thrilled to present the new mural to the public and support a project that promotes cultural awareness, empowerment and leadership among Chicago’s talented young Native artists,” said Mitchell Museum Executive Director Kim Vigue (Menominee/Oneida).

“We aligned with the St. Kateri Youth Circle in Chicago to increase efforts to provide children, educators and visitors with new perspectives and programming on the Chicago area’s rich Native histories, cultures and contributions, the mural was a part of that,” Vigue said .

Organizers say the mural concept was youth-driven and tells the Anishinaabe creation story with representations of nature and animals in the Woodland art style. read more

— Gina Grillo

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