In the 1950s, government policy relocated Indian people from reservations to urban areas to promote assimilation. Some families did not fare well during the relocation and had no jobs or homes to go to.
Most who relocated hoped to at least meet other Indians, and through the Denver Indian Center in Colorado, they did.
The center’s 30th anniversary on March 1 celebrated the cultural survival the center embodies, even though the settlers of Denver—one of nine federal relocation cities—many years ago displaced Arapaho, Ute, and Cheyenne Natives living on the city’s original site, some of whose descendants, ironically, later returned under the relocation program.
The center has been a “community of culture” of the kind the late Wilma Mankiller, former principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, called urban Indian centers during a visit to Denver. She said centers unite Native people with common values who may not always have access to “communities of place” as exist on reservations.
“It [the center] was a gathering place for people who were new to Denver,” said Lucille Echohawk, Pawnee, a founding board member of the center and current director of the Denver Indian Family Resource Center.
Instead of the deprivation some newcomers to Denver felt a half-century ago, the anniversary celebration featured $1,000 tables, pricey silent auction items and an event room in the Denver Art Museum. Mark Jackson, a retired Denver Broncos wide receiver, cracked jokes as emcee; the 1491s comedy group entertained; and singer Shelley Morningstar, Northern Cheyenne, and her husband, Fabian Fontenelle, Zuni/Omaha, performed.
March 1, 2013 was proclaimed Denver Indian Center 30th Anniversary Day by Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and a similar proclamation was issued by Denver Mayor Michael Hancock.
It was all a far cry from the city’s first Indian center, run by Denver Native Americans United, Echohawk recalled. That program ran into financial trouble and was supplanted in 1985 by DIC, which first subleased and then acquired title to its present building for $5, along with a $400,000 community development block grant for renovation, she said.
This center, like Indian centers elsewhere, can affect not only new arrivals but also others, including youth who grew up in relocation cities like Denver.
“Urban Indian centers play a role in helping urban Indian people make connections with one another. They function as locations where people can feel comfortable and experience a sense of belonging with others who are like themselves, and they provide a venue for involvement in powwows and other cultural activities,” said Nancy Lucero, Mississippi Choctaw, an assistant professor of social work at Colorado State University-Pueblo.
Youth issues are important at the center, Jay Grimm, Navajo, the center’s executive director, said as he summed up: “Now our work is more important than ever. It’s our chance to be strength-based.”
It’s in keeping with the center’s vision of providing intergenerational links as tools for Indian families “to thrive and lay the foundation for current and future generations,” he said.