Chicago’s Native Housing Problem
June 03, 2022
ANNIE HOWARD FOR AIA ARCHITECT
In Chicago’s Horner Park, a grassy, multitiered earthen mound covered in unkempt, newly planted native grasses rises above the banks of the Chicago River.
The mound, which will be completed in 2023 and currently hides behind a temporary protective fence, is one of two Native mounds—along with its sibling mound, located 10 miles west in Schiller Woods—that have been erected on the North American continent in five centuries. As part of 4000N, a community-led proposal for an interpretive learning and recreation area, the mounds will serve as waypoints for pedestrians interested in learning more about the history of the communities between two of Chicago’s landmark rivers.
Less than a mile from Horner Park, another landmark structure is set to begin construction in the coming years: Chicago’s first purpose-built Native housing complex. While the building is still in the early financing stage, its organizers are moving forward with a vision for a mixed-use housing complex in the Albany Park neighborhood, which is itself a short distance from the American Indian Center of Chicago—the nation’s first urban Indian community site, first opened in 1953.
The density of Native activity in Chicago, and especially in the smaller geography of the city’s North and Northwest Sides, has made the city a vital site of Indigenous activism over the past 75 years. At various points across the centurieslong colonization of the United States, Chicago’s Native population dwindled for many years to just a few dozen people after the area served as tribal homelands of the Ojibwe, Odawa, Potawatomi, Miami, Ho-Chunk, Menominee, Sac, Fox, Kickapoo, and Illinois Nations peoples for millennia. Now, these contemporary projects enact generations of Native resistance, coinciding with the 50-year anniversary of the Chicago Indian Village movement, a series of actions that protested poor housing conditions in the city. Taken together, the three projects open a new chapter in Indigenous adaptation and resistance to colonization, a story whose unfolding has grown in urgency in recent years.
Building New Native Housing
For contemporary Indigenous activists and organizers, the need to secure better housing for Native peoples has only grown more acute. There are an estimated 22,000 Native people residing in the city of Chicago and more than 65,000 in the Chicagoland area, representing over 150 tribal nations. The stress of housing insecurity has proved a persistent problem for Native Chicagoans. According to a report produced by the Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy, approximately half of American Indian/Alaska Native households in the city are rent burdened (paying more than 30% of their income on housing). Census data also found that AI/AN people were more than six times more likely than white people to be living in emergency shelters, suggesting the incredible toll of housing instability on the community.
For Pamala Silas, these figures have been a personal motivator in her work in the housing field. After eight years as the executive director of Metropolitan Tenants Organization, which helps Chicago tenants organize against unsafe housing conditions and landlord retaliation, she also led the National American Indian Housing Council, which serves as the housing authority for tribal lands. While the Housing Council is able to leverage funding for tribal housing because of a density of Native peoples in one place, the relative smallness of urban Native populations has made it difficult for urban Natives to find adequate housing resources.
“When I came back from NAIHC, I was revved up to do more urban housing, because so many tribes use the leverage of members on tribal lands, even though the majority don’t even live there,” says Silas, an enrolled member of the Menominee Tribe of Wisconsin and a descendant of the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin. “How are those resources translating to support Indigenous people elsewhere?”
Today, Silas chairs the board of Visionary Ventures, the organization working to create a new housing project in Albany Park. Together with its executive director and president Shelly Tucciarelli, and in collaboration with existing nonprofit housing developer Full Circle Communities, the organization has submitted plans for a project that will offer a mix of unit types, allowing for families to live alongside seniors. Significantly, the building will include a top-floor community space to allow for intertribal gatherings, as well as a 3,500-square-foot ground-floor commercial space that Visionary Ventures hopes to rent to an Indigenous-led business, further enriching opportunities for meaningful communal ties to build within a single space.
“It’s often taught that we’re no longer here, but the Native American community in Chicago is vibrant, and we want access and acknowledgment, just like everyone else,” says Tucchiarelli, a tribal member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin. “Forty-five units doesn’t even touch the need that we have, but it’s a start.”
Fighting Slum Conditions
All of the activity surrounding Visionary Ventures points to the longstanding issues that Native peoples have experienced in finding adequate housing in Chicago, as well as the centurieslong land dispossession that has largely erased countless generations of tribal ties to the region. More recently, promises made by the federal government to Native peoples encouraged to leave tribal lands remain unfulfilled. Visionary Ventures has pointed to this longstanding history in its promotional materials, recognizing the deeper lineage of its project.
In 1835, 5,000 Chippewa, Ottawa, and Potawatomi Indians gathered in Chicago. After collecting cash payments promised as part of the 1833 Treaty of Chicago, which ceded significant lands in present-day Wisconsin and Illinois, the tribes conducted the last recorded war dance in the city. For the remainder of the 19th century, census data records fewer than 100 Natives present within city limits, with just 90 American Indians recorded as city residents by 1900.
But over the course of the 20th century, the city’s native population gradually expanded. Chicago’s native population jumped in the mid-20th century as the Indian Relocation Act of 1956 attempted to eradicate Native cultures on tribal lands by forcing Indigenous peoples to assimilate into urban areas. The city’s Native population grew from 775 in 1950 to 3,344 in 1960, then nearly doubled to 6,575 in 1970. In Chicago, the growing Native population led to the opening of the American Indian Center in Uptown in 1953, the nation’s first urban Native community space, which today remains a critical hub for Indigenous activities.
Ironically, the goal of assimilating Native peoples into cities helped create the conditions for pan-Indian unity and foster a burgeoning “Red Power” movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s that grew alongside other radical movements of the era. Starting in November 1969, the most well-known Red Power demonstration was the 19-month occupation of Alcatraz Island, led by an intertribal group called Indians of All Tribes, inspiring similar demonstrations across the country. In Chicago, Red Power activism took its most visible form in the Chicago Indian Village demonstrations from 1970 to 1972.
CIV was founded by Carol Warrington, a mother of six who was living in slum conditions in Uptown, at the time the city’s most diverse—and impoverished—community. Warrington began a rent strike in response to her landlord’s refusal to make repairs, which led to her and her children’s eviction. Understanding that she would never find adequate housing conditions amidst the impoverishment of Chicago’s Native residents, who were given false promises of abundant opportunities if they relocated to the Windy City, she and others began an encampment outside Wrigley Field, the first of several occupations over the next two years.
Mona Susan Power was between 8 and 10 years old when the Village movement was in effect. Her mother, Susan Power, was heavily involved in CIV organizing, often providing more stable shelter, in her South Side bungalow, to others who had been living in the encampments. Mona Susan Power, today a writer based in the Twin Cities, recalls how much the Bureau of Indians misrepresented the housing conditions Natives could expect, one of many false impressions given by the government during this period.
“If the Bureau of Indian Affairs came to the reservation on business, they’d bring a stack of these pamphlets, which basically said, ‘Take a look at this, there [are] all these opportunities in Chicago, lucky you to move to the city,’” Power says. “And then you’d arrive and the reality was nothing even close to what they promised people.”
Much of CIV’s emphasis was housing-related, especially the poor quality of housing that was available to Native renters. While city, state, and federal officials tried to end the occupations by promising to house dozens of protesters, the encampments pushed on, knowing that they’d be placed in the same substandard units. In a telegram sent to politicians like Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley and U.S. President Richard Nixon, the movement made its intentions explicit:
“The American Indians of Chicago, do, on this date, May 12, 1970, declare war on the slum conditions in and near the Uptown area. We demand that the state legislature and the city council enact and enforce meaningful legislation to force slum landlords to repair their buildings.”
Power, who appears in a 1979 documentary made about CIV, recalls the turbulence of these actions. While she reflects fondly on the community spirit that sustained the demonstrations, she also recalls the pain and anguish that families faced dealing with unstable and unhealthy housing, and the wider sense of apathy the movement faced in fighting for a place in the city.
“The people who were committed to CIV were in it with our whole hearts because [we had] walked away from these slum conditions and were living in the encampments. They’d invested everything into it, and it was heartbreaking that people couldn’t understand what we were fighting for.”