Native New Yorkers

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Thu Aug 29 06:36:50 MDT 2002

NY Times, Aug. 29, 2002

Native New Yorkers (The Original Kind)

The city with the largest American Indian population, according to the 2000
Census, is not Phoenix. Not Los Angeles. It is New York City.

The news is a surprise even to some Indians living in the city. "You're
kidding, right?" said Rosemary Richmond, the director of the American
Indian Community House in Manhattan.

The census counted 41,289 American Indians and Alaska natives living in the
city in 2000. And although the Census Bureau's form allowed people to claim
more than one race, helping increase the numbers from previous years, when
the census counted those people who claimed only some American Indian or
Alaska native heritage, New York City was still No. 1, with 87,241. (Los
Angeles and Phoenix ranked second and third in both population categories.)

One reason people do not realize how many Indians are in the city is that
they are spread throughout the boroughs. "There's no concentration of a
community, because there's such a diversity of tribes," said Michael A.
Taylor, who works with the Thunderbird American Indian Dancers, and was the
head male dancer in the annual Thunderbird Powwow in Queens last month.

"And the diversity of percentage of blood, it's across the board."

There are more than 500 American Indian tribes in the country, and many are
represented in New York City. Most tribes, Mr. Taylor said, have their own
languages and religions.

The American Indian Community House in Lower Manhattan provides services to
about 6,000 people a year, including a free lunch program, food and
clothing banks, medical referrals and job and computer training. Some board
members, however, say that the center, which was formed in 1969, is in need
of expansion, both of its offices at 708 Broadway and of its services.

"One of our problems is that we are defined by our social problems," said
Leota Lone Dog, an artist and board member, of the center's focus on
helping the poor and the unemployed.

"The people who are coming into the city don't have the same types of
problems that this organization was built on."

One of the biggest problems now, says Louis Mofsie, the chairman of the
center's board, is more intermarriage.

"As time goes on, we're going to have more and more Indian people in urban
areas with less and less Indian blood," said Mr. Mofsie, who is Winnebago
and Hopi and has spent all of his 65 years in and around New York City.

So even though the community house is the largest meeting place for
American Indians in the city, with a solid flow of regulars who attend the
monthly powwows and lunches for the elderly and youth council meetings, Mr.
Mofsie said that he would like to see the center offer more social
gatherings and events.

Perhaps, he reasons, that would make it easier for the city's American
Indians to meet one another. Some have found that hard, and harder still to
meet someone from the same tribe.

"I went through it myself; I did look for a Seneca husband," said Stephanie
Betancourt, 48. "But you can't say who you're going to care about."

Mrs. Betancourt's husband is Puerto Rican. Their son Paul Betancourt
married outside the tribe as well. Because tribal lineage is passed through
the mother, his children will not be considered Senecas by the tribe, the
Seneca Nation of Indians.

Mr. Betancourt, 25, was born on a reservation in western New York but has
spent most of his life in the city, growing up in the Bronx and going to
school in Harlem.

He shares the passion of his tribe's history and culture that his mother
tried to instill in all three of her children. He and his mother both now
work at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American
Indian, in Lower Manhattan

Mrs. Betancourt tried to balance the Seneca and Puerto Rican cultures of
her three children. But the tribal policy means that it will be hard to
remain an Indian family.

"How much blood do you have to have to be an Indian?" Mrs. Betancourt asked.

Alyse Eggleston, a spokeswoman from the clerk's office at the Seneca Nation
of Indians in western New York, said this tribally mandated rule was an
extension of tribal history. "It's always been that women traditionally
have more power," she said.

This is little consolation to Mrs. Betancourt. "I think we live in times
where we have to think about changing things," she said. "I don't think
we're ever going to have a homogeneous race again."

Mr. Mofsie and Ms. Richmond do recall when there was an identifiable
American Indian community in the city. Both talk fondly of the time in the
1960's, when Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, around Nevins Street was full of
Mohawks who worked in steel.

They also talk about a church on Pacific Street, where the pastor learned
to speak Mohawk.

"We were there all the time," Mr. Mofsie said. The Rev. David Munroe Cory,
the pastor, even allowed Mr. Mofsie's group of friends, who called
themselves the Little Eagles, to use the church to sing and dance. That
group eventually became the Thunderbird American Indian Dancers.

But even without a similar neighborhood now, Mr. Mofsie sees Indians
working to hold on to their heritage, despite documentation disputes in the

"I see the enthusiasm the people have in keeping the traditions alive," he
said. "Being an Indian is becoming more a cultural than a blood issue."

There are already some groups in the city that have accepted this and are
dedicated to continuing the cultures of their tribe, regardless of official
tribal recognition.

Walter Red Eagle is a founder of the Cherokee Language and Cultural Circle.
He is 58, a retired truck driver and walks with a cane wrapped in buckskin.
His great-grandfather, he said, was Cherokee.

He is not enrolled in the tribe, and has no plans to be. "Why would I want
to?" he asked. "They don't ask any other ethnic group to enroll or prove
their heritage."

Mr. Red Eagle learned to speak some Cherokee growing up in Radford, W. Va.
He said he learned to speak fluently from a tribal elder he met in New
Jersey in the early 1990's. Since 1997, he has met weekly with the circle,
although many of the members are not enrolled in the tribe.

Mr. Red Eagle's Cherokee heritage is a small portion of his ethnic
background, but it is the part he feels bonded to. "It doesn't matter what
mix of culture you have," he said. "What you were meant to be in life comes

Louis Proyect

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