Indian Pride And Progress Barry Richardson is keeping social and cultural programs going despite budget cuts

November 24, 1991|By Mary Corey

Barry Richardson leans against a brick wall, staring into the sunlight of an unseasonably warm fall day. At a photographer's request, he points his eye toward the distance and offers a wry smile. It may only be a pose, but the subject sees grander meaning in the simple gesture.

"That's what I'm doing -- looking into the future," he says and pauses a moment. "And what I see is more budget cuts."

That's not all he sees. As the executive director of the Baltimore ++ American Indian Center, much comes under his purview: a $1.5 million budget, roughly 3,000 Baltimore American Indians and a host of societal problems -- from high unemployment to low voter registration.

The thought of it would doom some men, but after 10 years running the Fells Point-based organization, Barry Richardson, 37, has learned to thrive on it.

"Every morning I get up I know I can make a difference. The Baltimore American Indian Center can make a difference. We offer the services people need, services that can give people that little push. And that's all a lot of people need -- someone to say we care about you, we believe in you," says Mr. Richardson, a member of the Haliwa-Saponi tribe.

A lumbering man, more round than tall, he speaks with a North Carolina accent as thick as tar. Quick-witted and unpretentious, he peppers his speech with four-letter words he later asks not be repeated. And as he settles into conversation, he stretches his large frame ("Just say I'm a big guy," he replies when asked about his weight) across two chairs; his back leaning against one, his feet up on another.

Since taking over, Mr. Richardson has earned a reputation for being an outspoken, and sometimes abrasive, proponent of local American Indian causes. Laughingly he confesses to his nickname: "Little Caesar." Considering the progress he's made -- and the ambitious cultural arts festival he's planned for next week (see box for details) -- it's easy to see how others could envision him as a builder of empires.

In the last several years, the center has nearly doubled its size, adding an American Indian museum, day care center and senior citizen facility. The efforts have been so successful, in fact, that many American Indian leaders view Baltimore as a model.

When Kay Ensing formed the Virginia Native American Cultural Center in Richmond recently, Mr. Richardson was one of the first directors she consulted.

"Barry walks his talk. When he says he's going to do something, it gets done. . . . He's a good listener, but he's willing to tell you what he really thinks," she says.

And he doesn't mince words when talking about how he believes society views American Indians.

"I always joke, 'Thanksgiving time! Bring out the Indians. Dust 'em off, parade 'em around. Christmastime? Put 'em up. Bring out Santa Claus.' It bothers me. We're not the Easter bunny," he says, anger and frustration welling up in his voice.

Then there is his support for the protests against the Washington Redskins and other athletic teams that use American Indian names and war paint, tomahawks and mascots.

"I'm sick and tired of people masquerading around in Indian regalia and stereotyping the American Indian," he says. "It's demeaning to me and my people. The American public wouldn't put up with that with b.s. for another group. . . . But since we're so small, people don't care what we think."

And although he serves on the governor's commission for Maryland 1992, a group orchestrating activities commemorating the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' arrival in America, the very existence of it raises his ire.

"People don't understand that Indians celebrating Columbus is like Jews celebrating Hitler's birthday," he says.

So why belong?

"You try to stop it at first. When you see you can't, then you try to run alongside it, so it doesn't run you over," he says.

Despite his attitude, Ann Hartman, executive director of the commission, praises the contributions he's made. One of the events scheduled for next year -- the North American Indian Summit and Exposition in Hagerstown -- was his idea, she says.

"Barry's been very outspoken, but in such a way that it drew attention and not antagonism," she says.

Rather than just talk about the image problem, Mr. Richardson has formed a for-profit organization, Pow Wow, which organizes American Indian cultural events along the East Coast. In addition to dancing and drumming contests, he sponsors a fashion show at which American Indians appear in traditional garb and modern-day clothing.

"I want people to see there are Indians here today who wear Brooks Brothers suits," he says.

But the organization has generated controversy among some American Indians who question whether Mr. Richardson is commercializing their culture.

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