'I don't pull any punches' Indians: The Baltimore American Indian Center has an energetic new director whose first eight months at the helm are drawing mixed reviews.

April 11, 1997|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF

A caption in yesterday's editions of The Sun misidentified a leader at the Baltimore American Indian Center. His name is Keith Colston.

The Sun regrets the errors.

Eight months ago, morale at the Baltimore American Indian Center had hit an all-time low. The group's executive director had been fired after a handgun violation arrest. The center had been accused of mismanaging several thousand dollars.

Then came Milton Hunt, an energetic entrepreneur whose no-nonsense business attitude and youthful energy have drawn comments -- some in praise, others in skepticism -- at the Fells Point center that serves the 6,000 American Indians in the Baltimore area.


"I don't pull any punches," says Hunt, a member of the Lumbee tribe -- the second largest east of the Mississippi River.

He has replaced four of the 16 employees, cleaned up the center and overhauled its financial recordkeeping since he was elected in August. "I'm tired of seeing American Indians overlooked when we have some of the greatest needs out there," he says.

His goal: to raise more money to improve the lives of American Indians.

The center provides programs and support for senior citizens; job training and placement services; and cultural classes and tutoring for young adults

Within the past 10 years, the 30-year-old center on South Broadway has had its funding cut. Its budget -- almost 80 percent from federal and state grants -- has fallen to $1 million from almost $2 million.

That's made it tough, some employees and some of the dozens of volunteers say, to battle the problems of some of the 13,000 American Indians in Maryland. According to the National American Indian Council, a nonprofit group in North Carolina, Indians nationwide and in Maryland -- among all minorities in this country -- have among the highest rates of alcoholism, unemployment, high school dropout and cancer.

Making it even more difficult to tackle these problems, experts say, is that Indians traditionally pride themselves on self-sufficiency.

"Historically and culturally, the concept of asking for help from others is very foreign to Native Americans," says Donna Chavis, executive director of the nonprofit Native Americans in Philanthropy in Lumberton, N.C.

Moreover, donations for Indian causes are limited. According to Chavis' group, American Indian causes received just $102 million of the $16 billion distributed each year by U.S. charities.

At the Fells Point center, Hunt is approaching fund raising as he would increasing the profits of a business.

First, he gave its offices a more professional appearance, including new furniture and a dress code for employees -- no jeans, except Fridays. A new electronic-mail system was next. And the center started keeping better financial records.

"You've got to cross your t's and dot your i's on everything you do," Hunt says.

At 36, Hunt is the youngest executive director in the center's history. He came to the $60,000-a-year job from running a consulting firm for home-based businesses and tutoring about 15 teen-agers a week at South Broadway Baptist Church -- a mostly American Indian congregation.

His predecessor, Herbert H. Locklear, was arrested last year on handgun violation and assault charges. Though the charges were dismissed, he was fired. The state sued the center over unpaid unemployment taxes, a suit that was settled for $6,000. And it could not account to donors for several thousand dollars of grants and donations, which staff members are working to unravel.

"In Milton, I see a new generation of leadership," says state Sen. Perry Sfikas, a Baltimore Democrat whose district includes the center. "For many, many years, the center had directors who worked in the context of the 1950s and '60s, when federal money for American Indians was coming in."

But in the local Indian community, some have found Hunt a bit too pushy.

"He's brought many positive things in the sense of professionalism and the sense of technology, but he's young and he still needs lots of polishing," says Eartle Barnes, the center's youth coordinator.

A center board member, who asked not to be identified, adds: "He certainly doesn't like to stay with the status quo, and sometimes it seems like change for change sake."

Hunt says such criticism fuels his drive: "You're always going to have some who like what you're doing and some who don't. I just stay focused."

With his gold-colored cuff links and high energy, Hunt offers a success symbol for some young Indians who frequent the center. But he was raised in a poor family in Fells Point by parents who were among the many Lumbees who came to Maryland from North Carolina in the 1950s looking for work.

Hunt dropped out of high school three times before graduating from Patterson High in 1979. He quit college to work as a bag boy at a Highlandtown grocery, where he became a manager. In 1985, he says, alcohol and drug abuse sent him on a downward spiral.

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