N.Y. Indians work to preserve their identity

2000 Census counted 41,289 Native Americans living in the city

October 20, 2002|By Jason Begay | Jason Begay,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - 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, Taylor said, have their own languages and religions.

Defined by problems

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 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, 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."

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.

Balancing cultures

Paul 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

Stephanie 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?" she 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 Stephanie 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."

Mofsie and Richmond do recall when there was an identifiable American Indian community in the city. Both talk fondly of the time in the 1960s, 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," Mofsie said. The Rev. David Munroe Cory, the pastor, even allowed 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.

A cultural issue

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