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FEBRUARY 2000 (print version)

Native Chicago:
Action anthropologist Terry Straus works with the city's Native Americans as they strive to preserve their heritage and determine their future.

By Charlotte Snow

About five years ago, Roxy Grignon heard someone calling her name from outside her Chicago apartment. Looking down from her second-floor window, she saw a young woman. When Grignon buzzed the woman up, she realized that she was holding a baby. The mother told her how she was struggling with drugs and had spent the night on the street. Grignon felt she had to help, as both she and the mother shared a Native-American heritage and had known each other previously on the Menominee Indian Reservation in Wisconsin. With three grown daughters of her own, Grignon became a licensed foster parent and has since adopted the boy.

As word spread, Grignon soon got more such pleas for help. Overwhelmed, she began asking other Native Americans to serve as foster parents. Then in 1997, the former entrepreneur and probation officer formed the Native American Foster Parents Association (NAFPA), which has since helped license 21 Native-American foster homes throughout Illinois, with 59 licenses pending.

The group has also designed a curriculum for social workers and juvenile-court personnel on Native-American culture and the intent of the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act, which sought to end decades of placing Native-American children in non-Native-American homes. A recent meeting with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) is expected to establish a protocol for linking the more than 130 Native-American children in the state's foster-care system with Native-American families. "This is important for the children's culture and their identity," says Grignon, "and for the future of our people."

Anthropologist Anne Terry Sawyier Straus, AM'70, PhD'76, advises NAFPA on financial and legal issues, helps it recruit Native Americans to serve as foster parents, and advocates on its behalf. The group, says Straus, a University of Chicago professorial lecturer, is an example of the vibrancy and renewed activism of the city's Native Americans at the end of the 20th century. "They are forcing the issue of who should raise Indian children," she says, "and they are the only group that has set about to educate social workers about the law and to recruit foster parents. Their work shows how this is an era of self-determination for Indian people."

Having served as one of the University's first Harper fellows from 1975 to 1978, Straus--who goes by Terry--returned to the faculty five years ago to teach graduate courses on Native-American topics. Though she often travels to the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana (and runs a beef-cattle ranch on the neighboring Crow Indian Reservation, some 20 miles up a dirt road in the Wolf Mountains), her work is focused on Chicago's urban Native Americans.

Following her motto of "practice what you teach," she's active as a volunteer, adviser, and advocate in the city's community of 7,000 Native Americans from more than 100 tribal backgrounds. In addition to her work with NAFPA, she serves on the national advisory council of the Newberry Library's D'Arcy McNickle Center for American Indian History and is vice president of the board of directors of the Red Path Theater Company of Chicago.

A former dean of Chicago's Native American Educational Services (NAES) College, she has published several books on the history and literary life of the city's Native Americans. Says Native-American writer and Red Path director E. Donald Two-Rivers: "She has been a trusted member of our community for as long as I can remember. I have always regarded her as a trusted educator and diplomat for our issues."

The 54-year-old Straus, a third-generation Hyde Parker who is not Native American, grew up on 56th Street in a gray frame house between Kenwood and Dorchester. Today, she and her husband, Albert K. Straus, a surgeon at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center, live on that same block and have sent all four of their children to the Lab Schools. The University named a professorship in the humanities after her grandmother, actress Phyllis Fay Horton, AB'15, and her parents--Winston & Strawn attorney Calvin P. Sawyier, AB'42, AM'42, and Illinois Institute of Technology professor emerita Fay Horton Sawyier, AB'44, PhD'64--met as U of C students. Her mother, she says, was a role model and encouraged her "as a pre-women's-movement daughter to do and be anything I might dream of."

Straus first became interested in Native-American history and culture as an undergraduate at Barnard, after reading E. Adamson Hoebel's The Cheyennes: Indians of the Great Plains (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1960). She says she was so impressed by the Cheyennes' highly organized and sophisticated society, running on different rules from her own, that she chose to write her B.A. paper on the tribe. She then decided to pursue graduate work in anthropology at the U of C, where she read another eye-opening book, Vine Deloria Jr.'s Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto (Macmillan, 1969). Now regarded as a classic repudation of white society's stereotypes of Native Americans, Deloria's book includes a withering chapter that mocks the methodology and the purpose of anthropologists. "It would be wise for anthropologists to get down from their thrones of authority and PURE research and begin helping Indian tribes instead of preying on them," he concludes. As a young anthropologist just starting out, Straus found Deloria's words impossible to ignore. "I was sensitive to that criticism," says Strauss. "I found an answer in Dr. Sol Tax's work."

A specialist in the social anthropology of Native Americans and founder of the journal Current Anthropology, Tax, PhD'35, advised Straus on her doctoral thesis. The late professor is credited with establishing the practice of action anthropology in the 1950s while conducting fieldwork with his Chicago students among Fox Indians in an Iowa settlement. Tax and the students found evidence of internal dissension caused by outside pressures from the white community and wanted to help ease the tension. But realizing it was not their place to enforce changes, they instead provided advice as the tribal members defined their own problems and sought solutions. Working in this manner, they helped the Fox devise a plan that led to the creation of educational programs, a community center, and a crafts business.

In June 1961, Tax took the practice of action anthropology further when, working with the National Congress of American Indians, he organized the American Indian Chicago Conference, held at the University. The eight-day conference, funded by grants from the University and private foundations, drew hundreds of Native Americans, representing more than 80 tribes. The conference included a celebratory powwow and produced a declaration calling for the federal government to provide aid to help Native Americans address worsening conditions on reservations. A teenager at the time, Straus recalls watching the proceedings from a distance, realizing that "something very important was going on there."

Tax's example helped Straus reconcile her desire to study Native Americans as an anthropologist with Deloria's call for a more participatory approach. "Tax had respect for the integrity of communities and of people other than himself during the era when the idea of the melting pot was popular," says Straus. "He understood and learned from Native-American people that this was not the way it was going to be. He had a message and he converted me. Much of anthropology at that time was into applying organizational and theoretical frameworks to subjects. He was into learning from people what needed to be learned rather than approaching them with set ideas."

Straus says she views a major theme of her work as the education of non-Native Americans about Native-American culture and life. She ticks off the facts she thinks every U.S. citizen should know about Native Americans today: "Indian" is a legal and political status, not a race. Indians have essentially a dual-citizenship status. Tribes all have separate governments. They have their own tribal constitutions. They are different from each other, but have some things in common because of their relationship to the federal government. They are contemporary people. They do not have strong numbers--there are only about two million Native Americans in the United States--but they can speak effectively about their concerns. They are very diverse, and more than half live in urban settings. They are not all rich because of casinos.

Such facts are important for the public to know, she says, because "with broad powers in regard to Indian tribes held in the U.S. Congress, tribal rights become everyone's responsibility."

On campus, Straus has furthered her goal of educating others about Native Americans as a lecturer in the University's Master of Arts Program in the Social Sciences (MAPSS), which she joined in 1995 after two years as a senior researcher at the American Indian Economic Development Association in Chicago. During a January meeting of her winter quarter class, Anthropology 320: Topics on Native America: Indian Civil Rights Act, she reviewed with 13 students a series of early Supreme Court decisions significant to native peoples, highlighting one that has had repercussions through modern times. Written by Chief Justice John Marshall in 1831, it established the legal foundations for the present-day trust relationship between the federal government and Native Americans, with these words referring to the Cherokee: "Meanwhile they are in a state of pupilage. Their relation to the United States resembles that of a ward to his guardian."

Straus explained the concept to the class in a manner both businesslike and down-to-earth, like her attire of teal business suit and black walking shoes. The passage, she said, portrayed Native Americans as "cognitively disabled adults or young children not capable of handling their own situations, their own land in particular. A straight-out statement of paternalism is pretty clearly here." But, she noted, Native Americans have found ways to use this passage to their advantage. "Today, the trust relationship is important in safeguarding the special legal and political status of Indian tribes," she explained. "Tribes have used it to hold the government liable in its fiduciary responsibilities to Indians. Tribes have turned the burden of paternalism into a strength."

Outside the classroom, Straus has worked to bring Native-American culture to campus. Currently, she's assisting curators Robert G. Donnelley, AM'97, and Richard A. Born, AM'75, with an upcoming Smart Museum exhibit of works by the Native-American artist Silver Horn. Titled Transforming Images: The Art of Silver Horn and His Successors, the April 13-June 11 exhibit will showcase Silver Horn's ledger book drawings and hide paintings, including a collection from the Field Museum of Natural History that has never been shown publicly. The works record the history and culture of Kiowa Plains Indian life at the turn of the century.

For the past two years, Straus has provided students in her anthropology classes with a more interactive Native-American cultural experience. Each spring quarter class has organized an on-campus powwow, including the performance of traditional Native-American dances and songs. The 1998 event was held on the Midway Plaisance in June to commemorate the 1961 powwow. Last year, the event grew from a small cultural demonstration to include more than 20 dancers, representing as many tribes, and two drum groups. Straus is now working with students and the Gathering of Nations, an Albuquerque-based powwow-planning organization, to bring to the Midway what she hopes will be a powwow nearly as large as that held in 1961. She expects the free and open-to-the-public event to attract several hundred dancers and as many as 70 crafts vendors during the last weekend in September.

Ultimately, Straus hopes that classes on Native-American issues, the Silver Horn exhibit, the Midway powwows, and other such efforts will help to acknowledge the presence of Native Americans at the University and to attract more Native-American students. (According to the registrar, 19 Native Americans are currently enrolled at the U of C.) Also to that end, she advises the Native American Students Association, which grew out of her students' past powwow organizing efforts.

NASA president Jessica Hansbrough, a fourth-year anthropology concentrator, says the purpose of the group is to help connect Native-American students to each other, and to connect all students to the city's Native-American community. Its 30 members, she says, are a mix of Native-American students and other graduate and undergraduate students who are studying Native-American topics or are generally interested in Native-American culture. In early February, the group planned to bring White Hawk, a local Native-American drum group, to the C-Shop's weekly music showcase, the Flow.

As Tax did for her, Straus provides University students with a model for applying their studies. "She works with students in a very active, personable, and engaging manner," says Hansbrough, who participated in the 1998 powwow as a second-year in Straus's anthropology class. "She's always very casual with you and encourages you to become more active in your field of study. Every class she does requires fieldwork and planning for and attending an event, like the powwow." And, revealing perhaps just how much to heart she has taken Straus's philosophy of action, she adds: "As an anthropology student in Native-American issues, how can I not be involved with NASA?"

True to her own walking-the-talk motto, Straus continues to look beyond Hull Gate for ways to help Chicago's larger Native-American community. She has supported efforts at the Newberry Library to record the history of the community, including helping to plan its Chicago Oral History Project, and is now compiling a book of Native-American children's writings. In addition to a number of published articles--always written with a Native-American co-author--she has edited two collections of essays by community members on the history and contemporary life of local Native Americans. She collaborated with former student Grant P. Arndt, AB'94, AM'97, on the latest collection, Native Chicago (MAPSS, 1998), which presents an urban Native-American community with a long and varied history.

Long before the settlement of modern-day Chicago began, the essays explain, the area had been home at one time or another to many Native-American nations, including the Illini, Miami, Potawatomi, Ottawa, and Chippewa. During the 18th century, the Potawatomi tribe rose to prominence with their fur-trading expertise. Tensions mounted when native peoples joined with the British during the War of 1812 to burn down Chicago's Fort Dearborn. The fort was rebuilt, but conflict flared again in the 1830s, this time leading to the 1833 Treaty of Chicago, which forced all Native Americans in the area to move to Iowa.

The earliest U.S. census records indicate that by 1890 fewer than a dozen Native Americans lived in the city. Native Americans came to Chicago in large numbers during World War II and afterward in search of jobs and as a result of a federal relocation program designed to move Native Americans off of rural reservations and into urban areas. The new arrivals eventually congregated in the city's Uptown and Edgewater neighborhoods, where a number of meeting places and social-service organizations geared to their needs sprang up and are still active today.

It is within these organizations--like NAFPA, which recently opened storefront offices in Ravenswood--that Straus has applied her training as an action anthropologist, helping Native Americans identify and solve problems in their community.

In the mid-1980s, after serving on the grand council of the American Indian Center of Chicago, Straus became a full-time faculty member and later dean at NAES College. NAES was founded in 1974 to serve the higher-education needs of Native Americans in Chicago, Minneapolis, and two reservation communities. The school's Chicago campus is located in a nondescript office building along Peterson Avenue on the city's Northwest side. In the lobby stands a glass case filled with rows of found objects displaying grossly stereotypical images of Native Americans: Redman tobacco, Pocahontas kosher dill pickles, Chief Oshkosh beer, Chief paint and varnish thinner, "Indian-salted" pumpkin seeds. In contrast to this jolting display, authentic Native-American powwow songs are piped through the building's sound system, and office shelves display handcrafted Native-American artifacts.

During one evening class in January, 24-year-old Netawn Kiogima, who is Blackfoot, Sioux, Ottawa, and Ojibwa, told her five classmates that she's there to learn the Ojibwe language so that she may one day teach it. Her husband, 29-year-old Robert Smith, who is Ojibwa and Assiniboine, leads the college's Urban Natives of Chicago youth group. While his wife attended class, he played with their 13-month-old daughter in the youth group's office. "NAES gears your education toward whatever interests you," says Smith, who's also working toward a degree at the college. "It puts you in touch with the community. It directly asks you to work on it and serve it in some capacity. Your education ends up being what you want it to be. Here you fuel your own learning."

During her nearly ten-year tenure at the college, Straus helped design the school's core curriculum, which includes a mandatory field project. She also focused much of her efforts on recruitment, considering higher education key to Native-American self-determination. "There has been a huge increase in the number of Indian college students and graduate students in the past decade," she notes, "meaning that the leadership in Indian communities can more and more rely on Indian professionals."

Straus has also played an active role in mapping the direction of Red Path, founded in 1994 to encourage the city's Native Americans to recognize the importance of their cultural heritage through drama. Born in an Uptown basement, the company is now headquartered at Truman College and has staged performances and readings of folktales set on reservations, in the workplace, and on urban streets. Two-Rivers, the company's founding artistic director, won a 1999 American Book Award for Survivor's Medicine: Short Stories (University of Oklahoma Press, 1998).

On a recent snowy January night, Two-Rivers headlined the weekly open-mike poetry reading at Café Aloha, located a few blocks from NAFPA. He shared a selection from his new three-part poetry play, Peeking out of Amerika's Museums, a spirited meditation on Native-American identity, urban Native-American life, and threats to the environment. The moody, at times humorous, tone of the poem the Ojibwa tribal member chose to read in the alcohol-free bar run by Bosnian proprietors was enhanced by the accompaniment of a friend playing jazz on a Yamaha keyboard. In the dim and smoky room, he described "pigeonholes in the early dawn" and the tension his character feels with a cop who calls him "Chief." As an encore, he read one of his earliest poems, "I'm Not Tonto." His long, thick black hair salted with gray swished back and forth as he punctuated his point that he's not "a Hollywood Indian" aiming to please.

Straus is now working with Two-Rivers on a Red Path program to nurture Native-American children's aesthetic appreciation for theater. They earlier co-edited Skins: Drum Beats From City Streets (Barrick & Associates, 1994), a collection of local Native-American poetry. "The verbal arts have been a longtime interest and strength in Indian communities but they haven't always been stressed in urban Indian communities," says Straus. "It's exciting because now it's in the waves. It's important for people writing about the Indian experience that some comes from the urban Indian experience."

Perhaps recalling Deloria's admonitions regarding the arrogance of anthropologists, Straus is reluctant to speak on behalf of the city's Native Americans about the future of their community. But she hasn't given up the tenets of the action anthropology his words first pushed her toward: She's quick to note that she's meeting later in the day with a group of attorneys interested in forming a Chicago firm that specializes in Native-American issues. "It's a fledgling group but it demonstrates the exciting potential of the community," she says. And it provides Straus with yet another chance to practice what she teaches.

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