When Curtis Davia arrived in New York City from the San Carlos Apache reservation in Arizona in 1989, he had nowhere to go and no one to call. Not knowing what else to do, he looked up American Indian community organizations in the phone book and found a group called the American Indian Community House.
“They welcomed me. They found me a job. They provided assistance in me getting housing,” he recounted, sitting on the front porch of AICH’s headquarters on Governors Island. He showed up at the organization’s office on his first day and was given a job as a community health representative.
Davia is now the volunteer executive director of AICH, which was founded in 1969 to serve the needs of New York City’s Native American population. (He is currently on a leave of absence.) As we walked into the house and through a hallway lined with portraits of female Native leaders, he explained that arts organizations can apply for a house to use as exhibition space during the summer months, and this year, AICH had been given the largest of the eighteen structures. One part of AICH’s work, and one of the reasons its members wanted a presence on Governors Island, is increasing the visibility of the city’s often invisible Native community—a community that many New Yorkers barely acknowledge exists but that actually comprises the largest population of Native Americans and Alaska Natives of any city in the country.
But while 112,000 Native Americans reside in New York City, according to the latest census, that is a small segment of the city’s total population of over 8 million. In places like Oklahoma City, Tulsa, and Anchorage, the Native populations are about a third the size of New York City’s but make up a much greater percentage of the overall populations.
There are currently more Native Americans living in cities than on reservations, and they are thrown into the broader population with no regard for either their specific history nor the rights to which that history entitles them on reservations—such as access to healthcare—that they may be giving up by moving to a city to pursue work or education.
Nationwide, the lack of policy attention given to urban Native Americans intensifies the problem. According to Janeen Comenote, director of the National Urban Indian Family Coalition, Native Americans are often lumped into an “other” category when it comes to analysis of communities of color, resulting in far less specific attention than other minorities may receive.
There has also been a shift in who identifies as Native: Increasingly, Latinx people who may have once only checked Hispanic on the census are also selecting American Indian, citing their roots in indigenous tribes throughout the Americas.
In New York, where awareness of the indigenous population remains low, a handful of organizations are working to offer support to Native Americans and form a sense of community from what some say is a disparate array of groups. The population is spread across the boroughs, and with people coming from a variety of tribes across the country, there is not one wholly unified culture or Native language to bind everyone together.
For new arrivals, housing presents perhaps the greatest, and most immediate, issue—one with which many New Yorkers struggle but which people migrating from reservation communities have never before had to face.
“Not that there aren’t bureaucratic processes on the reservation,” explained Davia, “but New York is amplified 100 percent.” One young Native couple recently moved from Alaska when the man got a job at a processing plant in the city. They first slept in homeless shelters: the woman in one, the man in another. “So they came to us to try to find something, and we fortunately had a community member who had an open space in her apartment, and so she let them stay,” Davia told me. “But the challenge is now to get them into housing, and so that means applications, that means getting on waiting lists.”
When it comes to healthcare, the situation facing urban Native Americans is unique from that facing people on reservations—and far too similar to that facing other New Yorkers.
On reservations, Indian Health Services (IHS), an agency within the Department of Health and Human Services, provides hospitals or clinics that serve members of federally recognized tribes. Some of these are located in or near big cities, but the closest locations to New York are in Syracuse and on Cape Cod, meaning that Natives are lumped together with the general population and left to navigate the healthcare system.
However, the law outlining health policy for Native Americans implies that those additional resources should be afforded to Natives, regardless of whether they live on a reservation. The IHS itself acknowledges that moving to an urban area may bar many people from accessing the IHS; the law goes on to talk not about IHS facilities but about grants to Native-run non-profits in urban areas that will assist people with accessing healthcare.
The New York Indian Council resides in a shiny, almost sterile-looking new building in Long Island City. Charles Whalen, the organization’s case manager, grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota and comes from “some major bloodlines,” citing his connection to Sitting Bull; he’d later tell me about his involvement in Standing Rock, pulling up YouTube videos on his phone that he’d filmed at the encampment and explaining how he and his family members were some of the first to participate. He was back and forth between work on the east coast and Standing Rock for months. His mother, he’d reveal, is Regina Brave, the octogenarian who became a well-known figure in the standoff over the Dakota Access Pipeline.
The New York Indian Council is part of the Rhode Island Indian Council, a regional Native employment center and health services agency that set up this office to serve New York and New Jersey.
“What we’re able to offer is referral services, health and education materials,” Whalen said. “We promote healthy living and we’re, I guess you would say, the go-between. So if you require services, we provide those case management services. If you’ve got substance abuse issues, we can help with that as well.”
In such a big city, the challenge isn’t so much how to help people but how to find the people who could use help and who qualify for federally funded programs. “It’s kind of hard in the city of millions inundated with information,” he explained. “We’re reaching out to the Native communities and the colleges, universities. We try to find the incoming students. Everybody comes to the city for employment and education, training, so that’s the populace we’re reaching out to. At the same time, we’re reaching out to those people who have been established here for some time who may not necessarily self-identify as Native.”
Federal funding from the IHS can only go towards people who are members of federally recognized tribes or descendents of such. “As a general rule, an American Indian or Alaska Native person is someone who has blood degree from and is recognized as such by a federally recognized tribe or village (as an enrolled tribal member) and/or the United States,” writes the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Whalen explained, “Those who self-identify as Native American but don’t meet the legal criteria of that definition as it now stands—they may be indigenous to the Americas, but they’re not indigenous to this country.” In those cases, he tries to connect the person to other Native community organizations that are not bound by the restrictions that come with federal funding.
Those organizations often revolve around the arts. “Art is the language of our culture and it is through the arts that we are able to express that culture,” said Joe Baker, who grew up in a small tribal community in Oklahoma and is one of the cofounders of the Lenape Center, an organization with a mission to prevent the erasure of Lenapehoking, the term for the land—including New York City—historically inhabited by the Lenape people. It was the lack of awareness of that history that first prompted the creation of the Lenape Center.
“The experience of erasure has been so profound through the decades and centuries that it has been a lot of work to push back against the general ignorance—and I don’t mean to say that in a judgmental way—but the general ignorance of history, of place, of indigenous culture and peoples,” said Hadrien Coumans, another of the center’s cofounders.
Art is a tool used by many working within New York City’s Native population. Touring AICH’s exhibition of Native art with Davia that June morning on Governors Island, we walked by photographs, woven tapestries, and a large piece of canvas the size of a doorway, an array of symbols forming a circle around its perimeter—a work in progress that the artist was going to gradually fill in with symbols documenting moments in Native American history until they spiraled into the center point of the material. “We did research on all the artists,” Davia told me. “We did research on where they came from so that people could get a better sense that New York is not just Lenape, but it’s an urban community of over 75 different tribal nations represented.”
It’s an effort to use art to build community, which can then be of service in meeting people’s more urgent needs, that goes back to AICH’s founding 50 years ago, about two decades before Davia would encounter it when he moved to New York City without a place to sleep or income to keep him fed. “The initial effort was by a group of Native women and one of the things that they recognized, and we continue to recognize, is that Native people are migrating to the city for various reasons and often show up without a real understanding of how New York can be a little daunting,” he said. “They provided that support for me as a young person coming to New York with very little, and that’s what we continue to try to do for people who come to New York seeking whatever it is they’re seeking.”