Tucson Indian Center Has Served Native Americans for Nearly 50 Years

April 13, 2012

By Teya Vitu

For nearly 50 years, the Tucson Indian Center has been a haven for urban Native Americans to find their way in the big city or just keep in touch with tribal traditions.

Rodney Palimo and Jacob Bernal at the Tucson Indian Center.

The center is a Downtown fixture, right on Congress Street, yet few other than folks who go there have any idea of the expansive, 11,000-square-foot center behind the blank white walls that thousands of people walk or drive by every day.

The TIC, 97 East Congress, doubles as a social services center and a community center. It essentially serves as an embassy, since technically, Indians come from sovereign nations. TIC serves tribal members affiliated with some 42 tribes with one primary common trait: Tribes generally have different sensibilities to deal with sensitive matters that are just foreign in mainstream America.

“There’s a cultural approach behind everything we do,” said Vicky Mullins, the center’s community liaison specialist.

This especially applies when center staff help clients with matters concerning tobacco, alcohol, diabetes and obesity.

“What makes a difference is our approach,” said Jacob Bernal, who joined the center in 1990 and has been its executive director for 11 years. “We don’t talk about disease. How we approach that is in a healthy, respectful way. We teach tobacco prevention, but we have to be very sensitive of the tradition behind tobacco use. Tobacco is a natural plant, a sacred plant. Saying it kills you has no impact on Indians.”

A similar cultural awareness comes into play for the Alcoholics Anonymous and Native American equivalent White Bison programs.

“We have AA meetings here,” Bernal said. “It makes a huge difference for the ones that enter our program. There are no sign-in sheets, no strings to come in. Our doors are closed and the windows are sealed.”

Education is another tricky subject in the Native American community. Many Indians have not been provided the skill sets, tools and credentials to compete in urban America. Same may be true in the rest of America, but Indians have their own reasons for balking on education.

The Tucson Indian Center building at Congress and Scott.

“They are suspicious of education,” said Bernal, a member of the Chemehuevi Colorado River Tribe. “The federal government used education as a way to assimilate Indians. We understand their fear and distrust. We tell them newly acquired knowledge can help them better their community and family. It’s about changing core values.”

The Tucson Indian Center was founded in 1963 to strengthen the resolve of the urban Indian population, a similar objective that launched federally funded Indian centers across the country since the 1940s in response to the housing, education and job needs of relocated Native Americans.

“What makes the Tucson Indian Center different is that the city grew up around American Indians,” Bernal said. “They have always resided here. Urban Indians have always been urban.”

About 43,000 urban Indians live in Tucson. Roughly 65 percent of the nation’s Native Americans live in urban centers now, but 95 percent of federal assistance goes directly to tribal reservations.

“The center provides the vehicle for urban Indians across the country to come in and feel welcome if there’s a need for assistance,” said Rodney Palimo, center’s chairman.

The federal government provides about 90 percent of the Tucson Indian Center’s funding with about 75 percent of that coming from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the next largest share from the U.S. Department of Labor.

The center has 2,000 actively enrolled clients and a total of about 10,000 Indians make use of the center in some way.

Many take advantage of the TIC’s direct link with the San Xavier Clinic south of Tucson.

“People can come to the center and we can take them to the clinic,” Mullins said. “They can have their medications (from San Xavier) brought here.”

Since the early 1990s, the Tucson Indian Center has more and more allied itself with mainstream society.

The center has built collaborations with the University of Arizona, the Arizona Cancer Center and the College of Public Health to provide health care services to Indians. The UA mobile health clinic comes to the TIC once a month.

The TIC also has strong ties with Pima County, which has an outreach and recruiting policy specifically to make Native Americans competitive for county jobs. Also, the Tucson Indian Center is located in a county-owned building with a 15-year lease.

“If you’re not at the table, you’re on the table. We’re now at the table. We’re being asked to participate,” said Palimo, a Tohono O’odham whose family were  founding members of the TIC

In Downtown specifically, the Tohono O’odham Nation recently awarded the Downtown Tucson Partnership $90,000 for its Façade Improvement Program.

The Tucson Indian Center will not just celebrate its 50th anniversary next year with a boatload of activities, but they have much bigger ambitions for their second half century.

“We want to create our own economic engine,” Bernal said. “That’s our dream and aspiration: self-sufficiency.”

The center is undertaking feasibility studies to possibly build a cultural center, gift shop, museum and performance center. No location has been identified yet.

Bernal has watched the focus shift at the Tucson Indian Center. Back in the 1990s, social services were paramount. Social services still are a major driver, but the center these days is as much a community center.

“Now, fortunately, people are coming in to use the computer, read tribal newspapers, use community services,” Bernal said. “You can come here and have fun and engage. We have an elder lunch once a month.”