People from Indigenous communities across North America have long turned to the American Indian Community House for both succor and celebration. For more than fifty years, AICH has provided both culturally appropriate social services and an important landing and launching pad for Native artists like Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, G. Peter Jemison, and Spiderwoman Theater. New York City is home to the largest urban Native population in the United States, but this vital urban sanctuary has never found solid footing on the Manhattan grid, cycling through ten locations and counting. The instability wrought by unreliable state support and a speculative real estate market may not be so unusual for a small community organization in New York City, but is particularly egregious in the context of the forced displacement of the original inhabitants of Lenapehoking. From Murray Hill to Governors Island and back, Oksana Mironova retraces the history of this welcoming space and its ongoing search for a permanent home.
New York City today boasts the largest urban Native population in the United States: roughly 180,000 people according to the latest US Census count. Like other racial and ethnic categories in the Census, “American Indian or Alaskan Native” flattens an incredibly diverse group, hundreds of Indigenous Nations and communities, into one broad category. Indigenous New Yorkers include those whose land New York was built on and those violently displaced from other parts of North America and the rest of the world. Unlike other ethnic groups that cluster into specific neighborhoods, contemporary Indian identity is not tied to a particular street or corner of the city. Instead, community institutions like the 54-year-old American Indian Community House (AICH) foster relationships that extend far into what is now the US and Canada. Throughout its existence, AICH has provided physical and metaphorical space for multiple, overlapping Native communities to organize.
Since its founding, AICH has been an “urban sanctuary” for Indigenous people living in, or passing through, New York City. AICH has provided intra-community support, without the judgment and paternalism that characterizes many social service agencies and charities. In the words of a former AICH staffer, Lynn Pasquariello (Mohawk), at a 2021 AICH talk, “if you need help to find a place to stay, or a doctor, or a job, or just a little kindness. . . Community House is there to help you.”
In April 2023, AICH announced the opening of its newly rented offices on the 20th floor of 275 Madison Avenue, five blocks north of the space it first occupied when it was founded in 1969. Over the spring and summer, AICH inaugurated this new space with a bevy of events including a screening of the movie Dawnland, a memorial service for a community member, and a reception for a visiting delegation from the Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network. It also welcomed a new Executive Director, Patricia Tarrant (Mandan/Hidatsa/Arikara) who first got involved with AICH’s Youth Council in 2005.
AICH’s new Midtown office should allow it to embrace its urban sanctuary role once more. For the previous three years, AICH had been operating out of a seasonal home on Governors Island. A stately 1870s mansion built as generals’ quarters allowed AICH to provide a platform for Indigenous artists and curators. Visual and performing arts have been a core component of AICH’s work, from its support of Indigenous feminist theater in the 1970s to its involvement with the 1980s Downtown art scene. But an island location reachable only by a daytime ferry made it difficult to fulfill many other roles the community house has played over its half-century history.
None of AICH’s many homes have been able to fill every single need of its extended community. Office buildings are not ideal for late night art openings; galleries are not set up for healthcare delivery. When commercial rents in New York were cheaper in the 1980s, AICH operated multiple spaces at a time: a gallery, a performance space, and an office/community services space. But rising rents throughout the 1990s and 2000s repeatedly displaced AICH and diminished its footprint. AICH’s many moves underscore the seemingly impossible task of running a community-based nonprofit as funding shrinks while commercial land prices rise.
AICH’s hold on even the smallest corner of New York City has always been tenuous. Bits and pieces of AICH’s institutional memory are scattered as a result of its many moves, though AICH holds a significant collection of art in storage. The largest archival collection can be found at The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), a donation from two former curators, Kathleen Ash-Milby and G. Peter Jemison. These and other archives, along with first-person and pre-recorded interviews (many held by the Hemispheric Institute), are the sources for this episodic tour of AICH’s many homes.
If finding suitable space is a perennial problem for many community-based organizations, AICH’s forced relocations feel especially egregious. AICH’s struggle for space is a microcosm of broader struggles for Indigenous sovereignty. As AICH former Board Chair Rick Chavolla (Kumeyaay) put it at a 2019 Decolonize This Place Town Hall Assembly at the New School, “our experience with land has been displacement after displacement after displacement… We have leadership who are Lenape, Haudenosaunee, and Shinnecock, people of this very land, and we don’t have a permanent piece of that land.”
In the early twentieth century, a growing Kanienkehaka (Mohawk) community in New York City was supported by small and informal faith and fraternal groups. Families from Kahnawake and Akwesasne regions (Ontario and New York State) were drawn to the city’s real estate boom, working on high-rise construction sites. In the 1920s, Mohawk ironworkers built the steel structure of the art deco Chrysler Building and the double-decked expanse of the George Washington Bridge. A section of Boerum Hill, at that time a working-class industrial neighborhood, became known as Downtown Kahnawake or Little Caughnawaga.
By the 1950s, about 700 members of the Kanienkehaka Nation lived in Boerum Hill. The community’s livelihood was tied to large municipal and commercial real estate projects through gendered construction work that was almost exclusively done by men. However, as Indigenous scholar Allan Downey notes in a feature for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, women “carved their own indigenous city” in downtown Brooklyn. They owned or managed boarding houses for newcomers, as well as a grocery store and two taverns along Atlantic Avenue and Nevins Street.
Little Caughnawaga largely dissipated after the mid-1970s, under the twin pressures of gentrification in parts of downtown Brooklyn and a slowdown in commercial real estate construction. Members of the neighborhood’s Mohawk community moved to other parts of the city, the suburbs, or retired back to Kahnawake and Akwesasne. In the late 1990s, AICH recorded former residents’ recollections of the neighborhood. Lorraine Canoe noted “we still live in Brooklyn, scattered in different neighborhoods . . . most of the time we meet here [at AICH] . . . there is no more Wigwam . . . it was a cohesiveness of Mohawk people being together . . . we didn’t have to go outside to get support.”
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, urban Native communities in Minneapolis, Denver, Philadelphia, and other cities launched community houses to provide “landing places” in urban areas. Community Houses were communal responses to the impact of mid-century changes in federal policy that terminated federal obligations to Indigenous tribes and encouraged relocation from reservations to cities. AICH was formally chartered in 1969, a year after a group of Native American activists in Minneapolis kickstarted the American Indian Movement (AIM). AIM and other Indigenous organizing efforts not only focused on broken federal treaties, but also local issues like poor housing conditions, police violence, and access to jobs.
Founded by community organizer Mifaunwy Shunatona Hines and others, AICH launched its own Native American census and applied for federal community development funding in its first year. A couple of years later, it received the equivalent of $1.4 million in funding from the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, an unthinkable amount of federal funding for a nascent community organization today. Hines told a New York Times reporter in 1971, “we can get the New York City Indians together and be a force to help, fight land take‐overs upstate, for instance, or to keep our religious traditions going here.”
In the early 1970s, AICH operated out of a third-floor office in a converted brownstone owned by the Community Church of New York. Gloria Miguel, a Kuna/Rappahannock elder and co-founder of the Spiderwoman Theater, describes AICH at that time as a welcoming space where “people can come with a problem, just to be social, or to meet other people. It certainly helped me a lot.”
AICH’s leadership believed it was important not to limit its membership or service provision to a specific Nation. A focus on the visual and performing arts and a commitment to member-organized projects allowed AICH to welcome all Native people to its space. Unlike programming funded by federal grants, these types of projects were not restricted to participants who fit a federal definition of Native identity. Native identities have always existed in a tension with structures imposed by a hostile settler-state. AICH community member Debra Stalk (Mohawk Kahnawake) notes that “residential schools, forced assimilation make it hard for people to prove their lineage to gain access to government programs.” AICH was founded during a surge of Indigenous organizing for an alternative, pan-Indigenous identity, which centered peer support and self-organization. AICH’s former executive director, Ben Geboe (Yankton Sioux), remarked in a PBS blog post: “we originate from families that are part of a Tribal entity, not the other way around.”
AICH’s second location in Murray Hill, not far from Grand Central Station, made the space accessible to Indigenous people from across the tri-state area and beyond. Converting a ground floor retail space into a white box gallery, AICH continued its role as a platform for Native art in New York. Artist and curator G. Peter Jemison (Seneca/Heron clan) served as the director of the AICH gallery from 1978 to 1985. Staging four to five exhibitions a year, he created a consistent presence for contemporary Native art in the city.
The Spiderwoman Theater, the longest running Native troupe in the country, helped define AICH as a center for the performing arts in New York City. Founded in 1976 by Muriel Miguel, Lisa Mayo, and Gloria Miguel (Kuna and Rappahannock), the troupe was steeped in second-wave feminism, and used storytelling and humor to poke fun of gender roles, cultural stereotypes, and oppression of all forms. In an interview with Geboe, Gloria Miguel remembers, “Spiderwoman Theater did our first show at the building on 38th Street. There was a big, big room upstairs. We did our first show, ‘Women in Violence’ it was called, with an audience, which was great! It meant a lot to us.”
AICH moved from Murray Hill to SoHo, following cheap rent and positioning itself among the 200 or so galleries and of-the-moment cultural institutions below 14th Street. Its gallery spaces featured work by Native artists who were active in the city’s Downtown art scene, which nurtured painters, photographers, performance artists, writers and musicians. AICH’s first SoHo location was two doors down from the Artist’s Choice Museum at 394 West Broadway, which attempted to reclaim contemporary art from wealthy patrons and the “administrative structure.” AICH’s Mercer Street gallery was two blocks south of Just Above Midtown (JAM), Linda Goode Bryant’s gallery that provided a platform for contemporary Black artists.
G. Peter Jemison created a consistent outlet for Native cultural workers at the gallery, and many well-known contemporary Native artists exhibited their work at AICH early in their careers. Artist Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (Salish) curated the first comprehensive exhibition of photography by Native Americans in the gallery in 1984, allowing photographers to report “on our own culture through our eyes.” True to the Downtown scene’s cross-disciplinary spirit, AICH’s gallery also provided space for readings and performances, like those by poet Diane Burns (Chemehuevi/Anishinabe). A well-respected member of the Lower East Side poetry scene, she also often read her work at the Nuyorican Poets Café and the Bowery Poetry Club. AICH’s gallery filled a space left by the closure of American Art, a gallery run by artist and curator Lloyd Oxendine (Lumbee) in the early 1970s, which exhibited contemporary Native artists. After Jemison’s departure in 1985, Oxendine took over as AICH’s gallery director.
Despite drastic cuts in federal and state arts funding in the 1980s, AICH’s exhibitions received support from the New York State Council for the Arts, while funding from the US Department of Labor’s Workforce Investment Act (WIA) was flexible enough at the time to cover arts-related job training.
The move to 404 Lafayette/708 Broadway was primarily driven by the need for a larger space to accommodate AICH’s growing programming. The building, spanning a SoHo block, was AICH’s longest lived-in home. Here, the organization started its health program and expanded its employment program. In the 1990s, AICH occupied two floors in 404 Lafayette: one for client-facing services and one for performances. A ground-floor storefront facing Broadway housed a gallery and gift shop.
After a community needs assessment showed that gay Native men were receiving “callous and arrogant treatment” from health providers in New York City, one of AICH’s Community Health Coordinators, Curtis Harris (San Carlos Apache), launched an HIV/AIDS project in 1990. The program offered case management, culturally appropriate health services, access to spiritual care, traditional death ceremonies, and educational materials, including the first safe-sex guide for Native Americans.
Harris, who directed the HIV/AIDS project at AICH until 1999, noted that the AIDS epidemic pushed Two-Spirit people, whose identities and traditional roles were violently suppressed by US colonialism, into the spotlight within Native communities. Throughout the 19th and 20th century the US government punished Indigenous religious practices, included healing methods practiced by Two-Spirit people, under the Code of Indian Offenses, and forcibly assimilated Native children to Christianity through the boarding school system. The US government did not extend protections to Native American religious and spiritual practices until 1978, with the American Indian Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Artist and former AICH Board Member Leota Lone Dog (Mohawk, Delaware, and Lakota) noted in an interview, “we didn’t feel comfortable in many cases defining ourselves by the colonizers’ culture, which said you were now going to be either gay or lesbian or bisexual. The feeling when I first came out was, ‘Well, I guess I’m not Indian’ because I’d never heard of any of my ancestors and what their roles were.”
Lone Dog and Harris, along with former Executive Director Geboe, and artist Nic Billey (Choctaw and Muscogee) founded WeWah & BarCheeAmpe, to “build and support a community of Two-Spirited Natives in New York; to act on all issues of concern to Indigenous Peoples, and to increase the visibility of Native cultures within the United States.” The group hosted New York’s first Two-Spirit pow wow during the 1991 Pride weekend and hosted the first conference on HIV/AIDS in the Two-Spirit community at AICH that summer.
In a December 2005 fundraising letter, AICH’s long-time executive director Rosemary Richmond (Akwesasne Mohawk – Bear Clan) wrote, “the next several months will be a difficult period for the American Indian Community House. Why? Because, AICH has to find a new home. The landlord of our building wants to convert our space into high rent condos.” By summer 2006, AICH landed at 11 Broadway, at the southernmost end of Manhattan.
404 Lafayette/708 Broadway went through a depressingly typical speculative cycle. The landlord’s hope for a luxury residential conversion stalled during the mortgage crisis. He eventually sold it to the controversial hotel developer Ed Scheetz in 2013, who then resold it less than a year later to NYU. NYU’s press release about the purchase makes note that the two connected buildings were delivered vacant, papering over the preceding displacement.
At the time of the move, AICH ran a health program, a substance abuse recovery program, an HIV/AIDS project, a job training and placement program and many other services. The new office included space for AICH’s 40 or so staff members, as well as a performance space, gallery, and community kitchen. Running public programming out of a downtown office had its challenges. In a winter 2006 Community Bulletin, Richmond noted, “Since 9/11, building security downtown has been very tight, requiring ID, etc. We are working these issues out to ensure easy access for our program participants and visitors. Please bear with us.”
AICH was a professionalized non-profit drawing on multiple federal and state funding streams, but the organization maintained its openness. Ben Haile (Shinnecock), who first encountered AICH as a young person, and eventually got a job with AICH’s health department in the early 2000s. He recounted that “there was a group of Native American adoptees who grew up in New York City who were all getting health services from us. They got to know each other and self-organized a peer-support group. And we said, Wow, this is a real need in the community, why don’t we give you a space to run this? It lasted for a while.”
After a rent hike to $40,000 a month forced the group from its downtown office at 11 Broadway, AICH moved to the second floor of a small Chelsea commercial building at West 29th Street. By the time AICH moved to Chelsea, it had lost its revered exhibition program to federal funding cuts. In late 2007, Richmond wrote in her Community Bulletin note that without operating support from a Department of Labor Employment and Training grant, “we have to raise a considerable amount of money — $200,000–$250,000 — annually to keep the Gallery going and the staff employed.” While AICH tried to fill the funding gap with space rental fees and private donations, the regular exhibition program folded shortly after.
The move was followed by another financial blow when the US Department of Labor pulled AICH’s annual $1 million Workforce Investment Act (WIA) grant, which funded AICH’s employment program for 37 years. The expansive program included holistic support for AICH community members looking for work, from help with resumes to transit assistance and childcare. The funding cut forced AICH to end its WIA program and lay off seven staff members.
Displaced again by unaffordable rent and the loss of major funding sources, AICH moved to the fourth floor of 39 Eldridge Street. This building housed a host of other nonprofits and small commercial spaces, including an outreach program run by the Chinese American Planning Council and a karaoke studio. This much smaller space still included offices for AICH’s staff and a flexible space for performances and community events. Shortly thereafter, the organization learned that the Indian Health Service (IHS) was pulling its annual $1 million grant for health programs, which supported medical, dental, and wellness care for nearly 80 clients. The cuts came amid broader defunding of Indigenous programs by the federal government under Trump. As Chavolla said at the time, “It’s no secret that there’s a federal movement under this President and Congress to defund Native initiatives that support our people, and ignore Native sovereignty. We may just be a victim of this latest trend against Native services and communities.”
This loss forced AICH’s staff and board to rethink a funding model that had come to rely on federal grants, turning to other fundraising methods like the Manna-hatta Fund, which invites settlers and Non-Native people to donate to AICH. When the IHS withdrew its funding, AICH’s health programming was significantly scaled back, though community volunteers stepped in to continue some health services, like peer-sobriety support. Eventually, AICH was able to bring on a social worker, who continues to provide clients with referrals to healthcare and housing services, as well as employment opportunities and training programs.
The federal government defunded AICH’s health program just a few years before the beginning of the Covid pandemic, which has had an outsize impact on Native American communities in the US. However, AICH was able to mobilize its diminished resources to provide other forms of support. For example, in 2020, AICH helped pay for South Bronx-based food distribution rallies organized by Red de Pueblos Transnacionales, a grassroots network of rural and Indigenous immigrants from Latin America in New York.
AICH scaled down its programming, but continued its cultural and political work, relying on partnerships with larger institutions and grassroots activist networks. Over the years, AICH collaborated with the Museum of the City of New York on multiple exhibits, including the 2019 Urban Indian exhibit, which examined the shared meaning of being a Native person living in New York through contemporary artworks, performing arts, and community memorabilia. The exhibit honored AICH’s 50th anniversary. AICH, the Language Conservancy, and New York University’s Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies hosted the city’s first Lakota Language Weekend in 2018. Two years later, AICH joined other downtown groups to push back against the city’s plan to build a new jail in Chinatown.
After deteriorating conditions at 39 Eldridge Street made it unsafe to work in, AICH began operating out of a seasonal home on Governors Island in 2021. AICH was one of two dozen Organizations in Residence competitively selected in a program launched to provide free space to arts and cultural organizations hurt by the pandemic. AICH has used a former military officers’ house in Nolan Park for exhibits, workshops, and performances, like a concert by musician Sage Lacapa (White Mountain Apache), a two-day ribbon skirt making workshop led by Debra Stalk, and a residency program for Native artists, musicians, and curators.
AICH’s many moves underscore the struggle of Indigenous people to claim space in one of the more expensive land markets in what is now the United States. The organization’s evolution was also shaped by increasing austerity by both Republican and Democratic administrations toward arts projects and Indigenous programming. Despite oscillating active hostility and neglectful indifference from powerful actors and institutions, AICH managed to provide a launchpad to many cultural workers and provide healthcare and workforce services to thousands upon thousands of people. It continues to serve as a sanctuary for many Native communities in New York City.
AICH also continues to connect its struggle for space to the broader LandBack movement for Indigenous sovereignty. In 2016, AICH’s members and staff traveled to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, to support the Water Protectors’ claim to their land against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Tired of endless moves and imperfect spaces, AICH is actively working toward a permanent home that can serve all of its community’s needs. Today, Ben Haile, who has been involved with AICH for over 20 years both as an employee and as a member of its extended community, is AICH’s LandBack Action Circle Officer, working to secure a permanent space for the House. Haile’s work for AICH parallels his activism with the Shinnecock Land Defense Committee, which in the 2000s fought development encroaching on their land on Long Island.
An ideal AICH home would encapsulate everything done by the ten previous AICHs. It would bring together AICH’s performing and visual arts programming with a dedicated space for both, as well as its commitment to providing survival services to its community: healthcare, housing, job placement. AICH continues its fundraising efforts, focused on unrestricted individual giving, and connecting with other Indigenous groups to share resources. Even if AICH’s current generation didn’t inherit a space, it carries on the work of making a home.
The author would like to thank Cheyenna Weber for developing and contributing to this piece. She is also grateful to Rick Chavolla, Ben Haile, Debra Stalk, Patricia Tarrant, and Gracie Tarrant at AICH, Rachel Menyuk and Nathan Sowry at the National Museum of the American Indian Archives and Kathleen Ash-Milby for their time. If you are interested in helping sustain AICH, donate to the Manna-hatta Fund here.