Phoenix Indian Center celebrates 70th anniversary

The Phoenix Indian Center celebrated its 70th anniversary with the Native American community on September 30 at Steele Indian School Park.

(Brandi Youvella/DD)

Community members celebrated the Phoenix Indian Center’s 70th anniversary this weekend at Steele Indian School Park, and reflected on its history and current cultural impact.

The Phoenix Indian Center is the first and oldest urban center for Native Americans in the United States. Since its opening in 1947, they have provided services that involve culturally relevant programs and assistance whether educational or employment based.

Saturday, artists were on site, selling their own jewelry, prints and clothes as families wandered from booth to booth. Food trucks prepared Indian tacos, hotdogs and Prickly Pear Lemonade and kids ran around adorning colorful face paint, and played games like ring toss. 

Among the vendors, Chris Luna, 25, demonstrated his craft as curious onlookers stopped to watch or ask questions. He is a Guachichil Chichimeca member who had recently moved from California to Tempe. Besides celebrating the anniversary, Luna brought his supplies and was ready to give the crowd a show.

He used a seashell to wear away a Yucca plant to obtain the strands within to make sandals as he sits out in the sun bent over his work.

“I came out today to get involved with the community. I was hoping to make some connections and I’ve met some cool people today,” Luna said. “I really like being with Native people and I like sharing what I learn. I do a lot of work with plants and I’m hoping to get involved with Native foraging of plants.”

Rykelle Kemp, a Navajo/Choctaw/Euchee-Creek artist sold her own handmade jewelry and prints. Kemp’s family had a history of frequently volunteering to help the center and was given a chance to partake in the anniversary.

She commented on the importance of having children there to be a part of the community and learning the history.

“The younger generation and the generations that are coming up after are starting to recognize how important it is to keep our traditions and to be visible. Because other generations had to go to boarding school, they were taught not to even speak their own language,” Kemp said. “They had all of that stuff taken away from them. So now these younger generations in some aspects are trying to reclaim that.”

Inside the Memorial Hall, speeches would take place from a range of people who have a connection to the Phoenix Indian Center whether past or present.

Entertainment was held by performances by Native music groups such as Artificial Red, Black Mountain Bird Singers and the Yadilahs. Throughout the room, there were prints of old newspaper clippings that went as far back as 1977 and the 1990s. Each one involved the Phoenix Indian Center and the programs they used to have at that time.

Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton had stopped by in the afternoon to join and give a speech of his own. He acknowledged and gave thanks to the center for their services and announced a proclamation to mark the day as Phoenix Indian Center Day.

(Brandi Youvella/DD)

Patti Hibbeler, 57, has been the CEO of the center for 13 years. She said the city of Phoenix has been a prominent player in the existence of the Phoenix Indian Center.

In 1947, Mayor Ray Busey advocated for the start of the Phoenix Indian Center, Hibbeler said. “He actually reached out to a local businessman in 1947 to give us a place to create services, and you know a place to start to help Americans Indians that were coming to Phoenix. So our start really is largely due to the partnership with the city of Phoenix.”

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