Phoenix Indian Center

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Arizona is home to the nation’s first social service agency designed for urban American Indians. Nearly 70 years ago, the Phoenix Indian Center opened its doors in downtown. Today, the center serves about 7,000 people a year, offering a variety of services from workforce development and educational classes to cultural programs.

Ted Simons: The nation's first social service agency designed to help American Indians living in urban areas is located here in Phoenix. Producer Christina Estes reports that the Phoenix Indian center opened downtown in 1947, and while the center has since moved to a larger building, its mission hasn't changed.

Christina Estes: Along Central Avenue north of Indian School Road is a structure built on cultural respect.

Deborah Nez: We never forget where we come from. So whenever we introduce ourselves, when we introduce where we are originally from. I am Deborah Nez and my clans are Edgewater, Barnfur, Momswim and Hislofer. And I am originally from Steamboat, Arizona. That's how I am as a woman.

Christina Estes: Debrah Nez brings her son to the Phoenix Indian center for Navajo singing classes.

Video: When I was little. I started singing when I was four years old.

Christina Estes: He started singing when his grandmother became ill. Four years later, he honors her memory by learning more songs.

Video: This is the chanting part. So the real words should not go all the way around me.

Patti Hibbeler: We were founded in 1947. And really founded during that time of the Federal government's policy of Indian relocation. They took native people from reservations, moved them to one of the five relocation cities farthest away. What they thought in the idea that they would then assimilate, become part of the overall population, and not actually make their way back to the reservation.

Christina Estes: Language barriers, discrimination, and homesickness left many native people struggling. The center offered a place to make cultural connections and help finding jobs.

Patti Hibbeler: When you are on a reservation you usually you know where to go get services. It's going to be somewhere around the tribal offices. That's where most all of the human services and employment services exist. When you move to Phoenix, a little like the big bad Wolf. You got to go find it somewhere.

Video: How are you doing your job searching?

Christina Estes: Work force development remains a heavy focus today because so many people move to Phoenix for jobs. That's what attracted Deborah's family. But she doesn't want the distance to dilute her Navajo roots.

Deborah Nez: I was going up in my grandparents and my parents always told me, as you grow up and, you know, don't matter how old you are, always have a song with you. Even one song, a prayer, even one, even one word, you know. Just say one word and one song. That will protect you from wherever you are going. That's very important to us, is to learn or to know at least one song.

Christina Estes: The center aims to preserve the past while preparing for the future.

Karen Thorne: We get the T-shirts delivered and taken care of and then we can be ready for youth leadership day.

Christina Estes: Chief operating officer Karen Thorne says more Arizona tribes offer more career opportunities.

Karen Thorne: There is a need for more skilled and educated people on the reservations to conduct the, not only the gaming enterprises but the revenue from gaming that is built, been pumped into the various tribal infrastructures, upgrade housing programs, upgrading schools, upgrading their hospital and health care services, the youth services.

Christina Estes: It's one reason chief executive officer Patti Hibbeler says they are investing in young people. The center plans to open its own charter high school within the next three years.

Patti Hibbeler: When you look at statistics for American Indians in public schools or education, K-12 education, in Arizona, we continue to still have the highest dropout rate. We have the lowest college going rate. What we find with our native population is they get lost in the school system. They get completely lost. Many of our children are, I think it's part of our, a quality of American Indian people is they are not disrespectful. They sit and they are quiet. They will be in the classroom and they just kind of fall between the cracks. The goal is really to successfully prepare those children for colleges and careers.

Christina Estes: Setting them up for success in the city. While upholding the lessons of their ancestors.

Deborah Nez: I look at him and it really, it really moves me and makes me proud to see my kids picking up something like that.

Ted Simons: The center serves 7,000 people every year, with programs also offered in Flagstaff, Prescott, and Tucson.

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