Why Philly’s robust Native American cultural center abruptly shut down

For decades, the epicenter of the region’s Native American communities stood proudly on Chestnut Street in Old City. But despite its unique offerings, Philly’s Indigenous Peoples center shut down more than 15 years ago — and it’s still unclear exactly what happened.

Dubbed the United American Indians Of Delaware Valley, the center housed a small museum and a gift shop selling crafts. It also offered free services for native people, helping them find steady employment and affordable medical care.

There are a handful of indigenous museums in places like New York, New Mexico and Arizona. And there are nonprofits and social service orgs across the country. But very few are housed all in one space, and fewer still serve a region so robustly.

At its height, the Philadelphia center welcomed several hundred members.

“By them being able to formulate places of gathering, places where we could have our spirituality, it made it a hub for anyone who needed help,” Chief Marc Quiet Hawk Gould of South Jersey’s Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation told Billy Penn. “They did wonders.”

But the nonprofit was reportedly plagued by infighting and mismanagement. Records show that behind closed doors, the org’s leaders were constantly battling each other for power. It shut down in 2004, leaving the property at 223-225 Chestnut St. to sit vacant and blighted for years. Now the 19th century building is home to a church.

Gould said he knows of only one effort to try to piece the UAIDV back together. Kyle Shenandoah, a Grays Ferry community leader and transit activist, hoped to cultivate a resurrection. But earlier this year, before his goals could come to fruition, Shenandoah was struck by a car and killed.

What led to the center’s downfall in the first place? We won’t know the exact reason for at least a few decades. Records of the organization’s final years are sealed to the public, so the story remains shrouded in mystery.

A Native American monument stands in Eakins Oval

Dave R / Flickr Creative Commons

UAIDV opened its arched Old City doors in 1974. Before that, Philly’s indigenous community was in desperate need of some glue.

Now 77 years old, Chief Gould experienced the division firsthand. He would encounter many indigenous people who moved to the city for a job, he said, and then struggled to maintain their heritage.

“Picture yourself away from your community,” Gould said. “When they move away from home, they have no ties to their culture, unless that area is predominantly Native American, which Philadelphia isn’t.”

Those that were here experienced higher-than-average unemployment — in 2012, Native Americans recorded the lowest employment rate of any racial or ethnic group in the U.S. — and experienced a lack of formal education, according to records from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

The UAIDV was formed to help. Funded by hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal grants, the organization was incorporated in 1970 and opened its storefront in 1974.

A decade later in 1980, the organization boasted 550 members from more than 30 different tribes. Other regions started to notice.

There’s a letter in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania archives from a UAIDV member who relocated to New Mexico. The member observed (all sic):

“You know our little Center really fascinates the Native Americans out here how we have members from different tribes. They can’t get over that our Center is going to grow and be know the entire United States over. They like the title too United American Indians (they like that). I can tell we are really going to grow and be example of United Indians because deep inside their hearts all Indians want to be united.”

But while the organization provided ample services to its community, it was plagued with internal problems. Gould’s assessment? From across the river, it seemed to him like there were too many cooks.

“Everybody wanted to be a leader,” Gould said. “You can’t make it like that. Someone has to pick up the stick and say, ‘I don’t need anything, just tell me what to do.’”

Historical Society archives reveal that storm clouds hovered ominously over the UAIDV for decades.

Just five years after its Old City outpost opened, a draft of an organizational evaluation in 1979 records the UAIDV as experiencing “severe internal problems.”

There were regular management crises — sudden terminations of executive directors, followed by handfuls of resignations at a time from board members. There were anonymous letters from dissatisfied members, and constant complaints filed by board members against each other.

In May 1980, UAIDV leaders attended a “crisis meeting” to cope with a financial catastrophe. Evidently, the staff had accidentally only budgeted $80 for the center to spend that entire fiscal year, and “failed to procure any fuel emergency funds.”

Two months later, a major funder designated the center a “high risk grantee” over the mismanagement issues.

That same year, the center formed an internal unit to “investigate the facts giving rise to and involving the recent conflict between the Executive Director and the Board of Directors.”

But the results of that investigation are unclear. Starting in 1983, records start to diminish. It looks like the staff held fewer and fewer meetings, and recorded fewer and fewer minutes. Records are scarce through 1986, and after that, most are blocked from public view.

“Unfortunately, the organization fell into disarray due to infighting and mismanagement,” Margaret Bruchac, coordinator of Penn’s Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative, told Billy Penn. “Things got so bad that the records have been sealed, and will not be available for view for several decades.”

Gould calls the loss a tragedy for the Philly region.

“I met numerous people there from other states and other tribes,” Gould said. “I’d say 99% of them have been my friends. For pow wows or spiritual gatherings, I counted on those people being there.”

Said the South Jersey chief: “It did a tremendous amount of support for the indigenous community. And that is gone.”