Updated: May 8
By Sara Diaz
The North American Indian Center of Boston (NAICOB) is a non-profit organization dedicated to serving and amplifying Indigenous voices. I spoke with Reggi Alkiewicz, who is the Civic Engagement Coordinator at NAICOB. They do policy support, community organizing, outreach, and social media.
How does the history of the NAICOB continue to echo into what the organization is today?
The reason we rebranded as an official non-profit is to be a voice and a bargaining power and to be a person at the table for all of the Indigenous folks here on the Commonwealth. The reason we rebranded as an official non-profit instead of a community service organization is so we could be there for the Mashpee Wampanoag federal recognition claims, the Aquinnah Wampanoag claims, the Nipmuc claims for state governance, the start of the National Day of Mourning down in Plymouth, etc. We realize the need for a more official seat at the table. Of course, there are members of the community who still remember having BIC, so it’s absolutely fascinating to still be able to hear that history and have that recognition.
NAICOB has impacted the community in many ways and has a ton of sources to be utilized such as Food Assistance and the Timothy Smith Network computer labs. What were the outcomes of programs like these?
So how we got to be a part of the Timothy Smith Network is because we are on the border of Roxbury. We have employee development training. A lot of our community members are able to take classes for resume training, typing, and just the general use of a computer. This is especially because a lot of our people and our community members are experiencing homelessness. With a library, you need proof of address to get a card, but for us at NAICOB, you make a time, then we teach you and show you how to use computer technology, which is helpful for gaining jobs especially since everything has become more virtual.
Last year, a lot of our outreach was supporting and providing weekly boxes of food for people who still didn’t feel comfortable going to supermarkets. Native culture is very food-centric, and so we are starting a community garden this spring, which is fantastic. It will be having more food, more vegetables, more traditional medicines such as sage, tobacco, etc.
As the Commonwealth’s oldest urban Indian center, we’ve understood for the past 50 years that people need connection and strength with the community around us, with nature, and with the people.
Have there been any hurdles to overcome while creating such programs?
At our building, 105 South Huntington, the condos immediately to the left of us used to be NAICOB grounds, but the state took it back after the great dig–the tunnel digs for the highways. We used to have a PowWow on NAICOB land. That’s also a point of still having BIC members involved because they still have the stories and the knowledge of having a larger area for an actual PowWow. We’re going to actually host one in the summer, but it probably won’t be in the city.
What is the importance of creating a safe space for indigenous communities?
It’s a sense of community and reclaiming our traditions because, for so many years, even the city of Boston had a law on the books that said an “American Indian shall not be allowed to walk city grounds unescorted with a white person” until sometime within the past 20 years. A lot of Native Indian people go to Boston to get an education. Why a lot of Native Indian organizations don’t come here is because they know this city hasn’t been traditionally nice to us. So, it’s really nice to reclaim and have a PowWow. A PowWow is an assembly. A PowWow is a circle in a specific direction, and you honor the drums and the dancers. This has such significance in every step and piece of regalia of traditional dress that we wear.
Being able to take up space and just have communications with city hall, communications with other non-profit groups, and be involved with environmental support is personally gratifying for me because Indigenous voices tend to get overlooked. For example, the Census listed Black, White, Asian, and something else. We’re still here! My specific people are Canadian Inuit. I’ve been brought up here my whole life…my culture is still a guest on this land. It also becomes this duality of listening to the traditional voices of the Massachusetts tribe and the Wampanoag tribe and the Nipmucs. A large part of why I love NAICOB is because we’re not all traditionally from this land, and we’re all just making it work.
Activism is an essential and foundational part of NAICOB. What are the changes and demands that should be made to improve the security and sanctity of indigenous communities?
First off, the naming of the second Monday in October just straight up as Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day. We’ve been in communications with cities and towns across the Commonwealth so we could change that everywhere. We’re trying to get it pushed into law. We don’t want Christopher Columbus; we just want Indigenous Peoples’ Day. We were able to petition the city of Boston last year, and Mayor Kim Janey declared the second Monday as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. With the Boston Marathon, there was a large issue of the Boston Athletic Association talking about why this had to be on Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
I, as a child, lived in Western Mass., and I went to school from second to seventh grade in a town called Turners Falls. The high school mascot is “the Indians.” So when I was in eighth grade, I transitioned out of that school district, but my mom was a part of that committee to change the mascot from the Indians to what is now the Thunders. It took a one- to two-year fight for that. I was in a different school district seeing all the boys I went to high school with fighting for the Indian mascot. The racism that I experienced at the hands of those other kids was fully being racist for the mascot. It’s come full circle now that I work for an organization that is supporting towns that are changing Indian mascots.
The thing about Indian mascots and Columbus Day is that they’re so intertwined. They both dip into typical American culture. Massachusetts, even though it’s a “progressive” state, still holds onto these conservative ideals.
The Brookline High newspaper is named after the Massachusetts chief, Sagamore. We were having a conversation about why that's offensive and how to approach it with the other community members that don’t understand why that’s offensive.
It’s not a culture war; it’s a reframing of ideals. Why are Native Americans the people that you are able to characterize and dehumanize? It’s saying “hey, your whole existence is a joke.”
In NAICOB’s mission statement on the Grandparents’ Resource page, “self-determinism” is mentioned. Why is this philosophy one of the organization’s core values?
My great grandfather was forcibly moved out of his homeland for developers. My grandmother was a part of the residential boarding schools in Canada. My mother was adopted by a white family here in Massachusetts. She was bullied and threatened to keep from expressing any interest in her indigenous culture. My mom is reclaiming being Inuit and learning more of our traditional culture and language and existence. My grandmother is slowly accepting the fact that she was bullied for speaking her native language and that this isn’t something that has to hold trauma for her.
There is self-determination behind being able to walk around Boston and being able to provide language and tradition and ceremony for ourselves again.
My friend goes to school down in DC at American University. One of her professors who she told me about is this Native woman. She posted a TikTok about why she wears her ribbon skirts at school. It’s because it was federally illegal. Each of the ribbons holds a ceremony and prayer for a specific person, idea, or thing.
Even having long hair or speaking our language is just so human of us, and we’re being able to reframe that humanity. Being able to exist in the white, heteronormative, capitalistic culture. Our idea of having Two-Spirit people is older than the Western idea of non-binary.
Being able to hold space and power. No wonder climate change is happening. No wonder the Californian fires are so large. You aren’t listening to the traditional caretakers and land stewards.
I love being Native. It's fascinating and hurtful at times because you exist and you learn and you see all of the things that my grandparents, my mom, and my coworkers are going through.
My use of they/them pronouns is something my coworkers don’t understand because when they were growing up “them over there” was used as a derogatory term that was dehumanizing. They were all Native, so they experienced far worst bullying than I’ve experienced as I am more Black than Native. They all got the harassment for being Indigenous.
Who I’m surrounded by and what the organization does is fascinating and lovely! Honestly, self-determination is in my life more than I’ve recognized it to be.
How is spirituality integrated into this organization?
The original medicines are sage, tobacco, sweetgrass, and cedar.
I was recently in Texas for a PowWow. I constantly get harassed by the TSA when I’m over there. I was carrying sage, sweetgrass, and tobacco and I thought to myself “Will I have to claim a traditional and religious exemption?”
There’s a spirituality of just being able to gift my director sweetgrass that I brought from Texas. It’s a nice sign of respect and humility to bring a gift from a different area.
I like being able to sage my room and hearing thoughts and the Creator come through. So when I was down in Texas, we had a naming ceremony for one of the organizer’s daughters. It was so touching getting the Elders' wisdom and support and feeling the interconnectivity of everything.
It’s more than safe. It’s more than comfort. It just feels a certain way that you are Native and in your home.
Spirituality is just everything for the connection and understanding of being human.
Are there any plans for the future of NAICOB?
The community garden! I can’t wait for that to actually get started.
Getting an adequate staff is another. Back in the late ’90s and early 2000s, our building was busy but that changed because of budget cuts and programs closing. We do a lot but there’s not a lot of us.
The banning of mascots! That comes more from my experience as a child.
More Indigenous politicians! Of course, NAICOB is there to have a seat at the table, but there are so many more spots than we have chairs for. Having an Indigenous politician in Massachusetts would be amazing.
We’re doing well, but there are bigger and better things to get to, which we will. So just believe in this little center. We’re doing it!