Ty Smith had never considered living in Ohio. But 25 years ago, soon after traveling from the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, Oregon, to see his mother in the Buckeye State, Ohio became home to Smith and his wife, Masami.
“In comparison to a lot of other places we’ve been around the country, in what they refer to as Indian country,” Central Ohio offered more educational and employment opportunities, Smith said.
Smith took advantage of those opportunities, getting a degree in social work and raising a family. But relocating to Ohio proved to be challenging in other ways, particularly as he looked for ways to preserve his culture and feel a sense of belonging as a Native American. “The plight that we're up against is, we're small in terms of population size, and … we’re very widely dispersed,” Smith said. “We're not only invisible to the general public; we're even invisible to ourselves.”
In 1996, Smith discovered the Native American Indian Center of Central Ohio (NAICCO), then located on Parsons Avenue. In 2011, Masami took over as the center’s executive director and Ty became the project director; the couple is the third set of hands to fill the management roles since NAICCO was established in 1975. In those years, more than 100 tribes have come through NAICCO’s door, which is now situated on East Innis Avenue on the South Side.
“A lot of our labor revolves around creating a space that’s ours, where our people can feel comfortable being themselves. … It’s humble places like NAICCO, an urban Indian center, that someone hopefully can connect with [to find] a place of connecting and belonging,” Smith said. “There were a number of tribes that were completely and forcibly removed from their homelands, and Ohio was one of those states that, unfortunately, ran such a campaign. They pushed out all the original indigenous tribes that belonged here. … We’re a new coming of native people, and we recognize that we're walking in the homelands of former indigenous peoples. And so we want to pay homage to that.”
In their roles with NAICCO, the Smiths began searching for ways to address what they saw as an identity crisis in Ohio’s native community. “We focused on culture and tradition, and how we implement that into our lives. How do we make that a mainstay, especially in a place where most of us are maybe thousands of miles from ... where our people are from?” Smith said. “We looked at ways to fill those voids, and one was to go out to Indian country. So we had numerous trips. We've gone out west, and even a little bit east at times.”
Still, something was missing. NAICCO needed a bigger, better gathering space for the community to call its own, Smith said, and on Giving Tuesday, which falls this year on Tuesday, Dec. 1, NAICCO is campaigning to raise money to purchase land for a new community center. This winter fundraising effort serves as a soft launch for a full-blown spring campaign that Smith said will feature a documentary, auctions and more. NAICCO hopes to raise $700,000 to purchase at least 20 acres of land in Central Ohio, and Smith said the center has already raised more than half of that total.
The realization of a need for a new center came from more than a gut feeling. NAICCO conducted a comprehensive needs assessment survey, which led to the discovery that NAICCO is “the only viable urban Indian center in Ohio, extending to all corners of the state and beyond,” Smith said. “We have people coming from basically every major city down to Louisville, over into Indiana, and, from time to time, there's a few that come out of Pennsylvania. … We’ve far outgrown the place.”
NAICCO created a blueprint from the assessment survey, but the final vision for a new center is yet to be determined, though Smith said “the sky is the limit” for what the new NAICCO could look like, including the possibility of a brick-and-mortar NAICCO Cuisine restaurant, a buffalo herd, equine therapy, a fresh produce market, daycare center, team-building courses, ceremonial grounds and more.
“It's about walking in balance in two worlds simultaneously,” Smith said. “We’re misunderstood at times, and we’re often misidentified. It becomes challenging. … But we’re supporting each other and we’re thinking forward.”