Reflections on Jean Chaudhuri, A Muscogee Woman
“We survive, we persist. And it's not because we have not struggled.” - Jonodev Chaudhuri
The rain clouds that passed over the valley did not deter me from the bright inner light I felt at finally arriving upon the date of Jean Chaudhuri’s exhibit at ASU West campus. The droplets that scattered across the sky gave sustenance to my wonder at being at Labriola. Despite the exhaustion from this past semester, I felt invigorated. After months of planning, meetings across several departments, and organizing, we finally achieved an evening where we could honor the incredible work of Jean Chaudhuri, a woman who is recognized by many leaders within Indian Country, but largely unknown to the greater public.
Indigenous women have faced numerous tribulations throughout history. For most tribes, the women are leaders within their community, and for Jean Chaudhuri, this status was not unfamiliar to her. Jean Chaudhuri was a woman well before her time. She was born in 1937 in Oklahoma and was a member of the Muscogee Nation. She ran away from boarding school eight times, and seven out of those eight times she was chased by dogs, captured, humiliated, beaten, and isolated by the boarding school teachers and faculty. However, on the eighth try, her persistence and determination brought her home. She ran almost sixty miles on foot to escape her boarding school. This bright inner fire and compassion for herself as an Indigenous person reigned outward onto every Native community she encountered. She made it her life goal to make the world a better place for Indigenous peoples. Jean knew suffering and that being alive today as an Indigenous person is not only a miracle, but a gift of bravery from our ancestors who persisted as she did before us, when she ran the miles from violence towards a better life.
Early on in life, Jean developed a deep love for helping her community. She moved to Tucson, Arizona in 1972, where she founded the first Indian health clinic. The health clinic was the first of its kind to be within a city, rather than on the reservation, as there were many Indigenous peoples who relocated into urban areas, such as Tucson, for work. During her time in Tucson, Jean was Director of the Tucson Indian Center and Traditional Indian Alliance. The center was dedicated to helping individuals with alcoholism while the Traditional Indian Alliance provided culturally sensitive American Indian mental health programs that addressed health and social welfare issues which plagued American Indians. She later moved to Phoenix, Arizona in 1985, where she established the Native American Heritage Preservation Coalition a year later in 1986. The Native American Heritage Coalition's purpose was to educate the general public and legislatures on the importance of preserving Native American cultural identity and history. As director, she fought against the land swap of the Phoenix Indian School. Although the school’s establishment was seeped in trauma and resulted in the heinous deaths of many American Indian children, Jean was determined that the site be a source of healing, rather than another example of genocide and erased history. She was angered that a private company sought to build luxury homes over the bones of Native children who were buried at the school in unmarked graves. She was angered that the community did not see the possibility in making something so tragic and horrific into something beautiful and celebratory of Indigenous peoples. So, like she had done before with her own experience in boarding school, Jean made swift and avid movements towards preventing the land swap. Despite all odds, she succeeded. Without Jean Chaudhuri, the Phoenix Indian School would not be standing here today.
When I first encountered Jean Chaudhuri’s collection, I was faced with boxes of papers scattered across several dark wooden desks. The surmounting piles of documents daunted me. I did not know where to begin. However, Vina Begay, the archival librarian at Labriola National American Indian Data Center, gave me instructions and insight on how to approach the collection in a way that was honorable to Jean and highlighted incredible work she had done in her lifetime. Vina treats archives with respect, as they are imprints of people and times before us and they should be treated as such. With Jean, she chose a storytelling method because that’s who Jean was. Jean Chaudhuri was not only a great public speaker, an advocate for American Indian tribes, and a prolific leader, but she was also a poet, an author, and a playwright. Through Vina’s instruction, I got to know Jean Chuadhuri as a person rather than a mere archive collection. This archive collection is symbiotic with Jean’s visions and thoughts, her tribulations and her doubts. I am honored to have helped Vina with this archive and I am honored to have met her family and gotten to know Jean.
Thank you to all the departments who worked with us to make the exhibit a possibility. Thank you to the students who worked on the collection: Liz Quiroga, Jeremia Johnson, and Tehani Maielua. Thank you to Vina Begay for archiving, designing the vinyl cuts, and organizing the materials. Thank you to Jerome Clark for being the faculty lead and helping design the layout. Thank you to Jeffery Kenedy for the marketing at West campus. Thank you to Em and her team for hanging up the display. Thank you to Charles St. Claire for helping us set up an exhibit. Thank you to the ASU Library Communications team, Wes McDonald and Marilyn Murphy, for helping spread the word and for the beautiful prints at the exhibit. Thank you to Marianne Kim for ordering catering. Thank you to Randy Kemp for the designs displayed at the exhibit. And especially thank you to Jean’s family, Jonodev, Paul, and Mary Kathryn for speaking, providing photographs of Jean, and for giving us the opportunity to get to know and honor Jean.
By Yitazba Largo-Anderson