Located in the heart of downtown Tucson, the Center has offered job services, youth and adult education programs, cultural activities, youth and elderly programs and emergency assistance to urban Native Americans for half a century.
“For Tucson and Pima County the Tucson Indian Center has been a strong organization that has survived political issues like civil rights and has been a significant place for Natives,” said Rodney Palimo, Sr., the center’s board chairman.
Instead of having one big celebration, the Tucson Indian Center decided to have a series of events throughout the year to celebrate their success.
“This is a milestone for us,” said Jacob Bernal, executive director. “Looking at the relationships we have with local tribes, city and county, businesses, non-Indian community and the University of Arizona—We are proud of that and it speaks volumes. We have to work together and come together as people and have dialogue to make our community stronger.”
The Tucson Indian Center was founded by 16 individuals who wanted their own organization to provide services for education, housing, health, counseling and recreation for urban Native Americans in Tucson.
In 1957, the group formed a club and in 1963, the club became incorporated as the American Indian Association, doing business as the Tucson Indian Center, according to the organization's website.
The original board members were Carlos Antone, Louis Blackwater, Nellie Cachora, Augustine Chico, Andrew Duwyenie, Annie Enos, Hazel Herald, Jim Herald, Lillian Hughes, Mollie Manuel, John B. Narcho, Ray Narcho, Lucille Palimo, Anita Rowles, Ella G. Rumley and David Valenzuela.
“There are four Tucson Indian Center board members today and three with ties back to the original founding members,” said Palimo (Tohono O’odham), whose grandmother is Lucille Palimo.
Palimo and Bernal both believe one of the reasons the Center has been able to survive is due to the strength of the board, staff and community.
“The Indian elders had this incredible vision fighting for civil rights before we had a name for it, recognizing Indians can work with Indians and non-Indians,” said Bernal (Chemehuevi). “I think they were so ahead of their time they basically were filled with historical stress and trauma but that didn’t stop them from reaching out to work together.”
Bernal said the longevity of the board and staff has also been a key to the success of the center. Tucson Indian Center currently has 20 staff members, one of which is celebrating 37 years of service at the center this year. Bernal has been with the center for 23 years and one of Palimo’s first jobs was working for the Tucson Indian Center in 1976 as a job developer.
“When people walk in the door they have a sense of community and family,” Palimo said. “There’s community involvement and appreciation of the success the center has achieved.”
Bernal and Palimo both admit the Tucson Indian Center has endeared some hard times over the years but they were able to bounce back.
“No doubt we have gone through times where staff had to be laid off but we’ve found other resources,” Bernal said. “At certain times it was the board’s responsibility to fill those gaps and we’ve been fortunate recently that we haven’t been in those situations we are more solid financially now.”
Between celebrations, Tucson Indian Center has begun turning the page to look at the next 50 years. Bernal said the board is looking at a permanent land base, a museum, gift shop, performance area, a kitchen to feed people in other words a physical presence where people can say, “That is the Tucson Indian Center.”
“I think my grandmother would be very proud of how successful the organization has become not just locally but how strong and well known the organization has become across the nation,” Palimo said. “As well as the relationships with other organization, I feel she would be proud of the center as a whole.”