Assembling an Urban Tribe: Jody Roy

One of the biggest misconceptions people have about American Indians is that they no longer exist. At, we’re telling the stories of four people putting together the pieces of a new Native community in Chicago – which has the 8th largest population of indigenous people in the United States. This is one of them.


Photo credit: Lauren McCracken

There’s a lake in southeast Ontario called Whitefish Lake. It’s two miles tip-to-tip and surrounded by forest. On one side, a tiny reservation town spans a few blocks along a main road. The other three sides open into wilderness – the kind of undeveloped land Canadians refer to as “the bush.”

Jody Roy was born 37 years ago in that reservation town, known as Atikameksheng Anishnawbek to the Ojibwe Indians who live there. Her mom, a carpenter, built their home. It’s a tiny white and green house, one story with a basement, very old-school: reminiscent of a one-room schoolhouse from the outside, and at the turn of the Millennium, Jody’s parents still used rotary phones. “They don’t do the powwows or stuff like that,” Jody says, but she and her two older siblings grew up on the traditions of living off the land. Their vegetables came from gardens. Jody’s dad, a miner, hunted for their meat; he’d bring home moose and deer, accompanied by the occasional partridge, rabbit, or beaver.

The lake allowed for a childhood spent outdoors: tree-hopping, camping, and swimming in that lake from breakfast to sundown. Jody, like all her other friends on the reservation, went to the Our Lady of Fatima Catholic school, a cluster of four buildings about 15 minutes away in nearby Naughton that only recently closed down after losing its funding. She and her siblings were raised by their two parents, but the 300-person town was so tight-knit that it was almost like every elder was a parent to every child.

When Jody was 17, she met Eric Roy, a 21-year-old Ojibwe boy who had grown up in Chicago before moving to Canada. By the following year, in 1997, the couple had a daughter and named her Jade. When Eric’s brother offered him a commercial and industrial painting job in Chicago three years later, he couldn’t pass it up – and suddenly, the trio found themselves living next to a much larger lake, bordered by skyscrapers and the densely packed shoreline.

The noise overwhelmed her. The airplanes overhead, cars on the street, and sirens would wake her up at night. Even the people were louder: She remembers trying to order Italian beef at Jeff’s Red Hots on North Cicero Avenue, and the guy behind the counter moving on to the next order because he couldn’t hear her.

15 years later, it’s home. Eric has a job in the city, and Jody and Jade are enrolled at Kendall College and Wilbur Wright College, respectively. But there’s value in a community that sees who you are – and Chicago just can’t quite provide that.

In the city, there’s been economic hardship. The recession cut back Jody’s hours at the Anawim Spiritual Center for Native Americans in September 2011, and the Roys didn’t know how they were going to make ends meet.

On the reservation, there’s always a way to make ends meet. An ad for a temporary research assistant position in the reservation’s monthly newsletter brought Jody back to Whitefish Lake. She worked furiously to complete the contract so she could rejoin her family as quickly as possible; her return to Chicago in November was six weeks ahead of schedule. But don’t think she doesn’t realize the significance of her brief return: When times got tough, the reservation pulled her out and set her back on her feet.

Photo credit: Lauren McCracken

Photo credit: Lauren McCracken

In the city, there’s opportunity. Jade is graduating from Von Steuben Metropolitan Science Center in North Park, an excellent school by any metric. Mother can’t say for certain if her daughter would still be going to college if she’d grown up on the reservation. Jody has her own schooling plans as well, and once she graduates with a business degree, she and Eric hope to set up their own family-run paint shop.

On the reservation, there’s comfort. Jody and Eric plan on retiring someday to Whitefish Lake, to self-sustenance, to life in a Native community. Jody says they wouldn’t be the first to leave for a job and come back for retirement, nor would they be the last. “Why would you want to live in a busy hustle-and-bustle city when you’re old?” she asks, and to hear her say it, there’s no deeper meaning behind her intention: the quiet, familiar option will eventually become the better option.

On the reservation, Jody’s Native identity has never been an issue. In Canada, growing up, brown-toned skin meant Native American.

In the city, people regularly speak Spanish to her on the street – a language she’s never spoken in her life. Usually, she’ll just shake her head and say no. How else can you respond? A man once approached her during a church fundraiser to ask what kind of tacos she was selling; “Indian tacos,” she replied.

“You mean like the India Indians?” the man said.

“No, I mean like Native American Indians.”

“Are you Native American?”


The man’s eyes grew large. “I thought all your people were dead with the dinosaurs!” he proclaimed.

Now, Jody can only laugh about it – and all the other times it’s happened since. “I get kind of used to it,” she says, before pausing. “But it’s still mindblowing. It still strikes me that some people are unaware of it, you know?”


Cameron Albert-Deitch // Summer Delaney // Megan Hart // Brittany Magee // Lauren McCracken // MEDILL

You may also like...

Leave a Reply