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The First Nations Garden at the corner of Wilson and Pulaski on May 21, 2024. Credit: Provided.

ALBANY PARK — Chi-Nations Youth Council and Albany Park neighbors are helping the First Nations Garden bounce back after someone broke in, stole items and left human waste this month, group members said.

The First Nations Garden was established on the southeast corner lot of the intersection of Wilson Avenue and Pulaski Road in 2019.

Its plots have grown plants such as wild senna and milkweed to support local pollinator ecosystems, as well as foods such as strawberries and heritage varieties of corn and squash. The garden also doubles as an outdoor art gallery, showcasing 12 exterior murals from local and Native artists.

The group was overhauling the space when it was vandalized. The Chi-Nations Youth Council was approved for $1.1 million in city funds last summer to add growing beds, fire pits, fencing and more.

“We were using our wigwam as a temporary storage space because we're in the middle of rebuilding the garden this year after getting money from the city and took our old shed down,” said Janie Pochel, the group’s “Auntie” and the garden’s manager.

The First Nations Garden at the corner of Wilson and Pulaski on May 21, 2024. Credit: Provided.

The project had been going smoothly until May 7, when the group discovered a man they didn’t know inside the wigwam and asked him to leave, she said.

“We came by that Tuesday to pick up some medicine for a wake and found someone in the wigwam, and then we noticed all this stuff missing,” Pochel said. “Tuesday, we had to pop in and out and get the guy out of the wigwam. But the next day, we came back and noticed a hole in our fence and then realized how much of our stuff was stolen.” 

Thousands of dollars in damage was done to the garden, with human waste smeared on the ground, on items including picnic and sweat lodge blankets, and inside the group's drinking jug as well as inside ceremonial spaces, including the wigwam and sweat lodge, Pochel said.

Supplies, tools and equipment were also stolen, and used syringes were found within the wigwam, Pochel said.

After asking neighbors for help, the group learned it was likely a group of local unhoused people who had entered the garden, Pochel said.

“Just so people know: We don't feel like it was a hate crime. We feel there was a sense of entitlement and selfishness involved, but we don’t think it was directed at us because we’re Native American,” Pochel said.

Organizers were able to recover some of the stolen items while searching the neighborhood, she said.

“We don’t want anyone to be criminalized from it; we just want to make sure we’re all safe,” Pochel said.

Since then, neighbors have pitched in to repair the damage and help the group build a shed to store their tools and other valuable items, Pochel said.

“The big reason we told people about it was because we want to make sure that our neighbors are aware of people stealing stuff in the area,” she said. “We want people, Chicago folks and Native people, to just use the space how it’s supposed to be used. To have an open space that's just free for people to hang out, and maybe if there’s people there all the time, it’ll be less attractive to folks who just want to rummage through it.”

The garden has work days every other Saturday where volunteers can pull weeds, water plants and do other chores. The group hosts Native Sundays for Chicago’s Indigenous communities every Sunday and has a Juneteenth cookout, Pochel said.

For the latest on the garden’s events and activities, neighbors can follow its Instagram page.

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